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

Tuesday, June 03, 2003

“It’s like parking your car by the road someplace and just getting out of it. It’s there, it’s yours, but you shut the door and walk away. You come down the path to this house. The woman opens the door. You come inside, you come in alone, carrying nothing, wearing no uniform, and you shut the door behind you. You’ve come here alone, you’re alone in here with the woman…He thought he was in, he thought he was here, but she brings him slowly in, turning the lights down from someplace, narrowing the focus, blacking things down till there’s just the two of them. She tuned them in, the two of them, until they were very sharp and nothing else was.”
(Denis Johnson, Already Dead: A Californian Gothic, HarperCollins, NYC, 1997: section “Sept 21-23, 1990”)

So, 18 months into this story, one is finally compelled to invoke Warhol, having postponed him for so long. Big Brother does of course owe its entire existence and justification to Warhol – and by that I do not mean the fifteen most tedious minutes outside of Dire Straits’ “Telegraph Road,” but the Warhol responsible for Empire and Flesh and Trash, the body of work which, more than any other, gave the lie to the easy division between cinema, reality and humanity; by creating an artifice whose point was to ban all artifice, thereby compelling the audience to question how they themselves choose (if they choose at all) to view other human beings, and how far those people on the screen (and, therefore, by extension, ourselves) need to undertake any activity to justify their existence. There’s no point or wisdom in grousing about BB; it is as manifest a child of Warhol as its reluctant step-siblings like A Woman Under The Influence and Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer - and who’s to say it’s any less valid?

Make no mistake; when I speak about Big Brother I am not talking about the snippets broadcast on Channel 4 in order to make it a simulacrum of showbiz; 30-60 minute anti-variety shows with gratuitous presenters, with the “tasks,” usually comprising elementary team-building exercises with which most children would have been familiar while still in primary school – imposing any kind of structure bar the anti-structure which makes the “real” BB so compelling detracts from the experience, apart of course from the weekly elimination of one inhabitant/contestant – Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel in reverse (would Bunuel have been proud of BB? Answer: for chicken, read goats) – which leaves, by necessity, the blankest person in the eventual aura of total blankness. That’s why any “personality” has to be the first to be ejected; Anouska, kicking sensually and screamingly against every manifestation of blandness and blankness (and of course the blackest contestant by a continental mile) – she had to go. Impose yourself too strongly upon the blankness and you undermine it, and the public’s Rover balloon will crush any life out of you, leaving those non-sex stories for the tabloids. Back to the Peak District nurseries with your static saliva.

Because blankness blesses Big Brother. I speak of the live, unedited simulcasts from the “house” which fill up practically all of E4’s output. How the quite extensive stillness makes a difference of the world which you thought you could ridicule. When having trouble sleeping, eyes flicking open to it at irregular intervals, ears lagging a dimension behind, BB can become as disturbing and displacing as Blue Jam at four in the morning. Or if, like me, you spent all of Sunday cooped up in bed, laid low by a particularly nasty stomach bug – and this is why this article’s two days late, it needed to happen to me before I could complete it properly – BB on E4 can be quite magical, akin to the disorientation one experiences after coming out a deep coma with brain injury; what’s this gibberish I’m spouting except I don’t think it’s gibberish – it’s daylight outside yet my head tells me it’s three in the morning and everybody’s up (October-November 1998, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital Intensive Care Unit, in case you’re wondering). Wake up to it at your elected three in the morning and you could be witnessing Jools Holland’s studio dismantled and dismembered. Except there’s a disco going on! They are dancing! But there is no music! They are singing! They are having to create remembrances of “music.” Such could BB be considered post-humanity (and hear what they are singing – “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” a hit for Andy Williams before any of them were born, and surely they can’t have been unaware of the first third of The Deer Hunter - did they spot the bullseye reference, unconscious though it surely was?).

Several ideas to be taken into safekeeping:

1. The perpetual sunlight in the BB house and garden. It never rains. Even though the South-East was indisputably hot and sunny last week it remains just beyond believability. As though the inhabitants were protected.

2. Remember where they actually are; just outside Borehamwood. On the exterior of the M25, where all the misfits and lunatics are safely housed away from a collapsed centre (so Sinclair argues throughout London Orbital). And why that light is so alluring; it’s that subtle change in light when you leave the hills of the North, cross the boundary between Cheshire and Staffordshire on the M6 and realise that you are approaching the South, and how the young pulse quickens as you race through Milton Keynes and Luton – you’re getting nearer to London. Remember how Chesterton makes Gabriel Syme say at the climax of The Man Who Was Thursday; “I never dreamed that we were so close to London.” It’s the London light which lures you.

