Posts Tagged ‘spiders’

Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, Peter Hook (Simon & Schuster 2012)

It’s not bad going to have been central to two of the biggest and most important bands in British musical history. This is the autobiography of the man who achieved exactly that: Peter Hook, who was bassist first in Joy Division and then in New Order. If I were a fan of either of those bands, I’d’ve liked the book even more. I’m not, but I can see their importance.

I can also see that Peter Hook was not one of the two “thick bastards” in Joy Division. That’s what he calls himself and Bernard Sumner, the guitarist who accompanied him into New Order. It’s not true. Hook doesn’t acknowledge a co-writer on this book and although it sometimes reads as though it’s transcribed from a session down the pub, it reads well too and is full of intelligent commentary on Joy Division’s music. Okay, the singer Ian Curtis might have been the most intelligent and creative member of Joy Division. He was certainly the best-looking, most charismatic and attention-grabbing, first because of his epilepsy and then because of his suicide.

But he was also the sort of person who would say “in terms of”. Peter Hook wasn’t and I hope he still isn’t. He didn’t have the background for it or acquire the artistic pretensions when he was growing up. His background was rough: he was born Peter Woodhead in Salford in 1956. Then his parents divorced and he acquired a stepfather called William Hook, who took his new family off to Jamaica, where Hook Snr had found work as an engineer in a glass-works. Jamaica was quite a contrast with dour, drab, drizzly Manchester. As Peter Hook says: “You know how I said that life in Salford had been in black and white? Well in Jamaica it was definitely in colour.” (pg. 7)

That’s in chapter one, which is entitled: “For seventeen days that’s all we had, chicken and chips.” That’s a reference to what they ate on the boat over to Jamaica, because Hook’s mother, like many working-class Brits, was resolutely unadventurous in her gustatory habits: “She could hardly bear to eat anything that came from south of Salford.” (pg. 5) She passed that conservatism onto her son and he wouldn’t lose it until he was in his twenties and, inter alia, tried a curry being eaten by a member of Cabaret Voltaire (pg. 239). He’d probably have lost it sooner if he’d stayed in Jamaica. And who knows where he’d be today if he had?

But he didn’t. His mother got homesick and the family came back to the black-and-white of Salford. That was one of Hook’s early lessons in the what-might-have-beens of life. If he’d stayed in Jamaica, he might still have become a famous and successful musician. But he wouldn’t have been playing anything like the music of Joy Division. Maybe only Mancunians could have produced that and maybe only Mancunians born in the 1950s.

One thing is certain: they had to be intelligent Mancunians and Hook was intelligent enough to pass his Eleven Plus and win a place at Salford Grammar School. He gives the credit for that to his time in a more demanding Jamaican school and maybe that was part of it. But a school can demand and not get if the pupil isn’t bright enough. Hook was. So was Bernard Sumner, who was also born in 1956 in Salford and who also passed his Eleven Plus. That’s how he and Hook began their long but sometimes prickly friendship: “I met Barney in that first year at Salford Grammar. He still gets really annoyed when I call him Barney.” (pg. 10)

He is probably also annoyed by chapter headings like “Barney would always eat on his own or in the bath” and by the descriptions of his “infamous sleeping bag”. Hook is undoubtedly mythologizing, telling in-jokes and taking the piss at times, because a book like this has two audiences. Insiders and outsiders, or people who were there at the time and people who weren’t. Either way, they’ll interested to hear Hook’s side of the story. And he emphasizes that it is always his side of the story. Other people remember things differently. And they’re not necessarily wrong to do so: Hook says that Ian Curtis is remembered in very different ways because he was a “chameleon” could put on very different characters depending on who he was with. (pg. 235)

But that’s much later in the book. Before then, Hook had to live through his time as a lazy schoolboy who became a thieving Salford skinhead and scally, then his time as a local government clerk and chalet-worker. As for the working-class boys of Black Sabbath, music was his way out. And the Sex Pistols were the sign-post. Hook and Sumner were among the fifty or so who attended the now-legendary Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 4th June 1976. Tickets were 50p, the support was Solstice, and the impact of the headliners was life-transforming. The Sex Pistols came, were seen, and conquered. Hook describes them like this:

