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Menk, by John Doran

Let's Piss on the City That's Burning Down There

Two old alcoholics remember the day blackbirds started to fall out of the sky on fire.

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 40-year-old man who thinks Skrillex is an ecologically friendly washing-up liquid.

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 ELEVEN: LET’S PISS ON THE CITY THAT’S BURNING DOWN THERE


At the weekend I’m working in Birmingham so I go to visit Albert. He was my best friend at university but I’d been out of touch with him for a long time until last year. I remember meeting him at 3AM at some terrible house party in 1989. He was standing in a room full of people who had taken the knock and were lying down. He was listening to Hot Chocolate and doing something odd with his hands, roaring: “HA! HA! HA! I’M DOING THE HITCH HIKING DANCE!” He said I should come round to his flat the next day and he would cook tea for me. I visited with a litre bottle of sherry and he made us Birds Eye Potato Waffle sandwiches. “It is the ground black pepper that makes this dish,” he told me. He made me lie down after that with my eyes shut. I was worried he was going to do something mad to me but he just wanted to play me the soundtrack to The Good, The Bad And The Ugly at full volume. “It sounds better after a good meal with your eyes shut,” he told me.

We drank together every night and the majority of days for about four years and then whenever we met up after that. Bleached out memories of us waking up outdoors with blood on our hands; howling as we kicked my own front door in; a friend’s ribs being broken in a car park ‘game’; being dragged in headlocks out of pubs and clubs and so on suggest to me we weren’t always particularly nice to be around. I still have enormous affection for this point in my life, though. Albert lived above an off-licence and this is where we sourced most of our cut-price alcohol from. It served cheap red wine that retailed for one pound per bottle. The brand was Monsieur Bertier and the label featured a crudely drawn cartoon of a French man replete with beret, striped t-shirt and string of onions. The label on the back proclaimed it to be perfect for those who knew “little or nothing about wine” and also declared it ideal for those who liked drinking outdoors. By the time you’d put away enough of the bottle to see the large red crystals it contained, you’d already be well on the way to not caring.


I miss the intensity of the times. We didn’t have a physical relationship in the gay sense but we were peculiarly close nonetheless. I guess when you’re less than ten years into alcoholism it still engenders a sufficient amount of romance to stop you from realising what a bell-end you’re being, but the self-recognition is there from the start. I knew he was like me.

We both said we wanted to be writers. I said whoever got a novel published first would have to dedicate it to the other one to give them a spur on. The kind of stupid thing you say at that age. The trouble is I didn’t really have any conception of what being a writer meant. I think what I really meant was that I wanted to be someone who drank heavily; who didn’t subscribe to society’s conventions – especially the sensible and reasonable ones; who hung around with intense and troubled people prone to making grand statements and rash decisions; who lived in a freezing cold garret; who listened to depressing music and who was ill all of the time. And of course this all came true quite rapidly. People may not get exactly what they say they want out of life, but I do think that, barring accident, illness or massive misfortune, they often get what they’re actually thinking about.

When I was getting ready at the weekend to go and meet him I tried to think if there was a time when we met up and didn’t drink and after a while I remembered there had been one occasion. We both ended up working at an aerosol factory on the East Hull Industrial Estate. On the first day, Albert was put on a production line making Beverley Hills 90210 Body Spray (“You’ve watched the show, now try the all-over fragrance spray”) and I was put in a giant storage warehouse to clean the floors. After about three hours I heard a siren going off and thought that it must be lunch time. I went to put my broom in a cupboard and retrieve my sandwiches from a locker. I didn’t get as far as the pokey dining area. I looked out of a window and saw that across the car park there were men and women bottle-necked by the small pedestrian gate in the huge chain link fence. People were shouting and several had panicked and started scaling the fence. There was a sound like popcorn cracking and occasionally a small blackbird would fall out of the sky. On the other side of the fence some people would duck with their hands over their heads when this happened. “Why are there birds falling out of the sky? Is the world ending?” I thought. I wanted to run and join the other people but I had legs like Bambi on ice and had to sit down for a second and try and wait for the crippling adrenaline rush to pass.

Outside I started jogging toward the gate which was now clear but stopped to look backwards for a moment. There was a massive fire in the building next to the one I had been in. I could see the top of the giant sump, a kind of gasometer for storing enough liquid accelerant for millions of cans of aerosol. I stood and watched how the fire and the gas tower were in roughly the same spot. Every so often another bird would come blazing out of the sky and hit the ground with a dull clatter. They weren't birds, they were exploded aerosol cans. Giant cans of bug spray intended for the United Arab Emirates. Litre cans of extra spiky hair spray. Mr Muscle oven cleaner. Cheap, generic floor polish. Burst, blackened, empty.

I started running down the street and saw Albert sitting on a wall smoking a roll-up and grinning. “It looks like we’ve got the rest of the day off,” he said. I’d been at the safety briefing the day before that he had skipped and told him about the sump’s three-mile blast radius. We stood in the road and frantically flagged down a flat-bed truck. We gibbered happily in the back of the speeding vehicle, looking backwards at the rising plume of smoke as we headed to town. Sadly, neither of us were able to beg money from girlfriends or mates that night, so we sat in our separate rooms swearing and sweating with not a drop to drink. To add insult to injury, the factory reopened the next day despite one entire storage building being rendered unusable and the sump having a giant scorch mark up one side.

In 2011 I meet Albert in a café. He’s taken the pledge like me. It’s great to see him. Over the years he’s become an even better, sharper dresser as I’ve become scruffier. He may have suffered a catastrophic coastal erosion of the hair line but he still looks much better than me. The bastard. He seems serene and happy. I hope this is the case. He tells me that he’s written a couple of things. I wonder if he still wants to write a book. We talk about the fire at the factory. It was caused by some goon leaving a massive pallet of aerosols out baking in the sun next to a skip full of packaging. Albert doesn’t remember the cans falling out of the sky, however. His smile and glittering eyes suggest – politely – that I may have embellished the story in my mind over the years, like I would do with pub stories. I wonder if he’s still got the same drive he always had; I’d love to have a book dedicated to me.