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

 

 

 

MODIGLIANI & MALDOROR

TALK on modigliani & les chants de maldoror, delivered AT TATE MODERN, 2018

 

I’m going to invite you into the world of a strange, sadistic, system-smashing novel that Modigliani was obsessed by. It’s called Les Chants de Maldoror (The Songs of Maldoror) and it was written by a shady character known as the Comte de Lautréamont, which was the pen name of Isidore Ducasse, a deliriously dark and inventive young writer from Uruguay who settled in Paris when he was twenty-one. We didn’t plan this, but as chance has it, the book is exactly 150 years old this year. Not many copies were printed when it first came out, and it’s probably safe to say the disgusting delights in the book wouldn’t have been to most people’s tastes at the time, but it’s gone on to be a massive influence on not only Modigliani but even more so the Surrealists, and it even rears its hideous head in 1968, again weirdly exactly 100 years after it was published, when it acted as a sort of anti-establishment beacon for the Situationist International and the student revolt that blew up in Paris in May of that year.

According to legend, Modigliani used to carry a copy of Les Chants de Maldoror everywhere he went, learning parts of it off by heart and quoting passages at anyone who cared to listen. It’s a mysterious book in that not a lot is known about its author, and also Modigliani’s relationship with it is shrouded in some mystery. On the surface it’s difficult to find a direct link between this blood-splurting, nightmarish, rule-obliterating novel and Modigliani’s comparatively serene artwork. Maybe he kept it by his side as a bit of a status symbol, like a more exclusive black anarchist armband, or it could’ve been an unlucky charm for this often charmless man, or maybe it genuinely gave him daily inspiration, like a very unorthodox religious text. It’s proven difficult to find out exactly what parts of the book Modigliani used to spout out loud, but over the next twenty or so minutes I’m going to try and answer the question: what is it about Maldoror that makes his so-called songs so influential? And why would anyone in their right mind want to carry this sinister, stomach-churning tome around with them permanently?

To start off, it probably makes sense to outline what goes on in the book, but there’s not really a quick, straightforward answer to that. Generally speaking, the novel follows the exploits of a sinister, shapeshifting reprobate called Maldoror as he causes havoc and continually evades the clutches of the authorities in a series of bizarre, loosely connected nightmare scenarios. The book starts with Maldoror kindly letting the reader know that ‘the deadly emanations of this book will dissolve his soul as water does sugar’, before he gives a little potted history of himself. He says:

‘Maldoror was good during the first years of his life, when he lived happily. That is that. Then he noticed that he had been born evil. As far as he could, he hid his real character for a large number of years; but in the end, because of the concentration this required, which did not come naturally to him, the blood used to rush to his head every day; until, no longer able to bear such a life, he flung himself resolutely into a career of evildoing… a sweet atmosphere! Whenever he kissed a little pink-faced child, he felt like tearing open its cheeks with a razor, and he would have done so very often, had not Justice, with its long train of punishments, prevented him. He was no liar, admitted the truth and said that he was cruel.’

Most of the rest of the novel is just Maldoror reinforcing this point, this utter contempt he has for humanity, but he keeps you on your toes by doing it in many different disguises and in many different absurd, insalubrious settings. The book’s almost part sketch show, part freakshow. Apparently Ducasse wrote the novel sitting at his piano, bashing out obscure chords to punctuate the revelations he was having, or to punish any writer’s block. He certainly wasn’t interested in any traditional form of plotting, but to give you some flavour of the foul banquet on offer, I’ll give you this synopsis of sorts. In one episode Maldoror turns into a giant octopus and attacks God, in another he idolises headlice and pictures them growing to the size of elephants and being given a state funeral when they die. He goes from wishing lice would devour all mankind to waxing lyrical about the beauty and precision of mathematics, and then not long after he finds himself setting his bulldog on a young girl and extracting her vital organs. He spends a chapter expressing sympathy for a hermaphrodite, and he spends countless chapters inflicting horrible wounds on prostitutes, young boys, God again and again, and various creatures and inanimate objects, everything from dragons to a lantern he thinks is provoking him just because it hangs outside a church.

