Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
Nasty, British And Short
A girl recently threw herself at me shamelessly, saying 'I just love men with lots of gadgets' (I was flashing digital camcorders and still cameras around). Her chat-up line was direct, and reflected the polymorphous sexuality of New York: 'Are you here to pick up chicks or dicks?' she asked.
Was she British? No. She was Korean American. Could she ever be British? Probably not. British girls don't like machines. And they're normally not confident enough to barge into a conversation asking your sexual preference. (Hell, with that sort of question a man might begin to look into options he didn't even know he had!)
A small incident, but one that speaks volumes about the difference between living in London and living in New York. Flirting reveals a lot about our views of human nature. Generally speaking, we flirt because we like people. New York is flirty in a liberal, polymorphous sort of way. Tokyo is fetish-flirty. Paris is conservative-flirty (girls are girly and men do the man thing full on). London isn't flirty at all. And a recent survey showed that British women were the least satisfied of all English-speaking women with their partners' sexual performance.
A little quiz about Momus activities. I've just started taping stories on video for my first art show. Do you think the offer came from a London art gallery? No. It came from a New York gallery. A record I wrote and produced ('Journey To The Centre Of Me', influenced by Rick Wakeman, Queen, Genesis, early Roxy Music and Yes) recently entered the national singles charts. In Britain? No, in Japan. I spent yesterday making vocals for a collaboration with a band. A British band? No, it was Kreidler. From Germany.
Nuff respect from the homies? Big rep in the hood? Not really. Thank god for the supreme international clientele.
I've had a few. Like, why didn't I move to New York in 1984? In fact, why didn't I move just about anywhere except London in 1984? (I moved there to make records, but ended up recording the first Momus record, The Beast With 3 Backs, in Brussels. No British label would put up the money for the kind of music I made. That didn't seem odd at the time. Par for the course, old chum. So Mr Norris changes trains.)
From New York, the British (hell, let's burn our bridges and call them the Brutish) look so fucked up.
Most of my adult life consists of a series of escapes from the Brutish. Even when I lived there I was a total escapist, sitting in the French Institute Cafe in South Kensington reading Liberation. Yeah, NME, 'Momus music wishes it was from France, where this sort of drool and jism passes for art'. Spot on, dudes. Drool and jism, or as we say in non-Brutish English, art and sex.
Now I'm in New York, watching someone getting his penis tattooed on a totally uncensored public access cable television show, meeting black tranny singer Vaginal Cream Davis and HIV positive performance artist Ron Athey at the Thread Waxing Space on Broadway (and finding they've heard of me!), discussing Brecht with Casey Spooner of Fischerspooner (he brought it up -- a marked contrast to the last time I discussed Brecht with a British pop star, Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys. He dropped the subject like a hot potato.) Getting more 'exactlys' than 'we don't think that ways' when I interview people. Riding my Razor scooter around town, expecting to be told not to, but finding that every security guard and policeman who approaches only wants to know where I bought it and how much it cost.
When you let human nature run amok, when you stop forbidding and censoring stuff, what you get is not chaos. It's play.
Because I'm Brutish, I've been trained to expect people to hate the freedoms I habitually grab, and to try to take them away from me. Here I am in a country (well, a city) where people are actually encouraging them. I'm in a country -- a city -- where people think human nature is essentially good and that creativity and experimentation should be encouraged. I'm in a country (okay, a city) where people are confident enough to play.
This can't last. Every time I escape, I usually end up back in Brutish Britain, at least until I gather strength for the next leap away. I still pay tax there. But the more time I spend abroad, the more I ask myself what the hell I was ever doing wasting my time in such a horrible place, where people are so unkind to each other, and where they seem to resent all that's most distinguished about the human spirit. I'm beginning to realise that it's not so much that Paris, New York and Tokyo are so unusually nice. It's that London stinks.
Nostalgia tends to make just about anything look better in retrospect, but Bruteland manages to look worse from a distance. There's a reason why every Brutish person returning from New York just raves, for about three weeks, about how much energy and excitement and positivity it's filled them up with, before floating back down to the realities of London. 'Everyone there is so friendly, so positive,' they gush, as if people being nice should be a surprising thing.
