menk-by-john-doran

Going Underground

By John Doran

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 dreams of owning a deckchair.

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 48: GOING UNDERGROUND

My 19-month-old son is under the weather at the moment and getting a bit agitated in the evening when it’s time for him to go to sleep. The only way I can get him to lie down in his cot is to give him one of my hands to hold onto so he can put it under his head like a pillow, while stroking his back with the other. This makes me feel good as it’s obvious he wants me there even when he’s asleep, even if it’s not too good for my back.

He’s coughing and making strange little exclamations so I think I’ll tell him a story. Whisper it until he drifts off. I only know one kids’ story and that involves two devils who build a mirror so evil that it makes anything reflected in it look unbearably ugly. They fly up to heaven and trick God into looking into it. But the boss man’s beauty is so overwhelming it causes the mirror to smash into a million pieces and rain down to Earth. In a forest below an orphan girl is looking skywards to make a wish on a star, when one of the shards of mirror falls into her eye plunging her into a world of visual carnage…

It’s fucking unreal what used to pass for children’s entertainment a couple of centuries ago. I decide to tell him about the time I went to Slovenia with the metal band Bullet For My Valentine instead.

The job was for my long-term employers, Metal Hammer, and it was to cover the filming of a video shoot in the 12-mile-long Postojna Karst cave system in Notranjska. If I remember correctly, it’s thought to be the second largest cave system in the world; and is definitely the most extensive one that’s accessible by members of the public. I love going to Eastern European countries more than I like going anywhere and I’m lucky that my work has taken me there on several occasions.

The first couple of days were nightmarish, though. I hadn’t researched Slovenia’s extremely illiberal alcohol legislation and ended up the victim of an unintentional and cruel detox. The giant hotel we were staying in – obviously grand in 1972 – was dry, and the only place you could buy drink from locally was a government-owned liquor store that we simply couldn’t find. And even if we had found it, apparently it only opened a few days a week and even then it shut up shop at 3PM. But this meant I was completely sober by the day of the shoot. Probably for the first time in a few years. I celebrated with a meal. After a few hours I managed to find somewhere that served a vegetarian pizza which was topped with cabbage, tomatoes, boiled potatoes, carrots and cheddar cheese.

Like a lot of things in Slovenia, the entrance to the cave was naturally ostentatious and surreal, looking as if it had been created for a very expensive Hollywood action movie. In bold, large lettering, the phrase "Immensum Ad Antrum Additus!" had been chiselled into the rock above the maw. "Enter Traveller Into This Immensity!"

I start croaking at my son: “The Slovenian Minister For Caves met us! He was a funny fellow and obviously as drunk as a lord but he wouldn’t share his bottle of whisky with Daddy. The caves are so big that to get where we were going we had to take an underground train. The train looked like Thomas The Tank Engine! The minister looked at the way we were dressed and said: ‘You British idiots! You come to Slovenia to go five miles underground where it is minus 12, and you wear Iron Maiden T-shirts…’

"He insisted on driving the train standing up and singing in Slovenian. He drove it far too fast and screamed, ‘Duck!’ when we were about to go under a low roof. And at one point he shouted: ‘Many people have had their heads bashed here! HA HA HA!’ We passed through a Cathedral-like domed chamber that had an antique chandelier hanging from the natural ceiling by a very long chain. Orchestras play concerts in there, to thousands of people.”

Bullet For My Valentine were there to shoot a video in a large room full of stalactites and stalagmites. It’s a great time to travel with a band when they’re just starting to go abroad. Not because of any bullshit rock and roll mythology but because the enthusiasm and excitement can be overwhelming and infectious. Two of the band had dads who were coal miners back in Wales, they owned and ran an independent co-operative pit. They said their dads were really made up at the opportunities that being in the band was giving them. Very nice lads. I played a lame trick on Moose the drummer. I said that every time he hit his snare, the giant 30ft long stalactite above his head was wobbling slightly. If you watch the video now you can just about make him out glancing nervously upwards while he’s drumming.

But while they were going through the time-consuming process of constructing a stage, assembling the drum kit and putting cameras on dolly rails, one of the minister’s men offered to take me and the press officer Matt on a two-hour walking tour.

My son has stopped gabbling, but he still has tight hold of my hand: “We walked though passage after passage, and after a while our eyes started playing tricks on us. When you see nothing but stalactites and stalagmites for half an hour, they start to look fantastical as your depth perception falters. There were rocks that looked like angels, and stalactites that looked like totem poles with faces and even some translucent natural screens that looked like rashers of bacon hanging from the ceiling. And then we came across a pool where the baby dragons were.”

