A little known masterpiece of deadpan absurdity, What A Life! is a delightfully curiosity from 1911 by Edward Verrall Lucas and George Morrow. It has been called a proto-Dadaist satire and would influence Surrealist collage techniques. It was displayed at the landmark MOMA exhibition in New York of 1936 entitled ‘Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism’.
The illustrations that the text are built around are taken entirely from the general catalogue of Whiteleys, a fashionable London department store of the time. Below is the entire work for those with a passion for obscure oddities
What a Life!
E. V. L. and G. M.
Illustrated by Whiteley’s
As adventures are to the adventurous, so is romance to the romantic. One man searching the pages of Whiteley’s General Catalogue will find only facts and prices; another will find what we think we have found — a deeply-moving human drama.
Max returned with the drinks and slid in beside Margot. ‘Cheers,’ he said, as they touched glasses and then promptly drained them. He was back at the bar within minutes, not even having time to finish smoking one cigarette. Boy, he was in the mood, now. The second dose was unfurling within his cells like a flower opening up to receive the first rays of the morning sun. This promised to be a hell of a night, indeed. Never before had he felt so clear-headed, so sharp and so aware. Preternaturally aware, in fact, of everything that was going to happen before it actually happened. He was a god surveying the world from the majestic heights of Mount Olympus.
After the fourth (or maybe fifth) drink, Margot decided that, even though still early —night had just fallen— it was time they made their way to Kubla Khan’s. Another drink at the bar would while away the time.
‘Great, I just need to head to the jacks before we go,’ Max said, standing.
‘Work away. I’ll meet you in the lobby.’
Everything in the toilet —the urinals, the cubicles, the porcelain sink— was a vivid, startling shade of ultramarine. Was it the lighting? Or maybe the drugs?
After pissing in the bright blue urinal and washing his hands at the equally dazzling sink, Max thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to splash a little water on his face and freshen up his appearance, though he already felt better than fine. As he reached for the paper towels to dry his face, he checked himself in the mirror. He studied his reflection in the mirror and found everything to be just right until, as he was about to walk away, he noticed a splash of red appear on the left hand side. ‘God, what was this now?’ Max thought. Hadn’t he learnt his lesson? You should never look in the mirror when you are completely fucking out of it.
The red splash on the facing cubicle door gradually coalesced into a blob which then separated into letters that read out ᗡAƎᗡ ᖷᖷO ЯƎTTƎᙠ TИUƆ What? Of course it was reversed in the mirror and after a moment’s thought Max realised it read CUNT BETTER OFF DEAD.
He spun on his heels to look at the defaced cubicle, but found it pristine and glowing banally blue. Yet, when he returned his gaze to the mirror, the obscene message was still there. It didn’t even make any sense. Was it in some way directed at him? Did someone feel that he would be better off dead? Or was it meant to be a vicious insult, an expression of violent, misogynistic rage aimed randomly or directed at women in general?
While Max pivoted back and forth to stare at the blank cubicle and the mirror with its message, someone emerged from the corner of the toilet. Where the fuck did this joker come from? Had he been there the whole time? Had he silently witnessed the strange behaviour which could only be construed as the actions of a madman? Time to get out of this cursed bathroom and get some clean, fresh air.
The man stood next to him, sighed and turned on the tap. He washed his hands and as he was drying them said, ‘Howrye? You seem slightly distracted my friend, however not to worry, it’s nothing a little bump wouldn’t sort out in a hurry. I trust you partake?’
Max gaped at him, perplexed. He seemed to be in his late forties or thereabouts. What was this? A mad, fucking, Irish queen?
‘?’ Max silently queried.
‘Ahhh, I think you have misconstrued me my friend. No, I mean a little something something, you know?’ he said, pulling out a small clear plastic bag containing a pure white powder. He then proceeded to carefully pour it out onto the space between the index finger and thumb of his clenched left fist. Holding it toward Max’s face, he went on, ‘Trust me. I mean you and your lovely lady friend —my, isn’t she just peachy creamy— no harm whatsoever. Go on, what currently offends your eyes will disappear without a trace after you have tried a taste.’
This was getting stranger by the second. He knew about Margot? How? He knew Max was seeing things? Was his state of mind that obvious? And why the hell did everyone Max met today want to give him drugs?
