Culture

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2023: A Trilogy

By Jenny Valentish
The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (aka the KLF) redefine the book launch

November 23. Night. The man they call Gimpo places his hands on the bonnet of the black cab and maniacally stares down the driver as if he’s facing off with a tank. The cab has been halted by the length of rope that bisects Kingsland High Street. At the front of the length of rope is a monk. Behind the monk are 100 men and women in hi-vis ponchos, chanting, stopping further traffic. A dilapidated ice-cream van glides through a bank of yellow smoke, tinkling a terrifying refrain.

It’s not your average book launch.

Literary events have got more inventive of late. There have been flash mobs in the streets and on Tube trains (sometimes in masks) and guerrilla readings here and there, but this is my first riot. I’ve scored one of 50 pairs of tickets to “Burn the Shard” – the Shard being a 95-storey skyscraper near London Bridge that’s the villain of a new book, 2023: A Trilogy (Faber & Faber, $29.99). It’s written by the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, aka late-’80s/early-’90s band the KLF, aka Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond.

After disbanding the KLF, Cauty and Drummond announced a 23-year moratorium on discussing their career, in particular the burning of a million quid in 1994 – the profits of their lengthy careers in the music industry, including Drummond’s management of Echo and the Bunnymen, his A&R roles and record label Zoo; Cauty’s stints in the Orb and Brilliant; and their joint achievement of becoming the biggest-selling singles act in the world in 1991.

That moratorium expired on 23 August this year, when Cauty and Drummond threw part one of their (don’t call it a) book launch in Liverpool. This “Welcome to the Dark Ages” three-dayer recruited 400 “volunteers” – many of whom had flown in from around the world – to man a rope and drag the ice-cream van through the streets, amid fiery spectacles. Motives and answers were thin on the ground, but column inches were plentiful.

Twenty-three is a number of significance to conspiracy theorists, from its associations with the Knights Templar to its role in mathematics. The KLF have used it throughout their work, most likely as a nod to its appearance in Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy. Their own book is multi-stranded metafiction that nods to Wilson/Shea’s work. In one sense it’s a psychogeographical tale of the KLF tracing their old haunts, but the characters – among them graphic novelist Alan Moore, writer–director Ken Campbell and artist Banksy – are not cast in their real-life roles here. This is a parallel universe in which Cauty and Drummond themselves are undertakers, not pop stars.

Back in our dimension, my invite to the audiobook launch instructs me to meet at a certain postcode – N1 5RY – which turns out to be a Dalston bar overlooking Regent’s Canal. I’m told to bring a copy of the book, because failure to correctly answer questions about its contents will result in “penalties”.

The first reading in the back of the bar is by Daisy Campbell – daughter of the aforementioned Ken – and it’s a passage about the Shard. Twice, in 2023: A Trilogy, characters imagine the Shard as having a massive eyeball spiked atop it, like the Eye of Providence. It’s as if the building mocks the citizens of less salubrious suburbs such as Dalston. And given that, in reality, all 10 of the Shard’s £50 million apartments have remained empty since it was built, indeed it does mock.

Master of ceremonies tonight is neither Drummond nor Cauty, though they’re here, but actor Oliver Senton. He warns, “Over the next three hours there will be walking, running and some precise following. If you get lost, there will be no help. Do as you are asked with no question and everything will be all right.” Before we leave, some of us are appointed jobs, including flyposting and tweeting. In other words, we’re doing the marketing and PR for the book for free. Genius.

We set off down the canal path, following the yellow smoke grenades let off by Gimpo, the KLF’s longstanding ex-military wingman. At points along the way, “ghosts” from the book act out their scenes. Here’s Yoko Ono (but not as we know her), throwing the body of John Lennon into the water. A 100-metre trot later, here’s Henry Pedders, a disaffected youth in a tracksuit, slouching over the railings. We halt as, through a loudhailer, Senton reads another passage. As an overweight child, Pedders narrowly missed out on being cast as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films, on account of not coming from the sort of family who would get him to Pinewood Studios on time. Calcifying with resentment in his Dalston tower block, he observes the Shard being built and it becomes a shrine to his hatred.

Up to street level, and we follow the ice-cream van, driven by Cauty with an antisocial Ronald McDonald in the passenger seat. It occasionally lets out a few chimes of a KLF hit and a spray of sparks. Our next stop is 355 Queensbridge Road, underneath the tower block Henry Pedders grew up in. Senton informs us that Pedders, now fully grown, is itching for destruction. He opens a Twitter account, Henry Da Riot, and begins his call to arms: Burn the Shard.

The Shard’s a bit of a hike from Dalston, though, and as Gimpo chastises one of us, “We’re not gonna burn the fucking Shard, are we? It’s made of glass.” Instead, we’re going to storm another symbol of capitalism, McDonald’s. The monk leads us single file towards the golden arches, accumulating local gangs of youths as we go. They’re not liking our chant of “Big Mac with fries”. The politest of them asks, “How come you lot are doing that?” The most truthful answer comes from the woman behind me on the rope: “It’s a load of rave mums and rave dads doing it for a bit of a giggle.”

Upon reaching McDonald’s, we troop through it, all 100 of us – in the front door, around the tables, out again. Some young kids get into it without question, joining in the chant. The stragglers of us are booted out by security, however, with a “Don’t disrespect the brand.” That’s OK – we’re now being led to the Irish pub over the road, in one door and out the other. It’s not the sort of pub you want to take the piss out of, to be honest, but there’s no time to contemplate that when you’re following a rope. A bloke’s singing karaoke in the corner. Another bloke at the bar is fluffing up and growling at us, “’Ow stupid is that?” He has no idea how stupid.

It’s refreshments time, in a square populated by a homeless community who aren’t that pleased to witness some avant-garde performance art. Instead of the customary red wine and brie, this book launch has whisky and “Mu” mince pies, served out of the ice-cream van window. The volunteers who signed up for marketing are given posters and buckets of paste.

There’s a quick stop at Dalston’s Arcola Theatre for another loudhailer reading about our child actor’s further disappointment, then a frenzy of pasting up 2023 posters. The police still haven’t joined in, despite our hi-vis ponchos acting as giant neon arrows; despite the unscheduled rope-detouring of Kingsland High Street traffic; despite the seizing of smoke grenades by local youths, who launch them at the ice-cream van as we beat a hasty retreat.

The action ends where it started, in the bar, as if spirits aren’t high enough already. No Shard was harmed in the making of this event, but whether this Dalston exploit is the last from Cauty and Drummond remains to be seen. I’m guessing not.

Jenny Valentish

Jenny Valentish is a journalist and novelist. Her first nonfiction book, Woman of Substances, was recently published by Black Inc.

Photo by Jenny Valentish.

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