NON-FICTION

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HOW I WRITE

Article on the author's obsessive writing habits, 2009. First published on faber.co.uk

 

TONIGHT I'M A ROCK 'N' ROLL SCRIBE

An on-off series of musical misadventures for theguardian.co.uk/music, 2009-10 (Infernal moonshine of the spotless mind, Attack of the slightly slurring smog monsterMy stint in Sonic Youth and other fun-packed fabrications, From arse-rags to ostriches)

 

HOWL: TEN SONGS TO ANNOY YOUR NEIGHBOURS/AROUSE YOUR NEIGHBOURS' DOG

Top ten music list, 2008. First published on hangthedj.com

 

drugby union

Essay on Spacemen 3, 2009. First published in Loops

 

olympic champion: luke campbell

Interview with Olympic boxing gold medallist Luke Campbell, 2012. First published on dazeddigital.com

 

the pillow talk of robert desnos

Essay on the poet and professional daydreamer for Penned in the Margins' Electronic Voice Phenomena tour, 2013. First published on electronicvoicephenomena.net

 

the rebirth pool

Essay on Richard's exhibition at The Social, 2013. First published on fabersocial.co.uk

 

 

 

School of Hard Knocks

ARTICLE ON REPTON AMATEUR BOXING CLUB, BETHNAL GREEN, 2008  |  FIRST PUBLISHED IN DAZED & CONFUSED

 

From a very early age, I've always enjoyed seeing lads thump each other in the head. Whatever your view on violence, there's no denying the sickly, ecstatic thrill you get from seeing a schoolyard scrap, a pub punch-up, or an accidental brick to the skull. At Repton Amateur Boxing Club, hidden away in the Wash House of the dormant Cheshire Street Baths in Bethnal Green, there's plenty to feast your eyes on, but more enthralling than all the brawling are the cartoon cockney characters clinging to the ring, the deteriorating decor, and the humbling determination of the young lads skipping, shadow-boxing, punch-bagging and grunting 'oosh oosh tsh tsh oosh' in every square inch of space.

Today, what with society's tabloid-endorsed fear of violent tearaway teenagers and burger-enhanced obesity, Repton is a breath of fresh air. These kids are a far cry from the rowdy ruffians that greet you on a drink-sodden night out. They all have perfect diets, are fit as a fiddle, and know miles more tricks with a skipping-rope than your little sister.

While the larger Bath House next door has since dried up and been converted into luxury flats, every evening the Wash House still gets saturated with a number of exciting liquids. The walls - painted in the club's trademark tropical yellow and green - seep sweet, musty perspiration, and the two black spit-buckets are never empty of spittle and soggy tissue. In the centre of the room, the lads take it in turns to spar in the ring, the sweat-bleached canvas pocked here and there with wee drippy galaxies of maroon.

You get quite a few nosebleeds down Repton. In between doing magic tricks (and showing me photos of 'Mad' Frankie Fraser pretending to plier his teeth out), Andy - the club's jovial janitor - confesses that he's 'sick of cleaning up blood'. The mandatory headguards used in amateur boxing do tend to leave the nose rather exposed, resulting in a few of the lads holding towels to their faces after particularly energetic sparring sessions. But in a sport where the 'hurt or get hurt' ethic might seem like a scary prospect, a bit of the red stuff doesn't seem to put off even the teeniest pre-teen pugilists. As Levi Coates (a wildly determined nine year-old, in a crisp, crimson Beckham England top) tells me softly, 'You can't just go in the ring and cuddle them. You've got to go in and fight.'

Many people see boxing as a vile bloodsport, an animalistic ritual favoured by uncultured cavemen; however, amateur boxing is much more about speed, skill and fancy footwork than its circus freakshow cousin - professional boxing - which is far more about making money and hurting people.

