The other day I went into a bookshop, and almost instantly had to walk out again after having embarrassed myself by letting loose a very loud cackle of laughter. The reason for this unseemly outburst was that I had just seen the Autobiography shelves had been divided into two: a section labelled 'Celebrity Lives', and a section labelled 'Painful Lives.'
I am not sure why this tickled me so much, and if it doesn't strike you as amusing, or as a small but noteworthy strangeness, well, I don't think I can explain it, and perhaps the problem is with me. After all, why should not people who have had Painful Lives write books about the experience? And, those books being written, why shouldn't people who want to enjoy the vicarious experience of having had a really rotten time buy them?
Of course much of life is pain of one form or another and a problem shared is a problem halved and empathy and catharsis and blah de blah de bollocks. I think it's just the naked honesty of the appellation that amuses me. If they'd chosen to give the category some schmaltzy title like 'Lives of Struggle' or 'Uplifting Tales of Surviving Stuff' or 'Triumph of the Spirit' I could have understood. But 'Painful Lives'... why not 'Complete Bummers' or 'Tales of Misery and Degradation' or 'Gripping Stories of Child Abuse, Rehab and Disease' or 'People You Probably Shouldn't Whine About Your Problems Finding a Plumber In Front Of'?
And are there people going into shops and libraries and,
'Can I help you?'
'Eeh, well I'm looking for a really good Painful Life, I like a bit of pain and misery, me.'
'Well, there's this, the autobiography of the manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers.'
'Oh, not nearly painful enough.'
'He drops a hammer on his toe just after getting knocked out of the F.A. Cup?'
'No, something really painful.'
'Hmm, this one's just in, a man who survived sexual abuse by his own siamese twin only to be brainwashed by a cult, turned into a mercenary, and then forced to eat his own extremities while lost on a mountain.'
'I've read it, it was rubbish, he keeps meeting nice folk and he only gets stabbed twice, he's a bloody ray of sunshine, he is, complete washout.'
'Um, there's Trail of Blood, the story of a man born without legs who also had chronic piles?'
'No, no. Come on, don't fob me off, where do you keep the really Painful Lives?'
At the moment the section for glitzy glamorous lives is the same size as that for grim ones, but the latter is a relatively young genre that's come a long way very quickly and it may only be a matter of time before it takes over completely. And of course showing your wounds has long been an integral part of the standard celebrity autobiography. Probably there are already publishers and agents telling autobiographers:
'Could we dial up the torment a bit?'
'But this is a memoir of thirty years as a hit record producer. I have led a charmed existence in which I have done nothing but be paid a great deal of money to do that which I loved, hang out with creative people, have fun, attend parties, travel to exotic locations and then settle down to raise a normal healthy family. I've had a terribly nice life, you know.'
'But did that make you happy?'
And I fear a race to the bottom of the uttermost pit of despair in which people are going to become awfully blasť eventually.
'I've got an option on a book called 'My Life As A Leper'.'
'Lepers! We're up to here with lepers! Been done to death already.'
'Well, he was born with a foot growing out of his head as well.'
'Did he have verrucas on the foot?'
'Bleeding verrucas - and it was a club foot.'
'Oh, maybe for the children's imprint then. But find me some real pain quickly or you're fired.'
And on the back covers of these books there'll be blurbs like:
'Sensational... the gloom-ride of the summer... makes the Book of Job look like the Life of Riley... the tribulations just keep on coming... top-notch suffering from first to last' - the Misery Lit Review.
So anyway I don't see why I should miss out. Here are some extracts from my next book, an autobiography specifically designed to cash in on this very popular genre, the saddest story ever told. Content caution for vulgarity and extreme unhappiness.
Chapter the First
My Miserable Birth
I was born, by breach birth, in a fucking shack or something, after having been choked on the umbilical cord for half an hour, and was promptly dropped on the floor by the doctor, and when he went to pick me up inadvertantly kicked across the room. It was to set the tone for the rest of my life.
This I do not remember of course, but have been subsequently informed by doleful relatives, all of whose existences have been very nearly as dreadful and downtrodden as mine.
