Do you like circuses, Jarvis?

I’m aware of three things. The worsening pain in my back, the hula hoop lady’s gyrations. And the music. The music, coming from a stage to my right, is all pounding bass and drums with licking, grinding guitar. It’s being played by none other than ex-Pulp front man and all round good-egg, Jarvis Cocker and his band. I’m nodding, tapping my foot and nearly crying with pain. Shit, she’s amazing, fuck, my back hurts, damn, this music’s good, Shit, fuck, damn. I’m doing three thought juggling. Shitfuckdamn, shitfuckdamn. Shitdamn. Whoops..

 An acrobat suddenly steps in, takes over from Hula, does three, maybe four, backward somersaults coming to a perfect 10 stop less than a foot away. I can feel the heat coming off her back, can smell a mix of scent and sweat…My back’s on bloody fire (apparently I have severe hinging of the lower cervical spine.oo.er) cos I’ve been on my feet for hours. It’s a bit much for me and my M.E. There will be payback for this, there’s always payback. I should leave, go rest. But I’m mesmerised by the sound and visuals. The live backing picks up pace. I do believe I have a small crush on Hula Girl. I look over at the stage, at Jarvis. I’m at my first live gig for several years; I’ve seen and heard some amazing stuff today, at this ‘happening’. Funny how it all came about…

 It started with a chance meeting a few days ago.. No wait, I suppose you could say it started a few weeks ago, actually,  with the Moscow thing..No, scratch all that, let’s have this right, did it not it really began years ago back in Sheffield? Yes, indeed. So I’ll work backwards from there then, and we’ll pick up the other things I mentioned as we go..

 Sheffield. In the late 70’s early 80’s, there was a big, vibrant local band scene in the city. Scores of groups, gigs every night of the week. There really was a lot of boundary pushing, innovative stuff coming out of rooms above pubs. My mate, who lived in a massive high rise block near me once had a single given to him by a woman from a few doors down. Her son was in a band you see and they’d made a record. She thought he might like a copy. The single was Being Boiled, the band, The Human League. Hard to imagine now just how radical a concept a ‘no guitars’ band was in Britain at the time. And it wasn’t in every City that someone’s mum was handing out the most groundbreaking music being made this side of Kraftwerk..

 In those days, I was working in a Tuning Fork Factory by day and being the local funny performance poet, Mark Miwurdz, by night, when I would get up and do a bit as a warm up for many of the local groups. I was popular with bands cos a) I was free and b) It meant that they didn’t have to do two sets or have another band‘s gear onstage. And when bigger acts passed though the city, I supported them too. All sorts of people like The Birthday Party, Gil Scot Heron, The Thompson Twins, Tom Robinson, Otway and Barrett and even the legendary Mud! One afternoon whilst still living at my mum’s, I got a call from the Entertainment Secretary at Leeds University. He needed a last minute support act for the punk band playing there that night. I ummed and aahed. I would have to find a driver cos I didn’t drive myself plus I was getting over a throat infection and I didn’t really fancy being gobbed at for 30 minutes. So thanks, but I’ll leave it this time, if you don’t mind. That Ents Sec was Andy Kershaw and the band were the Clash. I know, alright, I fucking know. Just…don’t..

 It was in a pub called the Hallamshire on West St, one night, that I first saw a young band who were notable mainly for their eccentric looking and pained sounding lead singer. His name was Jarvis and the band were Arabacus Pulp. (They dropped the first bit shortly afterwards. Just like Slade, who were originally called Ambrose Slade. You’re welcome). Jarvis, then 16, performed whilst a couple of his teachers sat in the audience. This boy had something, you felt, even in those early days, had something going on. He was from a fairly rough part of the city and most kids from that area didn’t look like Jarvis. I soon ended up on the same bill as them and thus my loose alliance with Cocker and Pulp began. We weren’t big mates or anything but we did the same gigs, went to the same pubs, clubs and parties and I was one of their support acts at their first ever gig outside Sheffield, at Bath University. Jarvis was getting better, more controlled as a performer, developing. He could come over as a bit aloof but in those days it was sort of fashionable to be a bit like that anyway. These were the post industrial days of New Romanticism after all. It was quite acceptable for men to go out and pose in mascara, look all unobtainable and distant, only to return to the factory or office the next day sans make-up and back down to earth.

