Stroking Felix: On Writing ‘Living Under a Helicopter’ – Camillus John

My story entitled, ‘Living Under a Helicopter’, about a man who has to live with a helicopter on his back for twenty years was inspired by the song, ‘Sound of Da Police’, by big, African-American motherfucker and hip-hop Godhead, KRS-One.

“Woop-woop! That’s the sound of da police

Woop-woop! That’s the sound of the beast”

His album, Criminally Minded, inadvertently kicked off Gangster rap in 1993. A genre he’s not very enamoured of, being firmly on rap’s conscious side of things himself. Consequently, I removed all hip-hop from my story beat by beat by beat by beat because of the helicopter on my own back a-motoring and a-whirring; the helicopter of cultural appropriation. I’m a very anxious person. What can I say?

This story also springs from the fact that in some parts of Dublin there tends always to be a police helicopter hovering above your head at all times of the day and night blowing all the hair on your house back or completely off your roof entirely. All the bloody time. Which can be quite exasperating when you’re trying to get some sleep and can most assuredly induce some of that old-time Gregor Samsa paranoia if you’re not too careful. I’m a very anxious person. What can I say?

“I’m a cockroach. I’m a cockroach.

Don’t laugh at me because you see

I’m a cockroach. I’m a cockroach.”

My Da used to sing that. And there’s a current band that gobs more of that paranoia straight in my face every time I listen to any of their work. Sleaford Mods. Bright green and trickling slowly down my cheeks. A band with such an enormous helicopter on their back, that only I can see it, it seems. Like that kid from the Bruce Willis film, Sixth Sense. A band from England that play hip-hop stroke punk. A couple of white lads. With the emphasis on hip-hop. Or should it be punk stroke hip-hop. The thing is, in Dublin the word, stroke, is slang for steal. Rob. Thieve. As in – Where’s my pen? It’s gone! I think someone’s just stroked it.

And there’s the rub right there jumping out at you in a Grandmaster Flash, Mellie Mel and the Furious Five sort of fashion. Infinitely looped. Punk stroke hip-hop. Treacherous Three. Are Sleaford Mods stroking black culture? Of course not, but more apropos, am I racist for liking Sleaford Mods in the first instance? Racist for being inspired by KRS-One and as a result writing a helicopter fiction? Considering the Dozens, (see below), are writers allowed to do that and go there willy-nilly?

Suddenly like I’m all into hip-hop once again, after a gap of many years, poring over every rapped word and time-stretched sample because it’s two white lads doing the rapping and the sampling, isn’t it? Must be. Has to be. Unconsciously racist I’m being, obviously. Yeah, hip-hop has been part of my musical smorgasbord since I was a teenager due to the fact of me being a drummer of sorts and thus having a passion for that sort of thing as a result. How could I not? However, I didn’t keep it up after Public Enemy faded from the mainstream – except for that period when Eminem came to the fore – which makes the racist case against myself bigger, better and uglier than I ever could imagine, and with only the mere facts of the matter too, your honour. Lock me up. Hanging’s too good for me.

“I’m a cockroach. I’m a cockroach.

Don’t laugh at me because you see

I’m a cockroach. I’m a cockroach.”

I used to work in a bread factory where there was this pallet truck that everyone called Felix. Felix the pallet truck. Because everyone kept robbing it. Or stroking it. Which was the phrase. Stroking it. Everyone kept stroking Felix. There wasn’t enough pallet trucks in the factory to go round and our one was top-notch and blinding. One minute it was there and the next it was gone. Essential equipment for your work. You’d get a broken back sharpish like without it. Robbed. Stroked like a cat called Felix. It vanished off the face of the earth like my interest in hip-hop for a while until Sleaford Mods. Then it turned up again in the cold stores covered in ice – and smoking. Spitting poetry.

The point being, if I write about hip-hop, even though I’ve been a fan of sorts for many years, on and off, will I definitely be racist (unconsciously) and snakily try to culturally appropriate for my own benefit (when people are looking the other way) because I’m not rap-authentic and I don’t know the culture well enough? I think so. Read the first sentence of this article again.