I do however have a distinct memory - gained decades later while undergoing regression during my many years in therapy - of my first attempt to suck on my mother's nipple. Alas, I bit down somewhat hard and pierced the sac of her saline implants, which burst and nearly drowned me.
Perhaps this was the reason for my mother's subsequent hatred of me. She eked a degraded living as a pole-dancer and whore, and after the accident, left with one breast 50 inches large, and a small deflated one that I had popped and which she could never afford to get fixed, she was only ever able to attract the occasional fetishist, the hardcore asymmetry freaks, or of course the desperate, such as lepers. The pole-dancing was over because her balance and centre of gravity had been thrown so far out that the first time she tried to whirl around a pole the centrifugal forces sent her flying off and she landed on a table halfway across the room, breaking her spine. Paralysed from the neck down, she was nevertheless still able to earn a living servicing her few remaining customers, but as soon as I was old enough I was given the chore of moving her limbs while she was being fornicated with so as to give the illusion of passion. It was some years before I discovered that moving my mother's nerveless hand up and down a john's back was not a normal part of many people's childhoods.
I do not ever remember eating during my childhood, or indeed having any clothes, toys or friends, apart from the nice man up the road who used to give me a penny for being allowed to put his finger up my bum. Our meagre income all went on crack cocaine for my mother and nails for my stepfather to pound into my flesh, his favourite pastime.
I could not find it in my heart to grudge him this, his only creative outlet. In an ideal world, I suppose, he would have had a job that involved hammering nails into children, for he was very good at it, but as fate had decreed that he be a small-time pimp I was his only canvas. I felt that by taking part in his hobbies we were in some measure brought closer together. I still remember the day he finally succeeded in pounding a dozen five-inchers completely into my skull in an exactly equidistant ring, the sense of accomplishment we both felt and the proud way he took me in to show me off to my mother and her client with fridge magnets playfully plastered all over my head.
I sometimes wonder, however, if there were long term side-effects to this little game, and if this is the reason for the searing headaches I have suffered from all my life, and the strange syndrome that has baffled a succession of neurologists whereby whenever a TV remote control is used in my vicinity I flip over. (VCR remotes have an even more unusual effect, causing me to move either backwards or forwards very quickly or freeze motionless. Incidentally, when I try to watch television myself, I am only ever able to pick up re-runs of Celebrity Squares. When other people think of television, they probably think 'Entertainment and escape' or 'A gateway to the world'. I think, 'The box of torment'.)
At other times, though, our relationship was not so good. My real father could have been any one of seven, all of whom were eaten by a shark before I was born, and I believe my stepfather resented this fact and took it out on me. He was adamant that I must earn my keep and at the age of seven put me to work tilling the back field. With my limbs tied together and several long nails strategically hammered into my nose I made a simple but effective scratch-plough or harrow as he dragged me back and forth behind the mule.
His notions of discipline were oppressive in the extreme. With a view to teaching me to knock before I came into the shack, he rigged the door with a series of ingenious booby-traps. If I remembered to knock he would disarm it for me, if he was in a good mood. If I forgot or he was feeling tetchy, I would walk through to find an axe swinging down towards my head or a javelin hurtling towards my chest, or the handle itself would give me an electric shock.
This has resulted in a crippling fear of doors that has lasted all my life. For preference I will always use a ventilation shaft to move about a building wherever possible. To this day, if I am forced to pass through a door I do so in a crouching waddle with my hands over my head, or hurl myself through in a flying leap and then roll for cover. To other people, I suppose, doors represent opportunity and adventure. To me, they evoke the swishing of descending axes and the twang of crossbow bolts, and I often vomit when I see one.
Nevertheless I am grateful for my upbringing. I have always been an optimistic person, no matter how many times life has squashed it. I believe that whatever doesn't kill us makes us stronger. The trials of my childhood had strengthened me so as to be able to endure the utter horror of my youth.
