"Some delicious phrasing and vivid imagery. Content, I found odd to say the least,"
said my lovely English teacher Mrs Garvey about this 11-page epic that I apologize
profusely for putting her through. If that sounds like a warning that your mileage
may vary with this story, then it probably is.
You see, when I was younger, I actually liked writing. As long as it was a subject
I was interested in and I could follow my own rules rather than someone else's, it
could actually be very difficult to stop me writing. And this - which I imagine was
probably a piece of homework - is very obviously a labour of love.
I've no idea what the original purpose was - maybe the teacher just gave us the title
and asked us to write whatever came to mind - but as usual when I was younger, the
original purpose didn't matter to me anywhere near as much as just exploring the
bizarre corners of my own imagination. So what might have been dreamt up as a 'stranger
danger' story very quickly became something else entirely.
Now, it's none of anyone's business whether or not I have taken illegal drugs in
the past and to what extent I have greatly enjoyed them, but I can tell you one thing
for certain - at the beginning of 1985, I had never, ever taken anything stronger
than an occasional Christmas sherry or half a pint of cider - unless you count coffee,
which I started drinking when I was about 8 so was already hopelessly addicted to
- but let's not get away from the point. Which is that I knew nothing about cannabis,
LSD, uppers, downers or any form of psychoactive drug at all. And I'm pretty sure
The protagonist's name - David Stoned - is a bit clunky. He behaves pretty much like
a one-dimensional cliche throughout and his manner of speech is once again just snatched
from the mouth of Nigel Planer's Neil from The Young Ones. Then again, Neil was the
only instance of a sixties-style hippie to make regular appearances on television
that I might get the chance to watch (and indeed was quite a cultural phenomenon
in his own right by the end of 1984, after his No 2 hit Hole in My Shoe and his excellent
LP Neil's Heavy Concept Album, which I loved to bits and was bound to be influenced
But this of course meant my research materials were rather limited. I didn't really
understand what specific drugs did, which ones had which effects, so thankfully we
don't go into too much detail about the names or effects of particular drugs (apart
from maybe the 'pot' that the fish in spectacles has, which if I remember correctly,
wouldn't really be a bag of white powder. Turns out to be sherbet anyway. Then again,
the jelly babies are poisonous so who knows what's what in this ill-perceived world?
I'm sad that I referred to the protagonist as a "drug addict" (probably been watching
too many mid-80s anti-drugs infomercials or reading the Daily Express too often),
but basically what I think I was after was to have him in a state of mind throughout
where he was constantly hallucinating in the real world for a concrete reason, so
you were never quite sure what was real and what wasn't, and I could write a good
old-fashioned stream-of-consciousness story (like I more or less always did anyway)
without worrying about whether any of it made real world sense, yet still allow it
to seem as if it could happen in the real world anyway - it's just David's perception
that's faulty, not the laws of physics. Ugh! Was I growing up?
The basic stylistic device I'm attempting to use here - though not very well, for
a change (I've been much better at it before without trying, and I think it's the
'trying' that ruins it) - is a thread of surrealism. But I'm also keen to allow a
non-surreal interpretation, so there are plenty of down-to-Earth moments to balance
the surreal touches out. It's obvious when Mervyn and Hank turn up (at least I think
those are their names) that they are gangsters of some kind - the banana and the
sausage they carry are obviously weapons. This may well be the first time I ever
did this kind of thing (being able to infer a real-world scenario from a hallucinated
narrative), and it must have been deliberate, which is an odd thing for me to discover,
since the deliberate mix of the fantastical and the down to Earth, and whether the
narrator's state of mind can be trusted enough to be able to tell the real from the
imaginary, has probably been the cornerstone of my comedy work ever since. You can
see it in Origen's Wake, Gary Le Strange, Colin Watson, and it was the very essence
of William Whicker - but you don't know about him yet.