Exile On Orchard Street
The London Times this weekend published a small piece about my 1988 album 'Tender Pervert'. After noting that I 'pinpricked social and sexual mores with scabrous wit,' the piece notes that I was 'dogged by accusations of misanthropy and misogyny' and sought exile in Paris. Yes, I sought exile. I still do. And yes, those accusations of misanthropy and misogyny still dog me. There's a very simple explanation. I like human beings, I find the complexities of human nature intriguing. I describe people in all sorts of positions, some of them sexual, because I think that everything we humans do is interesting and should be documented. Big message here: human nature is neither good nor evil, it's just interesting or boring. Not essentially boring, just boring when we leave the interesting parts out of the picture for purposes of decorum or of maintaining power over people. (An erroneous presupposition anyway: Ken Starr unwittingly revealed that power cannot be undermined by sexual openness.)
I am only a misogynist or misanthropist to those who think that revealing the further reaches of human nature means revealing something evil. To everybody else, I am merely a documentarist and a diarist. Throw out the M words, let's use the D words. They may be less sensational, but they're more accurate.
Poor Sales Figures
Is the Times article the sign of some sort of Momus revival? Will hundreds of copies of Tender Pervert fly out of the shops next week? No. It ran because a couple of friends of mine are now working on The Times, having left the more arty pages of i-D magazine. My latest royalty statement from the now-defunct Creation Records shows pathetically small back catalogue sales, and my British publisher Black Spring Press is stuck with so many unsold copies of the lyrics collection Lusts Of A Moron that they recently proposed flogging me the lot for a hundred quid just to free up the space in their warehouse.
Do I search my soul when I hear of such indifference to my work on the part of the public? Not at all. An article in the Guardian this week detailed the sales figures of some of the most exciting young British writers with the highest press profiles and they were equally pitiful. Writers who had received six figure advances from major publishing houses were selling between two and three thousand copies of books like 'Mr Phillips' and 'The Debt To Pleasure'.
In London I frequented a small circle of people who worked in the media. Now I realise that we were all searching desperately for confirmation of the belief that art, sex and wit mattered. And I suddenly realise that my friends were Canadian, American, Greek, French and Japanese. I don't think there was a single Brutish person amongst them. And I suddenly remember the NME review of my first album, Circus Maximus, published under the heading 'Lawd Of The Ring'. 'It's this quietly cerebral
atmosphere which always means that 'Circus Maximus' has a limited appeal and
a muted impact. The record conjurs up slightly cloying images of a group of
sensitive friends sitting in a circle, on cushions, as they chuckle and cluck
together in unison...'
Already in that review you see anxiety about there being a group of people who are 'cerebral' and 'sensitive' (unBrutish, in other words), an anxiety that would escalate to full-on ad hominem attacks on me ('Ugly', 'arch', etc) which continue to this day (a good review of the compilation 'Harpsichord 2000' makes a caveat about 'a high Momus kitsch quotient aside'). But I think that if you look deeper you see a fear of diversity itself, a fear of the breakup of consensus and unity, which is very deep in Brutish culture, where the idea of tribe (football team, band loyalty) is always being uneasily reconciled with the idea of nation.
Prince Of Brutes
In fact, it's more than indifference to culture. I think it's an active antipathy to creativity, to modernity, to Europe, to science, to sex, to human nature itself. Whether a Labour or a Tory government is in power seems to make very little difference. There is something essentially British which struggles (pointlessly) against these things. Let me just scan the current British media output for you.
This week we had Prince Charles making a speech attacking scientists (and particularily GM food science) for attempting to make the whole of nature 'a gigantic laboratory'. He advocated instead a return to spiritual values and trust in 'the Creator'. Hello, Earth to Prince Charles! The world is already a huge laboratory, it's called Nature. It's experimental, it's dangerous, it's cutting edge. Nothing is in control of it, beyond a sort of opportunistic proliferation. There is no ultimate purpose behind it all. We live in a huge, out-of-control experiment.
I expect a huge anti-Charles backlash as people throw up their hands and defend science, or at the very least point out that the Enlightenment has been quite beneficial for the world, even if it didn't manage to weed out all the royal families.
