After all the sex and bad language of my previous posts, it was a relief to be in San Francisco and just going around looking at the old houses and walking the steep streets and riding the cable cars with their cheery bells and shopping at Macy’s where we encountered this striking back-lit poster in Womenswear —
The poster seems right to me, the right order of things, and the wonderful colours. More importantly, the poster reminded me of my own novel, which I’d not been working on at all of late.
I decided on the spot it was time to do some literary homework. I announced to my partner I was leaving her alone to do her shopping and heading off to the literary heart of the city, the City Lights book store and publisher —
I have to admit that I hadn’t really known about City Lights until our Airbnb host told us about it. Our host was a larger-than-life figure who referred to San Francisco as his town. We’d asked him what places we should see. Near top of his list was City Lights: “Man, you gotta go there!” — “We will! We will!”
City Lights, I learned in more detail on the Web, was opened in the early fifties and blossomed in the sixties, and became internationally known as the literary place for protest, progress, the counter-culture revolution, and sexual liberation. As you can see it’s pretty groovy —
That brightly coloured laneway is named after Jack Kerouac of On the Road fame —
Yeah! And in the pavement outside the store is this plaque —
Now I don’t really get this since I do my writing in the daytime, but the name Lawrence Ferlinghetti is important. Ferlinghetti co-founded the store and famously published Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and other Poems in 1956, the publication of which attracted a charge of obscenity.
Ferlinghetti successfully defended the charge, and consequently he and City Lights, and Allen Ginsberg and his poem Howl, became iconic in modern American publishing and culture.
I had a vague recollection of reading Howl years ago. But to know all these facts and to be in the actual place where it all happened, was to feel something pretty incredible. Here is the entrance of City Lights. The counter, it might be clear, is right near the door —
I walked in and stopped near the counter, taking it all in, breathing the air, smelling the smell of genuine writing and literary history.
And that’s when all the trouble began.
“Can I help you?” He was a twenty-something bright-eyed slim hipster in a pale T-shirt that looked too tight for him.
“I don’t know,” I said, spreading my arms wide. “Just let me say it’s amazing to be here in this historic place, with all its…history.”
“It’s all happening,” he said.
“To think that this is where Allen Ginsberg and the other Beat writers actually stood and where Ginsberg’s Howl was actually published and defended!”
I then gestured up at a picture which, with my glasses off, I took to be of Ginsberg himself, who was a very hairy man —
The Hipster turned around and looked up at the picture I’d indicated, then turned back to me looking a little puzzled.
Fearing I’d made a mistake, I continued on by congratulating him and the other staff for working at such a fine establishment.
“You’ve come to the right place,” he said. “We’ve got cutting edge as well as the old pathfinders. Did you want some Ginsberg?”
“No, no,” I said, suddenly on the back foot, because actually I didn’t want anything. But it was no good to appear like that in such a place. I said, “Hmm. I want something contemporary, but edgy, like…” I couldn’t think of anyone or anything, then something did come to mind. I said: “I’ve read that Fifty Shades of Grey book, or rather I’ve dipped into it, and I must say I wasn’t exactly tied to my seat in suspense or anything.”
“Forget that shit, man,” he said.
“In fact I found it to be rather conservative,” I went on, glad to have found agreement with this young man.
“Dude,” he said, “this is San Francisco. Very feminist here. Very queer. OK? Very pansexual, if you know what I mean.”
“I’m hip to it,” I said
“OK. We’re on the same page.”
I leant forward. “Brother, we’re two great writers on the same dreadful typewriter.”
(The line, which I’d committed to memory when doing my research the day before, is from Ginsberg’s Howl.)
The hipster cocked his head, perhaps not recognising the line but clearly suspecting a significant quote.
“You’ve come a long way,” he said. “From Australia is it?”
He paused, looked around, and I looked around with him, then he leant in close to me and said, “Listen, I wouldn’t ordinarily do this for someone on their first visit but…you seem to be keyed in all right. Would you like to see the inner scrotum?”
“The inner scrotum. That’s what we call it. AKA the inner sanctum. It’s where we keep our edgiest stuff and some of our less than legal stuff, if you know what I mean.”
“Sure thing,” I said.
He went and got someone, a young woman, to replace him on the counter, and then with a single curl of one finger got me to follow him.
He took me down a narrow staircase, its walls completely filled with old photos and posters of literary heroes, and we emerged into the basement level, which was smaller than the ground level but still chock-full of books. My guide led me past the shelves to this —
Clearly a door of significance! — what exactly, who knew, but it was exciting. I am the light and the door, I said to myself. Or maybe it was an allusion to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, and indeed to Jim Morrison and The Doors? Come on baby, light my fire. Try to set the night on – fire!
He pushed it open and we entered into what was merely an office-cum-storeroom, but to the right there was another door; the hipster held this second door open and ushered me in.