Unfortunately, I ruin the surrealism immediately by committing what I've come to
think of as the cardinal sin of comedy surrealism - the story is full of fish. My
old friend Nick Doody will know what I'm saying here, since we've talked about it
many times - that "fish" is the most likely image to be used by non-surrealists when
asked to do something surreal. Especially a fish on a bicycle. It should be a man
with an apple for a face or a melted watch or something but no, it's a fish. Fish,
in British comedy terms, is somehow shorthand for 'surreal' - if a stand-up tells
a joke about being a little bit too stoned, if it doesn't go down the "drugs make
you hungry" route, the next minute they'll be telling you all about the six foot
tall fish he had a conversation with on the way home. In short, it's a particular
bugbear of mine, I find it especially lazy and unnatural (whether or not I've ever
taken LSD or magic mushrooms or any other psychedelic substance is none of your business,
but if I had, I'm sure they would never have made me hallucinate fish. Lizards, yes,
lots of them - giant ones can often take the place of ceilings and I'm told their
bellies rumble ina very pleasing way - but never fish).
On the comedy side, I'm not sure I've been that successful either. I can forgive
myself for nicking or rewriting other people's jokes when I was younger, but by this
stage I should probably have grown out of it. But the "Don't call me Baby" joke on
Page 10 is so obviously the Shirley joke from Airplane with a different name, and
I find stuff like that really embarrassing and irritating. OK, I was only thirteen
and hadn't really thought these things through yet, but it's surprised me that, even
though I've always tended to write about the things around me in the culture or that
inspire me at the time, so far in this process I've rarely come across me using other
people's jokes in my stories. So I was basically better at not stealing other people's
jokes when I was 8 or 9 than I was when I was 13. That's not promising.
But perhaps I'm just ignoring certain things to prove some kind of point that I'm
at least honest about when I know I've nicked someone else's idea. I don't do it
by force of habit, The critic whose name I've thankfully forgotten whose one-star
review of Beef Scarecrow - the most psychedelically detailed and original thing I've
ever done, which took over nine months of intensely dedicated 7-days-a-week effort
to put together, never mind the money - attacked me for being a serial plagiarist,
mainly because Robert Popper had written a couple of sentences about a scarecrow
made of beef in a book I hadn't read, and the politically-charged poem I read out
halfway through the show was apparently too much like something by Rik Mayall.
Well, sorry, but everyone's influenced by someone and if I'd thought of Rik at all
- which I probably should, since (as many of these stories will have recently shown)
I was influenced by him very heavily. I was also influenced by the early 80s anarchist
punk band Crass, who ACTUALLY inspired the poem, but sure, Rik did a poet character
and he was one of my greatest comedy heroes. Of course he'd end up in my performance
somewhere, unless I tried really hard to weed it out. And Beef Scarecrows? Well,
they're usually made of plant matter, so having them made of animal bits is actually
the logical opposite if you want one to be odd and disturbing.
And really I only wanted to write something like The Scarecrow on Pink Floyd's debut
album, but gradually turn it into something really sinister. Meat had become the
central image for the album/show so of course he was some kind of meat. He also stands
in a field of hammers in the song because one of the most striking images associated
with Pink Floyd is the batallion of giant marching hammers Gerald Scarfe drew for
The Wall. So to be honest I thought I was ripping off Pink Floyd, alongside all my
other obvious references to but never mind. And, quite importantly, just like here,
I was building something surreal from very down to Earth elements - a balance I really
do seem to like.
Why am I saying all this? Well, I could go on about it forever, but I have to say
it really surprised me to read this story and find me nicking a joke as blatantly
as that. I'm also disappointed about the fish, and to be honest they may very well
be inspired by a series Alexei Sayle did for Capitol Radio called The Fish People
Tapes, which I had an LP of and may have contained various surreal references to
fish who might actually have been people instead. I can't really remember, and don't
have time to listen to it right now to find out - but I suppose I'm saying there
are all sorts of influences in this story - not least Douglas Adams, who heavily
influenced my writing style for years until I deliberately fought against it (or
just started copying Edgar Allen Poe instead). The Hawaiian shirt is (obviously to
Doctor Who fans, and I was a pretty rabid one) a reference to its producer through
the 1980s, John Nathan Turner, but I don't know why it's there. Possibly because
it's colourful, and maybe I thought that would fit well in a trippy/surreal environment.