‘Thanks,’ Max said, bending down to inhale the substance. In for a penny, in for a pound after all.
‘My pleasure. See, isn’t that better?’
Max dusted his nose and hardly daring to look, glanced at the left-hand corner of the mirror. The red lettering was gone. Thank God.
‘It most certainly is. Thanks. Ummm, do I owe you anything for that?’ Max asked, starting to grin. He just couldn’t help himself.
‘Not at all. I was just helping someone who was obviously in need. What terrible reprobate and general scoundrel wouldn’t do the same? Ask anyone in Carlingford in the Wee County what kind of man is Matthew Flynn Flaherty O’Neill and they will say without exception that he is a good man, a kind man.’
‘I am sure they would. So how did you end up here?’ Max asked as he buried his face under the running tap.
‘Ahhh well, you know, it’s a beautiful corner of God’s earth, but with The Troubles and it being not only in Ireland but in Ra-Ra-Land, a poor soul like me just cannot enjoy himself. So I came over here and now I am the Night-Watchman. Such is life,’ he said and sighed.
‘Well, thanks again. I am in your debt.’
‘Not at all. In fact, please give this to your delightful lady friend with my compliments,’ he said and handed over another small bag full to the brim with white powder.
‘Cheers, mate,’ Max said, quickly walking out of the bathroom before the Irishman sprung the catch on him and headed towards the hotel lobby.
Margot was sitting on one of the lobby’s angular leather sofas. When Max reached her, she said, ‘Christ, you certainly took your time. My God, you are positively glowing! What on earth were you doing in there?’
‘It’s a long story. However, somebody give me a gift for you,’ Max said and passed over the packet.
Margot looked down briefly before closing her palm.
‘Who gave you this?’ she asked.
‘Some crazy Irishman, said he was the Night-Watchman. I dunno. But it’s good, I can testify to that.’
‘Well, I suppose I better go to the powder room then,’ Margot said, rising. ‘By the way, I booked us a room for the night, just in case we miss the last train.’
Max tried to prevent his already wide grin from growing wider but his attempt was doomed to fail. ‘Really? Good idea, Batman.’
‘You needn’t be getting any ideas, Max. Now, wipe that stupid grin off your face and all. It’s merely a precaution.’
‘I won’t be long. Sit tight.’
‘I’m going nowhere. Hurry up, though.’
‘Will do,’ she said, sauntering off across the lobby. Max followed the switch of her hips for as long as she was within sight.
Happy, happy fucking, happy days.
Margot was as good as her word and soon came out. As they left the hotel, Max couldn’t suppress the anticipation he felt inside that soon enough —this very night— they would be back.
There were several taxis waiting. They got in the one at the top of the queue. Their driver was a heavy looking fellow with a bull’s neck wearing a fluorescent-pink polo shirt.
‘Where to?’ he asked in a thick Birmingham accent.
‘To Kubla Khan’s please,’ Margot replied.
He shook his head vigorously. ’Sorry about this, but you two lovebirds can hop right out again and get into the next taxi in the line, because there is no way I am going anywhere near that place. It’s in a fucking shit-hole of a neighbourhood and what with the canals and flyovers it will ruin my vehicle. Go on then, run along.’
Max was stunned. How could he refuse to take them? And more importantly, what kind of place was Margot taking him to?
Margot, however, didn’t skip a beat. Smiling sweetly, Margot merely leaned over and whispered into the taxi driver’s ear. Max couldn’t overhear a single word, but whatever she said did the trick. Looking visibly paler beneath his sun-bed tan, the driver turned the key in the ignition and pulled away from the curb.
Max marveled. What kind of power did Margot wield that she could, with a few words, coerce this taciturn bully of a man into taking them someplace he had moments earlier refused to go? His attitude had been so transformed that he even attempted to make conversation, albeit the usual taxi driver drivel about Birmingham having more canals than Venice and such-like. Did they know that? No, and neither did they care.
He was right about the location, as well. Beneath a gigantic flyover, they crossed a pot-holed bridge that was the only access to the disused warehouse that had been converted, complete with a fake pagoda facade, into Kubla Khan’s.
