Terry Hall, best known as the frontman of 80s groups like The Specials and The Fun Boy Three,  has recently turned up in my mind in the way that buried and unsettling memories, unexpectedly set loose from their time and place, often can. A few days ago I was reading W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Sebald’s description of Manchester in the 60s was making me think of my earliest memories of visiting the city when– there he was: Terry Hall, with his exquisite sad face, driving through deserted city streets at night with his fellow Specials singing ‘This town is ‘comin’ like  a ghost town.’ Watching the video now I see the humour and the political anger in the song: this was 1981 and Hall’s lyrics are a direct reaction to the high unemployment and hopelessness experienced by a generation in Thatcher’s Britain. But at the time I first watched it, I was 8 years old and along with two other pop videos (Julian Cope and The Teardrop Explodes’ ‘Reward’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’) this was the most frightening thing I had seen on TV. Of course, at 8, you don’t understand the politics of these songs, but you are able to understand desolation, and this was my experience. It was the music and images in these pop videos, especially ‘Ghost Town,’ that gave me my first taste of insomnia and the strange way the mind works when you don’t sleep. In the insomniac state, ordinary things– blackened brickwork, a man lifting a trumpet to his lips, a car swerving as it rattles over broken tarmac and cobbles–are tainted and become more tainted as the images and sounds that frightened you repeat and strengthen themselves. The dark becomes dirtier.

And somehow, Terry Hall’s physical beauty makes all that decay seem worse.  Hall, in 1981, looks like a male Garbo: huge eyes, an almost deathly pallor, a smile that passes, occasionally, like a cloud over his face. The face is sensitive and alert but also somehow mask-like; a living being in a dead world. Watching him, Julian Cope and the Floyd in the early 80s dropped me into another world. The comforting, sugary froth served up by bands like ABC and Duran Duran melted away when you watched and listened to music like this. Life wasn’t men in linen suits cavorting with models on yachts. It was something rainier and sharper and it could be lived more truthfully. Terry Hall both attracted and frightened me: he was political in ways I didn’t understand and was sad and honest in ways that I somehow did. His was the first voice I can remember that sang about life in a minor key. He said a lot in a few words, and quietly.



It’s almost biblical isn’t it? 42 days is now, as of today, the amount of time H.M. Government can detain us British citizens without charge. 42. For 40 days and nights Christ hung around in the desert having hallucinations about Satan, and in general, 40 days is around the time ancient wisdom suggests is enough to test one’s sanity to destruction. This, presumably, is what the entirely arbitrary figure of 42 days is all about. Like all forms of torture (and make no mistake, imprisonment without trial is psychological torture, on a par with electrodes on the genitals or ‘waterboarding’) it’s about theatre, it’s symbolic. And this figure, ’42,’ tells us of the Godlike powers of our masters. As I remember my RE teacher at school saying, ’40 days’ stood for a long, unmeasured, indeterminate stretch of time, just short of ‘forever’ in its power to terrify and subdue the devil, the adversary, the alien amongst us.

But what can we do to protest? I have a suggestion. I propose 42 days of mourning, biblical style: sackcloth and ashes, beating the breast, howling and sobbing in public. For all people of good will should mourn the events of today, for they amount to the passing of democracy, the extraordinary rendition of decency. Our British humanity has been whisked away before most of us even noticed and now begins its indefinite term in some nameless, stateless oubliette.

So, on day one of my 42, I will howl with the rest and keep on howling: ‘Down with Bush, down with Brown…’ and how very apt the rhyme is, as if our PM’s very name was destined for execration on the placard. Bring on the teargas, bring on the barricade. That is, if we’re not too Bush-whacked, B-liar-ed and cowed. Please note, George W. makes his valedictory visit to the UK in a few days, in time for Brown to deliver him a final gift: forty-two days, courtesy of a few Unionist desperadoes and two Tory/UKIP nutters. Plus that core of spineless Labour MPs whipped into submission. It isn’t only Brown who has let us all down.

There are dead words everywhere, and there are words that are dying. It’s an annual thing, a monthly thing, a daily thing. Dialect words, slang words, jargon words bubble into life and wither.  Whole languages, evolved by tribes whose lands are being burned, bought and looted, are being eroded right now, sacrificed to greedy uber-tongues like English. A melancholy fact, certainly. And one which makes me want to turn my own endangered favourites to the light, rescuing a few of the badmouthed words, the unfashionable ones, the impossibly delicate ones. I’d like to create my own little ark of these words, over time, creating something that isn’t quite a dictionary, but which nods fondly to the great Dr Johnson (now there’s a man who knows how to make a dictionary definition into a prose poem: look, for example, at how he defines the word ‘icicle’). I’d like to daisy-chain together my chosen words, writing a 100 word essay on each (I still haven’t written enough of my bonsai essays). My methodology will be simple ( check the etymology, check my lodestar Johnson) and my principles decisively erratic. I’m aiming for a bit of drift and digression; indirections finding directions out and all that. I want to get all eighteenth-century about these words. You can’t go wrong with a bit of eighteenth century in the gigabyte age. I’ll start with the word ‘crooner’.  But I intend to meditate on the subject until at least tomorrow. Until then…