Ben Brooks is a great new writer and everyone should read his book, Grow Up

The HMV dog is listening to St James' Infirmary by Louis Armstrong. The HMV dog is trying to be ironic, in the hope that it will make death easier. The HMV dog is deluded.
The HMV dog is listening to St James’ Infirmary by Louis Armstrong. The HMV dog is trying to be ironic, in the hope that it will make death easier. The HMV dog is deluded.

I was shopping in HMV in Hastings on Thursday looking for some pre-death bargains. Trouble was, even with the last rites having been read, the bargains were still not that good. It was only 25% off some stickered items, which shows they are continuing their unrealistic pricing policy to the very last. But I wanted to buy something, for the souvenir carrier bag if nothing else, so I picked up two books for a tenner.

I’m glad I did so because my last purchase from HMV might well be one of my best. In fact, I’d be prepared to say that this purchase was second only to buying the GZA’s Liquid Swords back in the 90s. Because one of those two books was Grow Up by Ben Brooks.

I was attracted by the pleasingly mordant front cover, and the quote on the inside sleeve from comedian / poet Tim Key who says Grow Up is “sickeningly good. So confident, so stylish. An unacceptably witty and confident debut.”

That was good enough for me. And if that’s not good enough to persuade you to pick up this book as soon as possible, I hope the rest of this blog will be. Because for the rest of this blog I will mostly quote little bits of the book and tell you to read Grow Up by Ben Brooks.

Grow Up, would you believe, is about growing up. There isn’t what you’d call a plot, just a series of incidents involving the main character and narrator, Jasper Wolf, who is a teenager who likes taking drugs and having sex and does not like revising for exams. He also does not like his step-dad, who he thinks did a few murders and is going to kill his mum.

Here follows some quotations from the book. You will notice Ben Brooks is really good at writing.

The comedown from mephedrone is my least favourite type of skiing.

Jasper on his counsellor: Sugar is pouring out of her lips. Sugar is only good when it is in tea. It is not good when it is coming out of the mouths of overpaid women in suits who think that they are emotionally shampooing me.

The shipping forecast is an extremely comfortable duvet.

Jonah’s mum has watched the news every day since her husband died in Afghanistan. She is just looking for someone to swear at. She swears indiscriminately. I have witnessed it often. She swears at Trevor McDonald, Hannah Montana and Gok Wan. She calls them all cunts.

The first Harry Potter film is playing on the television. A flock of bright boats are shifting over black water. I have seen this film more times than I have had sex. That is a statistic I need to reverse. I will begin by not watching it again.

Read Grow Up by Ben Brooks. It’s on Canongate Press. You can probably get it in a dying HMV branch, or if you care little for the fate of the High Street you can get it on Amazon. I’m ambivalent about where you source your copy. The main thing is you read it.

Noel Fielding thinks this book is great, as does Tim Key. But it's totally up to you if you want to waste your life reading something that isn't as good instead.
Noel Fielding thinks this book is great, as does Tim Key. But it’s totally up to you if you want to waste your life reading something that isn’t as good instead.

The Ivy League professor and his bodybuilder son

Disappoint parent: Paul ‘not pumping iron’ Fussell

The obituary section in the 24 May edition of the Guardian featured a write-up for Paul Fussell, who has died aged 88. He was an historian who wrote a ground-breaking study of the First World War, for which he won the National Book Award in the US. He was also an ex-military man, having fought with distinction in the Second World War.

At the bottom of the obit it said that he was survived by two children, both listed as writers.

Well, yes, that is true. However, as with many an obit, it doesn’t actually get to the nub of the matter. His son, Sam Fussell, was a writer. But rather than penning a weighty intellectual tome which may have pleased his father, he wrote a memoir called Muscle. This book recounted how, in a matter of months, he went from being a gifted, yet skinny, Oxford and Harvard graduate to a hypertrophied muscle man posing on a dais while wearing nothing more than a thick layer of fake tan and a posing pouch.

So how did this unlikely change come about?

In the early 1980s, Sam Fussell was a young man long on brains but short on physique, who feared for his personal safety living in New York. He was also struggling to deal with his parents’ divorce. These circumstances, and a chance discovery of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography, Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder, led him to the local gym, where he took to the weights with all the zeal of the convert.

