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 who remembers when you’d meet someone literally every day who would say something like: “That Hitler. He had some good ideas. Just went about it the wrong way.”
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 43: WE CAN FIND NEW WAYS OF LIVING
I’ve just got in from a festival held in a small college town in the Netherlands called Tilburg. Incubate is about as good as it gets when it comes to showcasing contemporary left-field art and extreme music. There’s only really Supersonic in Birmingham that’s comparable.
I have no utopian leanings whatsoever and I mistrust anyone who thinks human affairs are only one philosophy, religion or political creed away from a Golden Period of enlightenment where we all stand round wearing white robes, holding scrolls, saying wry things and listening to whale music. But I do think a lot of people could take a leaf out of the Tilburg book. It’s a new town that works. It’s always clean. Handsome men and hot women cycle everywhere. There’s art or something resembling art in every window you pass. Art is also on every other billboard and in most public spaces. Tilburg is like a cross between Harlow and Oxford, yet it still manages to host not only Incubate, but other big parties like Roadburn, Stranger Than Paranoia and Festival Mundial. And that’s before I mention the largest and longest-running gay-friendly funfair in all of the Benelux Regions.
But it’s taken me a while to be able to visit the lowlands without being overtaken by waves of self-loathing and guilt-ridden panic. The last foreign trip I took before I gave up drinking was to another small collegiate town in the same area of Europe called Leuven, in the Flemish Brabant province of Belgium.
Just after starting The Quietus with my friend and business partner Luke Turner, we celebrated by going to watch Wire in an art gallery in the small Belgian town.
It was around this time that I was becoming obsessed with the work of Jonathan Meades, and the trip became a chance to put one of his theories to the test. Meades is a copper-bottomed hero, a TV documentary maker who specialises in programmes about place or architecture. I’m fairly unashamed to say that it sometimes takes a couple of goes at one of his docs to really get to grips with what he's going on about, such is the density of ideas they contain.
You don’t see him on the telly so much any more, seeing as even the Beeb insists on spoon feeding us like we’re fucking morons. Even when it comes to stuff like the arts and science, coverage has to be designed to appeal to a lowest common denominator viewer. I’ve given up watching TV docs since they stopped being introduced by people like Robert Hughes (RIP) and Meades. It’s hard to learn about string theory from a man who looks like he could have been in Ride or The Inspiral Carpets. I can’t take these pretty guys whose modus operandi is to simply repeat the same simplistic idea over and over like a dinner lady working in a canteen for Alzheimer’s sufferers. And why are they always stood on top of a cliff, being filmed from a helicopter apropos of nothing? They are the sort of scientists who don’t mind writing a nonsensical, made up algebraic equation on a chalkboard to signify that they're thinking about something deep and significant. The fucking bellends.
As we got on the Eurostar at the newly opened St Pancras terminal, after rubbing Sir John Betjeman’s big brass belly for good luck, we asked ourselves: Was there a difference in personality that existed between the Europe of wine and olive oil (South) and the Europe of beer and herring (North)? And did the North start where we were headed?
It was Meades’ theory that there was a definable line that divided North and South Europe. This line was the only true European border, marked at the point where soil and climate no longer supported wine-producing grapes. Instead, human ingenuity and desperation had turned to beer and grain-distilled spirits, such as gin. Step across this line and you are out of the human comfort zone. Step across this line and you are in the North.
Leuven, a town that looked like a miniature village expanded to human scale, existed on this line. The art gallery we were visiting represented an imaginary Mason-Dixon Line between the Flemish-speaking Flanders, above, and the French-speaking Wallonia, below. This place merely represented the rift, however, as there was nothing physical to look at – no passport control, no Hadrian’s Wall, no barbed wire fence. The flatter the terrain, the more interesting the substrata.
In Leuven’s town square, the magnificent St Pieterskerk was the only evidence that the temporal realm had been affected by this invisible division. An entire gigantic tree had been carved into a towering pulpit showing the unlucky St Norbert being dismounted dramatically by a lightning bolt. A weeping but eyeless wooden Christ loomed in the shadows, arms outstretched. A harrowing Dieric Bouts triptych showed St Erasmus, praying serenely as his innards – tied securely to a winch – were wound out of his pale, skinny frame by two sneering brutes.