The driver stopped the taxi in front of the entrance to let them out, but drove off without asking for any money. Weird. Had he muttered something about some cunts being better off dead? Or was Max just being paranoid? Hearing things that were just an echo of his earlier hallucination? Whatever the case, Margot must have really done a number on the driver. He wanted to ask her what she had said to him, but in this instance maybe ignorance was bliss. Maybe. Probably. Almost definitely so.
Margot took his hand as they walked though the muddy wasteland, stepping over craters overflowing with rusty water and averting their eyes from the homeless people who huddled over garbage can fires and found shelter beneath the herculean legs of the flyover.
So finally, Max thought, we have reached our destination. Everybody who is anybody is in the place. Well, it seems as though the night is just starting but the games have already begun.
After finally emerging into the daylight from the scrum and press of the ticket barriers, Margot immediately declared that they couldn’t possibly go to Kubla Khan’s at this early hour. The shutters may have been lifted, but nobody who was anybody would be caught dead there at this time of day.
‘Besides Max, you are looking as peaky as I feel,’ she said. ‘I think that we are both in need of some refreshment. Yes, a little pick-me-up would act as a tonic, do us both a world of good. So what do you say to that?’ Margot asked, more to herself than to Max.
Max nodded absently. ‘Sure.’
He’d been so absorbed in the act of putting one foot in front of the other, suppressing the nausea brought on by the sight of the grey concrete towers dissolving in the sickening heat haze, that he really hadn’t been paying close attention. Now, though, he wondered where exactly they were walking to.
‘I know. Let’s go to that new place,’ Margot said, answering his unspoken question. ‘You know, that place they spent a fortune on? It was in the news. They called it the beginning of an urban renaissance or some such public relations nonsense.’
She stopped, lifted her sunglasses and rubbed her eyes in an effort to jog her memory. ‘Oh what’s it called?’ she asked aloud. ‘The Babylon. No. That’s not it. Something like it though. Babylon, Babylonia, Bethlehem, Bedlam…’ She shook her head. Then clicking her fingers, she said, ‘The Babel, that’s it. Let’s go there.’ With a look at their surroundings, she added, ‘Though I’m sure we’re headed in the completely wrong direction.’ When her gaze landed on a cluster of buildings that had briefly obscured the sun, she pointed. ‘There. Let’s go that a way instead.’
Again Max just nodded. He tried to speak but discovered that his swollen tongue was incapable of forming words. They had to get somewhere soon though, he thought. As Margot’s mind spiralled in ever decreasing, tightening circles, his limbs and extremities were being overtaken by a debilitating leadenness. Soon, very soon, he sincerely and desperately hoped, they would find this damned hotel and be seated in a dim nook with tall, long glasses of some refreshing, viscous, alcoholic drink. He could see it so clearly. He could almost taste it. Why were they not there already?
These thoughts were familiar. Memories, perhaps? Thoughts he’d had before? Glancing out of the corner of his eye at the mirrored, reinforced, window of the shop-front they were passing, he realised his mind was like that sheet of glass —reflecting everything and yet remembering nothing. The images that appeared before his eyes made a momentary impression, then moved off and vanished forever.
They scurried down empty avenues designed to disabuse anyone of the quaint notion that streets were for pedestrians to stroll upon. It simply wasn’t the case, especially not these days and not here, of all places. No, an avenue was a place for traffic to tear down, brakes untouched —woe betide anyone stupid enough to try to cross the road. Getting to the opposite side required being born there. And so they turned up sinister, dead-end alleys built primarily to facilitate robbery and rape, emerging finally, on the canal area. Margot immediately perked up, remarking that it couldn’t be far away now.
‘Thank God, I thought we were well and truly lost there for a while,’ Max said, finally finding his voice again.
‘Dearest Max, your lack of confidence in me is simply appalling,’ she said. ‘Though, I believe we are both on a bit of a come-down, which simply won’t do. But never fear. I believe I have the solution to having peaked too soon. I just never expected it to be such a long day. Anyway, all’s well that ends well, isn’t that so?’
‘I realize you have some master plan in the works, Margot. I just wish you would enlighten me a little.’
