My name is John Doran and I write about music. The young bucks who run VICE’s website thought it would be amusing to employ a 41-year-old whose every tenth thought is of his grave.
In case you were wondering or simply too lazy to use urban dictionary, ‘menk’ is Scouse/ Woollyback slang for a mentally ill or educationally subnormal person, and is a shortened version of mental. As in, “Your Sergio Tacchini trackie is sick la, look at that menk Doran, he can’t even afford a Walker trackie. Let’s hit him with a brick and push him in the canal."
MENK 40: I SAW A DEADHEAD STICKER ON A CADILLAC
I can read London like a book. I can read it like the Authorized King James Bible. I can read it like the Haynes Owners Workshop Manual for the 2002 Ford Focus Diesel. I can read it like Katie Price’s In The Name Of Love. I can read it like E. M. Cioran’s A Short History Of Decay. I can read the capital like a dog-eared copy of Horse And Hound magazine in a dentist’s waiting room in Bethnal Green that smells vaguely like Play-Doh. I can read the fucking shit out of it. And the more I reduce my medication the better my attention to detail becomes.
I’ve become an augur and there are bad signs rising all around me. You don’t need to cast goat intestines or check your tealeaves – just put down the donuts, leave your house and walk across the capital right now. On Bethune Road last week, a 6’5” man with an Eastern European accent wearing a rainbow coloured Afro wig tried to walk out of the beer shop by the West Bank with two cans of White Lightning. When shouted back angrily by the owner he re-entered, paid for them, exited and then slammed them against the side of a phone box until they burst. Then he stood in the middle of the road waving the cans round his head like leaky, grim pom-poms, while he howled at the sky. A car drove slowly onto the pavement and right round, rather than risking going within 15ft of him.
A woman in Leyton ASDA stood in the queue for a till with two children holding onto each of her sleeves bouncing up and down going: “Mum. Mum. Mum. Mum. Mum. Mum. Mum. Mum. Mum. Mum. Mum. Mum. Mum.” Her trolley was full to the brim with nothing but Lucozade and Red Bull.
There’s a distressing near-retirement age couple who live near me, who seem to exist in a permanent bubble of seething discomfort, sarcasm, drunken angst and despair. And what’s more they drag this invisible tent-like structure round with them, enveloping anyone who happens to be nearby. I went out for a meal with Maria on Valentine’s night to The Dervish on Church Street and was most disconcerted when we were seated next to them.
As predicted they sucked the atmosphere out of the room in the same way an asteroid striking the hull of the international space station does. There was a throbbing silence while they glowered at their mezze, stabbing accusingly at dolmades and occasionally drawing attention to their dentures by slurping humus loudly round them. After ten minutes of silence, he begrudgingly went to say something but she just snorted loudly cutting him off. Then 15 minutes later when she said she had to go to the toilet he acknowledged this by shouting: “Oh, for fuck’s sake!” As soon as she was gone he hurriedly ordered a large whiskey and sank it, paying for it in handfuls of coins.
Well, I saw them in Tottenham one morning last week. They came out of a newsagents, him looking like Harry Dean Stanton dressed by Oxfam in a baseball cap clutching a pink lottery slip and a can of Stella. After scanning the slip he fell on to his knees weeping. His cap fell off and his comb over unfurled shaking further loose with each manic sob. He could barely open his tin of lager he was crying so heavily. She stood behind him alternately pursing her lips and rolling her eyes, then blowing air into her cheeks and smirking behind her fingers like a school girl.
(My friend Richard says that Chris Morris exists in a bubble of horror. He was walking down Poland Street in Soho on a hot summer’s day. Suddenly a cloud passed in front of the sun and rain spotted the pavement. As Morris – wearing a black suit – came walking round the corner he simultaneously noticed an armless man in a restaurant window with a vibrating head drinking a bowl of soup through tubing. A trainee taxi driver on a scooter came round the corner and hit the deck, sliding from his machine to the kerb. And Richard himself noted that his mouth went dry and an awful feeling of foreboding came over him. But as Morris disappeared from view, the sun came out again and everything righted itself. Apart from the man with no arms. He still had no arms.)
You see people in AA who maybe just shouldn’t have bothered giving up drinking. They’re so old and so fucked up, mentally injured, punch drunk… there’s nothing left for them but shaking and mumbling in unfurnished rooms, counting the last of the days out. Maybe they serve as walking posters to the rest of us – stay sober, stay clean, keep on coming back to the rooms, no more false starts. Take control now before it’s too late. But it’s no life for them. This couple could have a chance though – a shot at a few months or even a few years of happiness if they were to take stock but it will never happen because there’s no one there for them and they’re alone in a city where nihilism and expediency are the currency.
A few days earlier, a well-dressed pension-age black woman in Crouch End turned round and hissed at me vehemently while repositioning her crown: “Satan! You smell like SHIT!”
