Friday, 13 April 2007

Punching the Glass Teat.

Sorry about the delay since my last post. I’ve been spending my time standing in front of the mirror, practicing my Hard-as-a-howitzer gunfighter stare. Y’see, I’ve been reading Harlan Ellison’s ‘The Glass Teat’ again.

If you don’t know who Harlan Ellison is then that’s ok. It’s is not your fault. The reprinting of his multi-award winning work in sci-fi, comic books and criticism has been nothing short of a disgrace (especially in Britain). The sheer madness of taking the collected works of an author, hugely regarded and long out of print on these shores, and re-pressing them in three enormous hard-back books, retailing at over twenty quid each, in a way that will price the casual reader completely out of the runnings, doesn’t need stating. What is shameful is that this has meant that some of the greatest science fiction stories of all time have only been available to those willing to hunt high and low in the back rooms of those wet cardboard smelling second hand-porn shops that dot the greater Manchester area.

Make no mistake, Harlan is a giant of science-fiction. He was the anthologiser of ‘Dangerous Visions’, which is generally regarded as one of the finest SF anthologies of all time, and was instrumental in bringing the hot feel of the New Wave to the states. Writer of countless short stories, scripter for Star Trek, ex New York gang runner, the man who stood up to Frank Sinatra and lived to tell the tale, Harlan is huge: An angry sci-fi supernova. Outspoken, opinionated and fiercely, flamboyantly anti-establishment. That there are not more pictures of him in people’s wallets, ready to be looked at for inspiration at a moments notice, is a crying shame. But it’s those crying shames that this blog is all about. That right, dear hearts?

Let’s name-check us another bunch of mavericks: Savoy books. I’ll not go into detail now, ‘cos I’ll be writing something long and overflowing on them real soon, but these Manchester based sci-fi-rock-n-roll uber-fiends are big players in my personal mythology, and it was they, wondrous they, who published ‘The Glass Teat’, Harlan’s collection of walk-tall teevee crit.

Harlan Ellison began writing his regular TV column for the Los Angeles Free Press in late 1968. At the time the US was still catapulting piles of young soon-to-be bodies over the sea in its fruitless fight against unseeable enemies, while those of warrin’ age who remained were being painted red and better dead. Harlan, as an enthusiastic proponent of counter-cultural ideals, sided with everyone he saw under the police cosh. He’d already marched with Martin Luther King, and he was spitting mad at what he saw as a lack of lessons learned by those in the higher echelons. A Spiderman fan since he was a kid, the phrase “With great power comes great responsibility” must’ve been echoing round his dome a lot during the days of tear-gas.

Cos’a’dis, because of the tension and fear surrounding him and his need to express through brutal, throat punch prose, ‘The Glass Teat’, in its collected form, is less a book about the goggle-box, more a state of the nation address: a summing up, in minute detail, of where the heads were at. Our cultural histories are selective: we know, us 6ts spods, that in 1968 the Beatles released ‘The White Album’, that the dreams dreamt so hard during ’67 were showing cracks and being mirrored by the gradual disintegration of their four young figureheads. We know about the Prague spring, and the Paris riots and the tensions on US campuses, we know all this, because we are reminded of it time and time again. What we rarely, if ever, see, is how these confrontations were mirrored through the flickerings of the glass eye: the minutae of countless forgotten pilots and documentaries; the censorship and hounding of the Smothers Brothers; the banality of the soap operas and chat shows. You can judge an era best through its popular culture. If, in 40 years time, our offspring want to know what was going down in the early thousands, then give ‘em a copy of the Kooks album, some Eastenders DVDs, hundreds of hours worth of adverts and a selection of NME back issues. Then sit back and watch the wreckage. It won’t be pretty, but it’ll be pretty close to the truth.

As Harlan himself says, in the books intro:

“…Make no mistake. I am not really talking about TV here. I am talking about dissidence, repression, censorship, the brutality and stupidity of much of our culture, the threat of the Common Man, the dangers of being passive in a time when the individual is merely cannon fodder, the lying and cheating and killing our “patriots” do in the sweet name of the American way.”