‘Oh Max,’ she said, smiling. ‘That would just spoil the surprise. Where’s your sense of adventure? When you woke up this morning, I bet you never thought you’d end up lost in Birmingham, did you?’ She gestured to a squat, low-rise, balconied building which had BABEL TOWERS emblazoned across the entrance. ‘Look, that must be it.’
‘It must be indeed, though it’s not really a tower, is it?’ Max remarked.
‘Not to worry, I am sure they will add bits onto it later. It does look shiny and new, though, doesn’t it?’
‘Sure does. Anyway, I couldn’t care less. I just want to get inside and take the weight off and have a drink. I’m completely parched’
‘Come on, then, stop dawdling and we’ll be there right quick.’
‘Coming, Margot,’ he said, pouting. ‘Are you just going to get bossier and bossier as this day goes on, or what?’
‘You’d better believe it, darling. You ain’t seen nothing yet. Besides, that’s the reason why you love me so,’ Margot suggested rather tartly.
‘Oh, you think so?’ Max replied, though he had to admit that she probably had a point on this score.
And as she marched up to the bar —with its space-station curves and mirrored surfaces— and commandingly ordered two gin and tonics with a squeeze of a lime, he felt just a little bit more in love, if such a thing was possible. The fleeting thought of his somnolent father finally waking to discover their absence entered his mind and was dismissed straight away. Hadn’t he already had that thought before?
They slid into the seats of a banquette in a shadowy nook, just like he had envisioned. Suddenly awestruck, he wondered if he was now psychic. Had the drugs Margot so thoughtfully provided unlocked a hitherto unused portion of his brain to reveal everything in the world in all its essence? He sipped the viscous gin that wonderfully refreshed his parched mouth and throat.
‘We really shouldn’t be mixing drink with what we took earlier —not really the ideal combo, but what the hell. I really needed this. Besides we are definitely on the comedown phrase, and that certainly won’t do if we are really to make a night of it,’ she said. ‘And I really want to make it a night we will never forget, don’t you, Max?’
Max sipped his drink. ‘Of course.’ Though, it was already a day that would live long in the memory.
‘Anyway, so,’ Margot said, pausing to rummage in her handbag. She withdrew her hand to present two sugar-cubes in her open palm. ‘This may be too much, but too much of everything is just enough, don’t you think?’ She laughed. ‘Though it may be in this case just too much. What do you say?’ She handed him one of the sugar-cubes.
‘I say yes. Thanks, Margot,’ Max said as he swallowed and reached for his drink.
‘Good boy, hopefully we can expect fireworks very shortly.’
‘No doubt. Do you want another drink?’ Max asked as he rose.
‘Absolutely, same again. Here, take some of your Dad’s money to pay for it.’
‘Cheers,’ Max said, smiling as he accepted the ten pound note.
Then cash in hand, Max wound through the crowd toward the glowing Shangri-La that was the bar. As the drug took effect, he felt the resurgent joy that had been slipping away, slowly return.
The train left at 4:13, which meant they had exactly 37 minutes to kill. Margot bought two packets of Silk Cut and handed one to Max.
‘Now you can at least smoke your own instead of taking all of mine,’ she said drily.
‘I thought sharing was caring.’
‘Yeah, but it’s meant to be a two way street, darling, not completely all one way traffic.’
They went over to the dirty, beige-coloured cafe and ordered two dirty, beige-coloured coffees. The place was full of tramps in the process of disintegrating before Max’s very eyes and sharp-faced young men, completely immobile and watching all the entrances and exits patiently. They were undoubtedly pimps just waiting to offer sinister charity to the inevitable waif having strayed too far from home.
‘Shall we head towards the platform now, Margot?’ Max asked her. ‘This place gives me the creeps.’
‘We still have…let’s see,’ Margot said as she checked her watch. ‘Another 23 minutes yet. Besides, you haven’t finished your coffee.’
‘Nah, it’s OK. I think it’s re-heated washing up water anyway. I need to get a coke on the way out to get rid of the taste.’
‘I suppose we can wait on the platform. I hope you will be able to sit still on the train. It’s over two hours, you know,’ she teased.
‘Of course. Sitting still is not really a problem for me. I can do anything if I put my mind to it.’