Madness recognises madness. The bastards won’t leave me alone.
(I don’t smell like shit, by the way. I may be fat, I may have a face like porridge dipped in pubic hair and I may have the dress sense of a 13-year-old virginal Warhammer 40,000 enthusiast, but I smell like meadows, cut grass and the Peak District after the rain on Spring morning.)
The signs that are being presented to me currently aren’t gentrified. The tealeaves aren’t lapsang souchong, they are Tesco No Frills. Years ago, I was in the grounds of Chatsworth House where a man with a straw boater and Edwardian get up was sitting next to a barrel organ holding onto a monkey by means of a leash. He was heard to shout into his mobile phone: “No! No! Tell them you’re the organ grinder’s wife!” This was the augury from a film scripted by Richard Curtis.
But now the good signs have all gone. The portents are all turning bad like they did when I worked in Cheetham Hill and the tar fingers of evil and psychic purulence forced their way into every cranny of my life. There was a cheerful, toothless down-and-out who pan handled for beer money outside Iceland each day, manically hopping from foot to foot, playing the mouth organ as I passed him on my way to work. He would always be gone by the time I left. One day I closed up class early and left just to see him being wrestled into a police van. A woman who worked in the supermarket was standing out on the pavement, crying. Apparently he’d twisted the head off a pigeon. Certainly there was blood and feathers all over his pitch. And what looked like a head. Although there was no body. Perhaps they let him take it in the riot van with him as a snack on the way to the cells.
I worked as a teacher of English as a second language to nationals who were attempting to improve their chances of getting work. My students were very nice, well-motivated people; first and second generation Pakistanis and Vietnamese and plenty of young Europeans. After Ramadan, everyone made food, regardless of their religion and we had a big meal together. The food was out of this world. My classroom was under a needle exchange programme and you had to watch where you trod in the gents. When it rained, the Special Brew crew would all come and shelter in my class room, taking up the back row of desks. It was a dark time though, and the portents were bad, building up like a hot fug in my head. When the IRA bomb went off – it was like the crack of thunder heard from a dangerously close proximity, the unbearable temperature of the city only dropping afterwards.
Here in London, it’s happening again. I came home from work recently to find moths all over one of my walls. I ran at them shouting waving cushions around, dispersing them lest I get up for water in the middle of the night and see that they were spelling out messages to me. Or forming a large number 23.
Someone keeps on painting over my favourite bit of graffiti on wall on the way to work which says: “Syphilis is back in London”. But the author keeps on coming back and writing it back in the same spot. Moths… syphilis… which of the other Biblical plagues is next? Dear God let it not be incurable boils or locusts.
(It’s hard to find good graffiti in London. There’s all that Banksy shit. The equivalent of an Athena poster of a baby sitting in a boot with spaghetti on its head and loads of crap tags but nothing that you’d ever want to read. In Hull, you can barely turn a corner without setting eyes on some gem or other: “Elton John is number one”, “Milk is murder”, “David Bowie is gay” and “Fannies are ace” being some that spring to mind.)
You have to pay attention to signs. They tell you what’s going to happen next.
I interviewed a guy last week who saw a load of ghosts when he was younger. I love hearing stuff like this from guys in bands. You’ll never catch a guy in an indie band saying, "Yeah, I was basically visited by dead people from the other side between the age of eight and 13." They’d sooner say, "Blah blah blah blah blah Big Star blah blah blah blah blah if anyone else likes it it’s a bonus blah blah blah blah blah blah blah real music and craftsmanship blah blah blah blah blah blah blah winkle pickers and a cravat." If it was up to me I’d force all indie guys to do interviews in the cross hairs of a telescopic sight and then shoot them through the fucking eye socket with a pressurised gas whaling harpoon the second they said anything boring.
So anyway this dude (his name is Mat, and he’s in an amazing psychedelic folk, black metal, prog group called Hexvessel – you should check them out; they’re like the absolute opposite of Chew Lips) told me he was basically haunted when he was younger. A dead woman who lived in the house before his family moved in, came into the room to speak to him every time his mother was wearing a specific dress. I think that fatherhood has brought out the really soft, understanding and sentimental side in me, so I asked him if he found that actually the ghost was just misunderstood, maybe the woman was simply lonely and confused and just wanted a friend. I asked him if the experience actually wasn’t that frightening once he got used to it.
Mat looked at me like I was a simpleton and said: “No… it was fucking terrifying. I was three and she was the ghost of a dead woman who came out of my wardrobe.”
I guess there’s something to be said for correct interpretation of signs and omens as well as simply spotting them to be honest. So maybe I can read London like a book but it’s a more of a case of it being like one of those ones that you don’t really understand like Finnegan’s Wake or The Naked Lunch.
Previously: Menk, by John Doran - Lord I Have a Broken Heart