Another day lies squandered behind me.
If like me you happen to spend a lot of time taking in the relaxed atmosphere in and around Sunset Junction and (a mere stone’s throw away) the bucolic and nostalgic Echo Park Lake district, it’s possible you’ve spotted him walking the streets there at some point: a tall, lanky, skinny, angular, youngish Caucasian bloke with a freckly Irish complexion and a heavy mop of unruly hair, dressed in standard-issue clothing from, say, about the year 1910 — thrift-shoppy black jacket, white shirt and stovepipe-y black pants — the unfashionable severity of it all finished off (for good) by black navy-Oxford shoes. You’d probably find yourself struck by said bony figure’s stiff gait, his gawky singularity. His general mien seems slightly forbidding, exuding an aura of challenge. His name is John Tottenham and he’s a published poet.
I do not know the meaning of hard work.
I spotted him once one late afternoon, while I was driving past the Angelus Temple near the lake. He was walking (rather stiffly) along the water’s edge. He stopped suddenly, like a person struck by an idea, pulled a notebook out of his pocket and scribbled a quick little something (with noticeably agitated effort) in that bony hand. An inspiration? Though I recognized him I kept on driving, leaving him alone with his thoughts, his brow “knitted,” as they say, his expression distracted and possibly pissed off about something. He was squinting toward the sun.
Sometimes I wonder why I bother
And sometimes I wonder why
I don’t bother.
This pale-faced observer of L.A.’s streets and the human condition is a former Englishman who has lived in Echo Park for well over a decade. Before that, his home was above a furniture store on Western Avenue. Back then, he spent a lot of time listening to 1920s country blues records and reading tons of books on American things: the South, the writings of William Faulkner, Bukowski. In those days, he says, he always kept two books in his car: the Bible and James Joyce’s (incomprehensible) Finnegans Wake.
Every day some fresh hindrance I pursue.
Sometimes not so fresh.
Early in the century (this one), our local expatriate put out a slim, singular book of poems called The Inertia Variations. They were bitterly funny, sardonically self-lacerating odes to work avoidance, laziness, creative blockage, artistic impotence, procrastination and inevitable daytime naps on the couch. (With subject matter like that, you’d think the book would sell a million copies.)
These poems seemed to address the question: How do you spend your time, John?
Mornings are spent preparing for activity.
Nights are spent recovering from inactivity…
I have never done less:
I keep saying this
And yet I keep outdoing myself…
I can barely wait to be done
With this pretending to try
And move on
To not trying at all…
I ate too much chocolate and fell asleep on the sofa.
And remained there…
A rough day, I thought: as rough as a day can be
Without leaving chair or sofa…
I’ve sometimes wondered when I read him: Who else has written poems like these? The closest I can come to it is Prufrock, T.S. Eliot’s famous ode to wasted time, though Eliot doesn’t have Tottenham’s tone of often-hilarious self-loathing (of course, Eliot did get a lot more writing done).
Watch one of John Tottenham’s public poetry readings on YouTube: that harsh, buzzsaw voice, spitting out those witty and caustic sentiments in his Kentish-Londoner accent, with the occasional relief of an ironic smirk, is hysterical:
To do nothing in this day and age
When so much pointless work is being produced
Could almost be considered an achievement.
It all compares most unfavorably
With my own imaginary body of work.
The L.A. art crowds eat it up; these are, after all, sentiments that are pretty easy to relate to.
After years spent as a local cult figure who’s been “toiling at the lower rungs of journalism” (he writes a column for the art magazine Artillery), Tottenham has recently joined the list of L.A. artists who are Better Known In Europe: The Inertia Variations have just been immortalized in a documentary film, thanks to a British rock star.
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Matt Johnson, former lead singer of the ’80s British pop group The The, apparently shares Tottenham’s tendency to put things off. Which is probably why, after getting inspired by Tottenham's book a full 12 years ago, he’s only recently decided to use his fellow Brit’s words to express, on camera, his own frustration over writer’s block and general ennui.
"I didn’t know him,” Tottenham told me recently (I promise it was recently), over an afternoon coffee at the Echo Park Lake Boathouse. “Our mutual friend Jim Thirlwell, aka the singer Foetus, passed the book along to M.J. many years ago, around the time of the first printing,” he said. “His interpretation was in the can at least nine years ago” (smirk, eye roll). “Being a chronic procrastinator himself, hence his affinity to the material, he took a long time putting it out there.”
In a rare bout of jetsetting, the laconic Tottenham was flown out to London recently to attend the film’s premiere, and to read from the book (alongside Matt Johnson himself) at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art.
“I have carved out a little niche for myself,” Tottenham concedes, looking out over the lake. “One that nobody else would want. For many years I didn’t do anything. Then I wrote about it. The struggle turned into the subject matter.” Then he laughed, and sipped his coffee.