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To the Land's End
On the Road with Grant Morrison for the Total Solar Eclipse of 1999
‘1200 Quid’ featuring Grant Morrison, from my Alternity series at www.stevecook.london
‘We HAVE to go to Land’s End for the total eclipse. It’s the only chance we’ll ever get’, said Grant Morrison over the phone. I’d already declined an offer to accompany my dear friend Shirin, who suggested we make the journey in a van she’d hired, with room to sleep in the back.
So here I was trying to justify not going… again. The thought of driving all that way was kind of ominous, especially in my rubbishy old car. I finally relented after Grant convinced me that it would be the experience of a lifetime and, more to the point, the only way he was going to finish his The Invisibles series. We agreed to go halves on a modern rental car fit for the six-hour journey and I suggested picking him up outside the Underground station on the King’s Road, after his train ride down from Glasgow.
I bloody hate driving, and I knew it would be me all the way because Grant doesn’t drive. But we had snacks and drinks for the journey and some pretty good sounds in the CD player. I’d recently been dating a woman from the South of France who turned me onto some vintage French music, so we had plenty of Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot to listen to on the way.
We had to arrive before sunset and so made only two stops: one for lunch in a Motorway café, another to stretch our legs and attempt to photograph ourselves, my camera set to timer on the car roof. The journey was pleasant but arduous, the roads packed with people heading the same way for the same reason. The allotted six hours turned into eight.
The rapidly fading light made us all the more anxious about finding a place to lay our weary heads as we drew closer to our destination. Brigitte Bardot was on her last legs when we spotted what looked like a castle high on a hill, actually a rustic-looking hotel. It was fully booked: no room at the inn. ‘Fuck, what are we going to do?’ We ventured into the suburbs and Grant had the great idea of knocking randomly on doors to see if anyone had a room to rent. This was something we’d heard about on the news – homeowners making spare cash from travelers on their pilgrimage to Land’s End. I figured, why not? So out of the car he got and began knocking on doors. For some reason this was unsuccessful. The light had now completely faded and this shaven headed, black-clad fellow turning up on the doorstep, resembling a better looking Nosferatu, with an accent from faraway lands, just wasn’t cutting it. Whether Grant was still wearing his shades, may be a false memory.
I suggested looking for a pub and we found one, thankfully not too far away. Now it was my turn. I walked into the pub, reminiscent of The Slaughtered Lamb in American Werewolf in London, but there was no star on the wall and the bartender looked friendly.
I told him of our plight and, though no rooms were available, he knew an old couple down the road that might have a spare room or two, and gave them a call. The conversation sounded positive, the man was smiling and nodding… and then Grant strolled in. There was a brief look of homophobic panic in the man’s eyes as he hung up the phone, but I assured him that we were just pals on a journey to see the eclipse and he kindly gave us the address and directions.
What a relief! It was about 8pm by the time we pulled into a cul-de-sac of little houses. The old couple greeted us with enthusiasm and showed us to our rooms. They already had one other guest and were definitely up for the spare cash. My room was very small and rather twee, with a frilly bedspread, and Grant had a larger room next to mine. It had been an extremely long day and we were bushed, but I found time for a roll-up and stepped outside for a quick smoke before we turned in for the night.
I awoke hazily around 7.30am to a knock on the door, and opened it to a rather disheveled Grant Morrison with strange symbols drawn all over his chest in lipstick. ‘I’ve been up all night doing magic!’ he exclaimed.
By now the smell of fresh brewed coffee was wafting up the stairs, so we smartened up a bit and went down to the dining room to join the old couple and their guest for breakfast. It was all very pleasant but, as we prepared to leave, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of guilt. I was an accessory to the fact that they’d inadvertently welcomed a chaos magician into their home, and there was now some kind of inter-dimensional portal whirling around in their daughter’s bedroom.
We were so close to Land’s End itself that the rest of the journey was a breeze. As I drove, I related a vivid dream from the previous night. Grant made total sense of it, but for the life of me I can’t remember it now. We arrived and found our spot in a field by a wooden construct, like downed rugby posts. We had a picturesque view of the Cornish cliffs and a ship on the ocean: the perfect place to be. Nearby, someone had constructed a giant TV screen ready for a close up of the event, but we preferred our view.
I wandered around for a bit with my camera while Grant made his mental preparations. As the moon began to pass across the sun the wind dropped and the place fell eerily silent. Darkness crept along the coast and the temperature dropped rapidly too. I had to admit that Grant was right. It was the experience of a lifetime, and we sat in total silence as we savored the event.
‘O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse
Without all hope of day!’
John Milton’s words: but daylight returned with a gust of wind and it was all over far too soon.
We picked ourselves up and wandered, pensive, back to the car. I accidentally trod in some dog shit, bringing me back down to Earth with a squelch. I tried to wash it off with my bottled Evian; after this we sought out beer and some lunch.
The portrait I took of Grant that I’m proud to say is now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London, was taken on the beach just near to the restaurant we eventually found. I think I had fish and chips, I usually do, but now it was time to dread the journey back.
And dreaded it was. Thousands of people heading home, an endless line of cars. I tried a different route, but so had a thousand others and the diversion was futile. I won’t bore you with the minutiae of us sitting in traffic for hours with a dwindling selection of music to listen to, but we did eventually get back on the road with a certain amount of speed before dark.
It must have been close to midnight and my eyes were getting heavy. We also needed petrol and food, so we pulled into a Service station, filled up and grabbed some snacks. Beside the cash register was a bargain bin of CDs, and I figured that listening to something different might help me to stay awake: especially as radio reception in the car was terrible.
So minimal was the selection that the one I decided on was Spiceworld by The Spice Girls. It was a stretch from what we’d been listening to but it kept me awake long enough to witness the flashing blue light coming up from the rear… followed by a siren. I was pretty sure I wasn’t speeding, but I pulled over and the cop got out, making his way to our car. A few dreadful moments later Grant wound down his window and the cop leaned in. I wasn’t sure if our faces betrayed the fear of whatever I was about to be fined for, or of appearing incredibly uncool as the Spice Girls sang Viva Forever with gusto.
I sighed with relief when he told us that one of our rear lights was out. I explained that it was a hire car and, for the amount we’d paid, should have been at least roadworthy. At this he let us off the hook and we drove off with Spice Up Your Life at full volume.
We didn’t make it back to mine ‘til the early hours. We slept until almost lunchtime and decided to go for brunch in Chrisp Street Market, a five-minute walk away. As we mingled with people in the marketplace Grant came out with such an abstract sentence that I’ll never forget it: ‘Just imagine if giant sperm suddenly dropped out of the sky and started attacking all of these people’.
To me it was the perfect end to our little adventure, and I noticed a couple of years later that very scene appearing in his following series The Filth.
So that’s how he does it.
Unedited from the Secret Oranges blog 27.4.2014.
Grant Morrison MBE, Land’s End, Cornwall, August 11, 1999. © Steve Cook/National Portrait Gallery
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