Belgian and Dutch art represents all that is good about the painting of the Northern climes – intensity, complexity of form and idea, detail and ultra-reality, as opposed to the warmth and lack of clarity of Southern art. The fine brush strokes of Bosch, Magritte, Van Eyck and Bouts show that Northern art stands opposed to Southern art. It’s like the difference between the covers to Hell Awaits, Reign In Blood, South Of Heaven and Seasons In The Abyss on the one hand, and World Painted Blood on the other.
We got into town at midday; we were done with sight-seeing and sat in the first of many bars by 2PM and, to be honest, this was when our own innate Northerness came into play. To be Northern is to have your Northerness amplified by each step taken in a Southerly direction. By 3PM we were dishevelled. By 4PM we were disreputable. By 5PM we were almost there but not quite properly drunk. Dostoyevsky defined the condition of being properly drunk in Crime And Punishment as the point at which the drinker starts yelling abusively and, by 5.30PM, we had arrived.
From 6PM, everything is a horrific, psychedelic blur – brought on, no doubt, by our attempts to drink every alcoholic drink we encountered that had a religious connection. After trying one bottle of everything brewed by monks, we sluiced down syrupy Belgian beers called Judas, Satan and St Peter.
I remember standing at the bar, waving my arms about maniacally, shouting: “Of course Poperings Hommelbier was in the fucking Bible. The cunt was patron saint of hats. Give me two of them, two more bottles of Barabbas, two large shots of Sodom, a yard of Leviticus and a packet of crisps. And one for yourself if you care to join us for a wee dram of Papal Infallibility.”
Later in the art gallery, we milled round waiting for the gig to start. One of the exhibitions was a giant pink chair. It never occurred to me to not sit on the massive piece of artwork, it simply took me several attempts to get on it because it was about 12-foot tall. My joy at sitting on a chair that made me look about 16 months old was short lived when two security guards came into the room and asked me to get off in a tone of voice reserved for English idiots.
Some other stuff happened. Stuff that I don’t want to dwell on too much. There was nearly a fight. Over Slayer. A brass statue of great emotional and spiritual resonance to local people was disrespected in a non-permanent but still shocking manner. And the next morning. Oh, lord, the next morning. There’s a good reason why Trappist monks never talk, shield their eyes from the sunlight and only serve their beer in thimbles. I will never be able to unforget the look of unhappiness and bewilderment in the doe eyes of the beautiful, young Algerian boy who held his dad’s hand and watched as Turner vomited into the gutter and I hung off a railing, shouting: “Fuck off!” at the sky while crying.
Not long after, I gave up drinking for good. By that time, I was Raskolnikov-proof drunk at all hours and under the influence of much psychic diversity. After the penultimate night’s thirstiness, I gave my laptop away to a tramp and slept under the car.
Our website, The Quietus, became independent at exactly the same time as my last – so far successful – attempt to quit, and slowly building this thing into something we could be proud of helped me. Not only to stay sober, but to help me start rebuilding some of my self-respect and sanity. (A long overdue project.) Working with Luke has helped me – if not to become a nicer human being, then certainly to become a less horrible one. But then he is one of my best friends and I think that has been the key factor in making it work. And maybe sometimes I do have things to contribute now I’m no longer the sort of person who turns up in a country and pisses on a church before falling asleep under a bush.
When I hear people say things like "you should never mix business with pleasure" or "you should never go into business with your friends", I immediately presume they simply associate with bad people or have no true friends. The Quietus has been a product not just of me working with Luke, but with my oldest and closest friend Stu Green, who has taken many pictures for the site, and my good friend John Tatlock, who has written many incisive pieces for us. And that’s before I get to Simon Price, who was a great influence on me, not just in wanting to run my own publication, but, more importantly, on taking my role as a music writer seriously in the first place. And on and on the list goes. They’re all my friends. They’re all Northerners. Even the ones from Kent.
Previously: Menk, by John Doran - Orange? Yeah! That's Right!
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