‘Really? Is that so?’ Margot seemed amused at Max’s boasting. ‘Maybe you should put your mind to it more often, then.’
‘Just because you’re my father’s guest doesn’t mean that you can be cheeky to his son. You’re not that much older than me you know. I mean, the way you go on, anyone would think you’re my big sister,’ Max grumbled.
‘Ahh poor baby, did I hurt your feelings? Come on,’ she said, standing. ‘Let’s get to platform 5, then.’
They left the dismal cafe and walked against the tide of disembarked passengers to platform 5. When they had found a place to wait, Margot opened her packet of cigarettes and offered one to Max. They smoked in silence until the train pulled up to the platform.
All the other passengers seemed to be Midlands businessmen ready to read every line of print in their rolled newspapers, either that or sleep. Even the ones traveling with friends or colleagues sat in stony-faced silence.
Max gauged that Margot wasn’t in the mood to talk either, so he contented himself with watching the scenery unroll outside the window as they passed through the North London suburbs. Of course, property close to train-lines always tends to be less than truly desirable, so for a good while all he saw were unkempt back gardens, strewn with broken prams, discarded children toys and rusted kitchen appliances.
As the train left the city behind and entered the countryside, it began to pick up speed. There was something about traveling that always made Max feel sleepy which in turn, made him very aroused. The desire for sleep had been somewhat counteracted by the drug —his blood cells jittered and raced through his ever expanding capillaries. However, the motion, the proximity of Margot (that scent -her scent), the living, shimmering fabric of her skin— all of it combined to make Max uncomfortably aware of his erection.
He didn’t suppose it would do any harm to close his eyes for just a few minutes and let delicious visions of unbridled bliss wash over his tired senses. It wouldn’t hurt at all. In fact, it would be a good thing, a very good thing indeed…
He could picture it all so clearly, the sun unmoving at its zenith above the tranquil, blue water reflecting the cloudless sky. The beach deserted as it would never be in this day and age, on such a perfect afternoon. He has it all to himself. Over to his right, where the cliffs meet the sand, a woman is swimming to shore. Once out of the water, she spots him and hesitates, but then waves at him rather hurriedly and shyly. Despite the tentative nature of the gesture, it seems like she is beckoning to him, the motion was meant to entice, is in fact, an invitation. But before he can get up and follow her, she has already disappeared into one of the many high-rise apartment blocks that nestle in the hills overlooking the sea.
The train came to an abrupt halt, jolting Max back to consciousness.
‘Ahhh, I see you have decided to re-join the land of the living. About time too, we are almost there now, Max. I would say about another fifteen to twenty minutes. That is, if the train ever leaves this benighted shit-hole,’ Margot remarked with a gesture towards the bleak landscape on display.
Max peered through the dirt-smeared windows. She hadn’t exaggerated. Massive chimneys belched out bilious smoke that only partially obscured the derelict Victorian factories and abandoned rusting warehouses. Heavy industry had long since poisoned the earth so that now only the rankest of weeds were surviving and thriving in the brown fields. All manner of refuse had been thrown from the banks of the disused canals into the silted beds below. A few occasional figures, undoubtedly drunks or junkies, all dressed in drab, earth tones or dingy, rainy-day hues, stumbled forlornly across this hopeless environment.
‘Do you know where we are now?’ Max asked.
‘Darling, what gives you the notion that I would have the faintest idea what that place is called? Does anyone know? And even if anyone did, would they care to remember? It just one of those places that the trains always stop at for some bizarre reason, even though there is no station.’
Just then, the train lurched into motion. ‘Finally,’ sighed Margot.
As the train approached Birmingham, slowly, with frequent stops —presumably because of interchanges and increased commuter and freight traffic— it became apparent that it was a city of competing brutalities. A place designed for man’s absence; all distressed concrete and smashed glass. Some joker had thought that Birmingham should emulate L.A’s autopia (under these northern skies!), while another genius had tried to recreate Le Corbusier’s Radiant City on the cheap.
Well, guess what, Max thought, that shit hadn’t worked. It had failed miserably, actually producing the opposite of what was intended, a place that neither shone nor sparkled, in fact cast no light at all. Birmingham The Unradiant City.
‘We are here,’ Margot said, standing up as the train came to a stop at New Street Station.