It was not long before Sam quit his job and took up bodybuilding full-time; possibly not the career path his Ivy League professor father imagined for his son when he sent him off to Harvard.

He explains his desire to change his physique thus:

I wanted to get as big as possible as fast as possible. The bigger, the better – that boded best for personal protection. So it was the most massive bodybuilders who caught my eye. Builders whose flexed arms were actually larger than their heads. Builders who could balance a glass of milk on top of their chests. Builders like Cuban expatriate Sergio Oliva, Bertil “Beef It” Fox and Geoff “Neck” King.

Pre-iron: the pale and wan Sam Fussell

He details his four years as a bodybuilder from the point of view of an insider, but also with the distance and wit of the intellectual.

So he describes that:

During my reps, I resorted to what Schwarzenegger likes to call “The Arnold Mental Visualisation Principle,” more commonly known as the imagination, and saw my chest growing to such gargantuan proportions that no shirt on earth could contain it.”

His transformation from intellectual to muscle man didn’t simply change his physique. It transformed the way he walked (to the bodybuilder’s waddle) and he began using phrases such as “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

As he explains,

It was an expression I’d picked up in the weight room. I found myself frequently using it as a substitute for, “Have a nice day.”

When he told his father he was spending his inheritance from his grandfather on a cheap apartment so he could bodybuild full-time, Paul Fussell called him a psychotic.

Sam Fussell eventually moved to LA to train, where he became best friends with bodybuilders called Vinnie, Bamm Bamm and Nimrod. He started taking steroids. He even, briefly, dated a female bodybuilder, called G-spot. He describes fumbling with her on the sofa in hilarious detail:

When, finally, I reached below her gold dumbbell pendant for her breast, I found it harder than my own.

In order to gain the necessary muscle definition in preparation for his first bodybuilding contest, he went on what was called the ‘shrink-wrap’ diet, losing 12 pounds in just six days: equivalent, perhaps, to what those Wedding Boot Camps put women through before their first marriage.

His father rarely wrote to him in LA. On one occasion he simply sent him a “heavily underlined Frost poem, The Road Not Taken, and the University of Pennsylvania Law School application.” Paul and Sam Fussell eventually stopped speaking entirely.

The memoir ends in 1988, with Sam Fussell tiring of bodybuilding. Looking on Wikipedia, it appears that he never went back to the intellectual life. He is currenly listed as working as a hunter in Montana.

The obituary does not make it clear if father and son were reconciled before Paul Fussell’s death. All I know is I am going to read his World War One history, The Great War and Modern Memory, and I encourage every single person who has reached the end of this blog to read Muscle. Just like Sam’s headlong pursuit of bulk, you won’t regret it for a moment.

Making the most of that Harvard education: a built Sam Fussell

Going back to South Hornchurch

I come from a place called South Hornchurch, a small suburban town at the edge of the East London conurbation. My parents took the bold step of moving from South Hornchurch to Hornchurch proper five years ago which gives me few reasons to return.

However, as it was Easter Sunday and I had absolutely nothing to do, I thought I’d go back and have a look. I took the 252 bus past the site of the World War Two airfield, which still has concrete bunkers I played in when I was a child. Many people locally cling to those World War Two glory years, perhaps because it was a time when the area was of minor strategic importance, and also because  men had the chance to do a brave and good thing: defend their country.

As the bus rolled through the airfield estate I noticed on my right several flagpoles in people’s gardens. One flew the Union Jack, two others the English flag with one for the Help The Heroes charity. The four flags were in gardens backing on to each other. It looked like it was a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses exercise, with each goading the other to be as patriotic as possible. I couldn’t help but think that this patriotism was not a simple statement of pride but a banner for all manner of unpleasant, bigoted views, with Help For Heroes being charity of choice.

I got off the bus and went into the Good Intent pub, which I’d always found to be a heavily ironic name. However, there was a friendly atmosphere with the locals enjoying a diet of Sky Sports, decently-priced booze and red meat. I settled in at the bar next to a bloke who was wearing long hair, a cardigan and a Miles Davis t-shirt – the only man who didn’t look like he did most of his clothes shopping in Sports Direct.