Same with the liquorice allsorts. It's like, for some reason, some new idea had replaced
my ability to write a proper bonkers surreal story with one that merely purported
to be surreal. Then again, the story is trying to do something different, more complex,
than those mad tales of old. Perhaps it's because I wanted to show
So it really surprised me when the story takes a proper, surreal, inexplicably chilling
turn towards the end. I have no idea why the fish gangster kills himself or the other
one shoots off his lips - maybe they're just on the same drugs David's on? But I
certainly didn't expect to see our hero killed off quite so brutally and with such
finality, to be then immediately followed by the even more brutal murder of the man
who murdered him. We've seen the story through David's eyes from the beginning, but
when he's killed, it briefly turns to his murderer Hank's POV, before he is swiftly
killed - not with a sausage or a banana but a butcher's knife, several times to the
head, upon which the perspective shifts to become Barratt's, the final lines auguring
that he would rule from now on (where? I don't know) with an iron fist. Which is,
logically, impossible, since Barratt was an invention of David's addled mind right
at the beginning, as part of a befuddled misunderstanding of what kind of creature
lived in a Barratt home. Barratts don't exist, and they especially shouldn't exist
when the guy who thought they did had died. So either the story is still happening
in David's mind, or there's something really weird going on.
The main thing is about the link between silly and serious. I've noticed that, even
in the comedy I wrote as a kid, there's a very dark streak welded to it, and sometimes
it seems the sillier it gets, the more serious it also has to get to balance out
the other extreme. You can see it in my very earliest work: Look at My Dad (in which
the comically-rhythmed poem is about a dead father), Apeth (who saves his wife from
death only to watch her die again), Grobschnitt (who tries to trick the reader into
jumping off a cliff and then gets shot point blank in the face), How to Be Nutty
(which advises suicide and self-harm as part of its solution to the misery of the
world), Shane Wepherd's Affair (in which basically the parents split up, the mother-in-law
violently attacks and hospitalises Shane's wife, and Shane carelessly gets his mistress
pregnant, which are all issues I can in some way tie to the terrible complexes which
grew in me as I made my useless way through my teenage years, fuelled largely by
my parents' divorce and the way we all behaved as a result).
The serious edge to whatever I've called comedy has been there all along - not by
design, but by its own choice. It puts itself there. And naturally, it was in Beef
Scarecrow too - in fact, all my Gary Le Strange shows had a serious edge - the first
one talked about his battle with depression and suicide; the second was about coming
to terms with being a failure and bemoaning the fact the modern music world offered
no alternative; the third showed him spiralling into a whirlpool of delusion and
destitution, clinging onto any bit of hope, no matter how silly it sounded, but -
if you were actually watching and listening to it - this wasn't an unfounded result.
It was the story of a man who had gone through some unspecified trauma, perhaps caused
by parental abuse and some amount of drug taking, and basically he was living as
a vagrant. His mind, however, chose to deal with this by not dealing with it, thus
creating his own reality which blanked out the real, physical world he couldn't deal
with. Whether this was through the belief that his music could change people's lives
or that he really would be saved by a magical God-like swan called Michael and evolve
into a being of pure light who didn't have to worry about such earthly concerns,
I don't know. But I do know one thing: it wasn't a happy ending. Gary Le Strange
was brilliant - he should have attained respect and material success, no matter how
bonkers he was. He shouldn't be blotting out a penniless, friendless reality with
drugs and religion while his artwork costs more than it earns him. He should at least
have been able to find an audience for his unique take on the world. But life doesn't
always work like that, for some reason.
Look, I've digressed too much and really have to wrap up. So I'll finish firstly
by saying that I have no memory of writing this, only a memory that it exists, so
reading the ending just now gave me a bit of a shock. It was like the story itself
answered all my complaints, by doing something totally unexpected, switching genres
to become a genuinely nasty horror story, in the process actually becoming the genuinely
surreal (and very disturbing) story that it had pretended to be for the first two
thirds of its run. It was like the story knew it was a fake, knew you thought it
was a fake, and pulled the rug out from under you just as you least expected it.
Like I said, I've no memory of writing it so I don't know why this happened. I only
know that something like it happens in all my work. I rarely follow someone else's
rules because I don't believe in absolutes and I think art should be approached from
one's own perspective. So if I ever do follow a set of rules, I'm bound to break
them sooner or later, for better or worse, purely because I have to see what happens
when you do it. I must have balance. I need to see what's on the other side of that
So perhaps there was a plan, to write a silly story for a while, overladen with fantasy
and illusion, then - in order to honour the title, which requires a demonstration
of why you shouldn't take sweets from strangers - show that there are unforeseen
serious consequences to this rather random lifstyle David hs chosen.
