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Malcolm McLaren wasn’t avant garde—he was a quaint dandy whose passing has filled me with yearning for old-school bollocks

By Sam Leith   May 2010

Pulp fiction: a vanished genre


I’ve been thinking a lot about the Great Ignored. I don’t mean the hard-working, child-rearing, tax-paying, law-abiding middle-class folk that, as David Cameron so rightly points out, are this country’s dirty little secret. Who speaks for them—except politicians hoping for a clear majority? Who fights their corner—but those few samizdat newspapers with the word “Daily” in their names, and the crackling transmissions of Radio Four?

No. They’re not the Great Ignored I’m thinking of. If I’m honest I’m ignoring them, and it feels great—whence, presumably, the name. No. I’m thinking about the stuff we really do ignore: the little corners of our cultural life that are vanishing, never to be seen again. And it wasn’t David Cameron but Malcolm McLaren, who has set me thinking.

McLaren’s main legacy, the Sex Pistols, are of course one of the least ignored bands in history. But what is now largely eclipsed is what they were supposed to be kicking against: a postwar drabness the colour of old Bakelite. And, sure, they kicked against it—but they did so in very much its own terms.

Think of how bizarrely quaint, how suburban in their idiom, the Sex Pistols were. Take the 1977 album title: Never Mind the Bollocks. The imperative “never mind,” used intransitively, has survived without much baggage to the present day. As in the Nirvana song, it means, more or less, “whatever.”

But “never mind” used transitively—as in “never mind the bollocks” or “never mind what your nan says: if you leave your coat on indoors with this central heating you won’t feel the benefit when you go outside”—pegs a whole different generation.

What did Steve Jones, the Pistols guitarist, call television presenter Bill Grundy in that infamous live interview in 1976? Of all the insults, it was: a “rotter.” What was the band’s great provocation? An attack on the Queen. In 1977. They might as well have done a follow-up thumbing their noses at Clive of India.

What I’m getting at is that, just as McLaren was more a huckster dandy of the old style, the Pistols were in some ways a nostalgia act even when they were current. Rather than sweep away that postwar generation, they served to memorialise it.

But now—feh, it’s on its way. And it makes me mourn its memorials in other places too: children’s comics, for instance, with their vanishing stereotypes. Where now are the children sitting in A&E with pans stuck on their heads? Have the shapes of children’s heads changed, or the shapes of pans? Or were these kids always just a fantasy invented by the Beano—along with teachers with mortarboards and sausages arranged in mash like the pegs on hatstands?

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Entire vocabularies are vanishing. It’s not as simple as something was real that went. It’s more that the representations—previously commonplace—are on their way. They first look quaint, then irrelevant, then incomprehensible, and the question of whether what they represented really existed or not is a distinctly secondary one.

Perhaps this is middle age arriving. I find myself wailing for these trad English icons like an Anglo-Saxon scop (a local scop for local people, obviously). Hwaer comen the carpet slipper as agent of corporal punishment? Hwaer comen all those sub rosa tropes and turns of 1970s and 1980s pop culture?

Above all, preying on my mind, has been the eclipse of an entire genre of fiction. We still have crime, and fantasy, and science fiction and all the rest. But what happened to the sort of schlock horror pulps we had in the 1970s and early 1980s?

I don’t mean Stephen King, I mean the really dreadful stuff. The paperbacks with painted covers that circulated through church jumble sales and charity shops, and dealt in the most lurid terms with monsters (usually something quite small and harmless that had become much bigger and much more carnivorous) rampaging through unsuspecting civilian populations.

Usually—and here was another part of these books’ appeal— these were particularly slutty civilian populations. You’d get apocalyptic high concept—the ancestor books for these were John Wyndham’s—combined with gross-out gore, and a regular shot of soft-pornographic filth. But the monsters were the stars. It was slugs with Shaun Hutson, rats with James Herbert, and—oh, glorious!—crabs with Guy N Smith. Night of the Crabs, Killer Crabs, The Origin of the Crabs, Crabs on the Rampage…

These books were not good. But by gosh they were vigorous. Has this whole genre simply vanished, its market eaten in two gulps by sexual titillation online and torture porn on DVD?

That seems a shame. Never mind the Sex Pistols. Where’s the bollocks?

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