The match, Arsenal v Manchester City, began. At one point, Yaya Touré got a heavy challenge and hobbled off the field. One of the burly, shaven-headed men pointed to Touré and said: “He’s black and blue!” which caused great laughter.

Mario Balotelli raised the ire of some Arsenal fans with a couple of late challenges. One of the men, a skinhead, said, “I’d kick him in the face.” None of his friends reacted, so he said it again. Still being blanked, he said to one of them. “I’d kick him in the fucking face. I am a racist. I don’t like blacks, jews, faggots or transvestites.” He then walked outside to have a cigarette.

A quick survey of the pub revealed the only black person was a barmaid who, despite her youth, had a long-suffering look on her face. How many gays, jews or transvestites there were in the pub who could potentially cause him offence I could not tell.

I walked out at half-time, not because of this incident, which I was half-prepared for, but because I wanted to walk around my old neighbourhood. I went to my old school, Brittons, and noticed it wasn’t a school any more – it was now one of Michael Gove’s academies, which I’m sure will make a massive improvement to educational standards. Happily, I saw that the No Trespassing on School Premises sign outside the school had changed to No Pissing.

As I walked around South Hornchurch most of the people I saw were black. This was a big change from when I grew up there, when I knew a very small number of black people.

With the Union Jacks and casual and not so casual racism, I’ve no doubt South Hornchurch isn’t particularly welcoming to these people. I hope that, like Streatham, where I now live, the pubs on matchdays will one day be filled with football fans from all backgrounds, and racists will not just be ignored but barred. But I wouldn’t expect that change to happen any time soon.

The Iron Lady: a poem

Walking away from the Western Cemetery,
An exposed hill-top near the M25
Where the north London Jews choose to bury
their dead, I saw a bus stop poster of
a film called The Iron Lady with a picture
of my grandma on it. It was disconcerting
seeing her staring back at me, unsmilingly
looking me square in the eye, just an hour
after I’d watched the rabbi and his burly
assistant lower her body into the ground.
As I got closer to the poster I could see
it was Meryl Streep made-up as Margaret Thatcher,
but still the likeness to my Grandma
held true, sharing as she did the bouffant
hairdo, skin untouched by sun and the
‘lady is not for turning’ attitude
of the famous scourge of union men.

I’m taken back to when I was eight,
and my sister’s ten. We’re staying over
at grandma and grandad’s for the weekend.
We’re sat down at the dining table, staring
at fine-art place mats, with silver cutlery
set out with such precision it would satisfy
the most pernickety Swiss. Grandad sits
down, looking like an aged cat but not
quite as awake. Grandma brings in the soup,
the chicken soup, the Jewish chicken soup
which is the best thing on earth but also
a subtle way of saying : whoever
your father is, you’ll always be a Jew.

The conversational sparring starts:
Grandma asks us what we think about
Neil Kinnock’s chances of being elected.
My sister trots out the playground line that
“he’s gotta be better than that dreaded milk-snatcher.”
Grandma tells her that she should pronounce
her middle t’s better. Grandad agrees.
I say the soup is wonderful. Grandad agrees.
Grandma then asks us if we like the opera.
My sister says she prefers Madonna.
I say I’d love to hear some just as soon as
we’ve finished this marvellous dinner.
My sister kicks me hard on the shin.

At the end of the weekend, mum and dad
Pick us up in our brown Ford Cortina.
I stay quiet while my sister unleashes
a tirade against Grandma: she denounces
the demands placed upon her to be better spoken,
better dressed, more grown-up, less like herself,
and mum calmly says, “Whatever she did to you
It’s not half of what she put me through.”
And you can tell by her tone that it’s true.

Fifteen years later, I’m at the Royal
Opera House with grandma. She’s frail
And needs my arm to get to the seat
She got cheap with her disabled pass.
The opera begins: I understand little but
can see there are a lot of Russians on stage
singing at each other, and killing each other
and grandma, at a glance, seems pleased.
During one particularly savage scene
I give her hand a squeeze, and she squeezes too.
When the actors who’ve not yet been slain
take a break she unwraps fishcake sandwiches
which we share. The rye bread and fried salmon
Taste like the old country she clings to,
but I’ve never known. They taste, maybe,
like a token of love from a woman who
could sometimes be mistaken for the Iron Lady.