Or maybe there was no plan, I just became bored with the route I was taking and thought,
"How about if I suddenly turn it into a genuine gangster horror story? I've never
done that before. I wonder what it will feel like?" The truth is that I don't know.
Either possibility is just as valid, though I think the latter more likely.
Right - last thing. After all that, there's a fake Bible quote. I'm not Jewish, Christian
or Muslim, nor do I belong or lean towards to any form of pre-existing organised
religion. But in 1985 I was doing Religious Education lessons each week - and funnily
enough the next two stories we're going to look at - where my sense of humour and
the things I took seriously led to serious clashes with one of my teachers - were
both written in RE lessons.
The fake quote - and I made sure it was attributed to exactly the right chapter and
verse, even though I did not know the Bible that well - is the bit where Delilah
puts Samson to sleep and, having tricked him into a false sense of security, cuts
off his hair, thus stripping him of the source of all his power. Now, I can look
at this two ways.
One is that it's just a joke, which doesn't relate to the story at all - I just thought
it was funny and wanted to end the story on an inappropriately light note (what with
it just having turned into some kind of slasher/gangster/horror thing, with real
brutal violence). The joke being that Samson is actually in charge and instead of
having it all cut off, he decides to have a perm instead. It's all very silly.
But the other interpretation - that it's actually very serious - suggests all kinds
of things to me. If Samson can make demands about how he wants his new hairstyle
to look, then it means the tables are turned. Now, of course, we don't understand
who Barratt is, nor do we really understand who anyone is in this story, despite
its length - but what if, like Samson with a perm, the manifestation of Barratt is
actually an alternative, more powerful resurrected version of David arising from
the ashes of his own death? He apparently dies at Hank's hands, but since Barratt
only exists in David's mind, he must be the author. He must be David's next stage
of existence, something he metamorphoses into, either because that's what the sweets
force him to do, or because he has been snapped back into reality, and in reality
he is Barratt. Either way, the quote suggests (when you put it side by side with
the original Bible version) that a sleeping Samson betrayed by those he trusted will
resurrect as something much more powerful and teach them a bloody lesson. Which is
a great way of referencing Obi-Wan Kenobi. And a great way of describing a possible
LSD trip - if, of course, I'd ever taken such things and knew what they did. And
that's none of your business.
Or, of course, like the "mighty tree of tripe" in the Beef Scarecrow song (which
grows out of the scarecrow's bombed remains), it suggests two things at once: that
new life will always grow out of the remains of the old; and that it's all completely
meaningless rubbish ("tripe"). And something about that fake Samson quote - which,
let's admit, isn't going to set Jongleurs alight, but is at least a very clever and
original joke, more than making up for the Shirley steal. The very idea that Samson
had a choice to have whatever hairstyle he liked, when all people wanted to do was
to utterly weaken and destroy him - makes me wonder if I really did mean it seriously.
I doubt it, of course, but surely I was aware it had a serious, defiant edge? Do
David, Samson and Barratt all represent different aspects of the same person? I wasn't
generally having a good time, either at home, where my family were slowly breaking
apart after a year of financial Hell (brought on by the miners' strike - my Dad was
head of the Time & Wages office at one of the local pits, so not a miner but still
subject to the same restrictions and threats from the unions) - or at school, where
the effects of my early puberty (and probably the manic dickishness that must have
temporarily accompanied it) had marked me out as a bit of an outsider and, for a
while, I became prone to attacks by bullies, primarily designed, I think, to stop
me standing out and make me shut my smarmy face.
Is this what was coming out - subconsciously - by transforming the fantasy-clouded
David into the murderous, unrelenting Barratt? Did I want revenge on the reality
of my life, which I was having to cover up with an increasing layer of fantasy in
order to get through the day?
I don't know. Maybe it was just a mighty tree of tripe, and it's so long ago, I've
forgotten which tripe orchard I stole it from.
Then again, all the religious imagery in this story - death and resurrection, fish
as Christian symbols, the quote at the end - may very well have been deliberate.
I doubt it - I was only 13 - but you never know...