Sociographical conundrums aside, what really pulls with Harlan is the prose. The motherfucker can WRITE. He writes like an aging bare-knuckle boxer throws k.o. blows, with a confidence learned through countless bust knuckles and broken jaws. Sure, some of the hipster speak has dated a bit (referring to women as ‘chicks’ certainly doesn’t go down quite so well now), but the power and anger of his delivery is unmatched. Whether he’s berating the Writers Guild of America (of whom he was a member) for turning in yet more soggy porridge, or steamrollering his country’s misguided belief in the myth of the Common Man, what strikes is that the dude cares. For him ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ is not simply a turgid, laugh-tracked abomination, to be ignored and scoffed at from afar, but an insult to his and his country’s intelligence: a sop to keep you clapping while the bones pile up.

Now, you probably think that at this point I’m going to make like my Jodorowsky piece, and bemoan the lack of kindred spirits at work today (and, incidentally, I had no idea that the great Jodorowsky revival was about to start when I wrote that stuff. See that bendy thing panting to keep up with me? That’s the curve, mate). Not so, for there is one chap, regularly working, who has a surprisingly similar modus operandi. As you may have worked out, the dude to whom I refer is Charlie Brooker.

Brooker has been doing his regular column in the Guardian Guide since 2000, and, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then he must feel like Henry VIII. You cannot open a magazine now without happening upon someone aping the unfortunately all-too imitable Brooker style. Thing is, writing like him is a bit like playing the sitar: a moment to learn, a lifetime to master. His prose is violent, scatological, hilarious and has proved very successful. The price we pay for this breakthrough is a parade of no-mark hacks constantly making references to blowing trombones out of their arses. Just like I did then.

In the introduction to his ‘Screen Burn’ book, Brooker sets his stall out pretty well.

“I picked an interesting time to fall into (TV criticism). The first series of ‘Big Brother’ was broadcast in the summer of 2000, marking the start of the reality TV boom, and, in a roundabout way, the beginning of an era during which TV finally jettisoned any pretence at being an important, socially beneficial medium and simply concentrated on sticking its bum in our face and giggling.”

What Brooker and Ellison have in common is anger. A sheer abhorrence of the sort of filth they are forced to sit through in order to fill in their reports from the cultural slag heap. With Brooker this has generally been for its own sake. He is furious at the inexplicable popularity of Vernon Kaye and Paul Ross because they are a waste of his time. He does not share Ellison’s commitment to utopian politics or his overtly politicised, as-above-so-below world view. His fury is impotent, internalised and bloody funny. He’s not a gunslinger, he’s Ren beating up Stimpy.

Or so I thought. This is Charlie Brooker on our soon-to-be-departed Prime Minister’s recent appearance in a Catherine Tate sketch for Comic Relief.

“When he unexpectedly delivered the “Am I bovvered?” catchphrase, his timing was immaculate – for a second, I guffawed so loudly I almost forgot about the teetering stacks of skulls, the foaming geysers of blood, the phosphor burns, the pictures of young children with their arms blown off, and the constant metronomic background tick-tock of lie upon lie upon lie upon lie upon lie.”

That piece, with its none-more-Ellison contrast of the horrors of Iraq and a popular comedy catchphrase, appeared in the Guide just two weeks ago. It still stands up as one of the most powerful passages I’ve read so far this century, and a brilliant encapsulation of the madness that breathes down our neck every time we turn on the telly.

What I’m trying to say, I suppose, in my usual drunk-by-teatime sort of way, is that we need critics who are prepared to pull back from the simple vagaries of their preferred medium and look around them. People who can see the connections between destructive foreign policies and endless repeats of ‘Friends’, dudes (which is a non-sexually denominational word in my book) who look to their TVs, radios and computer screens in order to skry out something of meaning about the movements of a planet that seems increasingly hell-bent on sodmising itself into kingdom come. You shouldn’t rely on such people to tell you your gospels, but you should be able to use their words as barometers, to check the public temperature and give us some clues as to where we’ve been, where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.

To come on all Harlan Ellison for a moment: we need our critics hip to the fact that low-art and mass-murder are inseperable.