The KLF’s Bill Drummond returned to Toxteth for more antics and Getintothis’ Gary Aster reflects on more strange happenings in Liverpool.
Part 1: Before
Every Saturday morning I take my niece’s dog out for a walk on a bit of open ground popular with dog-walkers and not too far away from a certain retail park. As such, it’s not uncommon to spot the odd abandoned shopping trolley unceremoniously dumped in a ditch by the local yobs, or protruding from a thorny bank of weeds and nettles. Generally, I would greet such a sight with the usual mild distaste that those of my age and fighting-weight experience whenever we see excessive litter or a badly fly-tipped sofa. But not today.
Today however, the mere glimpse of a shopping trolley has my mind racing with possibilities. Today, that shopping trolley signifies access to…well, to be perfectly honest, I’m not exactly sure what it will grant me access to, but it will definitely grant me access to something. This shopping trolley is my way in – my golden ticket. I snap a couple of pictures of it in its present condition and location, should I need to explain where I got it from later.
The dog, oblivious to all of this, lurches forward about to cock his leg up against it before a harsh sound from me makes him reconsider. In many ways, our relationship is typical of that between dog and master, but with the complicating factor that both parties believe the other one to be the dog. Thankfully, he spots a squirrel and shoots off after it. I resolve to complete our walk and return to this spot later on, sans dog but avec car, to retrieve my prize.
It turns out to be simpler than I was expecting. There’s a spot I can reverse-park into with relative ease which is usually taken up by the local anglers, though not today. The trolley is less than a minute’s walk away and there’s no one about. With gloved hands, I carefully retrieve it from amongst the weeds and thorns and push it over to the bank of a nearby canal. Another quick glance around to check that there’s no one about, then mindful of what the dog was about to do before I stopped him this morning, I shove the trolley into the shallows, pull it back out again and quickly dry it off with the dog’s towel. He won’t mind.
This only takes a few minutes as I’m acting quickly to avoid curious looks from any passers-by, but I needn’t have worried. A sullen teenager is my only witness and he continues on his way completely uninterested and seemingly determined not to catch my eye, or even glance in my direction. That’s the problem with today’s youngsters – absolutely no curiosity whatsoever.
I read with amusement the notice on the inside of the trolley warning that, if moved too far away from its source, it will stop suddenly and the wheels will lock. This turns out to be a lie. It’s not a wonky trolley and all four wheels spin around completely unhindered as I hurriedly push it back along the overgrown path to my waiting car. The back seats are already down and covered by a couple of old sheets. I quickly throw one of these over the trolley and lift it into the back of my car. Job done, I have one last look around to check that no one has been watching and set off.
It’s a short drive back to the house. The trolley was a tight squeeze but this also means it won’t rattle around in the back of the car. I’ve covered it up with another sheet to avoid curious looks from other drivers. Up close, the subterfuge won’t last, but at a glance my cargo appears to be normal. Back home, I reverse into the drive and quickly unload it into the garage before any of the neighbours catch sight of me.
I’m getting too old for this sort of thing – I’m a grown man with adult responsibilities. Old enough to know better than risk prosecution for purloining a shopping trolley. However, I reason that I’m not actually stealing it. On the contrary, I intend to return it to its rightful owner, a supermarket which shall remain unnamed, at my earliest convenience. Given where I found it, it seems to me that I’ve done a public-spirited thing – clearing away an eyesore from public ground and saving the council a job. Every little helps. I can prove I didn’t steal it with the photos I took earlier.
However, ‘my earliest convenience’ regrettably falls after the JAMs‘ (once better known as the KLF) return to Liverpool for the inaugural Toxteth Day of The Dead. Entry to this event is free to those, unlike me, who are residents of Toxteth. The cost of entry for non-residents is one shopping trolley, hence my out-of-character behaviour earlier. It seems fair enough to me that I can borrow it for this purpose before I return it to the supermarket. Hopefully its rightful owners and her Majesty’s constabulary will see it in the same light, if it should come to that.
But why the requirement to bring a shopping trolley? At the JAMs’ Liverpool ‘situation’ last year, shopping trolleys played a bit-part in ‘the Great Pull North’ – a 3 mile anarchic procession of the 400 ticket-holders, 23 of whom had been tasked with the job of “acquiring” shopping trolleys for the final evening’s Toxteth Day of the Dead parade. Was something similar on the cards for this year’s event, I wondered.