Wyclef, Beto and the crazy world of Zumba

“What’s Zumba?” I asked.
“Don’t you know what Zumba is?” said one of the PR girls.
“I haven’t even heard of it.”
“Richard, where have you been? Zumba’s massive.”
“But what is it?”
“It’s sort of like Legs, Bums and Tums, with more dancing.”

This is just the sort of maddening conversation which I have all too regularly at my job at Breakthrough Breast Cancer. I am the only man in a team of women, and they tend to think that I am slow-witted, or acting slow-witted, or just being irritating.

On my part, I think that they speak in an unfathomable female patois which doesn’t give me the slightest chance of understanding anything.

Normally I would have let the thing pass, but my interest was piqued by the upcoming Zumbathon at Alexandra Palace, London, due to it featuring a performance by Wyclef Jean.

Wyclef is a hero of mine. In the pantheon of great, shamelessly commercial rappers I put him right at the top of the tree.

I love him for lots of reasons. I love that he first came to the public’s attention on the Fugees’ Killing Me Softly video where his main role was saying ‘ONE TIME!’ while filling his face with popcorn.

Then, when Lauryn Hill went off to make one of the greatest albums of all time, in response, Wyclef did a duet with The Rock on the equally timeless It Doesn’t Matter.

I also loved his claim that Brian Harvey of East 17 was the UK’s greatest living singer, a statement as bizarre as Pele’s quote at the 2002 World Cup that Nicky Butt was the future of football.

So, with the faintest sniff of a meeting with the great man I declared I would volunteer at the event, taking photos and video with my comrade, Chris Joseph.

Chaps: Want to wear a pink sash to work? Join Breakthrough Breast Cancer

Arriving at Alexandra Palace, it was clear this was a massive event. It was a 3,500 sell-out and many of the women were wearing official Zumba merchandise. They looked a bit like football fans, except with more tassles.

To my surprise all the talk in the entrance hall was not of Wyclef, but Beto. He is the man who invented Zumba and, according to a Zumba official, “Women go crazy, start crying when they see Beto. He does so much for them. Beto changes lives.”

This now seemed less like a cuddly charity event, and more like a personality cult, with Wyclef as court jester.

We went down to the VIP area, where there was a strong early 2000s vibe with Gail Porter, Rachel Stevens and Charlie Brooks in attendance. The only person you could say was ‘of the moment’ was The Only Way Is Essex breakout star Amy Childs.

The best of friends: Wyclef and Beto

Then the A-listers arrived. Wyclef, in a fabulous red leather jacket with hat to match, and Beto, who looked like a slightly less camp Ricki Martin. They posed for photographers, going through the cheesy photo repertoire, including the ‘Wow! That was the funniest thing ever!’ pose, the ‘THAT guy!’, and, of course the ‘Back-to-back.’ Wyclef even treated us to the coquettish ‘one-arm-of-sunglasses-in-mouth’ pose. It was a masterclass.

Beto posed with Amy Childs, where their mutual respect of each other’s chests was for all to see, and meanwhile Wyclef was DOING INTERVIEWS. I put a bid in to the Zumba apparatchik for a minute of the his time for the charity, to which they agreed.

Simply the chest: Amy Childs and Beto

He spoke with Press Association and a woman who looked like she’d just stepped out of a David Guetta video. Then I was introduced to Wyclef and he was saying, ‘it’s a pleasure to meet you,’ with manners which would have pleased the Victorians.

We got him mic’d up and he reeled off an eloquent justification of why Wyclef and Zumba and breast cancer charity work made total sense (naturally referring to himself in the third person). I spent my time with him sycophantly nodding and smiling, while idly wondering how much he was earning from this unlikely partnership.

There was a million questions I wanted to ask him, not least the Brian Harvey matter, but suffering a dose of cowardice I satisfied myself with a handshake and a photo, before he sauntered off to the next interview.