Turmoil of Adolescence
My first love; my first serious maiming; the teacher who took an interest in me and their subsequent arrest for it; my first mineshaft accident; a gleam of hope, instantly extinguished
They say that your first love never dies. This is literally true in my case as my first love, Sally-Ann Larouche, is now a cryogenically frozen severed head in a vault somewhere, awaiting the day when the disease that slowly ate the rest of her body can be cured. For me there has never been anyone else but her, nor is there ever likely to be, especially as my dick gets bitten off by a crazed badger in chapter 3, and a baboon's arse is grafted onto my face by a mad scientist in chapter 5.
I first met Sally-Ann in the sludge-fields at the back of the chemical plant that abutted our shack. I was fleeing some children who were throwing stones at me because I had declined to show them my vestigial tail, when
(Blah, blah, I'll fill in the rest of this later)
Venturing out into the world; second mineshaft accident; premature incontinence; a fateful badger attack; run over by a steam-roller; the weeks trapped in tarmac; I celebrate my 21st birthday; life-threatening allergy to birthday cake
(I'll do this later)
My Not-so-Brilliant Career
If any youngster was to say to me, 'How could I get into the rhinoceros porn industry?' I would have to reply, 'The same way I did, the same way anyone does, by being tricked into it. There are no short-cuts.'
Due to my various afflictions for most of my life I have found salaried work hard to come by and hard to keep. Employers, I have found, are reluctant to hire a person who starts whimpering and crying when asked to pass through a door, and co-workers do not take easily to someone given to entering rooms via ventilation shafts and ceiling cavities, no matter how brightly you smile at them, or whose idea of water-cooler talk is to ask if they saw Celebrity Squares.
Reading the help-wanted columns one day after a long spell of unemployment, however, I was curious to come across an advert saying 'Rhinoceros Masturbator Needed.'
All my life I have had a deep love for the animal kingdom; alas, this has not been reciprocated, as I have a rare syndrome whereby I exude a hormonal smell which causes 90% of living creatures to attack me on sight. You are already familiar with the badger which chewed off my genitalia. In a later chapter you will hear of the ants that quite painfully colonized my nasal cavities and attempted to bore through to my brain, and the bald eagle that pursued a ten-year vendetta against me and in the process left me bald, and the circus chimp that contrived to run me over in a pick-up truck. And the woodworms who ganged up to send a sixty-foot oak tree crashing into my bedroom, and the snail that, with infinite patience and cunning, gave its own life to overbalance a radio into the bathtub with me. One should not, I know, anthropomorphize the instinctive behavioural patterns of nature, but it is hard not to take it all personally.
So while I would have been thrilled at the idea of working in a zoo, I had to admit that I might not be the ideal candidate. But there were not many other opportunities available to me, and I thought it at least possible that the rhinoceros would come to love me, or at least feel some basic gratitude.
However upon reaching the address given in the ad I found not a zoo or safari park but what appeared to be a film studio in a dingy warehouse. My boss explained that his group had a behavioural research grant to study the effects of sexual stimuli on captive rhinoceroses and that I should sign a release form. As no other applicants were forthcoming, and as my co-star, Wilfred, was peaceably chewing straw and showed no signs of attacking me, to my joy and gratitude I was given the job by default, and told to get in there and start yanking.
(Blah, blah, further scenes of degradation, I really can't go on with this)
...once Wilfred had become used to mounting me while I was in the female rhino costume, it was then a simple matter to train him to mount me while I was wearing leather chaps.
Obviously there was some degree of discomfort and humiliation involved, but I was simply pleased to be earning a living for once and be among people who accepted me. I had a place in the world: a locker, a parking space, even my own canvas chair marked with the words 'Rhino Gimp (disinfect before touching)'.
The most exciting part, as any performer will tell you, is when I came to realise I had developed an unspoken shorthand with Wilf, an almost telepathic sense of where he wanted to take a scene next. If he was sometimes less than sensitive as a lover, he was at least generous as an actor and only rarely upstaged me deliberately.
The rhino-porn business is, I suppose, generally looked down upon by outsiders as one of the less glamorous fields of human endeavour. Like any occupation, it has its seamy side - to anyone considering this line of work, I would say, get an agent - for I was cheated on my contract and have yet to see a penny in residuals.