There’s no question: it’s a grisly novel. But was it this stomach-churning, taboo-obliterating side to it Modigliani was most exhilarated by? We know he became interested in the occult when he was in Venice before Paris, but I’m not convinced the gruesome, Satanic side of the book comes through in his paintings. Modigliani’s portraits are certainly off-kilter, like faces seen through the distortion of a wine bottle – but they’re nowhere near as outlandish as Ducasse’s gallery of rogues. For example, halfway through the book Maldoror offers up the following self-portrait. It comes across more like a rotten veg version of a Giuseppe Arcimboldo painting, or just one of the world’s worst Lonely Hearts adverts. He says:

‘I am filthy. I am riddled with lice. Hogs, when they look at me, vomit. My skin is encrusted with the scabs and scales of leprosy, and covered with yellowish pus. An enormous mushroom with umbelliferous stalks is growing on my nape, as if on a dunghill. My feet have taken root in the ground; up to my belly, they form a sort of tenacious vegetation, full of filthy parasites. A family of toads has taken up residence in my left armpit and, when one of them moves, it tickles. In my right armpit there is a chameleon which is perpetually chasing them, to avoid starving to death. An evil snake has eaten my member and taken its place; the filthy creature has made me a eunuch. Oh if only I could have defended myself with my paralysed hands; but I rather think they have changed into logs. Two little hedgehogs threw the inside of my testicles to a dog, who did not turn his nose up at it: and they lodged inside the carefully washed epidermis. My anus has been penetrated by a crab-‘

And so on and so forth. Maldoror is the ultimate outsider, but he’s definitely chosen to be an outsider. At one point he lays down his mission statement. He says: ‘I use my genius to depict the delights of cruelty. My poetry will consist exclusively of attacks on man, that wild beast, and the Creator, who ought never to have bred such vermin.’ Modigliani in his own way is an outsider too – he was a very sickly man after suffering an unholy trinity of pleurisy, typhoid and tuberculosis in his youth, also he was from a Jewish family that settled in Livorno, Italy which was a town well known historically for accepting refugees escaping persecution – but unlike Maldoror, Modigliani clearly craved humanity. He moved to Paris in 1906 when he was twenty-one – the same age as Ducasse – and as you can see in his paintings, he had so much curiosity and passion for human beings. There’s melancholy and darkness in Modigliani’s work but nothing like the rage you get in Les Chants de Maldoror. These nudes caused a scandal when they were exhibited a hundred years ago, but only really because they faced the street and featured what the chief of police could only prudishly describe as ‘hair’. And I don’t believe Modigliani painted these nudes as a provocation anyway – they just seem more of a celebration of sensuality than anything more sinister. But then again, maybe his interest in the book had less to do with his art and more to do with his life…

One thing Modigliani does share in common with Maldoror is his compulsive outbursts of lawlessness, especially after dark, after a few drinks. Because of his sickliness, it apparently didn’t take much for Modigliani to get drunk – and he was a liability when he was pissed, continually getting himself into arguments, becoming aggressive or spontaneously stripping off, and regularly getting himself thrown out of cafes. So maybe he identified with Maldoror in that respect – almost as if Maldoror gave his bad behaviour a kind of obscure literary gravitas. And he must’ve been bitter about his lack of recognition – you have to remember that Modigliani died basically penniless, these paintings are now seen as masterpieces but when he was alive he had to go round the cafes of Montmartre and Montparnasse sketching people then trying to sell them off for just paltry amounts – and so maybe it makes sense he’d use the book as a bit of a smokescreen, quoting extreme passages from it to try and excuse or validate his turbulent temper. There’s plenty of good put-downs in the book, for example you could use this one next time you feel the world’s against you: ‘Oh! if, instead of being a hell, the universe had only been an immense celestial anus, look at the motion I am making with my loins: yes, I would have thrust my verge into its bleeding sphincter, shattering, with my jerking movements, the very walls of its pelvis!’