We then got into the main hall, when proceedings were just getting under way. Beto arrived on stage in a cloud of dry ice, Latin dance music pumping, big grin on his face, with a troop of incredibly beautiful Latin American dancers. The party had started.

Zumba, I now saw, is a mixture of fitness class, dancing, Latin music and a very American, cuddly form of commerce. But mostly Zumba is a craze, like the Charleston, the hula hoop and rollerblading.

I know it is a craze because there were 3,500 women dancing loco. Which, as my close personal friend Wyclef would tell you, doesn’t make them hoes, no.

 

Ooh la-la-la! Purnell meets Wyclef

 

Tonight Grassy Noel saved my life

So, I died on stage tonight. That was to be expected, considering I was reading poetry in the public bar of a Brixton pub.

People were coming in. Saying hello to friends. Ordering drinks. Going for a piss. Whatever.

What they were not doing was listening to my tender words. It’s hard to keep going when only the promoter of the night, the estimable Dennis Just Dennis, is watching you. No one else, not even your mates, could give a shit.

Up there on stage, without some sort of human response, you have that feeling perhaps akin to being in purgatory. Someone is going to send you to hell in a minute, but not before they smoke a rollie out back in the beer garden.

It was a truly horrible experience. It wasn’t Dennis’s fault. He usually has the room upstairs, where people are up there if they want to be there. But tonight, there was some sort of party and we got moved to the public bar.

Dennis put a positive spin on it. ‘It’s a chance to get people from off the street, win over the crowd down here.’ He and I knew that was small talk. It was going to be a hard night.

After I’d done my slot, I fucked off to the back of the bar and drank Guinness for a bit.

But then Paul Birtill was on. He is one of my favourite poets. A scouser living down south. Bone dry wit. Micro-poems. The kind of poetry I’d never produce but love to hear.

I encourage my mates to come up the front and listen to the man. He reeled off his set, battling against the woman with the machine gun laugh at the back of the bar.

He got some laughs. Less than usual, but still, he’s a pro. He did well. Much better than me.

Then it was time for a break and after that was Grassy Noel and his band, Ape. Grassy had witnessed proceedings, sipping orange juice in the wings (he’s teetotal).

His band I had seen at Kid, I wrote back. They were absolutely incredible, and went down a storm.

This time, Grassy, in trademark black trilby and black jacket, was in full attack mode. I liked to think that he’d seen the way his fellow poets had suffered up on stage, and with his band behind him, was meting out some justice.

He started off not using words. Just noises, bellowed into the mike. It wasn’t pretty, but it was pretty effective. Quite a few people left the bar.

The band started firing up, the stand-up double-bass with bulldog clip on the strings, the better for producing harsh clipped basslines. One of his colleagues was playing the vuvuzela, the instrument of choice at the last World Cup in South Africa. The other fellow was producing strange sounds from a lap top.

And then Grassy started naming wartorn countries. Libya…Afghanistan…Pakistan. For ages, not looking at the crowd, down in the microphone, juddering, shuddering.

Then he got onto Humpty Dumpty, in his preacher-like Irish tones, got down, deep down into the nursery rhyme, which, by christ, has never sounded more sinister.

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall…Humpty Dumpty had a great fall…

One of the band started clanging two ancient fire extinguishers together.

More people left. Beer garden, out front, whatever. Just out. Fucking brilliant.

His band got the horns out, the cornet and the alto sax. This is where they sound all Radiohead, in the Amnesiac era. Freaky as fuck. Really really good.

Now Grassy’s going on about the Seventh Seal. Who know what he’s talking about, but it’s dark. Dark and incomprehensible. But I understand. This is punk. This is brutal attack music and poetry. This is living without compromise. This is G-Force poetry. If My Bloody Valentine did poetry, it would sound like this.

By the end of the set, it was just me, my two friends, Dennis, a few more freaks, and the band. Everyone had wisely got the fuck out.

People have the right to enjoy a drink without being assaulted by poetry. And poets have the right to bring their words into pubs and carry out assaults. Everyone is right. And not everyone can be happy all the time.

I died on stage tonight. And tonight Grassy Noel saved my life.