My story entitled, ‘Living Under a Helicopter’, about a man who has to live with a helicopter on his back for twenty years was inspired by the song, ‘Sound of Da Police’, by big, African-American motherfucker and hip-hop Godhead, KRS-One. 

With all the best intentions in the world I’m trying to take what doesn’t belong to me and benefit from it free gratis. And I’m getting it all wrong in the process. Virtue signalling? Of course, this can be overcome. But not many people can pull it off successfully; have their porridge just right. It’s always too hot or too cold. We’re all Goldilocks. Which brings me to those highly educated writers of the elite. Those that had the money to go to university and stay there for a long, long time and then had more money to go back for more study which costs oodles and oodles and oodles of cash – gold doubloons. For I looked up the prices recently on the internet and even if you’re a person who’s been working constantly for years and chooses to do it part-time at night these prices are eye-wateringly arse-farting. And then these writers ‘try’ to write black or Asian or white working-class characters. Or hip-hop. If they’d had the money and resources to undertake these expensive courses then, on average, the world they live in would not be very conducive to empathy, with honourable exceptions. When you’re stuck in an ivory tower you need binoculars to see the faces on the ground. And when you do, they’re blurred beyond all recognition. And if the binoculars are dropped accidently from such a ginormous height then the people with blurry faces below are going to get hurt. Think, Lionel Asbo, by Martin Amis. Also think the vast ranks of Irish melancholy naturalists. Should they be allowed to do such things when they get it oh so wrong most of the time?

To go along with all their other qualifications, should there not be an extra qualification that elite writers need to acquire in order to get permission or the insight to be able to write about black, Asian, minority, ethnic or working-class characters etc? Without stroking.

These new courses could possibly be run by people from those backgrounds, who may hold no qualifications themselves, but who would mark the work submitted to them accordingly. If they didn’t pass their exams, then these elite writers could be advised to just stick to writing various re-incarnations of the Hamstead novel instead, as journalist Kate Kellaway said, “A middle-class morality novel – probably involving adultery and shallow-masquerading-as-deep,” and keep their hands off black, Asian, minority, ethnic and working-class characters for good – or until  they pass the new exam. They’d be able to repeat it, of course, up to ten times, for the right price, the correct weight of gold doubloons. Maybe twenty times. A course wouldn’t take longer than a few months all told in classrooms where they’d have to sit around all day reading novels and poetry written by black, Asian, minority, ethnic and working-class writers in which all the upper and middle class characters within are purposely stereotypical until the epiphany they’ve handsomely paid for comes roaring around the corner like a freight train and they graduate with smiling choo-choo faces and smoky flower-chimneys for everyone.

I could sign myself up to a course with KRS-One as guru where he’d review all my characters, sentences and references to see if I was hanging out of anyone’s coat-tails and being vicious and sly by trying to stroke something that doesn’t belong to me, culturally, from the constantly revolving wheels of steel. And if he didn’t let me pass his exam, well, so be it. There’s still plenty out there to write about closer to home, leaving that stuff out. All I have to do is look out the window. Without binoculars.

This proposed new course would also have to include a big section on craft in writing – and the ways and means of eliminating it entirely. Because if you’ve had the time and money to inculcate a highly polished technique of writing within your well-nourished fingers, then the chances of having any authentic empathy are quite slim indeed. Just as punk dictated in the 1970s and beyond, to be able to play an instrument to a high level of expertise shows that you’ve had access to an elite way of life and an elite way of thinking (with honourable exceptions that prove the rule of course) and must be severely discouraged, old bean. It’s the creativity, the idea, that’s more important, as conceptual art has been insisting on and practicing since the 1960s. In his art, Damien Hirst initially has multiple ideas in his own head. Stapling up all his face orifices, he goes off to a dark room and mentally plays with these ideas for as long as it takes. Then when one of these ideas is ripe he plucks it like a branch from his tree-like mind and gives the artwork to his craftspeople to fabricate according to his precise instructions which he casually supervises. Usually in a reusable Tesco’s carrier bag. Craft is relegated. Which it should be when some people have had access to pots of money from an early age to get an unfair advantage.

