An English Trip: An Extract From Jolly Lad & Tour With Arabrot
"This time next year everything will be alright.”
, April 1st, 2015 10:41
John Doran is going on tour by mistake. He hopes this extract from his new book Jolly Lad will explain why. Author photographs courtesy of Al Overdrive & Jonny Mugwump
I'm going on tour for the first time ever next month. I'm 43 years old.
When I came up with the idea for An English Trip I wasn't very well. I was not, let's say, in my best state of mind. I'd just had a nervous breakdown and my doctor had advised that I spend some time as a voluntary inmate in a psychiatric facility. Normally when people have lengthy manic episodes terminated by a crash they are given medicine. I was given an Arts Council grant, a road map of England, a friendly Norwegian noise rock savant with his own van, a Stonehenge-looking assemblage of amplifiers, a BOSS Space Echo pedal, some print outs of poetry about black holes and a copy of JB Priestly's English Journey. I talk a good game when I'm out of my fucking mind you see.
For the entire month of May I'm undertaking a 31 date reading tour of England called An English Trip. I'm going with my good pal Kjetil Nernes - the brains & brawn behind Årabrot - who is creating music for me to read over while we do shows in high security prisons, schools, libraries, record shops, bars, churches, village halls, book stores, cinemas, theatres and gig venues.
I have my new book Jolly Lad to read out from as well as some other pieces about black holes, ghosts, ritual punishment and regional bus timetables.
This ill advised, poorly thought out, risible adventure is, as you have almost certainly realised in quicker time than I did, part of a burgeoning mid-life crisis (triggered by a common or garden case of bi-polar disorder).
However, despite how anxious I've become about it now that I'm less mad and I've had some time to think it over, I've got to say, it's been quite exciting to plan. I bought a large fold-out road map of the UK from a petrol station to lay out on my living room floor. And as I started placing small star stickers (stolen from one of my son’s Thomas The Tank Engine magazines) over various towns and cities, I tried to pin down where this idea had originated as I marked Salford, Eastbourne, Plymouth, Manchester, Bristol, Stockton-on-Tees, Durham, Sunderland, Sheffield, Taunton, Liverpool, Rochester, Cambridge, Leeds, Bradford, Birmingham, Totnes, Nottingham, Northampton, Worcester, Brighton and other destinations.
Each of the small, colourful circles of paper had been placed over the site of a gig location. Every marker stood for an opportunity I was taking to collaborate with various artists, poets, musicians, writers and filmmakers along the route.
To be fair, Kjetil himself may have inspired some of this lunacy. He asked me to write the sleeve notes to his Murder As Art EP in 2013 - and as a homage to the excellent Steve Albini penned vignettes you'd get on the inner sleeves to albums like Atomizer and Songs About Fucking - I wrote him a short story about a young man tattooing himself called 'Gun Lore'. Then, last year, when Kjetil became seriously ill with cancer, he spent some of the time he was in treatment, undergoing a traumatic course of experimental radiotherapy, setting a reading of the short story to music with the help of his girlfriend Karin Park. He had barely been out of surgery for five days before he began suggesting we perform the piece live...
So we decided to go on tour and no matter where we went – no matter how large or small the venue, whether it was in someone’s front room or in a large concert hall, whether in a bookshop or in a church, whether in a library or a category A prison, he would provide musical accompaniment to my readings and double up as my driver and tour manager.
When people asked incredulously why I was doing the tour, I stammered that it was important for me as a music writer to have a clearer understanding of the lot of an independent musician in 2015. I wanted to know how difficult it was to book gigs where I didn't live, to find the money, to plan the route, to come up with merch to sell on the way, to find suitable support acts. (Full disclosure: I do have some money from Arts Council England - cash that I'm very grateful for - but this only covers about a quarter of the potential cost of the tour.)
I told my preternaturally cosmic and relaxed publisher Mark Pilkington of Strange Attractor that I was undertaking the 31-date jaunt in order to generate material for my next book – a snapshot of my country in 2015 based loosely on the JB Priestly book English Journey. I was going to call the tour and the new book – An English Trip as an homage of sorts to the CND founder.