Or perhaps there’s another, more unsettling explanation. Is the intention to soften-up participants in order to coax us on to further, more excessive acts of mischief? If you’ve ever seen Derren Brown’s The Heist, in which the illusionist gradually persuades a group of ordinary, law-abiding citizens to rob a bank, then you might know what I’m getting at here. Brown eased his would-be criminals into their shared criminality by first encouraging them to steal a single chocolate bar…
Alternatively, the humble shopping trolley might’ve been chosen merely as a symbol or signifier of consumerism; this year Black Friday also (coincidentally) falls on the 23rd of November. The trailers which have recently appeared on the official Mumufication website, for example, unmistakably parodied the style and language of retail advertisements with their ad-man voiceovers, jingles and special offers. Quite what this all means is, as ever, shrouded in mystery. It could be a comment on the way commercial pressures intrude into every corner of our lives, even exerting their influence over our deaths and their associated rituals, or it may be something else entirely.
Soon after acquiring my trolley, a press release was issued giving further details. It confirmed a rumour already circulating that those who had already purchased Mumufication bricks would be granted access without a trolley, and that the bricks would be available to buy on the day. It also made several references to ‘the 399’. That’s one less, of course, than 400. This number refers to the people who bought tickets for last year’s Jams Liverpool situation and who were collectively referred to thereafter as ‘the 400’. One of that number has since sadly passed away, hence ‘the 399’.
The bricks were introduced last year. Although they look very much like any other bricks, there’s an important difference. They have been designed specifically to house 23 grams of the cremated remains of a deceased person. They were first sold from the Jams’ ice cream van on the final night of last year’s Liverpool situation at £99 each (‘make mine a 99’). Apparently the intention is to sell 34,592 of these bricks. Once their owners have passed away, 23 grams of their ashes will be fired into the bricks. These newly re-fired bricks will be used to build the People’s Pyramid gradually over many years. I’ve written previously about my initial (and not inconsiderable) doubts about this enterprise here.
It seems purposefully designed so that its creators, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, will not live long enough to see its completion. There are simply far too many unavoidable practicalities for the rational part of my mind to believe that planning permission will ever be granted for the People’s Pyramid. Yet my imagination is increasingly drawn to the idea.
The proposed Pyramid itself functions like the foundational myth of a belief system. It’s the thing from which everything else flows – the cause that brings us together once a year on each successive Toxteth Day of the Dead. As I write this, it’s the 21st of November – a date previously declared by Bill Drummond to be ‘No Music Day’. In a similar way, the Jams now decree that henceforth, the 23rd of November will be Toxteth Day of the Dead. They are establishing an annual tradition or rite to be associated with this particular date.
In the JAMs’ mythology, there is already an abundance of synchronicities clustering around the 23rd November. On this date in 1963 for example (the day after the Kennedy assassination) the very first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast, with its classic electronic theme tune which the Jams later re-purposed, achieving their first number one single with Doctorin’ the Tardis.
On November 23rd 1993 the British artist Rachel Whiteread was awarded the £20,000 Turner prize for her outstanding contribution to British art, whilst Drummond and Cauty infamously doubled her money, presenting her with their Worst Artist of the Year award, and, according to long-standing JAMs’ roadie and accomplice Gimpo, set in motion a chain of events which led to their notorious burning of a million quid.
In 1995 Drummond and Cauty commenced a short tour showing their film of the burning at various locations, calling in at Liverpool on the 23rd of November of that year for a memorable screening in the Everyman theatre. This year marks the 23rd anniversary of the near riot that followed it. It also marks the tenth anniversary of Ken Campbell’s last appearance in Liverpool. Finally, it is a Holy Day amongst Discordians, who venerate it as Harpo Marx’s birthday. As the former Nameless frontman-turned-writer Al No puts it, everything’s connected and none of this means anything.
Part 2 After
Friday the 23rd of November arrives like any other working day for me, and with the same commitments, but I’m re-assured to see that K2 Plant Hire’s ‘Unexpected Item in Toxteth Town Hall’ is due to finish at 9. I’ll be able to get there shortly before 7. Hopefully I won’t miss too much.
When I arrive at the Town Hall I’m surprised to find that I can park right outside. I’ve got the back seats down and the trolley beneath a sheet again. Someone smoking a fag outside points the way in and I wheel my trolley as directed. There are about 23 (or so) other trollies already here. It’s 6:45 and the door is unguarded. I abandon the trolley and just walk in unchecked.
I greet a few familiar faces lurking in the corridor then bump into writer/director Paul Duane. He’s been shooting here today for a documentary film due to premiere next February. I ask how it’s gone so far and he seems happy with what he and his crew have shot. He’s aware of my not inconsiderable doubts about the viability of the People’s Pyramid and tells me that, including those sold before today’s event, somewhere in the region of three thousand bricks have now been sold, thereby addressing one of my objections. This is almost 10% of the total required, and far more, I admit, than I thought would ever be sold.