3. The light of course is radiation. They are the last 12 people alive on Earth, having destroyed the rest of the planet; and one will continue to die off each week, slowly being consumed and irradiated to blissful bone. They do not talk about current affairs because they are fully aware that there are no further current affairs to talk about. There is nothing and no one beyond these discreetly positioned electrified fences.

4. The light of course is radiation. They are the only 12 dead people on Earth, the rest of the planet having destroyed them; and they are being confined until their bodies can be safely disposed of at a rate of one a week.

5. Think of how inverted the world would become if central London were indeed a collapsed centre; a sham, full of useless pseudo-historical Nissen huts, a simulacrum for tourists only, never truly seen by Londoners. The congestion charge accelerates the inner blankness which counterpoints the outer ring of blankness in the BB house so aptly. In other words: this is as far as you go.

6. Remember how close to Borehamwood they are: close to the Elstree studios where McGoohan shot most of The Prisoner.

7. And what if they were free? Everyone has lawyers; nobody likes bad publicity; C4 would never let them starve or have them chewed up by alsatians or shot by over-zealous guards. They in fact are free to go at any time. But do they want to be free? Back to the grey world from which they are trying so desperately to escape? Remember again the closing moments of the “Free For All” episode of The Prisoner where McGoohan, fooled into thinking that he is the new Number 2, starts screaming over the tannoy “You are free to go! Free to go!” to the complete indifference of the citizens of the Village. Sometimes “real” life is so horrific and complicated that most, if given the option of settling for a blank, featureless life, would do so without hesitation. Cumnor Hill over Denmark Hill. Unless of course you’re lucky enough to live in, and therefore know, both, sufficiently to be able to walk between both worlds with the greatest of naturalness.

8. There are no CDs, no books, no TV, no radio. Like in the old days. They are being forced to fall back upon their own meagre resources – to create life out of forming relationships between themselves and other human beings. They talk about what they need to talk about. Who says they should be debating the finer points of Clare Short? And what difference would it make if they did? The world’s already over, they’re telling us, smilingly.

So the people living in this house have to be as blank as possible. The camp Italian-Glaswegian waiter (tell me about it, huh? And I don’t mean Alan Cumming either), the interchangeable albinos, the Sonia lookalike/soundalike who escapes by rechristening herself Sissy (and we all know what happens to Carrie), the hearty Orkney fisherman at the edge of the world like a retrieved fragment of Michael Powell driftwood – who wants us to reinhabit 1904, who thinks it can still be done – the chain-smoking Chessex girl; they’re there because we wanted them to be, they knew their function was to be “made.”

But those silences. Or just watching them sleeping. Or talking in the Diary Room (Lytton Strachey ahoy!) amiably and heartbreakingly trying to formulate their views – their meanings - of life. Souvenirs d’Egotisme it isn’t – no Henri Beyles they! – but then Strachey and Stendhal would have been the first two contestants on here if they’d had the chance.

9. And then there is Steph. The blankest and most beautiful of them all, someone for whom a beaming smile and friendly eyes can mean everything in their nothing. She alone understands the desperate poignancy in leaving a world which may already have begun to cease to exist - those barely concealed tears as she looked at the video birthday message from her dog. She is certainly the only one of these 12 with whom this writer would gladly have a drink, or more – she understands the nonsense but also comprehends that she can never quite hide the enormous viaduct of grief which props the smile up. The divorce is coming through. She doesn’t like egos. She will not cry. Not until you can’t see her. And then we will cry together and as separately as James Stewart and Kim Novak do towards the end of Vertigo. I could watch Steph forever.

Because I think that all the silent dancing, that unending exercise bike treadmill (they looked as though they were seated in the Earth’s core, generating the power enabling it to turn), the beyond-Bunuel prancing about on bikes, the midnight swims, the random group hugs – all this speaks more “truth” about how we would like the world to be. Where we didn’t have to concern ourselves with politics, or debts, or death. Teletubbyland made flesh (there are few more heartbreaking moments in the history of television than Po singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”). That sunny Sunday winter afternoon in Hampton Court. Somewhere where you would actually want to live and die. Not underneath a 52 bus. Not on a cancer ward. I’m on the outside again, looking through the window. Will I ever talk my way back in there?

Especially when they’re sleeping. They’re not Joe Dallesandro, but they don’t need to be. You understand anyway.

Especially when they’re dancing to silence. It reminds me that, yes I do have 3000 words to write about M Ward’s reconstitution of D Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” but that by definition it would have to be the final chapter of this story which is The Church Of Me. And we haven’t quite reached the end. Not just yet.

“And above all, it is your civilisation, it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time. The suet puddings and the red pillar-boxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.”
(George Orwell, The Lion And The Unicorn: Socialism And The English Genius, Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd, London, 1941: part 1 “England Your England,” chapter I)

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