It was a smallish room with dim lighting. Tables in the centre were covered with piles of books, and projecting from the walls left and right were bookcases with dark narrow aisles between them.
“OK,” said the hipster, “the more recent stuff is on the tables.”
He led me over to them.
“OK,” he said. “You want edgy? You might like this.” He leaned over to a neat stack of books and picked up the top-most one and handed it to me.
I looked at the cover —
I thought I was misreading it. Perhaps the title was a person’s name like, I don’t know, Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian writer who wrote that novel Hunger about a miserable underfed little man who spends his days ingratiating himself with other people…
But, no, I wasn’t misreading it, as I discovered when turning to the Contents page —
“Dodie Bellamy,” said the hipster. “A local writer.”
“She’s out there, man,” he said in admiration. “Oh, she’s really out there. See, you gotta know how to read it. You don’t judge the text, OK? You listen to it.” He took the volume from me, pointed to the Contents page. “These are the canonical writers. Right? The Norton Anthology of Literature, man, 1975! OK? So she takes these guys’ poems and splices them with anonymous pornography.”
“Oh yeah. She calls it ‘cunting a text’.”
“But it’s not just sex for the sake of it. OK? It’s not indulgent or anything. It’s political. It’s transgressive. It’s gender-bending, fuckin’ putting a weed up the ass of patriarchy. It’s like feminized raunch on steroids but really true and loving too.”
He handed it back to me. “So just lay it cool, lay it back, dig it. It gets good to you, it really does.”
“You all right?”
“All right, my man, I’ll leave it with you.” He clapped me on the back. “When you’re done, come back up to the counter, I’ll be there.”
He closed the door behind him.
Now alone I scanned down the contents page. All those great literary figures…I turned to the Foreword, which says the book was in fact the author’s second c–t book. The first was called C–t-ups which —
I heard a noise and looked up to find myself not alone after all! In one of the shadowy aisles was a small young man, maybe even a teenager, with a thin neck, badly cropped short black hair and huge round-rimmed black glasses. He was staring at me with a bland yet intensely suspicious and even fearful gaze, like Harry Potter on ice.
I nodded hello; he stared back, then whipped his gaze back to his book and curled his shoulder around in crab-like self-protection.
Strange! Perhaps this space, this sacred scrotum (as they called it), was a safe place for him to explore ideas and be himself. I couldn’t argue with that.
Still I felt a little uncomfortable. I took myself, with Bellamy’s book in hand, over to stand under the only source of natural light: a narrow basement window.
Seeing the difference the light made to the clarity of the text before me, it occurred to me to take out my camera and photograph (surreptitiously) part of the book, beginning with the two images above.
I still had not looked at any of the actual text, because I was realising I was experiencing a bit of a weird coincidence.
Recently I happened to be cleaning out an attic in Dublin and found a few boxes of old musty books, and in one box was this —
I’d read it many years ago. It’s a gripping read, documenting the charge of obscenity brought by the Crown against Penguin Books UK for their publishing D. H. Larwrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I sat down in that dim attic and began to read chunks of the transcript, including this page where literature academic Graham Hough (a supporter of Lawrence and his novel) is cross-examined by the Crown prosecutor —
Despite this one instance of agreement between prosecution and defence, the prosecution lost the case, and when you get to the part in the transcript where the jury submits its verdict of “Not guilty, your Honour!”, and the bombastic toffee-nosed Crown prosecutor collapses into his seat in abject failure, and Penguin is let free to publish Lady Chatterley, you can’t help but give a cheer —
The attic experience was interesting also because I’d already been thinking about obscenity in writing and in particular the use of the C-word. Why? Because using the C-word, like breaking other taboos, is becoming increasingly popular.
The chief offender here, I feel, is HBO’s Game of Thrones. In it writer and producer George R. R. Martin uses the C-word willy-nilly, reaching its climax in the following scene:
Ser Bronn of the Blackwater: The little King’s backed-up. Clogged from balls to brains.
Tyrion Lannister: You think dipping his wick will cure what ails him?
Ser Bronn: There’s no cure for being a cunt.
The exchange has gone viral:
You can get the text and the image on T-shirts, mugs, pens…Not to mention the hatred the King has aroused —
It’s a license to print the word! — But in my view it’s all too much. I think a lot of the use of the C-word is indulgent, to say the least. A kind of, look how cool I am, I can use the C-word without a care. Personally, I want to put the C-word back in its box.
And yet despite my opposition to the C-word, there I was happily rooting for Lady Chatterley in the attic in Dublin, just as I was standing here now, proud to be in the basement of City Lights, the bastion of free speech in all California, with a book in my hands that had more c–ts in it than I’d ever seen before, perhaps more than anyone had ever seen.