But then he’s wishing me well and leaving and I realise that I’ve probably missed the main event if Paul and his crew are going. I head in regardless. There’s a fairly impressive pyramid constructed from shopping trolleys dominating the room. Seated behind tables are the various Merchants of Death fulfilling different roles.
I spot Daisy Campbell at the other end of the room and head over, introduce myself and explain my predicament. I need to write about something that I’ve clearly just missed. What’s just happened? She generously gives me a run-down of the day’s events.
At 3 o’clock, local legend Tommy Calderbank led a procession on a 3-hour psycho-geographic guided tour of the boundaries of the Ancient Royal Garden of Toxteth. It was billed as the enactment of a folk custom known as ‘the beating of the bounds’ which is still observed in some English and Welsh parishes. The tradition involves beating the boundary markers of the parish with willow sticks, amongst other things. Oddly enough, there is footage of this practice in director Paul Wright’s film Arcadia, which (as I wrote a few months ago) was one of the things that first made me reconsider the People’s Pyramid in a more positive light.
Daisy told me that Gimpo, former roadie and long-term associate of The JAMs’, had pulled the foundation stone of the pyramid for the entire length of this perimeter tour. Along the way, as the route passed by places associated with historic local heroes and other bygone figures worthy of note, the procession would pause and the spirits of those since departed were summoned so as to infuse their essences into the foundation stone, “or something like that”.
The final port of call was Madryn Street, once home to Ringo Starr, now cordoned off completely – though for gentrification and not Mumufication – just around the corner from the Town Hall and a nearby bit of open, waste ground. The final stages of the walk were conducted in silence and Daisy told me this had a surprisingly powerful effect on the attendees.
The official Mumufication website spoke of “forging new traditions”. Perhaps that partly explains this tour of Toxteth. Or maybe it was intended as a sort of long, poetic and very detailed answer to the question of why Toxteth had been chosen as the place to build the People’s Pyramid.
Then came the ceremonial laying of the first brick. Everyone I spoke with told me it was a very moving experience. Indeed some of those I spoke with when I first arrived still seemed somewhat under its spell. Inside the first brick were 23 grams of the ashes of the late Simon Cauty, Jimmy’s brother. Daisy was visibly moved as she explained this part of the proceedings, ‘it was my honour, my privilege to lay the first brick’ she said.
I thanked Daisy and began to work my way along the various tables speaking with some of those seated behind; the L-13 Merchants of Death selling bricks; Paul Sullivan, whose architectural drawings of the pyramid are on display; Claire and Ru Callender of the Green Funeral Company. Gimpo tells me his legs are a bit sore but is otherwise his usual, reliably nonplussed self.
More and more of my objections to the practicalities of the People’s Pyramid are met with polite rebuttals. I’m told that within a few years the Pyramid will begin to rise and take shape. They plan to build it from the centre outwards ‘like Ukrainian dolls’. In this way I’m told it won’t matter if it only ever grows 5 foot tall before it is abandoned as folly or simply forgotten; it will still be recognisably a pyramid.
I ask Paul Sullivan how long it might possibly take to complete. He estimates somewhere in the region of 300 years. Claire Callender uses the metaphor of ‘planting a seed’. This seems apt and sincere. A tree may rise to a mighty oak or wither and die as a sapling. There’s an implied admission that, although they hope the Pyramid will be completed, they can offer no guarantees.
I approach Bill Drummond, seated at the end rolling out pastry and making mince pies. He doesn’t want to do an interview or answer questions but will speak with me. He’s amiable enough and offers me a cup of tea. We talk briefly about the Pyramid and the bricks, then he uses a revealing extended metaphor, and I’ve got my quote. ‘You’re not buying a brick. That’s rubbish! Who wants to buy that? That’s not what you’re buying. The brick is just a container. And where it says Mu Mu on it; that’s just a logo. And the certificate – that’s just the receipt. Don’t focus on those. If you think you’re buying a brick, then that’s like thinking when you go shopping you’re buying a shopping trolley.’
I look behind him at the towering Pyramid made of perhaps as many as a hundred shopping trolleys dominating the room. So the shopping trolleys are (with hindsight I suppose quite obviously) a metaphor for the bricks. Then I look around the room and notice that the small crowd has now thinned out quite a bit. I need to elicit the views of more people from the other side of the tables.