What made them special, without a shadow of a doubt, was Johnny Rotten. The tunes were only part of the package – and probably the least important part of it, if I’m honest. Close your eyes and like I say you had a conventional pub-rock band with a soundman who either didn’t have a clue or was being very clever indeed. But who was going to close their eyes when he, Johnny Rotten, was standing there? (“Normal band, normal night, few people watching”, pg. 38)

Hook and Sumner were immediately inspired to form their own band. They had the usual trouble with finding and keeping a good drummer, then had the luck to pick up a singer who could rival Johnny Rotten for charisma and intelligence. But in a very different way: Ian Curtis was literary and “arty” in a way that John Lydon wasn’t. For example, he was a fan of William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard, as Joy Division’s song-titles and lyrics would show. But writers like that meant nothing to Hook and he says he didn’t pay proper attention to Curtis’s lyrics until after the suicide.

That doesn’t mean he was a passenger on the S.S. Joy Division. His bass was central to their sound and his appearance was central to their gigs. I got the impression that he was very tall because he carried his bass very low. But he wasn’t. He says he was inspired to use a “long strap” by Paul Simonon of The Clash (pg. 111), but:

Sound-wise I was most influenced by Jean-Jacques Burnel of the Stranglers. I used to listen to his bass on “Peaches” and “Five Minutes” and think, That’s how I want to sound. When I went to see them at the Bingley Hall in Stafford I wrote down his equipment, a Vox 2×15 cab and Hi-Watt head, then went out and bought the lot, and it was magnificent, sounded wonderful. So, I got my sound from Jean-Jacques and my strap from Paul Simonon. I’m so pleased I never got into Level 42. (“We need to get rid of this Nazi artwork”, pg. 112)

I laughed at that last line, because I’m old enough to know about Level 42. But you won’t need to know about bands or anything else from that time and place to find this book very funny in places:

That was when we discovered that it was easier to give drink away than it was to get people to pay for it – an important lesson, that, and one we made great use of during the Haçienda years. (“Timeline Four: January-December 1979”, pg. 232)

Hook has a sly and sardonic wit. He and Barney enjoyed playing practical jokes on other band-members and on other bands (Barney “can’t take them, mind, as you’ll discover”). But he says that he wishes he’d spent less time doing that and more time paying attention to the problems Ian Curtis was having. Most readers won’t have heard of one of those problems before:

Having piles was a feature of being in Joy Division. Ian got them from sitting on the heater at T.J. Davidson’s [a cold rehearsal studio] and both Twinny [a roadie] and I got them from the van during the European tour in 1980. [JD’s manager] Terry Mason’s would regularly explode. But you know what? As far as I know, Bernard never had piles, just a sore arse. (“Timeline Two: June 1976-December 1977”, pg. 90)

Hook isn’t a hagiographer and Curtis wasn’t hagiographable. Like Kurt Cobain’s, his suicide starts to look more and more inevitable in hindsight. And there were big similarities between Cobain and Curtis: both were highly intelligent and autodidactic, both had tortured, introspective psychologies and serious chronic illnesses, both had troubled relationships with their wives and friends. They left “young and good-looking corpses” by different means, Curtis with a rope and Cobain with a shot-gun, but that reflects the nations they lived in. Not that their corpses were good-looking, of course. It was the photographs and films taken before then that were good-looking.

Image is an essential part of rock music. But Joy Division had much more of a hinterland than Nirvana, I’d say. They were more innovative and original in their music, more intelligent in their lyrics, more eclectic in their influences. The “thick bastard” Peter Hook can claim a lot of credit for the musical innovation and originality. So can his fellow thickie Bernard Sumner, whose obsession with the Second World War influenced the image and designs that helped the band to fame. Those designs included the picture of a “Hitler Youth banging a drum” on their Ideal for Living EP.

But it was Ian Curtis who took the name “Joy Division” from the supposed Holocaust-memoir House of Dolls (1955), where it was given to women working as prostitutes in a concentration camp. Joy Division would have been a good sardonic name if it had been invented from nothing. Alas for Hooky and Co, it wasn’t. The source of their name and the drumming Hitler-Youth inspired the first of the “Are you Nazis?” questions that would haunt the band for the rest of their career. That’s why Hook ends his autobiography with these words, describing how the remaining members of Joy Division decided to carry on after Ian Curtis’s suicide:

Then there was the business of finding a new name. We sat down one day to come up with one, thinking that we were going to learn our lesson this time, and that whatever name we came up with wouldn’t be anything even vaguely Nazi-sounding.

