The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, October 28, 2002
Barbican, London, 25 October 2002

“A parallelist performance in three-lane theatre” we were promised. Three blue projection screens at stage right, centre and left, each showing excerpts from Chris Petit’s filmed journeys around the M25; not the same film which will be shown on C4 on Tuesday 29 October, but three ways of hypnotising the viewer into acceptance. Sequences were sometimes swift, clear; others peered out from behind a shroud of grey rain, scarcely moving. We see what we choose to see, except that if you are attentive enough the same images will recur, at different stages, at different speeds, on all the screens.

Petit had the easy part of the job; driving around the ring. Iain Sinclair walked around its perimeters, starting from the Millennium Dome (“an urge to walk away from the Teflon meteorite on Bugsby’s Marshes”), in an attempt to find an end destination in its unending circle, to find what London was protecting itself from by setting up this metaphorical barbed wire, and how those on the outside refused to see it as a barrier, but rather as an easier gate to penetrate the city fortress (more and newer targets for burglars). The absence of the city, celebrated in the epicentre of the City.

Sinclair acted as compere/Greek chorus for the evening, reading key extracts from his book London Orbital (the event sells the book, the book is a passport to the event). Dressed in carefully rumpled black, looking like how I will look in ten years’ time, undisturbed by Bruce Gilbert’s possibly non-random electronic eruptions punctuating his opening perorations, he welcomed us to this arena for his repertory company of misfits; Ed Wood as Boswell, Joe Meek as Ackroyd. He is careful to abandon.

After ten minutes or so he made way for Bill Drummond, who cheerfully ambled on stage with a painting which he’d finished at 3:00 that morning – trisectional; GIMPO black on white; below that GIMPO black on white again; at the bottom GIMPO white on black. Gimpo being the visionary who on each spring equinox weekend (except for the last one, having been detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure) started off at South Mimms service station and spent 24 hours driving ceaselessly around the M25, celebrating its implied paganism (albeit borne out of capitalism at its most market-driven). Drummond, looking more like Michael Palin every time I see him, announced that the painting on stage would be given to the estate of the first member of the audience who succeeded in committing suicide by means of a motor accident on the M25. Someday, sooner than I think, this painting will be claimed.

Then came Ken Campbell, who quite correctly ignored the entire subject matter of the evening and delivered a stirring lecture on the history of ventriloquism (classes in which he has recently been organising) stretching from its origins in ferrets (one would clamp their jaws on the first piece of meat found and imitate the voice of another ferret in the group to dissuade it from nicking said meat) and the first human vent (ancient Egyptian pygmy Bisu) to its decline in the Victorian era, succinctly described by Henry Mayhew (whom Campbell described as a Sinclair of the 19th century, though I think that Cobbett might be nearer the truth) in terms of questionable functions of the middle organs of the body. Well, you like to believe Welles’ bullfighting stories, don’t you? (except this was in Mayhew; I checked London Labour and the London Poor afterwards).

Then more Sinclair, by now edging out into the western perimeters of the M25 (the Colne Valley, Harefield Hospital, what have you). Dotted by old dopeheads uprooted from Notting Hill when the money came in; tarot cards, rituals, canal barges – displaced hangovers, in this writer’s experience all the way up the A40 to Oxford (climb up the hill populated by electronic gates and local television news presenters, make your way across the bridge, the Didcot cooling towers winking their reliable confirmation of orientation behind your left shoulder, and trawl to the only pub in Cumnor; they’re still in purple, still extolling the Principal Edwards Magic Theatre, Van Morrison’s Remington nose clippings reconstructed as post-CAMRA beermats). After some brief ambience from Scanner, Sinclair announced the arrival of Britain’s greatest poet (his perspective) Bill Griffiths, on his way down from Cowley, seeking relief from his Bartok piano runs. A matter for another book as to how many of London’s keenest and most detail-obsessed observers – Patrick Keillor, Brian Cowling – actually pitch their tents in Oxford. Like Sinclair, I too see it as an umbilical extension of London, the Thames linking the twin towers of capitalism and skullduggery, and thinking and contemplation. You couldn’t have Oxford without London; the latter breathes its kiss subtly all the way up to Witney and beyond, whispering “why aren’t you with me? you WANT to be with me.” But would we take the trouble to decamp to the cynosure? In some ways, Streatham is much further from London than Oxford will ever be.

Griffiths strolled on stage, played some slowly mutating block piano chords (to mirror the gridlock occurring on the screens at that stage) like Bill Evans trying to avoid breaking into Satie’s “Vexations,” then recited one of his poems “Rabbit Hunt,” a boyhood canal Arcady played out in the shadow of the old K-Tel building. At one point I imagined that he referred to “the Botley pass,” my former local point of entry. Perhaps I meant to imagine it; his delivery was indistinct (and maybe that’s how he likes it; his writing is endlessly revised and reissued; no edition is definitive; everything subject to alterations). He finally returned to the piano to pick out a few Oriental curlicues and wandered off.

Kevin Jackson of the Independent, who had joined Sinclair for part of his walk (the western end; he lives in Shepherd’s Bush) only to find himself trapped into 24 hours of walking and consequent foot ruination, wandered over-familiarly onstage and detonated some unamusing journalistic ramblings. It was Miles Kington wry. Jackson looked as though he’d missed the news about John Bonham. He was out of place here. But then who wasn’t?