What to make of all this?! I began to flick through C–t Norton. I don’t have photographs of the poems to show you, for reasons which you will presently see. The C–t Shakespeare poem, however, if I remember rightly goes something like this:
O Shakespeare, you’re such a c–t.
Prithee, let me count the ways,
Thou art like the sacred organ,
The holiest of holies,
The furry feathered front bottom.
For one, thy ruby curtains part
With each performance and
Close when the Act is done.
Two, there is what my partner says
Whenever we are out:
“To pee or not to pee, that is the question.”
Third, you gave birth to myriad
Characters, your children all,
Who came out fully formed —
Vagina dentata! O mouth of the world!
A tale to get your teeth into! —
And on it went. Not bad, I thought. I turned back to the Contents page and scanned down the list. C–t Cummings looked interesting. But then I saw, third from the bottom, that even Allen Ginsberg gets a guernsey.
Why would that be? I wondered. Why would Dodie Bellamy need to ‘c–t-up’ Allen Ginsberg, an openly gay man and the great icon of sexual and textual liberation whose libidinous lines run freely through —
“What the hell are you doing?”
I swung around. The hipster was standing in the doorway, at his side was the thin-necked Harry Potter guy.
“What?” I said.
“What are you doing with that camera?”
I hid it behind my back. “Nothing.”
“Bullshit. He says you were taking pictures of that” — he was pointing to C–t Norton open in my hand.
So Harry Potter had seen me and when I was preoccupied had ducked out and dobbed on me! I felt I was back at school and was about to be taken to the headmaster for a caning.
I began to speak but the hipster marched towards me. “Right,” he said, “you take pictures of that, you gotta pay for it.”
The mention of money brought me back to myself. “I don’t think so,” I said. I slid the camera into my trousers pocket, and closed the book and handed it over to the hipster.
He wouldn’t take it.
“No!” he said, holding up his hands. “It’s copyrighted. You gotta pay for it now.”
“I’m not paying — what?” — I turned to the back cover for the price — “$28.95 US for this.”
He shook his head in a big show of disappointment and disbelief. “Man, I trusted you. Fuck!”
“OK, look,” I began. “I was just curious. I’m interested in the book as an artefact, not in the text per se.”
At that moment another man entered the room. He was tall, strong, very serious-faced, used to solving problems quickly and effectively. The manager, I assumed.
“Caught him taking photos of C–t Norton,” said the hipster.
“A misunderstanding,” I said, as the “manager” stared at the book in my hand. “I apologise. I’ll leave.”
“Who you working for?” said the hipster, rounding on me. “The feds?”
“Don’t be absurd!” I said.
“He’s working for someone,” the hipster said, turning back to the manager. “No one could be that cheap.”
The manager, his face utterly grim-set, came towards me. The hipster stepped aside. I felt my posture go very stiff. If anything happened in here it’d be my word against theirs.
“Stop,” I said, holding up a finger.
This had no effect. He came right up, reached towards me and took the book from my hand and examined it, presumably for damage or signs of wear. Then he clicked his fingers and indicated he wanted to see inside my backpack.
I obliged him: I had nothing to hide.
He scrabbled inside it a moment before handing it back.
“Show him out,” the manager said, with a cold expression. But as I went to step by him he stopped me with one heavy hand on my chest, and said: “You’ve lost your City Lights privileges. You can never come back.”
“This is all an overreaction,” I said but nevertheless followed the hipster, avoiding the manager’s cold gaze.
I stopped at the doorway where the Harry Potter guy was lurking.
“Traitor,” I hissed.
His eyes went fierce and malevolent, and he formed his mouth into a tight nasty little sphincter.
I followed the hipster back through the magic door into the shop proper. Before we got to the narrow staircase the hipster pointed up — there was another picture of the hairy man.
“And that,” the hipster said, “is not Allen Ginsberg, you freaking dufus” —
“That is Allen Ginsberg” —
“Or don’t you mean to say C–t Ginsberg?” I said.
“Watch it, buddy,” he said without looking back.
“Hey, I’m merely quoting your own treasured author.”
I followed him up the staircase and through to the counter area. There were a few people standing here, young women mainly.
“Out,” he commanded me.
“For the record,” I said, stopping for effect, “I think Ginsberg is overrated.”
“Oh yeah?” he said. “What the hell would you know?”
“I know plenty. That’s right, Jack. Pretentious American windbaggery.” I cast a damning gaze over all present. “Howl my backside!”
“Oh, you’d be so lucky!” the hipster cried, wide-eyed and shaking his raised finger.
I scoffed and headed out the door, the women smiling uncomfortably.
As I stepped onto the pavement and began to stride away, I heard the hipster cry out behind me: “You Australians! You never tip, and you never buy!!”
I didn’t look back. I walked for two blocks and turned right. I knew where I was going: the Caffè Trieste.