 London had the Blitz Club peopled by the androgynous Steve Strange and Boy George and Sheffield, not to be outdone, had it’s own version, albeit a bit more down market, in a pub called the George IV, (my sister lives a stone’s throw from there now) which was opposite a notoriously rough estate, the Kelvin Flats. There it was, upstairs in that John Smith’s House, that the painted pretty boys and girls of Steel City would, not so much mingle with, as walk around, the staring, glaring working class hard lads and lasses from the flats. But I don’t remember there ever being much trouble to be honest. In those days, even some of the hard kids would dress up. There was a nightclub in town, called The Limit, which was next door to a chip shop. I remember standing in that chippy at 2.30am, club chucking out time, and joining a queue made up of a Dandy Highwayman, a Pirate and a Pierrot Clown. The clown enquired in broad Yorkshire, ‘ave you gorrany scraps..?

 Over the next few years, Jarvis and Pulp ploughed resolutely on, changing line-ups several times but you didn’t really notice cos all eyes were on Jarvis who was maturing, physically and musically, becoming less geek, more sleek. But he still had plenty of cheek, which he proved on one memorable occasion. The Council were starting to get a bit snotty about fly posting. With the sheer volume of local bands around, the only way of finding out who was on where was to walk past one of several fly posting hot-spots. I often went out there myself with my mum-made bucket of paste and brush. One night there was an article in the local paper about how the council were determined to crack down on this terrible practise. Fly posting would be tolerated no longer! Alongside the article was a photo of Pulp, they being one example of the bands guilty of this heinous, wall-besmirching crime. Jarvis, in a typical stroke of arch cock-a-snookery, had the article enlarged, photocopied and fly posted all over the city..

 I eventually moved down to London, and so did Jarvis where he got a place at St Martin’s College (that’s where I, caught her eye..etc). I bumped into him now and then. How you doin’, still gigging? That sort of thing. Pulp had now been going for what seemed like an age, had put out loads of records but still weren’t widely known. Wasn’t it time they called it a day? Well, we all know the answer to that now. And when they finally did explode, like the banger in the box of 90’s Britpop fireworks, I was really happy for him and the band, proud that this son of Sheffield had done good. It was kind of amusing to see the country going nuts for what we up North had known for years, that Jarvis was the genuine article, a true, one-off pop maverick and ace songwriter. I saw Jarvis just once during that period of Pulp mania. I was sitting in the Groucho Club (ooh la la) and who was at the bar but Mr Cocker himself. He turned around and saw me. Would he, I wondered, sport the mantle of mega-popstar cool and look away? I really wouldn’t blame him, it’s all part of the game. But no, he just nodded like we were in the Hallamshire pub on West St in Sheffield in 1981. Alright Mark?  he said, broad Sheffield. Alright Jarvis, I replied. That was all. No more, no less. Good lad. I haven’t seen him since. Until.. 

Now let me just cut in here, if I may, cos I mentioned the Moscow thing earlier. A few weeks ago the circus came to town.Yes, the Moscow State Circus, pitched up on Ealing Common. I walked past the tent on several nights, saw the excited queues lining up and heard the muffled fanfare music and family whoops and appause emanating from the tent, a warm and cheering sound. I deliberated over whether or not to take my boy but, he wasn’t fussed. We saw it here a few years ago and to be honest, (I’ll whisper this bit) It wasn’t all that good. I’m sorry, I realise that dissing a circus is a crime on a par with kicking a small puppy, but there you go. It may well have improved since. I think the big trad circuses have generally suffered with the rise of the likes of Cirque De Soleil and the Shock circuses like Archaos. The performers we saw there all looked a little tired and bargain basement. But the little kids still love it anyway. I decided to pass this time. But not before a few photos outside. (1-7)

 And that sets me off thinking about a scene in the brilliant sit-com from a few years back, Early Doors. Set in the sort of Northern, old gits pub that I used to like drinking in myself. In one episode, a character, the lovable, but rather simple, Joan, asks the landlord, Do you like circuses Ken? Although the whole pub can hear each other, it doesn’t stop her asking each character in turn, Do you like circuses, Tommy, Tanya, etc. They all answer her politely whilst giving each other looks. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a lovely sit-com, warm and cheery. Like the circus music. I left the Ealing Common People to their spectacle and promised myself that I would try and get to see some kind of circus again one day cos, yes, Joan, I do like circuses…

 Okay, we’re getting there. So a few days ago I was at King’s Cross station. There’s a lot of building work going on around there and several cranes. Tall, and thin, intricate and a little complex. I like cranes. Do you like cranes…? (8-10). I cross the road to go into the station, and who do I see but Jarvis Cocker? (11) We chat, what you up to, etc? No airs or graces, just Jarvis, always the same, fame or no. He tells me he is doing a ‘thing, a Happening’ at a place in called The Village Underground in Shoreditch next week, Monday to Wednesday, with his band. There’ll be dancers, circus acts and other weird stuff. Come along if you’re not doing anything. I scribble down directions thinking, I’ll never make it, not the way I’ve been feeling with the M.E. recently. We shake hands, it’s nice to see him again. He’s a little like a crane himself, I muse. Tall, thin, intricate and complex…

