Enda O’Doherty writes: John Fleming has contributed pieces to the Dublin Review of Books over a good number of years: essays, book reviews, blog posts occasioned by the deaths of friends or admired figures in the music world. A few extracts may give the flavour of the Fleming prose style and the nature of his recurring preoccupations.
On John Cooper Clarke:
Clarke likes words and uses them as imaginative brickwork to impart both anecdote and nuance. The Midas touch of his stage performance is evident in his wielding of phrases to yield a type of brutal yet dandified insight: ‘It became a cliche among the usual doom-mongers of the social-improvement industry that television “destroys the art of conversation”, as if every pre-TV family had been a hotbed of informed debate. If anything, owning a telly promoted conversation: at last we had something to talk about.’ Football was an opportunity to use ‘profane language’ unacceptable elsewhere except in the local pubs’ ‘vault’, ‘where the beer was a penny cheaper and there was no carpet on the floor’.
On rock music, ageing, fame and dying in the context of the early death of Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens:
Behind the record sleeve is a cacophony that speaks to us, a world we subscribe to, a place where we come dangerously close to belonging. These kingdoms of culture can be durable. They can last decades if the singer continues to create in a lengthy career. We get to know and like this kingdom – we take partial refuge within its moat, within the spiralling groove of records, within the coil of tape, within whatever geometry dictates digital iterations. With music, we witness a world changing: the evolving age and maturity of the artist run in some lip-synched parallel with our own. Singer and fan both spin through the years and get older at the same rate: 16, 33, 45, 78 …
On getting to grips with Roland Barthes:
‘If myth is part of perception and objectivity is societally defined as “true” perception, then there is not only a myth of objectivity for objectivity is itself enshrouded by myth.’ This remarkable insight appears in lines on the inside back cover of my dog-eared 1980s student copy of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies. I struggle to understand what it means: behind the dubious confidence and swagger of the phrases, the sentence flounders in its attempt to distil ideas into a few short lines. Try to understand or parse it and you find some vital semantic wire is loose or missing – either in the statement or in your cognitive ability to understand. ‘“True” perception’, ‘myth of objectivity’ and ‘enshrouded by myth’: the nodes of the insight are sound; it would appear to be the connectors that are flawed. Perhaps a few prepositions are misplaced? Maybe something in the soggy construction sings of botched translation? Better still, do the sentence and its concepts sail on a watery aspect of French psycholinguistics that flounders in the Celtic or Anglo-Saxon (fill in as appropriate) mind? But a warning: this apparent quotation appears in a different font from the typeface of the rest of the book and only in one edition – in fact only in my actual copy. It is scrawled in black biro, in the arrogant hand of my twenty-year-old student self.
On the underbelly of Paris, a city in which Fleming himself lived for a number of years as a young man:
[Luc] Sante has no interest in the kings and queens and bishops and mayors, none in the higher ranks that usually monopolise the history books … His cast from across the ages includes thieves, alcoholics and whores; his history is that of the ragpickers and pickpockets, the homeless and the pimps, the entertainers and vaudevillians. While he filches the insights of intellectuals whose street wandering was weighed down by concepts, his real stars are the clochards whose bedraggled perambulations were uninformed by ideas that interfered with or framed their city.
On the Dublin music journalist George Byrne, who died in 2015:
George Byrne was the first man I heard use the word Rickenbacker. He taped albums for me on the cassette-head-tarnishing orange BASF C90 tapes I supplied. He invited me to the Ivy Rooms to see his band, AutoBop. They sang a Squeeze song, ‘Pulling Mussels from the Shell’ – this tune was not much to my liking but here was a world of imagination swirling around an otherwise grey and dour Dublin. Ideas and sounds were circling the Dandelion market. The Atrix, Chant! Chant! Chant!, a nascent Microdisney, The Blades, A Further Room, It’s A Tightrope, Meelah 18, Free Booze, The End and Amuse all plied their trade in the now long-gone Ivy Rooms, Magnet and Judge and Jury. George made claims to have played with various incarnations of several of these bands. He stoked a sense of potential and plenty.
On Cathal Coughlan, who died last year:
This was a band [Microdisney] who shared with many of their contemporaneous fans a sociology seeped in scenarios of escape – of getting out of your town, getting out of Dublin, getting out of Ireland, of fleeing your family or flatshare horror, of staying one step ahead of bedsit landlords, of simply dissolving as an outsized individual into the populous sprawl of a bigger city. To many who left Ireland in the 1980s to have a stab at a life in London, such basic simple lines, unembellished by lyricism or particular wit, spoke directly.
On the writer and critic Geoff Dyer:
There is a great chewy joy to reading Dyer – in See/Saw, cheeky stretched conceits are applied to tasty ideas as he operates surgically on the heart of a concept with an apposite quote from someone relevant or learned. He has a talent for contracting the long and insightful into the short and insightful: there is octuplet pregnancy in his pithiness […] Occasionally, I wanted more of Dyer’s essential Dyerness, which he achieves effortlessly in sentences like this one you are reading in which I am ham-fistedly attempting and (I would argue, deliberately) failing to smarten up my own alecism.