I joined the queue and ordered a large double-shot flat-white then took a seat in the corner and held my head in my hands. Presently I sat back and surveyed the room —
I’d been looking forward to coming here. This café has hosted artists and writers and filmmakers for decades, many of them coming here after visiting City Lights.
Francis Ford Coppola wrote most of his script for The Godfather here. I wondered if his picture was amongst those on the wall in front of me. He too is a hairy man —
And thinking about Coppola, I thought of him in the Philippines Jungle filming and writing Apocalypse Now, how he risked everything to make his movie, how he plunged all his finances into it, mortgaged the house, how he kept throwing the script away, how like Colonel Kurtz he wanted to tear his teeth out in an agony of frustration.
And here I was refusing to fork out thirty bucks for C–t Norton — a book that whatever doubts one might have about it was a genuine attempt to do something original and progressive. And after all, it was a woman using the C-word, not some fat old white fantasy guy in dire need of a good editor.
By the time I’d finished my coffee I’d resolved that I would go back to City Lights and buy Bellamy’s book!
I headed back. I approached the entrance and looked in and saw the hipster manning the counter, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it — I don’t know why exactly, maybe because there’s only so much abuse one can take, or maybe it was the threat in the manager’s words to me. I kept on walking and didn’t stop till I was on the train going back to our Airbnb home.
Feeling absolutely miserable, I got off the train at our stop and made the long walk up the main street, which is filled with great restaurants and shops and cafés and a good class of people.
Not that any of that was making me feel any better — until, that is, I came to a bookshop. I’d passed this shop a couple of days before but had not been in it. What drew my eye this time was the display of books in the window. A display of banned books.
The Irish hero had the prized position —
Ulysses, says the text in the ‘flames’ below: “Burned in the US (1918), Ireland (1922), Canada (1922), England (1923), and banned in England (1929).”
Next: Dr. Seuss —
“Remember (says the flames text) the time when Sam I Am tried to seduce his friend? Neither do we. But the book was banned in California on account of ‘homosexual seduction’.”
And E. B. White —
“Banned in Kansas in 2006 because talking animals were considered an ‘insult to God’.”
And Oprah Winfrey’s classic —
Challenged in Oakland CA in 1984 for its “sexual and social explicitness” and its “troubling ideas about race relations, man’s relationship to God, African history and human sexuality”; banned in a US school in 1992 for being “smut”; banned in another in 1999 for being vulgar and “X-rated”.
This was more my kind of store. None of that City Lights pretentious oh-I’m-so-revolutionary stuff.
I marched straight on in and put my fists on the counter. A woman, perhaps in her late thirties, short red-tinted hair, stylish glasses and in a neat suit dress, served me:
“Can I help you?”
“Yes. I would like to buy Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt…Ah, Bellamy’s Cunt…Ah…God what is it?” — I was having one of those brain freezes I sometimes get when people are scrutinising me. “Jeez, for the life of me I can’t — Norton! Cunt Norton! That’s it. Thank God! I thought I was losing my marbles there for a moment.”
The woman blinked back completely startled.
“You don’t have it?” I urged. “Dodie Bellamy. A local writer. Her first volume was Cunt-ups, which I gather was very popular too. You haven’t heard of it? No? The cunting method? You know, Cunt Shakespeare, Cunt…Dr. Seuss, Cunt Color Purple…?”
“I think you should leave.”
“I know how this sounds.”
“Sir!” She’d recovered herself and was looking very strict, raising her palm in a stop sign.
“You don’t understand,” I went on. “This is a real book.” I noticed behind her that our exchange was attracting worried looks from other customers, including mothers and their children in the happy and colourful kids section, which was not far from the counter. “Look, look,” I said, “I have photos to prove it. I can show you.”
I went for my camera which was wedged deep into the front pocket of my travel pants. It was tight in there and I was having to yank it out.
“Sir? Sir! Stop what you’re doing! Look at me.” I obeyed. “Take you hand out of your pants and leave. If you don’t leave now, I’ll call the police.”
Her hands went to the phone.
“OK…OK,” I said, my hands raised in the air. “My God!”
I turned and walked out.
I turned left and straightaway there was a homeless-looking guy sitting on the pavement with his back resting against the shopfront.
“Spare a dollar, buddy?” he asked me.
“Arghhh!” I yelled at him.
I then noticed a few feet from him a planter box with this wonderful conjunction:
I stopped and pointed at it and laughed out loud and then plonked myself down on the pavement between it and the homeless guy.
“Oh my America! My new-found-land!” I recited out loud. “You crazy country!” I turned to the homeless guy. “That’s John Donne, the famous poet. You might know him. No? No idea? AKA Cunt Donne.”
Cunt done indeed.
“Can you spare a dollar?” he repeated with a crooked grin. “Got a dollar, buddy?”
You know, I think I did have a dollar but it was deep, oh so deep in my pocket.