Aside from the intergalactic sodomy, one of the most cryptic things about the book is it’s difficult to tell where Isidore Ducasse ends and Lautréamont and Maldoror take over. To this day not much is known about the author, whether he was an abomination like Maldoror, or just a humble man with a very unruly ventriloquist’s dummy. Of the few accounts we do have of Ducasse, one of his classmates was found in 1927 and he gave an interview, describing him as eccentric but overall a ‘good fellow’. So, as far as we can tell, maybe Ducasse and Modigliani were less kindred spirits, more like yin and yang: Modigliani the intoxicated monster creating sympathetic art, Ducasse the quiet citizen creating intoxicatingly monstrous art…

But that’s not to say Modigliani was always a monster. He’s a character of contrasts, definitely. Despite his lack of money, he was always immaculately turned out – he must’ve had a strange magnetism in that he was known for his Hollywood good looks and yet he was so sickly and unhealthy. He was also famous for his exhibitionism – around Paris you were potentially more likely to see the man himself in the nude than you were to see his nudes in a gallery. In the cafes and cabarets his friends would see him reaching for the red sash that kept his trousers up, and they’d try and restrain him with it – often to no avail. When he did get his kit off, he was known for proclaiming ‘Don’t I look like a God?’ In this sense he shares a certain egomania with Maldoror – and undoubtedly it was Modigliani’s brashness and confidence as well as his good looks that meant he had a long string of lovers throughout his short life. But I hope for his mistresses’ sake he didn’t quote from Maldoror in the bedroom. Although as we’ll soon find out, chances are he probably did.

There’s one love scene in Les Chants de Maldoror, which I’ll share with you now. This should help get you in the mood for Valentine’s Day next week. While Maldoror sits on a rocky cliff overlooking the sea, he watches a ship sink in a tempest, then he becomes somewhat aroused when a pack of sharks approaches and they eat the dead. He describes the sharks as making an ‘omelette without eggs’ of the victims. Maldoror then swims through the water, which he describes at this point as just ‘red cream’, and he goes on to say:

‘The swimmer is now in the presence of the female shark. They look into each other’s eyes for some minutes, each one saying to himself: “I have been mistaken; here is one more evil than I”. Then by common accord they glide towards one another underwater, the female shark using its fins, Maldoror cleaving the waves with his arms. When they are three yards apart they spontaneously fall upon one another like two lovers and embrace with dignity and gratitude. Carnal desire follows. Two sinewy thighs press tightly against the monster’s viscous flesh, like two leeches; arms and fins are clasped, while their throats and breasts soon form one glaucous mass amid the exhalations of the seaweed; amidst the tempest which was continuing to rage; by the light of lightning-flashes; with the foaming waves for marriage-bed; borne by an undersea current and rolling on top of one another down into the unknown deeps, they joined in a long, chaste and ghastly coupling! At last I had found one akin to me. From now on I was now longer alone in life! Her ideas were the same as mine… I was face to face with my first love!’

Modigliani found his equal in Beatrice Hastings – whose portraits we can see here. They stayed together for two years so they must’ve been at least slightly compatible, although it seems – aside from their creativity – the main thing they had in common was they were continually at each other’s throats. Hastings was an English poet and a journalist – she had a penchant for whisky, she reinvigorated Modigliani’s interest in the occult, and she was known for occasionally carrying live ducks around with her in a basket. When she first met Modigliani she described him like this:

‘A complex character. A pig and a pearl. Met him in 1914 at a crémerie. I sat opposite him. Hashish and brandy. Not at all impressed. Didn’t know who he was. He looked ugly, ferocious and greedy. Met him again at the Café Rotonde. He’d shaved and was charming. Raised his cap with a pretty gesture, blushed and asked me to come and see his work. And I went. He always had a book in his pocket. Lautréamont’s Maldoror. He had no respect for anyone except Picasso and Max Jacob. Detested Cocteau’ – who, incidentally, he did paint over there. And she finishes off to say: ‘Never completed anything good under the influence of hashish.’

Even more so than his hash habit, Hastings would actually later state she felt Lautréamont was a worse influence on him than drugs. So obviously the book was affecting his brain and behaviour in some detrimental way – was he losing his grip on reality perhaps, or losing his sensitivity for his fellow humans?