'People say boxers are dumb,' explains fourteen year-old Samuel Cox on a Tuesday evening, when the juniors invade the gym, turning it into a sort of fiery creche. 'But even though a lot of them might not be academic, you need to be clever to be a boxer'. Many of the lads at Repton A.B.C know a lot more than just their ABCs. Michael McCarthy, 18 - whose past silverware includes Junior ABA and Four Nations titles - juggles boxing with his business course at college, and has aspirations to be a primary school teacher. Like most of the lads at Repton, McCarthy speaks with a soft sincerity, showing a charming drive and determination to excel in everything that he pursues, and dispels the enduring myth of the typical 'braindead barbarian'. He tells me after training, 'If someone says "You're a fighter", I say, "No, I'm not, I'm a boxer". Boxing inside the ring and boxing outside the ring are two very different things. If someone attacked me with a knife, what can I do? I can't do anything with my fists.'

A lot of the boxers hail from the surrounding mean streets of east London, and have received their fair share of aggravation outside the ring. Boston Reid, a plucky seventeen year-old from Hackney, took up boxing after being set upon by a local gang five years ago, in front of his dad. His dad now watches quietly from the sidelines while Reid - and his fifteen year-old brother, Lucien, the current London champion - go through their punishing training routines. When Reid spars, his left arm waves constantly back and forth like he's a vicious orchestra conductor then, like a viper, lunges for his opponent.

'Tony (Burns, senior coach) says if I relax and get more comfortable, I'll go far,' explains Reid. While hot-headedness in boxing can come with particularly severe consequences (rash decisions, mistakes, blood bogies in the bog sink), the sport fulfils the adolescent need to let off steam and pent-up aggression. Self-control is one of the key factors in boxing - none of these lads seem likely to jump you in the middle of the night; more likely, they'll be found doing strenuous burpee-jumps in their bedrooms. After all, boxers not only know how to throw punches - they also know how best to avoid them.

Established in 1884, the original Repton Boy's Club was set up as a mission to provide good, honest entertainment for the impoverished kids of Bethnal Green and, over the years, it has cemented itself as the last word in amateur boxing. The prestige of the club is owed in no small part to the steely dedication of Tony Burns and his troupe of top-class trainers, who all work for free. Burns (himself a former Welsh champion) oversees the training like the menacing, protective parent of a herd of raging bull calves.

'These are all Tony's kids,' Andy the janitor explains. 'The whole club is like a family. Everyone treats the athletes like their own sons.'

The blooming branches of the Repton family tree are apparent from the outset. On the periphery of the gym, the infamous former 'bare-knuckle gypsy warrior' Jimmy 'Stockins' Smith chews Trident Soft while his son, Jimmy Jnr, spars in the square circle. Elsewhere, Sam McNess skips while his younger sibling Scott smashes away at the pads. Meanwhile, Samuel Cox - son of Bill Cox Jnr (of the English Referees and Judges Association) and grandson of Bill Cox Snr (former Repton chairman) - tells me how a handful of prospective opponents have refused to fight the diminutive fourteen year-old, due to the hefty Cox reputation. Needless to say, Samuel - whose destiny sees him set to be 'one of the lightest world champions ever', according to Jimmy Stockins - already shows bags of promise and confidence, though he responds with a slightly exasperated smile, 'It's only a name.'

Repton Boxing Club has, however, played host to quite a few famous names. It's spawned three Olympic gold medallists, and over the years, has also been home to everyone from Ray Winstone to the Kray Twins (before they went on to pursue a different kind of gold, or 'yellow metal', as they used to call it). Dog-eared, laminated photos are plastered all over the tiles, featuring Tony Burns and the others posing with the likes of Bobby Charlton and the Duke of Edinburgh, not to mention my all-time favourite sporting surrealist, Muhammad Ali.

Apparently, when he was in the ring, Ali used to imagine his opponent was trying to force him into a cupboard filled with cacophonous crocodiles playing trombones - a psychological playroom of horrors - to make himself fight harder. When I ask Matthew Hedges, 16 and winner of five national titles, what he thinks about during a bout, he replies with sweat leaking into his mouth, 'I think about all the hard work I've put in... and all the McDonald's I haven't eaten.'

The strict diet appears to be the hardest aspect of the sport for the young boxers, whereby sweets and fizzy drinks make way for brown rice, fish, pasta, soups, and water, especially in the lead-up to a bout. Some nights you see the younger ones darting about the gym wearing black binliners, like sweaty witches, hoping to shed a bit of excess puppy fat with the extra layer of insulation.