Yet when I think back on those sweaty afternoons with Wilfred, it is with something like affection. In many ways, that period of being humped by a rhinoceros twice a day was the least unhappy time of my life. Of course, that isn't saying much. But in comparison with the hard road that lay ahead of me, those were definitely my Salad Days. Every life has its springtime.
We now come to the unhappiest part of my life so far, the saga of torment and degradation that were my years of helium addiction.
Of all the many ways of getting high a man can resort to to make this vale of tears more bearable, helium abuse is easily the most self-destructive and degrading. Reader, I knew it was wrong, but do not begrudge me a few small moments of escape from the unrelenting hideousness of my life. It was not to last and a terrible price would have to be paid. Soon I was no better than a savage animal with a squeaky voice.
I was first turned on to helium while I was in hospital being treated for weeping sores on my anus, a condition which had sadly led to me being forced to resign my job with the rhinoceros. (It may, indeed, have been a rhinoceros clap I had contracted.) At the time this was the most painful ailment I had ever suffered, although now when I review the catalogue of diseases I have endured in my life I look back at it almost fondly.
One afternoon there was a small leaving party on the Embarrassing Ailments Ward for one of the nurses. That night I was woken by a high-pitched giggle and found an orderly avidly sucking on one of the left-over balloons. My curiosity got the better of me and I asked him to give me a hit. In a voice like Pee-wee Herman's he warned me I was booking a ticket to hell, but I persisted and he shrugged and showed me how to do it.
'I don't feel anything,' I said in a shrill falsetto.
Suddenly my face contorted and an alarming noise burst from my throat. I thought I was going to die.
'Jesus,' I squeaked, 'what was that?'
'You were laughing.'
'So that is what laughter is like,' I said thoughtfully, for I had never experienced it before, and rarely have since, apart from a bout of lunatic cackling that time I had rabies.
I felt light-headed and dizzy, but I felt good. I took another hit.
From that moment on I was hooked. When I was on helium everything finally made sense. For the first time in my life I felt like a man, even if I sounded like a mouse. I didn't want to do anything but helium. The orderly introduced me to his connection and within two days my apartment was filled with pressurized cylinders. From morning to night I would be floating, often literally. My new friend taught me the technique involving sphincter control by means of which the expert helium fiend can take the gas into the stomach and intestines as well as the lungs and thereby rise above this sordid world. The pair of us would drift lazily around the room like Goodyear blimps, soaring like angels, squeaking like bats.
I was to come back to earth with a bump, however. Soon all my money was gone. I was homeless and couldn't afford my next fix. I was wracked with agonizing withdrawal symptoms and felt leaden and heavy all the time. I was reduced to stealing balloons from children at the funfair and was arrested several times. There seemed no end to my degradation. One night the orderly sneaked us into the incinerator room of the hospital and we scored a surgical balloon that had been up someone's bum. We didn't even wipe the excrement off before sucking on it hungrily.
To this day, when I see balloons I taste shit. Perhaps that is why I do not like parties. (Mind you, I am never invited to any parties anyway. And even if I was I would probably not be able to go, because I am allergic to crisps. When other people see a packet of crisps, they think, 'Yum.' I think, 'A packet of death.')
Worse was to come.
At a low ebb after ten days without helium and five without food, some masochistic instinct prompted me to go on a pilgrimage to visit the frozen severed head of Sally-Ann Larouche my first love. At the cryogenic clinic the technician showed me to her vault and then tactfully left me alone. I fell to my knees and wept.
'Well, Sally-Ann,' I said, 'I am no longer the carefree boy whose buboes you used to merrily pop in the sludge-field behind the chemical plant not so long ago.'
Suddenly I stopped. Nestling in the insides of the little refrigerating unit that preserved her head I had spied a gleaming metal cylinder. Like a frantic animal I disconnected it from the pipe leading to Sally-Ann and ripped it out.
But it was not, I saw, helium, but super-cooled nitrogen. Cursing, I sucked on the valve just to be sure. My tongue froze and my teeth shattered and fell out. Guiltily I reconnected it to Sally-Ann and left.
