Lee Brackstone goes on a fishy Mersey mission in this behind-the-scenes glimpse at ‘Welcome to the Dark Ages’, the 3-day event held in Liverpool by The JAMs (formerly known as The KLF) earlier this week for the launch of their new book 2023.
It had been planned and discussed for some time. The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu and a small entourage were to travel to the source of the Mersey on 22nd August and release a live perch into its waters. There was also to be a ceremonial handing over of the advance to the authors in live cash (as it were) that afternoon, 22 years and 364 days after the infamous events of 23rd August 1994 on the Isle of Jura. Perhaps this was a form of psychic reparation or penance for an act that has come to define the post-K Foundation careers of Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond. Perhaps not. I had come to see the money burning not as something which ‘haunted’ Bill and Jimmy as people have often said. At times they even seemed bored by it. And wouldn’t you be, if this single act had come to be the signature tune that accompanied your every future move?
But the artists once known as The KLF refuse to be defined by a single work of art and to claim the money burning as their version of Duchamp’s ‘ready made’ would be naive. The point of The JAMs is that they mutate, regenerate, revisit and recreate everything. Nothing is stable. Indeed instability itself is something to aspire to. We have come to believe there is a virtuous relationship between intention, action and consequence. That these three points may come together to create a triangle of trust and confirmation. Time and again The JAMs perform a spectacular act of sabotage which fractures the narrative line between intention and consequence. That’s the point. That there is no destination. There is, simply, the act.
And so I arrived in Liverpool at Tuesday lunchtime for a meeting with The JAMs, the day of the book launch for 2023. Already, there was a problem: the perch had not been procured. And procuring a perch was proving problematic. Calls were made to local fisheries, contacts at the docks in Liverpool, and, I expect, even a few local pet shops. I had a lead at one point in Shropshire. The helpful gentleman had plenty of perch, but he would have to net the whole pond (or was it a lake?), and doing so at this time of year would perhaps fatally disturb them. In my head I’d imagined by this point we’d be by a bubbling spring in the hills of the Peak District somewhere outside of Stockport (the source of the Mersey is in fact the confluence of the River Tame and Goyt, hereabouts). It would be damp and perhaps a little misty. I’d pull out a wad or perhaps a small suitcase of £50 notes and begin the transaction. Bill would pull out a perch and Jimmy, with the sensitive touch of a man who knows how to birth an art project into the world, would free the baby perch. The fish, a kind of emissary for The JAMs, would make its way down the Mersey by way of the Manchester Ship Canal (a suitably Grim Up North urban spin on the otherwise bucolic proceedings) and emerge triumphant some 70 plus miles later into the vastness of Liverpool Bay. I have no idea how long it might take a baby perch to swim 70 miles. I suppose in part it depends upon how distracted and hungry it gets along the way. While I had been sworn to secrecy about the whole idea, I had compensated by romanticising it in my head.
Later that night, as we gathered at News from Nowhere — a bookshop on Bold Street — for the release of the book and the ice cream van’s entrance, I received some good news. Bill had found a perch. In fact, he had found ten baby perch (from where, I know not) and they were being looked after and fed (maggots, I think) by a local friend involved in the Welcome to the Dark Ages three-day JAMs event. Why ten? ‘Well, what if one of them dies? Bill said. We were back on. And plans were made to meet at midday on the 23rd (the 23-year anniversary of the backdated moratorium) to meet and perform the ritual. There had been no mention of the money — the publication advance that is.
We gathered on the 23rd to make the 40-minute-or-so journey east to the source of the Mersey. Except we weren’t going to the source. We were going to drive in the general direction of Warrington, find the river (or the canal) and release the perch in a no doubt sombre, reflective and respectful way. Except we weren’t. I arrived and Jimmy said this: ‘You do know they’re all dead don’t you?’ All ten perch had perished overnight. We had gone from zero perch to ten perch to zero perch in about 16 hours. This is something that could only happen in The JAMs environment. Bill suggested perhaps the perch had gone on hunger strike. I wondered what they had been protesting. Rather self-righteously thinking that the integrity of the action and this piece had been ruined by ten flaky perch, I voiced some disappointment to Jimmy. He responded by telling me that this situation was, in fact, better. Reflecting on the context I realised he was right. The 2023 Trilogy, which is commercially published by Faber and Faber (where I commissioned and edited it) is, in the world of its conception as a manuscript published by Roberta Anton Wilson under the pseudonym George Orwell in 1984, actually published by Dead Perch Books. Here we were gathered to celebrate its arrival and the end (perhaps) of the 23-year moratorium with the ‘release’ of a dead perch into the Mersey. Except it wouldn’t be the Mersey. We would actually only make it so far as the Manchester Ship Canal.
Our three cars, which Jimmy had accurately described as a cortege rather than a convoy, pulled off the motorway somewhere outside of Lymm. Jimmy’s notion was for us to select one lucky dead perch at a site called Biffa Waste Management (which in itself sounds like a fitting aka for The JAMs) but when we arrived the entrance was barred with metal gates. We spent some time harvesting blackberries (which were abundant) and set off for an alternative destination, marked by a bridge in the near distance. This looked promising. A bridge surely meant there would be water, and access to the river. Or rather, canal.
We parked and walked down a path in the direction of what google informed us was the Warburton Bridge, an impressive gothic Victorian construction bestraddling the Ship Canal. Along the way we passed a dead rat. It was a warm, sunny day. Not unusually for late August, the temperature seemed to be hovering around the 23 degree celsius mark. But I refuse to accept there is any such thing as a coincidence.
Bill had been carrying the ten perch in a cooler box but it was Jimmy’s job to despatch one of them. Already starting to present a bit of an olfactory challenge, the perch with the best floating talents was selected, and with the kind of run-up most commonly associated with a middle-aged village cricket spinbowler, Jimmy launched the perch into the Manchester Ship Canal, the waters of which seemed to me to be running in the wrong direction. Bill said, ‘That was perfect’, and everyone returned to the cars for the journey back to Liverpool.
What does it mean to be constantly attempting to achieve the impossible, to aspire to the heroic act only to find that you have been thwarted? And by a dead fish. There’s a line in Ghostbusters where Spengler warns Venkman, ‘Don’t cross the streams’. The coming together of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty 40 years ago and their unlikely, comedic, shambolic and visionary reunion in 2017 represents what happens when you don’t observe that advice. The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu are what happens when you cross the streams, when you bring together two unique, uncompromising artists who have dedicated their lives to creating things of often perplexing wonder. 2023: A Trilogy is their latest creation and it can be read as an oblique summation of that career; a kind of group biography in elliptical collage form. ‘Life is the gateway drug to death’, say The JAMs. And they remind us, through their literature, their art, music and ‘situations’ (never ‘pranks’ or ‘stunts’) that we must hold on to our utopian instincts. While they are undoubtedly engaged in a complex and not entirely coherent mutual-mythologising, they do, at the same time, contest whether there is really any mythologising at work. And 48 hours later, musing on the dead perch episode, I’m moved to think that perhaps I’ve learned a lesson: that it is in the banalities, not the sublime, that we find transcendence. And that a dead perch floating down the Manchester Ship Canal contains as much truth and wonder as a live one swimming up the Mersey.
2023: A Trilogy by The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu is out now and available here in the Caught by the River shop.