Fleming earns his crust as an editor, a trade (‘once-proud’ might be the cliché he would embrace/abhor) which in the view of the present writer is likely to have offered diminishing psychic satisfaction to most of its practitioners over recent years – or even decades – as freshness of thought and accuracy of expression have come to be valued less than visual presentation and, more destructively, the tyranny of the algorithm (‘we know what they like; give them excess of it’). A man fixated on words, wordplay, thoughtplay might have to find most of his satisfactions elsewhere.
We always knew there was ‘the writing’, a number of broadcast radio plays, short stories. A novel for a long time ‘in progress’, perhaps more than one; a film documentary about London life, Guests of Another Nation, shown on RTÉ. This year, however, has seen a quite dramatic breaking of the surface and blossoming of long subterranean stirrings as Fleming has impressively combined his musical and writerly interests in the publication of the novel The Now Now Express and the transformation into a living, breathing, pounding thing of the Prongs, a fictional postpunk band which features in its pages. The hero of The Now Now Express, Patrick, leads a somewhat squalid existence in the not so glamorous east London suburb of Walthamstow in the 1980s with his generically Irish mates Mulligan, Foley, Murphy and Neary, collectively known as ‘the Mocking Boys’, their names recalling various Dublin pubs. The boys survive on a diet of toast and honey, Red Stripe beer, mushroom-poor stirfry, crap London Guinness and French New Wave films, the expense of their prolonged and occasionally wild drinking bouts covered by ambitious schemes of benefit fraud. Early on, we get a socio-psychological summary of the Mocking Boy condition:
… we were a cheery gaggle of leering slouch adults bound together by some overdue date and linked in our avoidance of the inevitable. Content to linger too long in the interzone of caustic youth, we sneered and laughed our way out of responsibility’s call to arms. We were half-on-the-run, half-truant and half-hearted: we did things by halves and never went the whole hog. There was no focus, just the reassurance we all disliked the same things.
Leering and sneering these boys certainly are. But cheery? I don’t think so.
This generation of 1980s Irish emigrants to Britain, at least in its Mocking Boy manifestation, is different from its 1950s or ’60s predecessors, urban, educated and with the potential to forge ‘a career’ yet deeply resistant to that path, sharing some of the self-destructive urge of its older counterparts, forced out of Ireland by poverty and maimed by the hardship of their new English lives.
The Mocking Boy handbook was based on IPC comics and multichannel TV, on gaudy sitcoms and the angry young men, on an adolescence lit up by The Fall, Joy Division and our homemade version in The Prongs. We’d formed a vanguard of late-teen resistance, and conspired into our twenties in our stereotype attack. But on St Patrick’s Day, I walked away.
On St Patrick’s Day, our hero’s twenty-fourth birthday, the Boys go on a pub crawl across Irish north London: the Samuel Pepys, the Railway Tavern, even into ‘the rotting heart of Kilburn itself’. A huge cultural divide – generational but more essentially the deep Dublin/Rest of the Country gulf – separates the young middle class, suburban city smartasses from their older compatriots from rural and small-town Clare, Kerry, Galway, Mayo and Roscommon. And yet there is a residual sympathy and affection at play in spite of the differences.
The Railway Tavern was next. It was done up with green tinsel and rosettes. “Happy St Patrick’s Day, lads,” said an unfamiliar barman as he took our order. Through the large crowd, a curly-haired man forced his way. He stuck a coin in the jukebox and sat back down, proud of his selection. The song’s maudlin lyrics bemoaned how London had lured away its listeners. A tin whistle conversed with a set of uilleann pipes and pressed all the correct buttons in the hearts of these vulnerable men poured into adult Confirmation suits. The smell of carbolic soap was everywhere and shaving cuts were common.
The hackneyed concepts in the song meant nothing to us. We had not yet done anything irreversible and our lives were free of the regret in its refrain. The song was wasted on a bunch of little pricks certain we were edging towards a future of infinity.
Patrick must eventually choose between continuing to live a life as a London-Irish Mocker and returning home, not having achieved anything except having lived off a social welfare scam, to a city and country still stuck in recession – though not for too long more – but whose streets and pubs still exert a certain attraction for him in spite of the general absence of hope and optimism. He makes what seems to be the better choice … a story, perhaps, to be continued.
The Prongs – a band mentioned several times in The Now Now Express in the same breath as The Fall and Joy Division – took flesh on stage at a gig at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin on July 8th this year. The Prongs are John Fleming on words and Niall Toner jnr (Strand, Those Handsome Devils, Dixons etc) on musical arrangement and instrumentation. At the Project they were backed by a seven-piece band comprising members of The Lee Harveys, Ultramontaines, Mighty Avon Jr and Republic of Loose. The gig attracted a full house and the reception was highly enthusiastic.
The novel The Now Now Express is officially being launched with a further Prongs gig this week (Thursday, November 16th) upstairs in Whelan’s:
The book is available to buy at Books Upstairs, D’Olier Street, Dublin, and the book and the CD Theme from The Now Now Express at Spindizzy.
A number of stylish videos featuring individual compositions and directed by Dave Clifford can be seen on YouTube: MiddleMarch17, Fake Samuel Pepys, Kango Hammer, Map of a City etc. The Prongs page on Bandcamp (for streaming and merchandise and info) is
Check out the book, the videos or drop along to Whelan’s on Thursday evening.