There’s a general willingness to talk to me, but an odd reluctance to go on record by name. Page 130 (as he asked to be referred to) gives one of the most enthusiastic and positive accounts. He was especially moved by Claire and Ru Callender’s eulogy – ‘the end is the beginning’. Andrew Lee is tired but content, and not unmoved by what he’s experienced here today, by turns celebratory then sombre he tells me. The general mood and vibe in the room seems positive and upbeat now.
But when I turn to social media later on the general feeling is noticeably less enthused. Some of the old KLF fans are bemoaning the lack of an appearance of The Black Room, the band’s legendary, lost album. Momentarily I feel partly responsible for this as I wrote a speculative piece which flip-flopped between suggesting that it might appear in some form, and pouring cold water on the idea. But then I remember the clues planted in the official trailers, and reasoned that if they hadn’t put those clues in there then I wouldn’t have speculated on their significance.
One attendee who wishes to remain nameless (for now) seems especially displeased. She’s a long term fan of Drummond and Cauty’s work both together, and individually post-KLF, but perhaps more significantly, she’s a professional artist. She described feeling unwelcome upon arrival, noting that there was an ‘us and them’ vibe between attendees and those behind the tables at the town hall. She also felt that the job cards were demeaning and seemed to be a test of what fans will tolerate and how far they’re prepared to go.
She left early, rather disillusioned and, I believe, plans to write and publish her account of events elsewhere soon. Strangely enough though, we both did the same thing upon leaving unaware of the other’s efforts, as we didn’t communicate until the following day.
So what am I to make of all this? Before Bill Drummond told me to forget about the bricks, I’d been thinking of them as rather like the single brick from the original Cavern Club which sits on one of my father in law’s many shelves loaded with Beatles memorabilia. Or perhaps they are like the bricks kept as mementos of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In each case, these are souvenirs of an iconic structure. They represent places that still exist in our imaginations, even though they no longer exist physically in our material world.
In David Eagleman’s excellent Sum we read that ‘there are 3 deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.’ The People’s Pyramid has the potential to delay this final death in Eagleman’s list for those named individuals who consign 23 grams of their ashes to it.
Involving or including many others and recording their names is a feature which it shares with 2023: A Trilogy, the pages of which were individually assigned by name to the 400 participants of last year’s Liverpool JAMs’ ‘situation’. It is also reminiscent of Drummond’s ongoing How To Be An Artist project, which involves the sale of 20,000 fragments of Richard Long’s A Smell of Sulphur in the Wind now chopped up by Drummmond and which is slowly being sold to 20,000 named individuals for a single US dollar.
Drummond and Cauty were very much figures in the background according to everyone I spoke with. They seem now to be retreating from view amongst a shifting crowd of named accomplices and volunteers. They are not young men and have given themselves this job as K2 Plant Hire in the full knowledge that they will not live to see its completion. I was told that their children and grandchildren will inherit the task.
The People’s Pyramid requires a leap of faith. Some of the things I’ve heard here this evening have gone some way towards addressing my own doubts about this endeavour, but it still seems to me to exist most powerfully in the realm of myth and the imagination. Drummond and Cauty are myth-makers. I don’t doubt their sincerity. We cannot downplay their ambition. We should not overlook the fact that they’ve done things which seemed impossible to many. The first brick has been laid and the Pyramid is begun; we cannot know if it will ever be completed. Nor can we rule it out. This ambiguity is not unlike life and death itself.
Before I left the town hall I sat down to read my newly acquired and completely revised edition of The Introduction to The Manual, which was available only to those, like myself, who had (sort of) stolen a shopping trolley. It’s a very brief document written in a style that is unmistakably Bill Drummond’s. I was beginning to think of the People’s Pyramid rather more positively, but Drummond’s text in this short introduction wasn’t making it easy. It ends with an exhortation to “go and steal your first shopping trolley”.
I wandered out and there was no one around. The trolley I brought was exactly where I had left it earlier. Under The JAM’s stated conditions of entry (which were not enforced in my case) this shopping trolley now supposedly belonged to them. If I returned it to its original owner, the supermarket it came from, I would in a sense, be stealing it, as I had just been instructed to do by The Manual.
Furthermore, The Manual had now in my possession was only available to those who had delivered a shopping trolley. Those who had gained entry because they already owned a brick were apparently refused copies of it. If I now stole this shopping trolley back, I’d also effectively be stealing this copy of The Manual as well. Two for the price of one. Embrace the contradictions.
Although it probably didn’t originate from the particular supermarket branch just across the road, the trolley was from the same chain of stores. So I left it there and drove home.
Photos by Getintothis’ Jane MacNeil