by Perry Iles
I’m a frivolous bugger, me. I take the piss a lot. It gets me into trouble sometimes, and I’ve been known to cause offence. Did I mean to? Well sort of, but only from a distance because it’s easier and I’m a devout coward. In real life I wouldn’t say boo to a goose. Probably because it would break my arm. Or is that swans? It doesn’t matter, I don’t like birds very much unless they taste nice. I don’t like people very much either, and you can’t even eat them, so when I find myself face to face with some of the things people say, I get a bit apoplectic. Can you get a bit apoplectic? Or is apoplexy a state of being that either is or isn’t; a binary process? Apoplectic/not apoplectic; on or off? Things that calm me down are my family, stroking the dogs (often the wrong way, just to see what will happen) and playing with the cat (I know what will happen if I stroke him the wrong way. I still have the scars. My cat will never star in YouTube clips; he is neither funny nor cute. He kills fluffy bunnies). Things that make me apoplectic are politicians, bankers and Gary Barlow. He’s like a lizard on a rock, is Gary Barlow. I’m sure he has to employ someone to remind him to blink. “What has Gary Barlow ever done to you?” my sweet wife will ask me as I sit in front of whatever programme he’s on and listen to his slo-mo Mancunian drawl and begin to foam at the mouth and slather a little. I could start with the songs he writes. Gary Barlow is to music what those Hallmark cards with embossed teddy-bears holding bunches of flowers are to fine art, what those brutalist tower blocks are to the Chrysler Building. He writes with an unerring sense of utter commercial cynicism. Greatest Day is the best example, a money-grabbing ploy to get dim people to dance to it on sticky lino at wedding receptions in the back of a pub somewhere in the north of England where it’s grim before the inevitable fight breaks out. Husbands in Matalan suits with tattoos snaking out from under the cuffs, wives with orange spray-tans staining the armpits of an EBay wedding dress that almost, but not quite, fails to fit. They’ll all be in court soon. There won’t be any fucking Gary Barlow songs then, will there? Today this will be, the saddest day of my life…
Don’t get me started…
So, yeah, this writing life. Like I say, I’m a frivolous bastard. I was going to write something about what I used to do for a living just for the purpose of comparison and to remind myself what a happy fucker I am. I was in the Civil Service a few decades ago, then I was a sales rep for an office supplies company (thirty-five years on I still dream I’m back doing it, and wake up sweating from the fact that I haven’t sold enough carbon paper.) I was a taxi driver, a publican’s minder, a student (Geography. Q: What do you say to a geography graduate? A: Can I have fries with that?), a masters’ student (wankers, the whole fucking staff were wankers. Perhaps I shouldn’t have eaten magic mushrooms at the student/lecturer get-together evening, but fuck, Edinburgh University is heaving with tosspots). Then I worked for an environmental organisation (fucking hippie bastards) before becoming part of the IT section of a medium-sized government quango in Edinburgh.
Don’t even think about starting to talk to me about people who work in IT. Jesus arse-buggering Christ. I had a colleague who started timing my lunch breaks and telling me off for taking time off sick (Which happened quite a lot, to be fair). Eventually I realised that what I had embarked on was something called “a career”, which is just a posh word for a job that’s gone on too long. I used to have things called Job Appraisal Reviews. “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?” “Dead” would have been an optimistic prospect. A job is a contract. You spend time somewhere you don’t want to be, doing stuff you don’t want to do with people you don’t want to be with, and in return they give you money. Face it, if any of us won the lottery tomorrow, none of us would never set foot in work again, except maybe the car park, to hurl abuse at senior management from the windows of our Lamborghinis. Anyway, work is an overrated concept. You can love your job all you want but it’ll never love you back, and one day when I’d had one too many shouting matches with the human being I shared my room with, I just walked out and never went back.
That was possibly the best feeling I’ve ever had (other than the odd desultory orgasm over the past forty years or so). I felt weights dropping from my soul. Burdens of care and responsibility lifted from my mind. I went home and held my little baby daughter and wondered how the fuck I was going to manage to feed her, but I didn’t wonder for long because I was a writer now and it was only a matter of time before someone recognised my genius and the money would start rolling in and I’d drive to Edinburgh in my Lamborghini and roar past the office making the wanker sign out the window towards my old room.
Which, of course, happened.
So, now I sit here being frivolous, wanking for coins. And what fun it is too. This writing life is a hoot from start to finish. My commute is six vertical feet, from my bed to the sitting room beneath the bedroom where I now sit writing this and filling myself with caffeine so that I don’t doze off and start dribbling over the keyboard. I don’t have to see anyone, I don’t have to wash and I can lift one haunch from my chair and blow off every so often. It startles the dogs. My wife is asleep upstairs so I’ll be able to go and look at some porn on the internet in a minute. I’ll be back before long if that outdoor group MILF-dogging website doesn’t have any viruses in it, in which case I’ll have to buy a new computer again, instead of just rinsing the keyboard off. This isn’t a job, this writing life. It’s not a job because it does love you back. You can sit there, clasping yourself in self-congratulation (I’m not talking about porn now, by the way) and thinking “Gosh! Did I really write that? What a clever chap I am!” I mean, obviously you can also clasp yourself when the young lady on the screen gets to the vinegar strokes with a small group of Polish truck drivers in a lay-by somewhere to the east of Krakow and fetches up looking like a plasterer’s radio, which is not something you can do in an office environment, especially when there are ladies present, so it’s a win-win situation really.