The caves are home to a completely local breed of salamander called Proteus Anguinus, or the Human Fish. Their name comes from their soft, baby-like skin, which is translucent but looks pink because of the visible blood circulation. Not only are they completely blind but their faces are entirely smooth, with their eyes – useless and atavistic – completely bred out of existence. According to the 17th century chronicler Valvasor, Slovenian people hundreds of years earlier had always been too afraid to explore these caves because they literally believed the salamanders were baby dragons, whose mother was just round the corner, no doubt, and ready to create merry havoc with the human nest invaders.

I lower my voice: “These creatures were so beautiful. About six inches long, a bit more pink than you and swimming round gracefully. It was so strange. They all looked freshly born, but some of them could have been over a century old. They couldn’t see us but they knew we were there. We walked on as to not disturb them. When we got to the deepest part we could reach, where the caverns’ lighting system stopped, our guide told us to make ourselves comfortable and said, ‘I’m going to turn off the lights.’ And the blackness was total, but it wasn’t horrible. It was comforting, like floating in space.”

In the dark, the ten minutes stretched out to an eternity. The comforting blackness seeped into my skull switching off internal thought loops one by one. The background static and chatter of my brain subsided to absolutely nothing. I felt very happy. I know the experience had a profound effect on Matt as well. He’s been back on his own to visit again, and I’d love to go back there given the opportunity.

My son’s hands are unbelievably smooth. Silk is too coarse a comparison. I hope my hands don’t feel too strange to him. I was fascinated with my dad’s hands when I was very young, they were hard and rough like breeze blocks, calloused, with raised ridges of scar tissue from numerous minor factory injuries, and his hectic splinter self-removal procedure which he took grim enjoyment in. On top of this they were constantly stained brown with varnish and ochre with pipe tobacco. It was like holding the hand of a giant, brutally unfinished statue. He turned 78 this week. His hands are softer now but still nowhere near as delicate as my pampered media mits.

I wonder if I’ll be there when it happens. I really hope I am. Sitting next to the bed. Holding his hand on top of starched white sheets. If I could talk him out… If I could just do this one thing for him. Keep him company. Take his mind off it. I wouldn’t say anything important. I don’t know if there’s anything important to say. Maybe I could tell him about my trip to Slovenia. Not about Bullet For My Valentine and the lack of alcohol but the nearby Predjama Castle, which literally is built halfway up a cliff face. The castle proved an impenetrable fortress for local robber-baron and Robin Hood-type Erazem Lueger in the 15th century, which was good because it was where he was surrounded for months by Austrian troops. They couldn’t get into the castle and neither could they find the secret tunnel that led out down through the cliffs and into the caves. Erazem came and went freely despite the army blockade. He would stand on his balcony and shower the troops below with fresh cherries every day to show his disdain for them. Unfortunately the bastards eventually got him. They fired a cannonball at the castle wall and despite the colossal odds against it, hit him as he was sat on the toilet. I saw the castle at sundown and thousands of bats flew out of the windows, apparently a nightly occurrence.

The entire area was littered with the uncanny. We saw a functional jousting strip and a centuries-old piece of wooden siege machinery, just rotting in a field. I will tell him about the underground train and the stalactites and tell him about how peaceful it is there. And then someone will eventually say, "It’s done. He’s gone."

My son’s hand finally loosens on mine and his breathing becomes more shallow and smooth. I wait for five minutes to check he’s asleep before tip-toeing out of the room.

It’s up to us to shape stories out of the chaos. I have to impose a narrative, to make some kind of sense out of it. We have to end up in the deep perfection of the low dark. Still and at peace.

On the plane on the way home to London after the job, I got really angry with an idiot from the band’s record label. He’d picked up one of the salamanders and put it in his pocket. It was dead before we even got to the airport but I guess he wanted it as some kind of souvenir. To get it on the plane he forced it through the slightly too small aperture of a can of Coke he was carrying. And that’s where it was left, snapped and split, inside crushed metal packaging, discarded by someone who was already bored with it, left on the floor of an Easy Jet Airbus 319 en route to Stanstead.

Photo by Maria Jefferis for Shot2bits.net

Previously: Menk, by John Doran - This Isn't Some Kind of Metaphor, Goddamn, This Is Real!

You can read all the previous editions of John's Menk column here.

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