No way, we thought. No fucking way were we going to make that mistake again. (“Epilogue”, pg. 274)

They did make that mistake again, of course. Only it can’t really have been a mistake. They were being sardonic again. And stubborn. It was northern bloody-mindedness. But although Hook often refers to the north and being northern, he doesn’t have the northern inferiority-complex you can see in his fellow Mancunian’s Anthony Burgess’s Little Wilson and Big God (1986). As a self-proclaimed “thick bastard”, he doesn’t mind being inferior.

Only Hook isn’t a Mancunian: he’s a Salfordian. The late great Tony Wilson introduced Joy Division’s first TV appearance like this: “They’re a Manchester band, with the exception of the guitarist, who comes from Salford – very important difference.” Hook reacted like this:

Fucking tosser – “the guitarist who comes from Salford”? Two of us came from Salford. I was really annoyed. I was proud of my roots, whereas Bernard always played them down. (“We need to get rid of this Nazi artwork”, pg. 110)

“Fucking tosser” is how many people reacted to Tony Wilson, but Wilson didn’t mind. Like Ian Curtis, he was the kind of person who would say “in terms of”; unlike Ian Curtis, the phrase suited him. He and his Factory label are central to the story of Joy Division and New Order, and he maybe doesn’t get the space he deserves here. He certainly wouldn’t think so and he was certainly an interesting character: flamboyant, narcissistic, publicity-hungry, and Svengali-esque. Or so he no doubt liked to think of himself. As Hook writes: “One of Tony’s favourite sayings was: ‘Always keep your bands poor. That way they make great music.’” (pg. 245)

Hook thinks he was right. Being poor and literally hungry has been responsible for a lot of great music. Joy Division are one example and if you’re a fan you should definitely read this book. It doesn’t have any hot groupie-action, but it has a lot more that you don’t usually find in a rock autobiography, like Hook’s encounter with some huge, home-invading Jamaican spiders and the time he was questioned by the police as a possible Yorkshire Ripper. That was because his van had been spotted regularly in the red-light districts of “Bradford, Huddersfield, Leeds, Moss Side…” (pg. 118) He explained to the police that he was playing clubs there in a band called Joy Division. The police “had never heard of them.” Hook comments: “Probably Level 42 fans.”

A few years later, though, the same policemen might well have been New Order fans. Hook writes about New Order in a later autobiography and I’d definitely like to read that after finishing this. I’d also like to read Hook’s The Haçienda: How Not to Run a Club (2010). If it’s funnier than this book, and it probably is, then it must be very funny.


Read Full Post »

Gossamer Days: Spiders, Humans and Their Threads, Eleanor Morgan (Strange Attractor Press 2016)

Spiders are special. Like cats among the mammals, there’s a magic and a mystery to them that make them unique among the arthropods or the arachnids. Scorpions are simply sinister: spiders are simultaneously sinister and special.

Why so? It’s their webs and their waiting. Spiders that don’t spin webs still have something special about them, but that’s partly because of their web-spinning cousins. The web is the key. And Eleanor Morgan begins this book as she will go on: writing about the key to the web:

In the late summer of 2004 I began to collect the silk of spiders. These are the gossamer days, the time of year when every bush, railing, gap and crevice seems to sparkle with threads of spider web. (Introduction, pg. xv)

She’s an “artist and writer”, not a biologist, and in 2013 she completed a “PhD on the human uses of spider silk at the Slade School of Fine Art and the Department of Anthropology, University College London”. That was not a good sign, but this isn’t a pretentious, verbose or po-mo-polluted book. The first epigraph is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and there’s no ugly jargon from cultural theory. Instead, she tells interesting stories from around the world about spiders and the human beings who have collected their silk and tried to create things with it.