Luke Keller, a lean 54-kilo fourteen year-old from Poplar, tells me, 'Sometimes, when you don't eat before a fight, it makes you feel a bit weak. You get a bit nervous.'

If anything though, boxing, for Keller, has transformed pre-teen weakness into self-worth. Bullied at school, Keller took up boxing at first just to 'muck about'. Now preparing for his eleventh bout (with seven wins under his belt), Keller commands respect with quiet self-assurance. As for those that used to bully him - 'They don't touch me. Even if I wasn't a good boxer, just that I box means they don't.' Keller's only critic now, perhaps, is his own mother, who is too squeamish to watch him fight. 'I went to my first bout with a black eye,' he explains, 'and this Irish lad (his opponent) came up to me and was saying, "You're shit, I'm gonna give you another one".' Keller wasn't shit that night - he pummelled his presumptuous adversary, 'busting' his opponent's nose in a flurry of calculated catharsis. The bout had to be stopped, and Keller was crowned victor. Gary McCarthy - bricklayer by day, senior trainer by night, and father of Michael - explains, 'Sometimes you get bully-boys coming here, wanting to box. But usually it's the bully-boys who can't hack it.'

Repton isn't about being big - it's about being clever. As I wander away from the club for the last time, under a sugary-sweet Cheshire Street sunset, I can't help feeling a sense of massive appreciation for these youngsters putting all that blood and sweat into something. The kids are alright. And, with the 2012 Olympics looming, who knows - some of them may yet bring back their very own 'yellow metal' to the Wash House.

 

 

 

 

Azusa Plane

LINER NOTES FOR AZUSA PLANE 3-CD BOXSET, WHERE THE SANDS TURN TO GOLD, 2012  |  RELEASED BY ROCKET GIRL

 

Your eardrums were designed to listen to the Azusa Plane. Leaving no electrical frequency untouched, the music of Jason DiEmilio, Jason Knight and sometime percussionist Quentin Stoltzfus is at once dense and sparse; the musical equivalent of sleepwalking on feathers with ton-weights attached to your hands and feet. At times heavily distorted - at others, light as cloud matter - the guitar sprawl swims back and forth from one end of the musical spectrum to the other, creating the most wondrous, devastating, effervescent soundwaves. It is music which both challenges and celebrates the senses.

The first time I heard the Azusa Plane (on the Rocket Girl split 7", featuring 'United States Direct Investment in Other Countries'), I was instantly intoxicated. The foreboding, freeform Fender-fiddling seemed to apply itself to a similar school of thought as Lou Reed's skronking Metal Machine Music, or the more avant-garde adventures of Sonic Youth, and yet it's the emotional intensity and complexity of the Azusa Plane which sets the band apart from those noisy New Yorkers.

While the Azusa Plane exemplifies the term 'experimental' - in fact, at times, the pieces seem almost like scientific research into atonalism, feedback manipulation, circuit bending, and the search for 'full consciousness of the hidden harmony' - there is such obvious soul to the music, it never appears clinical, or sterile. The band was not merely a group of La Monte Young-a-likes in labcoats. Recognising the guitar as an electrical, endlessly-exploitable machine, DiEmilio pushed that machine to its very limits and, in doing so, purged the darkest limits of his emotions. His guitar was like a six-stringed stress-ball; a release from what he described as the 'ever despair and struggle of my life... a constant battle against depression and the ever feeling of heading absolutely nowhere with no control whatsoever... and so music gives a good place to sort this all out.'

There is no denying the unfaltering intensity of the Azusa Plane, even when the pulverising fuzztones give way to relative quiet. From the ethereal ambience of the earlier work, to the freestyle glitter and groan of America is Dreaming of Universal String Theory, to Jason's heartwrenching, deconstructed swansong, The Highway's Jammed with Broken Heroes (which he described as 'complete breakdown of all guitar structures and rules'), it's clear music was a huge source of catharsis for DiEmilio.