I could sink no lower. There was nothing else for it.
Home, to paraphrase Robert Frost, is the place where, when you have to go there, you can expect to have nails pounded into your head. But I had no choice.
Tremendously mixed feelings assailed me as I trudged up the familiar path at the back of the chemical works leading to the shack where I was born. All was as I had left it, the old rope swing dangling from the tree just as it had been on the day my stepfather had used it to hang my dog. I had taken some knocks here, but now that I had come full circle I did not want to focus solely on the bad memories. There had been good times too, like the summer he taught me to swim by throwing me into the septic tank.
Moving back in wasn't so bad. I was older and tougher now and my stepfather found it hard to hammer nails into me without clamping my limbs in a vise. To my surprise, my mother greeted me almost enthusiastically, giving me a pallid smile from around the head of the leper who was humping her, and offering me my old room back.
'I reckon I can forgive you now,' she said. 'I finally saved up enough to get my other breast fixed.'
My stepfather kicked the leper off her so I could see - her previously burst and shrunken tit now matched the swollen fifty inches of the other.
'How could you afford that?' I wondered. 'That amount of saline must have cost a fortune.'
'Not saline - helium!'
My mother had had her breast re-inflated with helium.
I wrestled with what remained of my conscience all that night. 'No,' I said, 'I can't.'
But I did. In the dead of night I stole into my paralysed mother's room and siphoned all the helium out of her tit.
The next day, I was confronted with the evidence of my crime.
'Son,' said my mother mournfully, 'did you steal the helium out of my tit?'
'No!' I squeaked indignantly, bobbing near the ceiling. 'How could you accuse me of such a thing?
Growling, my stepfather drove a nail into me and I flew three times around the room and crashed out of the window, squealing as I deflated.
Sometimes, there is no going home.
But the tragic end of my saga of addiction was now approaching. Returning to the filthy squat I had last occupied, I was greeted excitedly by my friend the orderly. He had come into some money, I prefer not to think how, and had just scored from a new connection who had drifted into town.
'He said it was prime stuff.' I helped him lug a large unmarked pressurized cylinder up to his room. With trembling hands we fitted a tube and inhaled deeply.
But a few moments later we were exchanging suspicious glances. 'Anything?'
His voice was as deep as ever. I frowned. I felt satisfactorily giddy and, standing on point and tentatively launching myself into the air with a good stomachful of the stuff, I was able to achieve a reasonable lift-off and float briefly a few feet off the floorboards. But there was something missing, not least the telltale squeak you got with the real thing.
'We've been burned.'
As I subsided back to earth I sighed and lit a cigarette. It was then that I realised exactly how he had been ripped off and how unfortunately apt my choice of word had been. For the gas in the cylinder was not inert helium but highly flammable hydrogen.
As I lit my cigarette jets of flame thirty feet long burst simultaneously out of my mouth and arse.
The agony was indescribable, despite the best efforts of my literary coach, and luckily I lost consciousness before the ambulance arrived. My alimentary canal had been completely burned out. I now have copper intestines, which gurgle every time I swallow.
My face had also been burned off in the explosion. A few years earlier I would have been left like that. Fortunately I fell into the hands of a surgeon who was pioneering a brilliant new technique of baboon's arse face-grafts. In a seventeen-hour operation I do not have the technical expertise to describe, even if I had not passed out towards the end of it due to the pain, he triumphantly grafted a baboon's arse onto my face. I understand this was a medical first, and indeed last, for he was forced to give up medicine shortly after. Nevertheless it is to this great man I humbly dedicate this book.
On the plus side, the hydrogen blast finally if painfully cured the weeping sores on my rectum, which is one of the reasons I always say every cloud has a silver lining, even if my arse now has a lining of copper.
Really, I have no cause to grumble about my lot in life. Some people have had it much worse than me, as my agent never ceases to remind me.
1st June 07
Update - somewhat to my surprise, this is, in fact, going to be my next book. 'My Godawful Life' will be published by Boxtree in June or July 2008.