Tuesday, 28 November 2017


“The world can really kick your ass. I only have a vague recollection of when it wasn’t kicking mine.”

A journey to the North to see old friends. A train I’ve taken many times but not nearly enough of late. My own private demons to contend with.  But these are my best friends and as they’re now old friends in all senses of that phrase, I need to see them as often as I can before it’s too late.
The Monk hasn’t been well. There’s an understatement. The Monk has nearly died and isn't completely out the woods yet. Years of abuse have caught up with him. People will call it self-abuse but it’s a phrase I don’t care for. Slow suicides like his often have their roots in other people. He’s on a long, painful road to recovery but you can hear the demons listening in on every phone call we’ve shared the last few months. Time to see for myself what damage those demons have done.
Feels irresponsible drinking on the train. Disrespectful even. But it’s what I’ve always done on these long journeys and the cold beers bring a glow as familiar as the hills and towns we pass.  
A farcical taxi journey from the station to the House of Monk. He answers the door. I was expecting him to be in a wheelchair but he’s on crutches so at first my spirits are raised.
He lives alone in a ground floor bedsit in a Victorian terrace that lies in a forgotten corner of an industrial town. He cannot venture further than the front door without a vehicle.  In this tiny flat are piled the books, records and DVDs of a man who cannot enjoy much past these things. Art provides the journeys his broken body is now incapable of making.
Our mutual friend Garry joins us and over a few days we talk about the past, the old days, the glory days, the days when the three of us would seemingly find adventure and madness every time we set outside. We never took photos. We have been best friends for nearly 30 years and have never exchanged a birthday card or present. The marking of time, the passing of things is something that we just don’t do. Who wants to think about the end?
We listen to the music we used to love, to the music we used to make.  We talk about everything from Boy George to Anfield, from rugby league to the Rockford Files. In between bouts of silence brought about by the exhausting regime of medicines the Monk needs to take, he is lucid, witty and charismatic as ever. Eventually, worn out by all our natter, we decide to put one of the Monks DVDs on.
Despite the many greater works of art that make up much of the Monks film collection, we settle for an old lowbrow favourite.  For those of you who haven’t seen it, Kingpin is a film about a naïve young man who makes the mistake of trusting an older one against his initial instincts, a mistake that costs him his hand and ends his fledgling career in professional ten pin bowling. Woody Harrelson is Munson, a man whose cruel misfortune has led to his surname becoming synonymous with having the world in the palm of your hand and losing it.  Bill Murray is Ernie McCracken, a professional bowler, all round bad guy and at least partly to blame for Munson's disfigurement.
Seventeen years of hard drinking and poverty pass.  So, when Munson discovers Brother Ishmael (Randy Quaid), a member of the Amish community with a bowling talent kept hidden from his family, he sees a chance to get out of his predicament. There is a bowling tournament in Reno with a prize of a million dollars. Exactly twice the amount needed to save Brother Ishmael’s farm from foreclosure.
You can probably guess the rest. A road trip across America in which a romantic interest, Claudia (Vanessa Angel), comes along for the ride and a showdown at the end with McCracken.

In Brother Ishmael, Munson sees not just a chance to get rich, but a chance to be the man he was expected to be. There is a moving scene in which Munson returns to the small town he left as a young man to seek his fame and fortune, sent on his way by his adoring father. We hear that Munson felt too ashamed to even return for his father’s funeral. Seeing the ghosts of the town he left. Munson realises that though he can’t now redeem himself in his father’s eyes, perhaps he can redeem himself in his own.
Munson sees eventually that he must accept a degree of responsibility for his situation, if not the initial cause of it. From that moment on, though there are several setbacks, redemption seems assured if not in the form we expect.

Despite the jokes about rubber hands, bestiality and alcoholism, this is really a film about broken dreams, second chances, unexpected redemption. Though Bill Murray excels as the wild-haired monster, it’s Harrelson who absolutely makes this film work.  I’ve always found him an underrated actor.  Despite his good looks, something in him seems too nice to land the anti-hero roles that characterised the best work of Paul Newman, yet he could never realistically grab an everyman part like Tom Hanks or a truly bad guy role. Only recently have directors started to realise he can’t play blue-eyed village idiots forever.
There’s many funny and quotable lines in the film but my favourite line is Munson attempting to defend his latest transgression – “The world can really kick your ass. I only have a vague recollection of when it wasn’t kicking mine.”
Something in that line has always seemed very true to me, despite its note of self-pity. The world can kick your ass and it’s been kicking The Monk’s longer than most. I’m not drawing parallels between the Monk and Munson, except in one small way.
The Monk seeks redemption too, another shot at being somebody people can be proud of. If he could only see that those of us who love him are already proud of him, and there are many more of us than he probably thinks, and that it is only himself he needs to forgive, then perhaps victory can yet be his.


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