Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby


The Aesthetics of Imperfection

Faux-pretentious, moi?

The above is actually the title of an essay that I have been asked to write for an upcoming Festival on the subject of improvisation, which will be held in Newcastle in the autumn. The commissioner for this piece is Andy Hamilton, the writer best known, to myself at least, as a long-term contributor to Wire magazine, and he has given me a very wide remit with regards to this topic. Thankfully. It’s enabled me to cast my net wide, so I am going to use it as a springboard for a blog.

The notion of ‘perfection’ implies that something is hard to improve on. I have just stopped reading a book that is as far from perfection as I can imagine, but I want to have something to show for my expenditure of seventeen quid or thereabouts. The title of this book should have told me something, but I blithely ignored any reservations that I may have had - it is as follows:

‘‘A Hero for High Times: A Young Reader’s Guide to the Beats, Hippies, Heads, Freaks, Punks, Ravers, New Age Fellow Travellers, Dog-on-a Rope Brew Crew, Crusties of the British Isles’‘.

It’s written by a guy called Ian Marchant, and was given a thumbs-up by Iain Sinclair in The Sunday Times, and is clearly aimed at the younger person, as it says and I dread to think what this notional young person will think of my generation after reading it . It certainly looked promising, as it purports to cover the counter-culture, if I am allowed to call it thus, much of which I have lived through and continue to find fascinating. In point of fact, the subject has been analysed on multiple occasions, and George McKay’s Senseless Acts of Beauty nailed it particularly well as far back as 1996, just a couple of years down the line from Marchant’s work, which is essentially a biography of a chap called Bob Rowberry, who purports to be an emblem of the ‘high times’ promised by the book cover. I gladly gave up before page 50, as what the book actually consists of is Rowberry’s foul-mouthed self-glamourising, spread over 450 pages. I started to lose the will to read at his intricate memories of the hiding in bomb shelters at the age of 2 (born in 1942). Anything to make this guy appear in any way interesting. It reads exactly like a conversation with a pub boor, and the dog-on-a rope Brew Crew allusion is all you really need to know. It isn’t helped by Marchant’s fawning interview style, which potentiates his subject’s broggadocio about how many women he’s shagged, how many guns he’s handled, how many drugs, how many famous people, etc. A counter-culture Zelig, and not in an interesting way.

Honestly, its far, far worse than I can describe in a format like this.

This is a shame, as Marchant clearly knows his stuff,and writes well, but it all becomes insufferably tedious once Rowberry opens his mouth. In all it’s imperfection and bad vibes though, I did find the appendices good fun, as they include a wonderful list of period films and books that really help to rediscover (for us oldies) the world of the 1970s, a period in which I was growing up and reading/viewing very many of the books/movies concerned. It’s a bit like the oft-cited aspect of Islamic art - except that this time the author has put in something of worth in the context of a surrounding piece of dreck, instead of the other way round. One has to get into a war-time spirit when confronted with stuff like this, and make a little go a long way.

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Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby