I'd had enough of cassettes, fanzines, and all of that shite. It was 1988 and following my exit from Maidstone College with letters after my name, I'd failed to become famous for brooding art of the kind which inspires people who wear black clothes to scowl in nihilistic appreciation. No-one gave a shit about my tapes, including me, and I'd been obliged to take a job with Royal Mail. It paid the rent but left me somewhat knackered and hence lacking the enthusiasm for promoting cassettes which I could no longer be bothered to record. Pranky's letter therefore came out of the blue as a complete surprise. In fact, given the time which had passed since I'd last bothered with cassettes, fanzines, and all of that shite, I couldn't really work out how he'd even got hold of my address.
His name in full was Pranky McHoax! fnord 23.
That was really his name as it appeared on his birth certificate.
Pranky McHoax! fnord 23 was really his name.
It really was his name.
That's what people called him.
It wasn't really his name, but it's what I'm calling him, and for a moment you believed me. I played a prank on you.
Pranky's letter came out of the blue as a complete surprise, including with it an A5 black and white fanzine folded eight times to the size at which it could have been swallowed by a spy so as to fit the envelope. The fanzine was called Datakill and the print was tiny, each page crammed with information at all angles and in every available space in a typographic style most likely inspired by Skate Muties from the 5th Dimension, an earlier and similarly chaotic fanzine. Each page demanded that I concentrate in order to work out what I was actually looking at, and I eventually discerned fanzine, record and tape reviews - and mostly of the sort of stuff I liked, alongside interviews with the Severed Heads and Datblygu. I hadn't heard anything by the Severed Heads, and I'd never even heard of Datblygu but it all sounded pretty interesting.
I replied to Pranky, thanking him for his fanzine, expressing a regret that I wasn't really sure why he had written to me. I no longer produced anything I could send him in return, and he didn't seem to be looking for contributions even were I to come up with something. He didn't seem to mind, and had written mainly through a love of networking, which reminded me that I had been the same a few years earlier. There were thousands of us, all over the country and even the world, churning out our cranky fanzines and stubbornly esoteric music, all sending each other tapes or photocopied lists of tapes or whatever. Nobody had even considered calling it a scene so far as I was aware, and I was at least glad that it had continued in my absence. Pranky sent me a couple of tapes of Datblygu and some other bands he liked, and I returned the favour, and so we began to write each other long vaguely counter-cultural letters. Pranky wrote in all capitals and often green felt-tip. He used a lot of exclamation marks. He was interested in all sorts of stuff too, obscure music, conspiracy theories, outsider art, and anything generally regarded as weird. He also seemed to be fairly heavily into the writing of Robert Anton Wilson. I hadn't actually heard of the guy, but I recognised certain familiar obsessions in common with William Burroughs, Vague magazine and Psychic TV, not least the supposed ubiquity and possibly mystical significance of the number 23. In fact, thanks to my juvenile overinvestment in the low calorie philosophical musings of Porridge, I had already been bored thoroughly shitless by the supposed ubiquity and possibly mystical significance of the number 23 before I'd even finished school.
Possibly it was the relentless capitalisation, but Pranky's letters always suggested that he was shouting. He seemed loud and enthusiastic, a counter-cultural equivalent of the sports coach in American high school movies taking no crap, pooting no guff, firing off fifteen directives a second, making shit happen whether it wanted to happen or not.
Have you heard this?
Did you read that?
What do you think of this?
Isn't that a pile of shit?
It was exhausting but fun, longer and longer letters zipping back and forth, Jiffy bags bulging with all manner of crap, tapes, fanzines, paperbacks found in second-hand shops spilling out onto the carpet like a mail art version of the scene where they open up the shark and all the money sluices onto the deck, wads of dollar bills still sealed in plastic. I say mail art - which you can look up on Wikipedia if you care that much - although it really wasn't. Pranky seemed to like the term, and I never expressed an objection, but then more or less everything he did was capitalised by his own account, and I mean the subject as well as the letters, and then there were all those exclamation marks seasoning the message whether it needed it or not.
I JUST READ ABOUT SURVIVAL RESEARCH LABS IN RE/SEARCH + NOW I WANNA SEE THEIR VIDEOS!!!!!
You do????? Wow!!!!! That's amazing!!!!!
In November 1991 I caught a coach from London to Newport, having promised Pranky that I would visit him. He lived in Wales. My family went on holiday to Wales more or less yearly when I was a kid, and I hadn't seen the place in years. The coach journey was uneventful but entertaining, shared with four Welsh teenagers on their way back from Amsterdam and patently hungover. The quietest and most severely hungover of their group was named Dai, and he served as comedy scratching post for the other three on the grounds that he was probably still too drunk to fight back. They spent most of the journey spinning horror stories of what would happen to their colleague at the checkpoint on the Welsh border.
'How many dogs' bums have you got in your bag, Dai?'
Even I couldn't help laughing, but it was nervous laughter. There was something a bit weird about my going to meet Pranky McHoax! fnord 23, and I was slightly scared, imagining a sort of Welsh Jim Carrey shoving fanzines in my face and being four-hundred times more interesting than I could ever hope to be.
I alighted from the coach and Pranky was there to meet me, a quiet little googly-eyed bloke with glasses and a head which seemed slightly too big for his body. He'd driven into Newport to pick me up, and now we drove north to the town where he lived in central Wales. We spent the journey in awkward conversation about all sorts of stuff, obscure music, conspiracy theories, outsider art, and anything generally regarded as weird. It was a lot like reading one of his fanzines, just with less obvious enthusiasm. He lived with his dad, and I slept on the sofa for a couple of days, just hanging out, visiting places, talking about all sorts of stuff, obscure music, conspiracy theories, outsider art, and anything generally regarded as weird. Pranky didn't seem exactly lacking in social skills, but what social skills he had were calibrated to a peculiarly narrow focus. He reported or described things, often in great detail, but it was difficult to tell what he really thought of them, or how he felt about anything. My stay was not unpleasant, but I was glad it was to be only a matter of days.
Pranky's dad had recently retired, and I never quite worked out what had happened to his mother and didn't like to ask; and peculiarly I found it significantly easier to get on with the old boy than with the son. It was the same at work. The older generation always seemed to have more going for them than my contemporaries, and certainly more wit.
'I suppose you think we're all red-faced Taffs up here in Wales, don't you?' Pranky senior observed drily as we were introduced, and he continued to take the piss out of me for the rest of my stay. Next morning, being first to rise, I found myself temporarily flummoxed by their kettle, a design with which I was unfamiliar.
'Here, let me do it,' sighed Pranky senior shuffling into the kitchen in his dressing gown. 'Bloody genius from London,' he muttered.
Pranky and I shopped for records, purchased dubious second-hand flying saucer literature in Hay-on-Wye, and climbed a mountain. I would have been happier climbing more than one, having been obsessed with anything mountainous ever since those Welsh holidays of my youth, but Pranky didn't see the appeal, I suppose finding significantly less novelty in the geology of his surroundings.
It was a pleasant time, but an odd one, and it was a relief to get back to London and the more familiar territory of our respective letter writing personas.
A second issue of Datakill came out, at least as a somewhat disappointing stack of photocopies in an A4 plastic envelope of the kind purchased in packs of twenty from WHSmiths, and I myself re-engaged with the network as I took to self-publishing my own comics, and even releasing a tape of new music. Meanwhile, having had the flames of his existing obsessions stoked by, amongst other things, certain issues of Re/Search, and keen to break away from the admittedly limited field of the music fanzine, Pranky changed direction, channelling his not inconsiderable energies into Hoax!, a fanzine dedicated to pranks, hoaxes, conspiracies, good old fashioned lies, subversive or otherwise counter-cultural activities, networking, and whatever else he felt like writing about. A lot of work went into the thing and it proved quite popular. It shared some territory with Re/Search, some with Vague, but was otherwise more or less it's own thing and even caught the attention of You've Been Framed presenter Jeremy Beadle, then hosting his own radio show on some station or other. You've Been Framed was a laboured early evening entertainment show in which hidden cameras film the horrified faces of unsuspecting members of the general public as they return home to find, for example, that the greenhouse is full of raspberry jam; and Beadle, the supermarket's own brand Noel Edmonds, was a fan of Hoax!
This is a good thing, is it? I asked in so many words, the patronage of Jeremy Beadle not really being much to boast about, I wouldn't have thought; but Pranky believed otherwise. He'd spoken to Jeremy and they were on first name terms. Apparently the presenter wasn't such a square in real life. He had even been in one of the early line ups of Test Department but had ended up having to jack it in, what with the tiny hand and everything.
I just made up that last part. It was a hoax!
Pranky really did seem to be buddying up with Beadle though. I wouldn't joke about that sort of shit. They bonded with particular adhesive strength over cassettes of prank phone calls.
'Hello, could I speak to Mr. Johnson please?'
'Yes. Who is this?'
'It's me, William Burroughs the writer.'
'No - William Burroughs.'
'I think you've got the wrong number.'
'I'm not really William Burroughs!'
'Fooled you! Ha ha!'
Pranky asked me to draw a cover for the second issue of Hoax! I said yes, then immediately regretted it when the letter came with a list of forty or fifty elements to be included in the illustration, every possible detail right down to the drawing pins scattered on the pavement. Given that no actual offer of payment had been made, it felt a little as though I'd asked if anyone wanted anything from the cornershop seeing as I was going that way, and been handed a list of parts required for assembly of a basic jet engine. The cover star was to be Bugs Bunny, which was something to do with Pranky's long-winded theory about the cartoon rabbit being a symbol of anarchy descended directly from the mythological Trickster of the American south-west, and the rest was all tittersome references to the number 23, Situationism, phone pranks, and the usual shite which had been getting boring even when clogging up the pages of Vague back in the eighties. I drew the cover, and gave Bugs Bunny realistic human genitals specifically because they hadn't been requested in the long, long list of stuff I'd apparently agreed to draw. I wanted to see if Pranky McHoax! fnord 23 could take the jocular punches as well as he was keen to see them dished out. It turned out that he couldn't, and the cover star's meat and two veg were tippexed out because he couldn't stand to see Bugs humiliated in such a way, as he wrote by way of explanation. I was bemused, but I was even more bemused a couple of weeks later when I saw the second issue of Hoax! on sale at a stall at a free festival in New Cross, and bemused because it was my cover and I hadn't received a contributor copy at that point.
He asked me to draw a cartoon strip for Hoax! I said okay and he sent me a script for something called The Fabulous Phoney Phreak Brothers riffing on Gilbert Shelton's considerably funnier strip subverted to a chucklesome take on pranks, hoaxes, conspiracies, good old fashioned lies, subversive or otherwise counter-cultural activities, and networking. The script was something like fifty pages in length. I drew two panels and came to my senses. I had better things to do with my time.
Pranky began to visit London, usually to attend small press or fanzine events. Hoax! seemed to be everywhere, and the third issue was a big fat thing with a three colour glossy cover of more than a hundred pages. Personally I was finding it less entertaining than it had been, pranks, hoaxes, conspiracies, good old fashioned lies, subversive or otherwise counter-cultural activities, and networking being limited subjects with nowhere interesting to go once you were done tittering; but it was Pranky's thing and he seemed to get a lot out of it, so whatever. Possibly he would eventually reign it in, maybe even move onto something more interesting. He would get the message, perhaps even realising that the rest of us couldn't give a shit about the number 23.
He didn't get the message, and his correspondence became weirder and weirder, larger and larger Jiffy bags mummified in miles of plastic tape the shape and size of something upon which a tramp could reasonably expect to get a good night's sleep. I would hack the thing open, read the letter, and wonder why I should have been chosen as recipient to the rest of it. The tapes would contain interviews or radio features on Manson, Porridge, Robert Anton Wilson, the usual suspects; samples of Pranky's own music, which was actually decent but for laboured titles parenthesised with pseudo-occultural word salad - John Wayne Sleep Gacy Racey Sale-at-Macy's 23 Remix or similar; and the rest would be Cassandra Complex live tracks, Pigface b-sides, Al Jourgensen side projects and others from the industrial rock bargain bin. There was never a real reason to listen to the tapes, or at least not all of the tapes, and the cassettes were too knackered to be worth recording over, and yet some effort had gone into their compilation at some stage, so it wouldn't have felt quite right to just chuck them in the bin. I could have given them to someone else, but no-one would have wanted them, and that was probably how half of them had ended up inside the parcel in the first place. Pranky may as well have been posting me the contents of his dustbin, and sometimes amongst the stacks of paper were reams and reams of surplus photocopied images of the kind which result when a pre-internet fanzine editor is putting together the latest issue of his masterpiece. It was sent with the subtext, here's a pile of random crap - it won't all be of use or interest, but maybe some of it will, which wasn't actually a hostile act, but would have looked more or less the same had it been. Sometimes it took days to recover, to process all this shite.
Please stop, I asked him.
He didn't, and if anything it got worse. Make some joke about Coronation Street containing secret coded messages originated from Terry Wogan and broadcast for the benefit of an alien civilisation inhabiting a planet in the vicinity of Sirius, and the next twenty pages of green felt-tipped correspondence would contain numerous tittering references to the same alongside pages of photocopied magazine articles, books, cassettes, or videotapes rescued from charity shops, whatever the fuck he could find with even the most tenuous connection to Coronation Street, Terry Wogan, or the astronomy of the region around Sirius - VHS tapes alternating episodes of Blankety Blank with alien abduction documentaries. It got even worse when he discovered the internet, then still very much in its infancy.
I had undertaken to start my own religion based upon worship of Ringo Starr, in turn based upon how much I'd laughed when a friend described Ringo Starr as the luckiest man in the world. The religion was to manifest as a series of tracts, of which only one was ever printed, essentially a parody of Current 93 and Temple of Psychic Youth literature spun around the notion of Ringo Starr as an esoteric messiah in the Aleister Crowley tradition. Thee Church ov RINGO was an exercise in postmodern sarcasm and accumulated about twenty or thirty members with fancy certificates and laminated membership cards. Tract, as the aforementioned tract was called, comprised material sent in by whoever felt like sending anything, a disproportionate quota of which came from Pranky, a stream which became such a deluge as to inspire me to disgust for what was roughly speaking my own creation. The straw that broke the camel's back was an eighty page story of generic sword and sorcery presumably nicked from the internet. Pranky had gone through the entire text replacing the name of the main character with Ringo. Seriously, I wondered, what the fuck did he really think I was going to do with this shit?
Amongst the material to be hoovered up by the indiscriminately tittering blender of Hoax! was a whole lot of Neoism which, if it helps, is described thus by Wikipedia:
Neoism is a parodistic -ism. It refers both to a specific subcultural network of artistic performance and media experimentalists, and more generally to a practical underground philosophy. It operates with collectively shared pseudonyms and identities, pranks, paradoxes, plagiarism and fakes, and has created multiple contradicting definitions of itself in order to defy categorization and historization.
This explained much of Pranky's creative output, and also why he asked if he could publish his fanzines under the heading of Runciter Corporation, the name of my own imprint and tape label.
I told him certainly not.
My friend Paul and I had elected to go halves on a mailing address, specifically a postbox with British Monomarks. Paul produced a fanzine called Gneurosis and I had various things on the go, and so we could each pay a tenner or so every couple of months for an address which would appear on all of our works, saving the trouble of angry nutters turning up at our homes, or mail sent to addresses reproduced in the pages of older fanzines going astray when one of us moved. Pranky McHoax! fnord 23 liked this idea and asked if he could make use of our postbox address for some one off undertaking requiring a certain degree of anonymity. Neither Paul nor I had any problem with the idea, so we said okay. Pranky sent the Valentine's Day card, that being his primary intention, and then took to giving out the box address as his own, as though he was sharing it with Paul and myself. He even printed it inside one of his fanzines, apparently missing the distinction that Paul and I were paying for the box address, and paying for stuff to be forwarded from the box address to our homes. Now we were getting shit addressed to him in with our mail, and somehow he had figured that neither of us would mind, or maybe he simply hadn't given it any thought at all.
'Hey there,' I said directly to his face one day, 'you know how you've given out our British Monomark box as your mailing address in the latest issue of your thing?'
'Yes.' He looked nervous, but then he always looked nervous.
'Well, don't fucking do it. I don't want to get your post and then have to forward it to you. I wouldn't have minded so much but you didn't even ask.'
This was unusually direct of me, but the situation seemed to be coming to a head. Everyone I knew was exhausted with Pranky McHoax! fnord 23. He had come down to London to stay for a couple of days, visiting some sort of small press event. This was the third or fourth time. The problem was that, as stated, beyond pranks, hoaxes, conspiracies, good old fashioned lies, subversive or otherwise counter-cultural activities, and networking, he had no interests. He was a poor conversationalist, and if he initiated a conversation the first words out of his mouth would usually be did you know that followed by some wearying trivia involving the number 23, or prank phone calls, or an obscure producer of balls-achingly poor industrial music, or Jeremy fucking Beadle. Occasionally he would hint at a supposed prehistory of reckless abandon, booze, sex, and the sort of hard drugs which made Syd Barrett the lobster he is today - or at least was in 1995 - but Pranky's testimony seemed unconvincing. He may as well have been telling us about his misspent youth as a gunslinger in the old west. He didn't smoke; he didn't drink; he'd sip cautiously at a half of shandy in the pub, and there was no point even trying to cook for him because he had his bottle of coke and his little packet of cheese footballs.