There’s some debate whether or not Isidore Ducasse was also under the spell of drugs when he wrote Les Chants de Maldoror. As you’ve seen, it’s a hallucinatory novel, and there’s the odd line that does suggest some substance use, like the whiff of opium in ‘The magic poppies of an ineffable drowsiness envelop, like a veil filtering the light of day,’ or when Ducasse says even more explicitly in his intro to the second canto: ‘What has become of Maldoror’s first song, since his mouth, full of belladonna leaves, uttered it through the realms of anger, in a moment of reflection?’ But then again, belladonna is another name for the deadly nightshade, and so it’s probably not the best drug to inspire good writing. Its leaves are highly poisonous for a start, and as medication it just seems to work as a muscle relaxant rather than a catapult to the higher realms of consciousness.

So maybe Maldoror’s references to drugs are just red herrings. And in any case, it seems what the Surrealists most admired about the novel was its purity of vision, its seemingly unadulterated derangement of the senses.

I feel like, to try and make more sense of Modigliani’s shady relationship with Maldoror, it helps to look at some of the artists that came after him, that also became obsessed with the book. Modigliani didn’t associate himself with any particular style of painting or ism, but I do wonder whether he might’ve ventured into Surrealism had he lived into the 1920s, given the Surrealists so loudly venerated Maldoror. There’s a quote from Modigliani that suggests he was beginning to think the same way as them: ‘What I am searching for it neither the real nor the unreal, but the subconscious, the mystery of what is instinctive in the human race’.

In 1918, again mysteriously exactly fifty years after the book was published, you get a sense of the baton being passed on, the changing of the avant-garde. Exempt from service because of his bad health, during the First World War Modigliani was in the South of France – but meanwhile the soon-to-be Surrealists André Breton and Louis Aragon were doing what Modigliani had done before them: bellowing passages from Les Chants de Maldoror out loud while they trained as physicians among the war wounded at Val de Grace hospital in Paris. As Aragon remembers it, when they read sections out to each other, ‘Sometimes, behind the padlocked doors, madmen would scream, insult us, strike the walls with both fists. This provided the text with an obscene and startling quality’. The Surrealists would soon hold the book up as their Unholy Bible. Not only did Ducasse write in a beautifully illogical poetic flurry, exposing deadpan all his deepest darkest desires and fetishes, also Maldoror’s blatant contempt for God, the establishment and all hypocrites reflected the Surrealists’ wish to upturn society, to scandalise the bourgeoisie.

The Surrealists loved the book so much that, when a new nightclub opened in Montparnasse with the name Bar Maldoror, a number of them got together and proceeded to rigorously smash the place up. One account says they ‘stormed the bar as a private supper was being hosted inside by the Rumanian princess Agathe Paléologue. Rene Char lifted the bouncer and literally tossed him aside, smashing several windows and the front door in the process. Breton then strode into the dining room, stamped the floor with his heavy cane and announced to the astonished diners: “We are the guests of the Comte de Lautréamont!”’

In a way the Surrealists had that same unruliness and unpredictability as Modigliani, but they were able to harness it, to turn it into something artful and thought-provoking, rather than it just being antisocial. When they smashed up the nightclub it caused a national scandal, but this was what the Surrealists always relished, and Ducasse too seems to share this thirst for mischief. Towards the end of Les Chants de Maldoror he seems to be having fun as he flagrantly disregards all so-called rules governing what you can and can’t do with literature. He keeps going off on bizarre tangents, intentionally testing the reader’s patience, meanwhile pushing his similes to the most ridiculous extremes. Some of the best examples are when he’s talking about beauty: he describes a pelican-headed stranger as being ‘as handsome as the two long tentacular filaments of an insect; or, rather, as a hasty burial; or, again, as the law of the restoration of mutilated organs; and, above all, as an eminently putrescible liquid.’ Later we meet a ‘lamb-eating vulture, lovely as the law of arrested chest development in adults whose propensity to growth is not in proportion to the quantity of molecules their organism can assimilate’. And most famously, in the final canto, Maldoror describes his latest victim, a young English lad called Mervyn, as being ‘as handsome as the retractibility of the claws in birds of prey; or, again, as the unpredictability of muscular movement in sores in the soft part of the posterior cervical region; or, rather, as the perpetual motion rat-trap which is always reset by the trapped animal and which can go on catching rodents indefinitely and works even when it is hidden under straw; and, above all, as the chance juxtaposition of a sewing machine and an umbrella on the dissecting table!’

