Steve Aylett @ Embassy Gallery, Edinburgh

Article by Mark Harding | 06 Dec 2010
  • Aylett

Lawrence Durrell, in The Alexandria Quartets, has one of his characters say that big imaginative projects such as writing a novel have an impact on the surrounding world. In the case of Steve Aylett, polymath of the weird, his imaginative power must be similar to a black hole that bends the light passing nearby - so massive that it produces a constant warping effect on the surrounding reality. Surprisingly not foretold by the sighting of a comet, Aylett was in Edinburgh to perform what was variously described as stand-up or a book reading. In the Aylett way, it was of course, neither and both.

Before it had even started the event had taken the persona of a mixture of Fight Club, a dating service and a city orienteering event. There had been rumours of the sudden demise of the Roxy Art House but the web site was whited-out like a nuclear disaster so it was hard to know what was going on. From 7pm onwards, furtive individuals were turning up to peer at the 'closed' notice taped to the door. They would hover about the area, trying to spot their fellows by arcane signals and eventually daring to whisper: 'You here for... Aylett?' In a sudden world of uncertainty, the relatively simple instruction to 'go to the Embassy Gallery next door' became cryptic; and the gallery itself evasive and stealthy: people wandering the streets looking for something that looked like an art gallery in the nearby schoolyard, or the pub, or lurking behind oversized wheely-bins.

Eventually, lights came on, doors were opened and all was well. The Embassy Gallery, which was indeed, literally the next door, had stepped in to host the event. Such generosity restoring one's confidence in the benevolence of the world, until the artworks themselves took an obscure dislike to Aylett and peppered the performance with a campaign of surprise attacks...

There was some reading from published works (if you've never read Aylett: do so), but on the whole I 'd describe the show as sort of stand-up, with sort of dramatic interludes. Most literary practitioners who attempt stand-up are interesting but, frankly, have a dreich drear dearth of funny. Not so with Aylett, whose genuine laughter quota can stand-up in competition to the best of the well known up-standers registered with the EU's Common Comedy Policy. One strand is a series of tips for 'Effortless Incitement' – giving 'the gift' of intrigue to friends and strangers, or to put it another way, driving people nuts. My personal favourites are his true stories – displaying the Aylett reality displacement effect throughout his career: such as his brief stint as Ronnie Kray's writing pal (Aylett credits himself with being the spur to Ronnie's little-known authorial ambitions), or being forced to start producing the works of his fictional writer Jeff Lint because of constant pestering by people looking for Lint's publications.

The attentive reader will have noticed that I've been delaying a description of the Aylett USP. This is because an Aylett is a slippery creature to categorise. The lazy option is to call him surreal: but this is inaccurate. The black-clad stick surmounted by Lennon sunglasses that was the avatar of Aylett for that evening mentioned satire. And I think this is the key. Aylett is a sort of guerilla fighter against stale thought and boringness. A succinct summary of the Aylett vibe would be the title of his story of moon exploration: If Armstrong Was Interesting. It's satire, Jim, but not as we know it. One of the truly original voices in – or more accurately, splashing to the side of - the rather sheepish pool of English-language letters.

Aylett was suitably supported by The Chemical Poets, three poets who approximate to a Sci-Fi Rap Slam group. A genre, I'm ashamed to say, I was previously unaware of. Ranging through Lovecraft, the Multiverse, Star Wars, political satire, Carnival, The Matrix, Jules Verne and much much more, they put on a virtuoso display, with the serious intent of exploding your mind. Like a jolt of electricity to the temples – but in a good way.

The Roxy Art House are to be congratulated on their taste in inviting Aylett, and their Artistic Director is to be congratulated for his dedication in making new arrangements for the event and for turning up on the day after his redundancy. Losing the Roxy is a major blow for a vibrant and inclusive arts scene in Edinburgh and a sad reminder that a team who had, as David Cameron would say 'done all the right things', do not necessarily get their just deserts. We can only hope a Phoenix will rise from the ashes.

The Aftermath: Aylett has retreated, no longer teasing the city, leaving us with... what? Hopefully we'll avoid a hangover of Egyptian plagues of locrusts, cricketers, open flies or rain of fogs. Perhaps instead, we'll be welcomed for a short time to the sunny uplands of being slightly less boring.