Current practice in writing courses and literature is to advise aspiring writers to always consider the background, (i.e. the race, nationality, class etc) of the characters they are writing about and pencil accordingly. Which means, if carried through to the letter, putting people into stereotypical boxes and sealing them hermetically within upside down, like a crucified Saint Peter. All working-class characters are thick. All Scottish people are tight-fisted. All black people are lazy. All Muslims are terrorists. All middle-class people are reasonable. A Muslim that’s not a terrorist is not realistic. An intelligent working-class person is not realistic either. Is the advice. And ya gotta be realistic.

However, on some days of the year, the helicopter is absolutely nowhere to be seen. Vast, empty, sun-scorched skies abound. Felix appears out of nowhere. And he wheels you to your bed where you can sleep all day to your heart’s content.

Obviously, trans-cultural diffusion is always a good idea even when making a sculptured arse out of yourself in a thought experiment in an article like this by trying to have it both ways at the same time. Particularly since hip-hop stroked all of their samples from the legions of black musicians that came before them. The traditional definition of the word stroke is, “to move one’s hand with gentle pressure over (a surface), typically repeatedly; caress.” Caress not rob. Not stroke. Which is what all cultures should do, caress each other unafraid. When the helicopter’s out of the picture, of course. The problem is, getting it out of the picture. Playing the Dozens (like above with other writers) might help. In order to develop a thicker skin.

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The Dozens is a game that the psychologist John Dollard discovered being played by black children in America’s Jim Crow South in 1939. He was studying the personality development of black children. The game involved black kids insulting each other back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, one insult after the other, after the other, after the other, being as creatively rude and obscene to each other as possible, until one of the players gets shocked into complete silence thereby losing the game and the other winning.

“Yo mama so dumb, I said, drinks are on the house and she went to get a ladder,” sort of a thing – except ruder and more obscene. Much, much, much more. Morer even than that.

And why were young black people playing the Dozens so intently on a regular basis? The Dozens was invented as a coping mechanism by black people for black people in order to help deal with being dehumanised, denigrated and discriminated against on a daily basis by white America. It got them used to being abused so that when it happened in the real world they could control their emotions better. Deal with it. To some extent. They couldn’t allow themselves to react, for if they did, they could be killed. Participating in this game became a means of releasing the tension and the rage that builds up as a result of living in a racist civilisation 24-7. From this necessary improvisatory practice sprang jazz, soul, rap, and hip-hop culture itself. As writer, Neil Kulkarni, says, “hip-hop is the only genuinely new artistic innovation of the twentieth century after jazz.”

The hip-hop creation myth says that during the New York City black-outs of 1977 residents of the Bronx went on a festival of looting so joyous that it liberated many audio-equipment shops of its products which led directly to the proliferation of DJ crews on every block and thus led to the cultural development and the artistic explosion of hip-hop itself.

As Frankie said back in the eighties with black print on a plain white T-shirt, “Relax – don’t do it.” Put down the binoculars. I’m a very anxious person. What can I say?

 Camillus John was bored and braised in Dublin, Ireland. He has had work published in The Stinging Fly, RTE Ten, Headstuff.org, The Lonely Crowd, Thoughtful Dog, Honest Ulsterman, The Cantabrigian, The Bogman’s Cannon, The Queen’s Head, Litro, Fictive Dream and other such organs of Satan. Recently he killed the Prime Minister of Ireland in fiction in the Welsh literary magazine, The Lonely Crowd, with a piece entitled, ‘The Assassination of Enda Kenny’ (After Hilary Mantel). He would also like to mention that Pat’s won the FAI cup in 2014 for the first time in 53 miserable years of not winning it.

© Camillus John, 2017.