The influence of the psychedelic experimental band based in Salford, GNOD, loomed monolithically over proceedings as well. I'd gone to watch them play live in a state of supreme psychedelic confusion one afternoon years ago in Birmingham. While watching them, I saw a swirling black hole open up in the fabric of reality behind them while they blazed through a majestic version of the song 'Genocider'. Afterwards I met Paddy Shine from the group for the first time and told him in a state of no little confusion that I'd like to join his group and read out some poetry about the worship of black holes. Instead of laughing at me - like the vast majority of people would have done - he isntead warmly invited me to come to Salford and do it.
Eventually I did. And the results - 'Lacerated Sky' - can be heard on the CD that comes with the hardback of Jolly Lad. And I'm really proud to be able to say that the final night of the tour will culminate in a big show in Salford featuring the mighty GNOD as well as Locean and Krautrock Karaoke...
But while all of these reasons were true to a certain degree they didn’t represent the fundamental need for me to go on tour.
Back in 2006 I'd only just started to realise that I'd painted myself into a corner with drink and drugs, ending up with several addictions that were killing me, and decided to go away for the weekend in my pal Jonny Mugwump's old German campervan to really think about things.
And when I was sat in Jonny's van one night, in the middle of a gale force winds, I came up with the idea of starting a secular pilgrimage round the coast of England. Now that I think about it, this is where the idea for An English Trip came from. This incident makes up a chapter in my book Jolly Lad and the full excerpt is published below, if you'll indulge me...
Dead Flowers New Romney (2006)
When I arrived in Rye Harbour at midday Jonny Mugwump was asleep on the grass outside of his ancient VW camper van. It was the hottest day of the year so far and he had roasted the colour of a sexually active mandrill’s arse with pillar box red highlights along the crest of his nose.
“Jonny! Wake up!” I shouted. “You’ve fallen asleep in the sun.”
He opened his lizard eye, with its stripe-like pupil, and croaked: “Not again.”
He was taking an esoteric holiday on the coast and had kindly asked me to tag along. I needed some time out of London. My doctor had finally convinced me that my lifestyle as a music journalist had caught up with me. She wanted me to consider the idea that I was an alcoholic with a drug problem and I needed some time to weigh things up. And the idea of going away in a van with a load of booze and drugs in order to consider giving up booze and drugs didn’t seem that incongruous at the time.
As we rattled along in the vintage van – it was of the age where it had a fitted carpet cut to accommodate the gear shift – Jonny played me some music by The Caretaker. It was a CD-r only project by Leyland James Kirby who sampled old big band records and processed them through a lot of echo, reverb and other effects creating a haunting, misty sound. It made for a weirdly appropriate soundtrack to driving through the Romney Marshes.
As we approached Dungeness we trundled past miles of chain link fence separating the road from a barely extant airstrip, gutted and levelled pre-fab buildings and partially abandoned army land. There was little to break the uniformity of the flat land bar advancing columns of thousands of pylons carrying electricity from the nuclear power station on the horizon.
Up ahead we spotted a static caravan park with about 20 trailers in it; in the middle of them stood a huge pylon. Someone had placed plant pots round the base of one of its giant legs in an attempt to prettify it; to give the place a more homely vibe. Nearby, there was a white plastic recliner but with no one sitting on it. We slowed down to a crawl to look at the park.
On the gate next to the park entrance there were bundles of long since dead flowers attached to the fence. Jonny grimaced and put his foot down.
When we got to Dungeness we parked up by a shack which had obviously been made entirely from material scavenged from the beach including planks of wood, plastic sheeting, twine and netting. On the roof of the shack was a bucket seat from a sports car but it wasn’t facing out to sea. It was pointed at the power station.
We stopped and took each other’s photograph outside Prospect Cottage.
A man dressed in a grubby Santa Claus costume chugged past on a 50cc scooter decked out in tinsel. He had a ghetto blaster strapped to his ride and was playing the Bing and Bowie version of ‘Little Drummer Boy’. We waved at him and he waved glumly back. We stopped and watched as he disappeared off toward New Romney in the blazing May sunshine.