'No, I'm fine, thank you very much.'
For someone so relentlessly fixated on subversive mayhem, he presented an oddly joyless character, a little Celtic tickertape machine dispensing an endless stream of factual novelties, and never really engaging with anything outside his chosen field of tittering subversion; and he got away with it because we felt sorry for him; and here he was once again in my flat, and I couldn't work out why we still knew each other.
I'd had an exhausting day at work as usual, a six o'clock start followed by eight hours of hard physical labour. I had rested in the afternoon, but it was never enough, and all I wanted to do was eat my doner kebab and watch fucking Brookside, my favourite television programme in all the world. Nat Simpson seemed to be knobbing his own sister so far as anyone could tell, Mick Johnson was off his box on steroids, and Jimmy Corkhill had, against all odds, transformed into some sort of role model to the unfortunate Tinhead. It was dynamite, and then came the knock at the door just as the show began.
Pranky had been in town all day, dealing with small press things, noting with not inconsiderable amusement the preponderance of the number 23, and that the 23 bus route goes past Liverpool Street station and Liverpool is the birthplace of Ringo and Mark Pawson said this really funny thing blah blah blah Jeremy Beadle blah blah blah illuminati blah blah blah…
'Listen,' I suggested. 'Do you think you could find somewhere else to stay tomorrow evening?'
That threw him a little. 'Okay,' then he continued to talk bollocks throughout the rest of Brookside.
Next morning he was gone, leaving just a pile of about fifty copies of Message from the Sun God, an A4 fanzine he'd had printed comprising a lengthy rant - a good thirty or so pages - lifted wholesale from some nutcase on the internet. There was no reason on earth why anyone would want to read it, aside possibly from members of the psychiatric profession, and Pranky had paid money to have it printed; and there on the inside cover was the British Monomark box address I had asked him to refrain from using as his own. Maybe he thought I was joking, or maybe he didn't believe the fanzine would generate any mail so it didn't matter, or maybe I had been subject to an hilarious prank. For the next year mail continued to turn up addressed to the Sun God. I threw it away, just as I had stuffed all those copies of Message from the Sun God in the recycling bin rather than, as had probably been intended, leave them on buses to mess with people's minds blah blah blah. He called it culture jamming, because whatever the fuck it was he was doing with his life really needed a special name.
Mail turned up from Pranky himself, a battered Jiffy bag the size of a small suitcase doubtless bulging with Scientology pamphlets and Neon Judgement live tapes. I marked it not known at this address and had it returned to sender.
I felt guilty, and continue to feel some small degree of guilt to this day, although I've a hunch it may simply be pity. Pranky was not necessarily a malicious person. He was just a bit of a bore with poor social skills, and he probably knew it to some extent and couldn't help it; and even if he wasn't intentionally taking the piss, it often felt that way. It's a shame, but the world is full of sad, sad stories, and sometimes when someone is a pain in the arse, the kindest thing you can do is tell them to fuck off.
More than a decade later he resurfaces on YouTube as a stand-up comedian. His routine involves creaking puns made in reference to a series of unlikely objects produced from within a suitcase. The camera cuts to the audience, unfortunately exposing the fact of the soundtrack of uproarious hysterics having derived from a source other than those who sit politely chuckling and wondering if this is what this bloke intends to do for the duration of his act. The funniest thing about the clip is its single response in the comments box:
I have worked with the biggest names in world comedy like Jimmy Tarbuck, Bruce Forsyth and Joe Pascquale but I have never witnessed such talent, timing, original material and pizazz in the one package. Were you beamed down in a UFO from Planet Comedy? You seem to have an unearthly quality. I was pissing in my Armani slacks watching this, it's incredible… the hat out of the rabbit - sheer genius. I can try book you into the O2 Arena and we will take it from there. You are a magic comedian.
Even as I read the words, I weigh up the possibility of Pranky McHoax! fnord 23 having submitted the comment himself from a different account, and that he was absolutely sincere, and just for a moment I feel incredibly sad.