It has amazing properties after all, and although silk-worms have proved much easier to harvest, some garments have been made from spider-silk. And so have some gun-sights: spider-silk was once used for cross-hairs:

At the Vickers’ optical instruments factory in York, boys were still being sent out in the 1960s to look for spiders. They searched early in the morning, while the dew was still on the ground and on the spider webs, so that they were easier to spot. Each spider was placed in a separate pillbox to avoid them eating each other. […] After the silk had been collected, the spiders were returned to the common and new ones collected next morning. (pg. 44)

That’s from chapter 2, “Lining”, which has an epigraph from Euclid: “A line is a length without breadth.” Spider-silk was once the closest approach to that abstract ideal, combining extreme fineness with great strength. And great elasticity too: in chapter 5, “Vibrating”, Morgan looks at spider-silk as a form of telegraph, alerting spiders to edible captures in their webs. There are also legends about spiders being attracted by other kinds of vibration: music and singing. But did they really and regularly descend from the ceiling to hear the singing at a girls’ school in Victorian London? It doesn’t seem so, but it’s a good story and another example of the threads that human weave about spiders.

Other chapters including “Weaving”, “Transforming”, “Lining” and “Layering”. In “Layering”, Morgan writes about visiting the Science Museum in London and viewing a sinister “smothering hood” fashioned from spider-silk on the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). The hood was used to “suffocate widows immediately after the deaths of their husbands, so that they might continue their ‘wifely ministrations’ in the next world.” (pg. 85) Or so old records at the Museum say. In fact, the smothering hood she looks at is nothing of the kind: it’s really “a spider web headdress worn in male initiation ceremonies” (pg. 88). Spiders often appear in magic, myth and religion, and here’s an unusual example. Were the male initiates pretending to be spiders? Again, it doesn’t seem so, but wearing the headdress was a way of smothering oneself in the specialness of spiders.

Metaphorically speaking, so is this book. It has many more strange and interesting stories and ideas, plus some strange and interesting drawings and photographs. The biggest flaw is the lack of an index. And it’s a bigger flaw than usual here. After all, an index is rather like a spider at the centre of a web, registering the vibrations in its threads. Without an index, you don’t know what’s caught in the text-web. And I would have liked more images of real spiders and their webs: the beautiful pencil-sketch of Araneus diadematus on page 4 seemed to promise more, but more didn’t come.

I assume the sketch was by Eleanor Morgan herself. If so, she draws as she writes: clearly and compellingly. Gossamer Days is a special book about special creatures. But it should be read in conjunction with a more scientific text, because spiders and their silk have more secrets and specialness than Morgan has room to describe here.

Read Full Post »

Super Bugs: The Biggest, Fastest, Deadliest Creepy Crawlies on the Planet, John Woodward with Dr George McGavin (Dorling Kindersley 2016)

Super Bugs is a big and lavishly illustrated book aimed at children, but I think adults will get the most out of it. It beats film and the internet on their own ground: the images are very powerful and very detailed. In fact, if you’re an arachnophobe or an entomophobe, I wouldn’t recommend opening it. There are spiders here as big as hats and beetles as big as small dogs.

I’m fascinated rather than repulsed by spiders and insects, but I wouldn’t like to meet a vinegaroon in the flesh – or in the oil-dark, glittering carapace. But vinegaroons, or whip scorpions, look more ferocious than they are. They defend themselves by spraying a vinegar-like chemical, hence their name. Not deadly.

Centipedes and real scorpions, on the other hand, are as fearsome as they look. The giant centipede on pages 52 and 53 is magnified to the thickness of an arm, with poisonous fangs as big as fingers. I was uncomfortably reminded of James Bond’s encounter with a giant centipede in Dr No (1958), but the image would probably been more disturbing if it had been life-sized, rather than much bigger.

Then it would have looked more real. A centipede can’t grow as big as an arm and you don’t have to know about oxygen-diffusion and the inefficiency of arthropod respiration to understand that. But we would have understood centipedes and other arthropods quicker if they were so big, because then we would have seen the details of their bodies more clearly. The microscope has been essential to the development of modern science and the giant photos here are a reminder of that.

So are the short but interesting texts that accompany each photo section. There is a world of wonder inside and outside the most ordinary-seeming insect. Not that any insect is really ordinary, but this book collects some of the strangest, from wasps with metal in their ovipositors to beetles that look like violins. Plus peacock spiders, anaesthetic-equipped ticks, and star-shaped-egg-laying tardigrades, which might be called the toughest of the tiniest.