 Monday and Tuesday pass and there’s no way I can go. But on Wednesday I’m feeling a little better. Go on I egg myself on, even if it’s just for half an hour. So off I plod to Shoreditch, a drab looking, but lively under the skin, area of North London that has, over the years, with it’s bars and clubs, cultivated an arty, hip, some would say pretentious, reputation. Inside the venue, a warehouse type place, all bricks and iron girders, Jarvis is already onstage playing, improvising with his band. The acoustics aren’t bad considering the high ceiling, it’s a bit clattery but they’re making good noise. Jarvis sits, head down, which position he adopts for most of the day, and plays guitar, sometimes keyboards. There are about seventy people sitting on big bean bags, it gradually gets busier. There are some seriously cool looking people amongst the crowd, a lot of hats and dyed hair. Maybe even some dyed hats. The jam comes to an end. Burlesque dancing begins on the stone floor. The band change tempo and play along.
I’m extremely tired now and my back is starting to feel really sore. Shall I split? But then I recognize one of the ex Pulp band members, not seen for years. We find some stone stairs to sit on and chat, catching up on Sheffield folk we know. Who’s married with kids, who’s on smack, who’s just the same as ever and who’s died..We discuss whether a Pulp reunion is ever likely…On stage it’s Unusual Instrument Hour, but this is not some token novelty thing. What follows is some absolutely cracking ensemble riffing. A guy does fantastic virtuoso things with a Saw. More odd sounds weave in an out, a stylophone, an Aeolian harp, then a brilliant vocalist joins in. I’m loving it. The pace is picking up, more people arrive, The atmosphere is becoming more charged but my back is giving me real gip, it feels like it’s one of the girders in the ceiling, being slowly heated up. I have no painkillers on me and they don’t do much anyway. I will have to go, but the atmos, the music, god I miss live gigs. The band wind up the extended jam, applause. Can we go now? my backbone pleads, through gritted vertebrae.

 But the circus, I have to stay for the circus. The crowd make a space and they troupe in. Jarvis announces that they’re all from the Circus Space based nearby. There’s a trick cyclist, a juggler, some acrobats who start throwing each other in the air. Two more on rings suspended from the ceiling and one in a big wheel like a human hamster. There’s no safety nets here, just stone cold floor. And then there’s the hula hoop lady, who is not like the ones you see on Britain’s Got Talent. Lithe, muscular, toned. She does amazing things. I’m a bit swoony, giddy with pain and excitement.I want to take photos but my phone conks out. Before me, which is a first. And then an acrobat suddenly leaps into action and lands inches from me. My back groans with jealousy at these other supremely fit and supple spines on show. Come on, it’s not fair, I wanna go, it says, flaring up. No, I push on, mesmerised. The circus finishes to loud applause. Jarvis thanks us all for coming and says they will do a couple of numbers to finish off. They are doing a proper paid gig here later tonight and we are all welcome, tickets available in the hall.

 I’m not leaving till the end, have to watch these last two numbers. They perform a cracking Pulpesque song, Further Complications. Jarvis comes alive now, throwing vintage Cocker shapes. He could look a lot younger if he wanted, if he lost grey streaked beard, could hark back to his Pulp heyday looks. But this older look’s fine, he’s aging well under the fuzz. And so to the final number, and we are treated to a fun, if a little ramshackle, rendition of Purple Haze. Heh heh..not a bad cover version…

 My back stabs me afresh, asking are we going now? Yes, I’m coming, just one more thing..I go over to the stage and get Jarvis’ attention. It’s been great day I say, so glad I came.  Do I want to come to the gig later? he asks. Guest list..well..My spine sends an immediate signal to my brain. Thanks, but I’d better go…I leave, inwardly cursing, damn fucking shitty Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Maybe I should have just stayed on. The hula hoop lady might’ve been there, I think, fancifully. But I really couldn’t have hung around London N1 for another ninety minutes and then come back for a two hour gig. Couldn’t. But no matter. It’s been a fantastic day, I got a real kick out of it. And a few in the back too, it feels like. Jarvis’ three day curation of The Village Underground was being filmed for something so you may see it somewhere. But I think you had to be there.(12-19).

Standing,exhausted, on the tube platform, I have a mental picture of Jarvis from earlier on when the hula hoop lady had been doing her brilliant solo bit. I’d glanced at the stage to see him, looking up, chin out, eyes fixed on her, concentrating hard, playing in time with the movement of the hoops, Do you like Circuses, Jarvis? Yes, I believe you do. I smile and despite the heated up girder that has replaced my spine, I feel quite, quite exhilarated. Cocker Hoop, you might say…

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