Call it synchronicity, but it was a series of criss-crossing connections which have ended up causing an epic four-hour live reading of Alistair Fruish’s already expansive novel, The Sentence, to be performed in Glasgow. This includes inspiration drawn from Welcome to the Dark Ages, the twenty-third anniversary reunion of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s art provocateur double-act The K Foundation in their Justified Ancients of Mu guise.
Fruish’s novel is enough by itself to point towards its experimental countercultural leanings. Plot-wise, The Sentence is a prison-set fantasia in which an inmate is given a drug that slows down time. It is in the story’s telling where the double-barrelled word-play of its author’s intentions become wilder and more mind-expanding. A 46,000-word opus with no punctuation and featuring words of one syllable only, The Sentence was tailor made to be read out loud, and the Glasgow date is the final show of a short tour of some of the UK’s lesser-spotted arts labs.
“It’s like literature as a drug,” says Fruish of a construction already lauded as a grime Under Milk Wood, “but hearing it done like that in one go, I found it at points upsetting and un-nerving, even though I knew what was happening next.”
Performed by a cast of five, who include actor Gavin Mitchell, best known as Boaby the Bar man in Still Game, and actress Frances Thorburn, the Glasgow performance of The Sentence is being directed and produced by Daisy Campbell and Michelle Watson. The pair were recently responsible for putting on a stage version of Cosmic Trigger, Robert Anton Wilson’s sequel of sorts to the sci-fi conspiracy sprawl of his Illuminatus trilogy of novels. The fact that Campbell is the daughter of the late Ken Campbell, the theatrical genius/madman who in 1976 staged a ten-hour stage-version of Anton Wilson’s book, featuring set design by Drummond, is one more link in the event’s umbilical chain.
“There was this wonderful synchronicity the way everyone met,” says Campbell, “and when Alistair wrote The Sentence, it blew everyone’s minds, but we knew the only way we could get anyone to pay attention to it was to do it live. The effect it has, both on the audience and the readers, is quite extraordinary, especially as we didn’t want anyone to have a breather, so if anyone goes out, we have the readers follow them. It’s a story about being in a prison, and we wanted it so the audience couldn’t escape either.”
Having worked as a writer-in-residence in prisons for the last seventeen years, Fruish recognises a snobbery associated with how such institutions’ largely working class constituency are damned by being described as mono-syllabic. The Sentence’s linguistic restrictions could be seen too as a kind of revenge on an educational system that never recognised his dyslexia.
“I like doing things with restrictions,” he says “I do know the rules of English, but I sometimes forget them because of my dyslexia, so I figure I might as well invent some new ones. Having less to work with is a real inspiration, and makes you pay much more attention to language.”
The Sentence is Fruish’s second novel. His first, Kiss My ASBO, is one of a number of books to be banned from Guantanamo Bay. Through its loose-knit underground network of fellow travellers, The Sentence has become something of a calling card for a return to the free-flowing ideas of 1960s arts labs which fostered a cultural revolution later subsumed by a more bureaucratic, ‘centres-of-excellence’ approach which the subsidised arts in the UK has arguably never recovered from.
“Arts labs are about pulling the cosmic trigger,” says Campbell, who will shortly play her father in her new monologue, Pigspurt’s Child. “When it’s a load of people just getting on with doing things and not having to spend all their time filling in forms, everything’s much more fun. People are so willing to make things happen, and if you get a title and do the poster, then it means you have to make it happen. We’re getting back to having art as a verb rather than a product. Let’s have some arting about.”
Key to making the Glasgow date for The Sentence happen was David Blair. Blair may be best known to some a dancer – if that’s not putting it too mildly - with the band, Colonel Mustard and the Dijon 5. As founders of a peace-loving tribe they call the Yellow Movement, the Colonel Mustard live extravaganza has previously featured Blair crowd-surfing while wearing a mirror ball on his head.
When not indulging in such hazardous activity, Blair is also founder of Arts Lab Scotland, having been inspired to breathe life into this free-thinking autonomous zone after being one of 400 ‘volunteers’ at Welcome to the Dark Ages. Drummond and Cauty’s three-day gathering of the counter-cultural clans took place in Liverpool, where Ken Campbell’s production of Illuminatus! was first produced, and it was here that Fruish first came into contact with Fruish, Daisy Campbell and co.
“It made me want to do more,” Blair says. “There’s a real emphasis in all this on culture as resistance, and it’s about peace, love and bringing a creative community together.”
While Arts Lab Scotland exists for now largely as an idea, on a more practical level, The Sentence will be performed in The Space, based on London Road in Glasgow’s East End. As the first pay what you decide community arts venue in Scotland, it marks a similar return to a grassroots DIY spirit that is currently forming the sort of links the staging of The Sentence embodies.
The performance of The Sentence will also see Fruish visit Glasgow for the first time since he was 18. Back then he was working for independent record label, Blast First, and toured with the band, Dinosaur Jr, selling t-shirts on the merch stall. This time out, The Sentence may be centre stage, but Fruish is already working on a new piece, a play he’s called Blood, Sex and Death, a title nicked from late TV prankster Jeremy Beadle.
“He was a much more interesting person than he appeared to be,” says Fruish. “He had this huge library of weird facts, which sort of goes back to Ken Campbell, but he’d also worked as a tour guide round London, and he said he was the best, because he gave the tourists what they wanted, which was blood, sex and death. When I saw that, I thought, I’m having that.”
As far as The Sentence goes, the possibilities beyond the current tour are endless. An audio book has been suggested as a logical extension of the live reading, and there is scope for theatricalising things even more.
“Daisy was talking about getting someone to remember it and perform it that way,” says Fruish, “which seems a bit unfair, but I do think The Sentence really needs to be distributed widely. The look on people’s faces when they experience it, there’s nothing like it. It’s hard to be original, and people don’t really like originality, but without wanting to blow my own trumpet, I’ve made a novel that’s really novel. I could put it out in a small way, but really I think it needs to be rammed in the frontal lobes of the culture as hard as possible so it can’t be removed.”
The Sentence, The Space, Glasgow, February 11, 1-6pm.
The Herald, February 6th 2018