Read Full Post »

Front cover of Steve Backshall's Most Poisonous CreaturesSteve Backshall’s Most Poisonous Creatures, Steve Backshall (New Holland 2013)

As the BBC naturalist Steve Backshall says in his introduction: “Human beings have an unhealthy obsession with any animal that can maim or mutilate, and those that deliver venom are obviously high on our fascination list.” But is it unhealthy? It’s wise to pay attention to dangerous things and it’s possible that some animals in this book have become part of our DNA. Human beings were once monkeys and monkeys have an instinctive fear of snakes (though it needs to be primed). If there’s an instinctive fear of snakes, why not of spiders and scorpions too?

There are lots of snakes in this book, but not so many spiders and few scorpions. The latter two are a more specialized taste and a popular book doesn’t want too many of them. Snakes often inspire respect, spiders and scorpions often inspire repulsion. As do centipedes and cane-toads. Some venomous animals look villainous, some poisonous ones look painful. Some don’t. Phyllobates terribilis is “believed to have enough poison to kill ten men”. But it’s a harmless-looking golden frog shown here perched on a scarlet flower (pg. 10). If you saw one, you’d feel like picking it up. Which would be a very bad idea.

That also applies to the two species of blue-ringed octopus, Hapalochlaena lunulata and H. maculosa, found around the Australian coast. Again, it’s a very bad idea to pick one up: “one tiny, golf-ball-sized octopus can have enough venom to kill 26 people” (pg. 115). That combination of delicacy and deadliness gives a special power to the poison-dart frogs and the blue-ringed octopus. Australia’s deadliest snake is more conventionally disturbing:

The most powerful venom, drop for drop, is produced by the inland Taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidatus): a single drop from this beautiful snake is enough to kill 250,000 mice and by extrapolation, 100 people! However, no-one has ever been killed by one. This is mainly because they are shy snakes that tend to avoid human contact. (pg. 120)

Australia is famous for strange and dangerous wildlife, but its cars are much deadlier than its snakes or octopuses. Less dangerous, but even stranger is the duckbilled platypus, Ornithorhyncus anatinus. Very few mammals lay eggs and very few use venom. The platypus does both, though not at the same time: the females lay eggs and the males use venom, injecting it with “moveable spurs on the rear legs” (pg. 118). One Vietnam veteran who experienced a platypus sting said it was more painful than a bullet-wound.

But there’s even more toxicological strangeness in that part of the world: Papua New Guinea has at least one poisonous bird, Pitohui dichrous, the hooded pitohui. It uses the batracho-toxins first discovered in, and named for, the poison-dart frogs of South America, just as the blue-ringed octopus uses the tetrodotoxin first discovered in, and named for, the pufferfish, Tetraodontidae spp. All these groups get their deadly chemicals from their diet: insects, plankton and so on.

So why don’t they die from their diet? That’s one of the interesting questions about the animals in this book: their venoms and poisons have to be dangerous to others and harmless to themselves. It’s a question of chemistry, one way or another. Either the animal has a way of neutralizing the effects of its own poisons or it stores them away from the rest of its body, creating some kind of barrier to their spread. Richard Dawkins has described evolution as a blind watchmaker, but the watchmaker is really a chemist. And an electro-chemist. Nerve-signals, and the toxins that interfere with them, don’t run on copper wires. They flash through flesh instead, carrying the pain of a bite or sting. Or the patterns of a dangerous animal’s skin or scales: it pays to advertise when you’re poisonous. And perhaps some feathers are advertising too: Backshall suggests the birds of paradise on New Guinea may look spectacular as a warning for predators, not simply as a signal for mates.

Poisonous birds are a recent discovery and there may be more surprises in store: biology is a big field, though Backshall ends the book by noting that it’s getting smaller. More people mean less space for fewer animals and pollution is the deadliest poison of all. Another big poison is television: it dulls more brains and stifles more minds than anything Mother Nature ever devised. But this book wouldn’t exist without TV and Homo sapiens is part of nature, just like shrews, salamanders and slow lorises. We’ve just added more complexity to the game of evolution: we haven’t escaped it. The rules that apply to animals also apply to us and toxicology is one of the most interesting areas of biology. This is a good introduction full of photos, folklore and facts about everything from snakes, octopuses and platypuses to jellyfish, water-boatmen and the Komodo dragon.

Read Full Post »