We walked along the slowly curving road until we hit the beach and when we got there, it was something like perfection. I felt, temporarily, like a brand new person. The dull ache in my liver, brain and kidneys and the sharp pain in my pancreas subsided for a while.
There was nowhere else quite like this cuspate foreland of red, ochre and liver-coloured pebbles; a perfect vision of flint shingle, pure bar from scratches of aged driftwood and scraps of fish netting. It was a little nipple of virgin cherty beach on a newly terra-formed planet, awaiting its first ever visitors. A spirit-level flat stony stretch whose uniformity was only broken by nuclear power stations, lighthouses, acoustic mirrors, monochromatic fog horn stacks, weather beaten fishing vessels, expensive looking brushed metal airstream caravans, rusting tin shacks and extremely well-designed wood framed huts built by slumming architects.
We walked down a pathway of slatted, sun-parched decking and, where it terminated, stood on a pebble dune by a rusted wincher, looking out to sea at distant cargo ships.
“What will I do if I give up drinking?” I thought to myself. And the first answer that came into my head was, “Start a secular pilgrimage.”
Later on in the day, the wind started picking up and giant black clouds huddled on the horizon like muggers so we drove back to Hastings and parked on the promenade next to the sea wall.
Inside the van we made short work of the several bottles of red wine I’d brought with me. And then we started on Jonny’s box of Blue Nun and his low grade ecstasy. He eventually retired by tipping the driver’s seat as far back as it would go and pulling his coat over his head. He fell asleep almost immediately leaving me to sit on the inside wheel arch of a van which was now rocking in gale force winds, formulating my plan.
Every time I tried to give up drink and drugs I got consumed by one of these slightly eschatological plans. Last time it was militant beekeeping in Hackney.
It always felt easier to arrive at significant life-changing choices when the weather was up. I felt like the van was rocking me into action. How would I start the UK’s first secular pilgrimage? When should I start it? Why not right now? What would happen if I just said, ‘Fuck it’, got up, left the van and started walking along the coast? Literally climbed down onto the pitch black beach, turned left and started walking.
I wondered how far I could cover in two or three weeks before running out of money. Would the people I loved come and find me and ask me what I was doing? Would they meet me a few days up the coast and bring me packed lunches and a change of clothes when I refused to come home? What would happen by the time I got up to Yorkshire, when I crossed the Humber Bridge? Would a local newspaper reporter come and meet me and ask me what I was doing? If she did, I would explain that I was inventing a new concept in leisure activity. I would explain that I believed that people should stop booking foreign city breaks and instead try walking up the coast for as far as they could go. To maybe do the entire circuit.
Would old mates and people I didn’t know read about me in the Hull Daily Mail and come and join me on the walk? As we approached Scotland, would we be met at the border by a team of pipers and a kindly lady with shortbread biscuits? As the crow flies, it is about 2,500 miles round the coast of Britain. But I am not a crow and I do not fly. Even if I covered 50 miles a day, it would take a very long time to get all the way round Scotland’s coast and back into England. By the time we got down to Merseyside and a Granada TV crew came to meet us, there would be more of a story to tell. Why was this small group of people walking round the coast of Britain, picking up new converts on a daily basis?
By now opinion writers for national newspapers would be penning columns about it. Some in favour. Some against. What does the walk around the coast of Great Britain say about us in 2006?
By the banks of the Mersey my Mum and Dad would come and meet us. My Mum would give me a £20 note folded up as small as possible pressed into my palm: “It’s for food, not drink John.” And my Dad would say that I was wearing the wrong kind of footwear for the trip: “You should have worn a pair of light fell walking boots with ankle support. It would have been easier that way. And where’s your high vis jacket? And have you got any spare batteries for your torch? Wait a second – where is your torch? Take these spare batteries for your torch. And take this torch. And here, take some sachets of Rise And Shine dehydrated orange juice. Just add water for an orange juice-like drink.”