And now, given working conditions like that, there are writers all over the place. The playing field has been levelled, the goalposts have been moved. We’re here and we’re not going home because we’re already there too. The hundreds of thousands of writers, self-publishers, home editors and proof-readers. I worked as security for a stripper once (that was a fun job, although there were occasional times when, like the song said, there may be trouble ahead. She wasn’t stripping to that, by the way, she was stripping to Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”, but it was a long time before Operation Yewtree and the audience were off-duty policemen celebrating a promotion anyway), but even that wasn’t as much fun as being a writer.
And we write about all sorts of things. We write about anything we want, in this writing life, but I’m starting to wonder over recent weeks whether a writing-class hero’s a good thing to be. I mean, think of the insurance premiums. I told a car rental agent I was a writer once, and she told me to pretend to be something else or they wouldn’t rent me the Lamborghini I was going to wave at my old colleagues from whilst pretending it was mine. I told her to put me down as unemployed, and that was fine. Loads of unemployed people own Lamborghinis. God knows I wish Gary Barlow did. And Bono. But God probably also knows how much the insurance premiums are these days if you tell people you’re a cartoonist…
Which is a terrible shame. Killing a cartoonist in the name of free speech is like crushing a rose because the thorns might hurt. Actually it wasn’t in the name of free speech, but I’m not going there because like I said earlier I’m a devout coward and I don’t want to be shot and I don’t want my colleagues in Words With Jam Towers to be shot either because they’re all even lovelier than I am. So all religions are wonderful, with no exceptions and no preferences, except for that guy with the Kalashnikov standing over there. You’re religion’s best, mate, OK? Don’t mind me, I’m just listening to this nice inoffensive song by that nice inoffensive Mr Barlow and watching a handmaiden work a Polish truck stop in preparation for paradise.
But cartoonists. I love them. Waaaay back in the early eighties I started buying National Lampoon. Imported directly from America it was, and it had early cartoons by B Kliban and Charles Rodrigues and Shary Flenniken. They’d crack me up, those weird pieces of dated Americana. Rodrigues’s strip about the Aesop Brothers in particular; they were Siamese twins born into some dirt-poor dustbowl inbred hillbilly family. Their father had wanted Siamese twins so he could sell them to a circus, and now here they were. The doctor told him: “There y’are, Abe. Jined at the hip jest like y’always wanted.” And old Abe was so grateful he named the twins after the doctor, calling them Doctor and Cohen. The twins went on to be private detectives, shuffling side-by-side down alleyways in their matching raincoats and fedoras. Then there was Shary Flenniken’s Trots and Bonnie – a sideways look at the world from a proto-feminist viewpoint, following the footsteps of Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton from the ruins of the sixties and seventies. And here were BK Taylor’s the Appletons, a cartoon about a family with a sadistic father who made the neighbourhood kids bob for apples in a bucket of boiling tar one Halloween. I used to wait for the Lampoon every month, mostly for the Kliban cartoons. Here was a poem about a cat threatening people with jail if they pulled his tail, there was a strip about a woman who had an affair with Mr Retardo the mailman who turned out not to be a mailman at all, but a komodo dragon. Somewhere else was a cartoon of an old lady looking down onto a pair of smouldering shoes, with the Tower of Pisa in the background, under which was the caption: “Due to a convergence of forces beyond his control, Salvatore Quanucchi was suddenly squirted from the universe like a watermelon seed, and never heard from again.” Kliban’s cartoons (“The Virgin Mary appears to a foreign car in Denver”, “Cynthia is mistakenly crowned King of Norway”, “Polar Puns #139: you walrus hurt the one you love”), were surreal and for some reason they cracked me up. I showed a cartoon to a friend once. “The Bridge of Considerable Difficulty: Venice, Italy” it was, a rather Escher-like bridge with renaissance men falling off it or floating up from it for absolutely no reason. My friend looked at it and said “I don’t get it”. And when I tried to explain it to him I realised I didn’t get it either, because there was nothing to get. It was either funny or it wasn’t. For me it was funny. If I had to choose ten books to spend the rest of my life with, a book of Kliban’s collected cartoons would be one of them. You can find him online. Search under images. You’ll find a lot of his cartoons there. He pre-dates Larson. Don’t just look at his Cat books. One day in the late 1980s I opened the Guardian and saw a Kliban cartoon. Great, I thought, they’re serialising him now, above Doonesbury and Steve Bell. Then I realised I was looking at the obituaries page, and that Kliban had died. Fifty-something, he was. I could have cried, which is not the proper reaction to cartoons really.
Now all of a sudden lots more cartoonists are dead, and I could have cried again. Sometimes this writing life takes its toll. I’m sure Salman Rushdie knows how that feels. I doubt Gary Barlow does because he’ll never do anything controversial in his entire fucking life (just wait; I’ve said that and now he’ll jump onto the stage at the next awards ceremony, bum Jonathan Ross and then tug himself off over the front rows, neatly summarising the metaphor of his music), and I doubt any of my former colleagues do, because they’re all busy fixing computers or selling office products or saving the environment or being dead, but I’m glad I live on the wrong side of the fence, the bad side of the tracks, out in the boonies where the wild things are. I’m no better than the uncomplaining salarymen and the service industry providers. I’m no better than the people who are putting on a daft uniform to cook my daughter’s fries under civilisation’s golden arches. But there is a small group of people who I am better than—the ones who think that shooting a cartoonist will do wonders for their cause. So, yeah, life’s meaningless and everything dies. Fair enough, but leave us some entertainment along the way, for fuck’s sake. Life’s drab enough without rubbing out the pictures.