There is also a gentle tactility to the music: we can hear the guitarists literally feeling out every note, every slip of their fingers, every strike, every stroke. While the overall effect of the music feels as if it has been beamed to us from outer space, it is simultaneously undeniably human. What we find amongst the alien squeaks and drones is a highly personal, physical act, captured forever on magnetic tape.

Admittedly, it is difficult music, but that's part of its appeal. On first listen, every rule of traditional guitar playing appears to have been broken - the instruments are detuned, amps overdriven to near-breaking-point, time signatures erased. While DiEmilio might have come across as a mad scientist - an unrelenting, raucous rebel or rule-breaker - the results are never contrived. Like a dream, the music is not logical, drifting seamlessly from melody to cacophony to monotony to epiphany. Each piece unfurls in accordance with the hazy, wordless language of dreams; familiar motifs ebb and flow deja vu-like on the tide of improvisation, each movement is unusual and unpredictable, time seems suspended. In fact, it's the perfect music to soundtrack your daydreams.

To fully appreciate the Azusa Plane, you must submit yourself completely to your speakers. It was never intended to be music to dance to, or compliment your household chores - it is music to intoxicate and anaesthetise you, like snoozing drunkenly on a soft bed of nails.

In a sense, there seems to be a division between what the musicians get out of playing the music, and what the listener gets out of hearing it. To DiEmilio and Co, it was the release of thoughts and emotion; for the listener, it's the invocation of thoughts and emotion. Like an Abstract-Expressionist painting, it's not necessary to scrutinise the work for rock-solid connotations of love and life, or sex and death. The beauty is in the evidence - and sharing - of a purely physical, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Each track is a bona fide document of humans expressing exactly what it means to be human (pain, joy, longing...), but masked in noise and ambiguity, like a diary written in the most beautiful, abstract hieroglyphics.

Aside from the emotional content, the music stands alone as perhaps the most mind-bending adventures with a guitar ever put to record. There's no denying DiEmilio suffered for his art, his lifelong exposure to high noise levels culminating in a torturous combination of tinnitus and hyperacusis, rendering him unable to listen comfortably to music. At times, the distressed tones of the Azusa Plane seem almost like an eerie representation of the insect-like whine of tinnitus; however, unlike the disorder, in the music DiEmilio and Knight still treat us to passing wafts of melody and beauty. The Azusa Plane were not puppets, dictated by the wayward whims of their clunking machinery; the band were themselves the puppeteers, manipulating the strings of their guitars, uncovering quiet revelations amidst the thick tangles of distortion.

Handicapped by the very substance he found most pleasure in - music - DiEmilio must stand out as one of the greatest, most overlooked, tortured artists of his generation. Without wanting to sound too overblown and preachy, there was something undeniably pure and Christ-like about the Azusa Plane, the way DiEmilio's ears and confidence suffered so much, to bring us such mind-blowing aural pleasure.

Like many bands before them - for instance, the Velvet Underground, Spacemen 3 - the Azusa Plane set out not to make popular music, but to make music which rattled along to its own logic; to its own set of rules. DiEmilio may have been shackled by hyperacusis; however, when he was able to make music, he did so with such unashamed freedom and innovation, his memory will doubtless inspire countless folk striving to do something striking, different and ambitious, in the face of extreme adversity.

It seems it was never easy being in the Azusa Plane, especially in a world filled with cynics and philistines. Just before the release of The Highway's Jammed with Broken Heroes, DiEmilio explained, 'I feel as though I have not much left to say with the guitar... very low record sales and adverse press has really soured me... not necessarily the sales but more importantly the press... all I ever wanted to do was make music and it has resulted in venomous hatred from many people, which I do not understand and it is very disheartening.'

Now is the time to reinvigorate the Azusa Plane. Born in a climate where many musicians insist on painting their dreary visions with only a very meagre, prescriptive palette, the Azusa Plane broke waves, treating the responsive few to music which will always seem completely ahead of its time, and completely out of this world. While DiEmilio rests in peace, his music is free to flutter from any working speaker, into any working ear-hole. It deserves to mystify and enlighten every tired, deadened eardrum on the planet - after all, that's what our ears are here for.