It would start to become clear to everyone what we were doing as we approached Dungeness from the other direction, maybe about three months later. They would start to understand my big idea as they saw thousands of us approaching in a long string formation spread out over several miles. And then as I approached the nuclear power station people would cheer and clap. And then they would stop and stare open-mouthed as I kept on walking. Yes! That’s right! I would keep on going for another lap! And this time I would start writing a guidebook on where to stay, what sights to look out for, where to bivvy down for the night. The path would become world famous. Students would spend their gap years walking it. Enterprising hoteliers would open up bunkhouses along the routes. The long-suffering UK seaside tourist trade would experience a rejuvenation in fortune not seen since the 1950s.
I needed to empty my bladder, so I opened the door of the van which snapped out of my hand with a bang. Jonny whimpered under his coat. I walked gingerly along the side of the vehicle and grabbed hold of the promenade railing with one hand and reached for my fly and unzipped myself with the other but the immensity of nature caused me performance anxiety. In front of me the onyx black night and onyx black shore met in a central void and the wind felt strong enough to carry me off into the nothingness.
The second time around would be magical. Triumphant. The black shale beaches of Ravenscar littered with golden trilobites and ammonites infilled with iron pyrites. The garish pennants of Eilean Donan fluttering in the breeze. Pipers at the gates of Lindisfarne Priory playing us a fanfare faintly across Foulwork Burn. The mournful ghosts of cockle pickers would be my companions and guides across Morecambe Bay. The lone and level sands of Rhyll, which on a good day stretch all the way to America and back.
I felt it with every fibre of my being: “I could just leave now. Just turn left and start walking. I could take control of my life. This time next year everything will be alright.” But a massive gust of wind like a freewheeling Range Rover hoofed me over the railings and upside down onto the pebbles below. The shock opened my bladder with a vengeance. It was a good ten seconds before I managed to stop pissing all over myself. I ran around shouting and screaming, punching the wall and booting pebbles up into the air, piss in my hair and all up my duffle coat. When I got back to the camper van, Jonny woke up, looked at me and said: “Have you just…” But I told him to stop talking and to pass me a mug of Blue Nun.
For the time being at least, I did not have what it took to set off on my seaside walk and it would be another three years before I gave up drinking.
AN ENGLISH TRIP - ARABROT & JOHN DORAN LIVE
Fri 1: The Coach House, BRIGHTON - featuring Verity Spott and Kemper Norton £4 on the door.
Sat 2: Star & Garter, MANCHESTER - featuring Ten Mouth Electron, ILL & 2KoiKarp. Full line up TBA £5 door/adv. TICKETS AVAILABLE HERE.
Mon 4: The Vinyl Frontier, EASTBOURNE - full bill TBA FREE ENTRY
Tue 5: The Book Hive, NORWICH - full bill TBA FREE ENTRY
Wed 6: Pop Recs Ltd. SUNDERLAND - with King Ink FREE ENTRY
Thu 7: Sound It Out Records, STOCKTON ON TEES - with Rick Holland FREE ENTRY
Mon 11: NN Cafe, NORTHAMPTON - with Roger Robinson, Falling From Cloud 9 & Alistair Fruish. £3 on the door.
Tue 12: Broadway Cinema, NOTTINGHAM - with Nik Void & The Quietus At Leisure Films. £5 adv/door.
Wed 13: Drift Records, TOTNES - with The Undertakers ENTRY BY DONATION
Fri 15: The Adelphi, HULL - with Andy Kirkpatrick & The Patron Saints
Sat 16: Black Cat Records, TAUNTON - with Henry Blacker - FREE ENTRY
Sun 17 DAYTIME: Rise Records, BRISTOL - full bill TBA FREE ENTRY
Wed 20: The Exchange, LEICESTER - with Lone Taxidermist. £5 adv/door.
Sat 23: The Old Police House, GATESHEAD - featuring Chrononautz
Thu May 28: IPSWICH details TBA
Fri 29: Underground, PLYMOUTH - with Sly And The Family Drone, Knifed Out Of Existence, Steve Strong & Richard Thomas. Full line up TBA
Sat 30: South Records, SOUTHEND - with Martin Newell FREE ENTRY