But no, the British raise a different cry. Charles is a Pantheist, an eccentric, they shout (with some sneaking admiration), he uses the word 'Creator' rather than the word 'God'. Is he fit to be the nominal head of the church?
The problem is not that Charles is a reactionary, but that he's not reactionary enough, apparently. Oh well. The tourists will love it.
Brutish Board Of Film Censors
Another story details a recent court battle by the British Board of Film Classification (which used to be called the British Board Of Film Censors) to challenge the finding of its own panel (including the writer Fay Weldon) that double XX sex films could finally be shown in Britain. This means that the erect penis is no longer against the law, although shots of ejaculation continue to be beyond the pale. The BBFC lost, which means that Britain is now only about twenty years behind the rest of the world in its sexual morality, rather than thirty to fifty.
In another sex-related case, the government plans to make a thorough revision of Britain's sex laws. It will now be permissible for men to kiss in public. Oral sex will apparently now be decriminalised. (I didn't know it was against the law, but in Britain it's pretty safe to assume that everything is.) Some of the sex laws the government will be repealing date back to the Napoleonic Wars (which was when Britain fought the licentious nation next door, you know, the ones who'd just had a revolution).
I won't even go into the much more serious introduction of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill (RIP), the legislation which restricts key escrow encryption and makes ISPs responsible for all content carried on the internet, which threatens to nip in the bud the whole future of weblife in Britain, and make it the most reactionary nation in the digital world outside of China and Iran.
Filth And The Fury
I recently saw Julien Temple's new Sex Pistols documentary, 'The Filth And The Fury'. It's a good film, with a few spine-tingling moments, but seeing the whole vomity, gobby story again was like drowning, and seeing Britain pass before my eyes. The livid hatred, the violence, the fear of sex (a value McLaren, the film's villain, wrote into the band's blueprint but Rotten disowned, famously declaring it 'two and a half minutes of squelching noises'), the adolescent nihilism (still hailed as cutting edge when it reappears in the work of PRML SCRM, Unkle, and the massed ranks of punky yuppies in combat trousers)... The film just underlined my belief that punk paved the way for Margaret Thatcher, that punk hated sex, that punk played into the hands of the tabloids (still the world's most Brutish, just like the censorship laws and just like the football hooligans) and that punk is one of the things that makes modern Britain so boring, so reactionary and so brutish.
We Don't Want A Holiday In The Sun
Something else struck me. Lydon's evil cackle at the beginning of 'Holidays In The Sun' reveals him as an innocent who has decided to incarnate a malevolent view of human nature in the classic manner of the Dickensian pantomime villain. In The Sex Pistols, Lydon incarnates the British contempt for human nature. He becomes a parody of the malady, and is an immediate success in Britain. When, later, he and his nemesis McLaren try to embody the remedy to the Brutish disease, making records like 'Metal Box' and 'Duck Rock', the Brutish stay away in droves, fail to buy, and use bargepoles when parlaying. Bow Wow Wow with their sexy Eiffel towers and their odes to Louis Quattorze and home taping stiff too. The Brutish do not want the remedy. They want the malady. The remedy is always foreign, it involves a loss of identity. The malady, however horrible, is forever Brutish.
'Don't know what I want but I know how to get it / I wanna destroy the passerby'. Have you ever wanted to destroy the passerby, dear reader? I have frequently wanted to fuck the passerby, but never to destroy him or her. But dilute that sentiment a bit, until you simply wish to be unkind, unencouraging and unpleasant to the passerby, and you have in a nutshell the feeling of British life.
For me it was nasty, brutish and, mercifully, short. More tea, vicar?
PS: That said (and it feels better to have got it off my chest), I don't know what I'm doing extrapolating generalisations about Britain from its government, the sayings of that loon Prince Charles and the punk bands of yesteryear when I have Plone, Broadcast and MaxTundra to make me feel as warm a patriotic glow about my homeland as I ever did living there. I just have to remember to pick out the best stuff and totally disregard the rest. A process of filtration in which the Atlantic Ocean can assist greatly.