Wire certainly weren’t; the musical highlight of the evening was their methodical yet punctum-driven reworking of “Dot Dash” as “Dim Flash,” the Krafty-werkers’ “Autobahn” restaged to symbolise the English non-movement. They stood in line. A mightily sad hymnal chord descension rebarbed again and again. Newman and Lewis intoned as they have always done. The rhythm started to pummel as they reached the familiar but recontextualised chorus. It was a motion threnody; like the M25 the members ran on the spot or decided not to move at all – the machines did all the movement we needed. A notion – 25 years on and they sound like the English Suicide; the entire audience consisting mainly of the usual mix of Dalston-residing students and middle-aged, bescarved Fulham Road tourists moved enthusiastically to the same electro that in 1977 they would have decried noisily for the more luxuriant options of Deaf School or Elkie Brooks.

Sadly, the evening’s intended star turn J G Ballard had come down with a stomach bug which had mutated into ‘flu and so wasn’t able to attend. Sinclair and Petit, undeterred, sat in the chat-show section of the stage with a cardboard cutout of Ballard in between them. Sinclair remarked that Ballard didn’t even know where the Barbican was, had probably never been west of Shepherds Bush in his life, but spoke warmly of him, even though he subtly underlined that he had been banging on about the same things since the ‘60s. Like Kraftwerk, the world has caught up with Ballard, but he doesn’t seem to mind; his poem “What I Believe” was rendered with great solemnity by Sinclair and Petit. Ballard remarked that England had always had a problem getting into the 20th century; Kensington (Cotswolds) and Dagenham, in their own ways, were as quaint as Stanley Spencer’s Cookham.

(except of course Spencer was never quaint; his particular bonding with sex and death in HIS Church of Me is never far away from Ballard’s meticulous car wrecks)

After the intermission, time to wrap things up by destabilising expectations even further. Scanner reappeared with his usual morphing of mobile ‘phone conversations (“you forgot the BRUSH!”) which quickly became subsumed by a bass arsequake. Nothing on the screens appeared to be moving; a slow-motion lorry (“BULKHAUL”) was focused upon stage right, the driver seemingly reluctant to look the camera in the eye; in the centre, a series of cones which became artworks in themselves; roadworks, or an accident (what were those odd bodies lying in the road?).

Aaron Williamson – a Ranter poet of some repute from Brighton who uttered not a word this evening, simply crawled onstage buckled under the obligation of supporting a silver chair and a large silver wheel (he himself was clad in glamrock silver Bacofoil). A reverse phallus of a saw protruding from his rear stops him from sitting down; he methodically takes the saw to the chair, and then sits on it, splitting it into two perfect halves. He then re-burdens himself with the twin chairs and wheel and crawls offstage again. “It’s the only way to travel,” remarked Sinclair at his departing rear; possibly all a reference to the Oxford Tube. His perseverance was admirable.

Jimmy Cauty was billed to come on next with his “M25 Symphony” but of course Drummond came on with him to massed cheers. Clad in full orange motorway maintenance clothing to the strains of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the reconstituted KLF, clearly not fucked by the millennium, roared into a hammering punk-rave roar (“Who’s got the power?” appeared to be the chant; correct me if it wasn’t) somewhere in between the Extreme Noise Terror version of “3AM Eternal” and “America: What Time Is Love?” and which still managed singlehandedly to show the absolute abyss of faux-rock and roll currently perpetrated by bands with five letters in their name. The biggest reception of the evening (“MORE MORE! KLF are the Real Britpop!”) – the singles compilation/box set surely cannot be that far away; this work DEMANDS to be put back into circulation.

And then to where Sinclair had chosen to place his ending: the site of the old Carfax Abbey at Purfleet, now accessible across the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, where Stoker decided to situate Dracula’s London base, with its easy access to the sea, and supplies. Now occupied by the Proctor and Gamble headquarters/factory; blood continuing to be sucked in by dodgy fuckers, reprobates, making the invisible London possible. Brian Catling (“on day release from the University of Oxford”) strode onstage, proceeded to appear to tear out his heart and eat it (and later on another one) to massed “yeucchs,” and murmured a largely inaudible poetic lament in what one assumes was a Transylvanian accent. The delivery was what mattered; bluff, rapid, throwaway, like humanity as the M25 sees it.

Earlier on Sinclair had talked about the asylums which had turned into hospitals (the Horton triad at the Surrey end), surrogate communities for troublemaking lower orders. How Lydia Jackson 100 years ago tried to escape by walking out and failed; how Reggie Kray succeeded in escaping by driving out. Now Bluewater had replaced the old asylums; America on your doorstep without all the post-9/11 hassle. There to satisfy, to kill imagination. The perfect purpose of the M25 as Bruce Gilbert’s drone snaked underneath Sinclair’s and Petit’s voices. All the while, on the screen stage right, a slow crossing over the QEII Bridge brought us to Purfleet, the camera in the slowest of motions, relishing the forbidding towers and shadows of the Proctor and Gamble compound, lingering on them, waiting for the immortal vampire to re-emerge.

Purfleet is the same distance from central London as Hampton Court.

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