I love how these descriptions are clearly a joke but it’s like Ducasse has just put a stick of dynamite under all the fusty old authors that have gone before him, waging war on everything trite and predictable in literature. But I wonder what Modigliani made of these lines, because they’re surely the perfect invitation or excuse to launch himself into total abstraction, but he remains figurative to the end.

Ducasse describes his own work as the ‘poetry of revolt’, and I feel it’s these moments where he’s clearly thumbing his nose at the powers that be that helped make the book influential 150 years after it came out, in the period leading up to the massive student and workers revolt in Paris in May 1968. After Les Chants de Maldoror, Ducasse released a short book of Poesies that were essentially more positive, sometimes twisting existing philosophical quotes. He says in the Poesies ‘Plagiarism is necessary’ and he declares ‘Poetry for all!’ which was part of the inspiration for the Situationist International and the students when they started conjuring up cutting anti-capitalist slogans and images to paste all over the Latin Quarter. The Situationists felt both Maldoror and the Poesies were the perfect ‘reflection of the double tendency of the anarchist movement: its perpetual oscillation between pure violence and reformist utopia’.

It is uncanny how Maldoror seems to reappear every half-century, to the year, almost like there’s some occult voodoo at play, like he’s summoned up from his fictional Hell to help inspire the folks upstairs to rebel against the establishment, whether that’s the State, or the literary establishment, or Christian morality, or just everyday do-goodery. Additionally: while the Surrealists referred to Isidore Ducasse as their most treasured ‘poet maudit’, when Modigliani was in France the Parisians likewise took to shortening his name to Modi, playing on that same term meaning ‘cursed’. Certainly Modigliani was cursed with bad health, you could argue he was cursed by his addictions, but I suppose we can only speculate how tight a grip Maldoror had on his life – and whether the book’s sinister commandments led to his early death.

Modigliani’s epitaph reads ‘Struck Down by Death at the Moment of Glory’, but as we know he died destitute, and more or less unknown outside of Paris. Ducasse too died unknown, suffering a fever during the famines of the Siege of Paris in 1870 when the Prussian army stormed the city. There was apparently such a shortage of food at that time, Parisians had to resort to eating cats, rats and dogs – so not really a Moment of Glory either. And yet, unknown to Ducasse, his novel has taken on such a mysterious, powerful life of its own since then. It’s a masterpiece of subversion, and for me, if I ever feel tempted to regurgitate some shameful cliché when I’m writing, it helps to think of those beautiful, ludicrous similes of the Comte de Lautréamont, like this one I’ll finish off with. It comes towards the very end of the book, where Ducasse seems to push the joke as far as it’ll go. Maldoror, disguised as a Cyclops, says: ‘I cast a long look of satisfaction on the duality of which I am composed… and I find myself beautiful! Beautiful as the vice of congenital deformation of the male sexual organs, consisting in the relative shortness of the urethral canal and the division, or absence, of its lower wall, with the result that this canal opens at a varying distance from the gland and below the penis; or again as the fleshy wattle, conic in shape and furrowed by quite long transverse wrinkles, which rises from the base of the turkey cock’s upper beak; or rather as the truth which follows: “The system of scales, modes and their harmonic succession is not dependent upon natural invariable laws but is, on the contrary, the consequence of aesthetic principles which have varied with the progressive development of mankind and which will continue to vary”; and, above all, as a corvet armed with turrets!’

I said I feel he’s pushed it to the very limit here but I think the real point is that there is no limit to how far you can push literature or art. It’s just unfortunate for Modigliani there is a limit to how far you can push your life...

 

 

 

 

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.