Damon Fairclough explores the mystic and the ideas behind STUPLEX, the limited edition boxes of culture that contain a maze of poetry, writing, music and art. Enter the enigmatic world of Stuplex and watch out for the number 23…
There are few places more potent than a pub on a weekday afternoon. I don’t mean your local Wetherspoon’s, with its filter coffee and discount curries and aroma of unbranded disinfectant. I mean those pubs that you glimpse from the corner of your eye – that exist just beyond daylight, round corners, down alleys. Despite three decades of stuttering regeneration, a few of them still exist in this city and, when you find one, you might just overhear whispers of projects and plans that are certain, no messin’, to change the world.
Take Stuplex for instance. Conceived in The Roscoe Head a couple of years ago, Stuplex is the product of an afternoon booze-fuelled pub chat that didn’t just fade on the stale breeze, but remained rattling round in its progenitors’ minds until they couldn’t help but do something about it. Those progenitors were the writer and artist A.E. Pearsall and Liverpool music legend Paul Simpson, and though Stuplex began as little more than an intriguing title and a collection of shared ideas, it wasn’t long before it became one more fascinating artistic product to emerge from Liverpool’s postmeridian pub world.
All of which might help you understand its context, but it won’t tell you what it actually is. So let’s attempt a description. Stuplex is a publication, but one that can take many forms. It features writers, artists, musicians and more who all help put it together by hand – stitching booklets, burning CDs, making prints – before everything is combined in a sealed box and published in a limited edition. You can buy copies of Stuplex online – or from the occasional art market or print fair – but once they’re gone, they’re gone. Stuplex 001 sold out long ago, but you may find a copy of 002 on their website if you’re quick.
Each edition of Stuplex has a theme, with contributors free to take the idea where they want. Stuplex 001, built round the concept of ‘decay’, featured stories, poetry, prints, a CD and a magic spell. The second edition, themed around ‘decadence’, was bigger, a little more lavish, and included photographs, envelopes, and a gleaming golden cassette. I was so taken by the idea myself that I’ve now become a regular Stuplex contributor, submitting short stories to both of the first two editions.
For the writer Jeff Young, whose work often explores the mildewed corners of memory, Stuplex is a natural repository for his words. “As someone who collects limited edition small press books and pamphlets – and as a great admirer of Joseph Cornell’s box art – I had the feeling that Stuplex would be something I’d buy if I saw it in a bookshop,” says Young. “That was enough for me to want to be part of it.”
Young inadvertently helped conjure Stuplex into existence when he introduced the co-founders to each other back in 2013. “Paul Simpson, of Wild Swans repute, and I meet once a week for a catch-up and a glass of wine,” Young continues. “I introduced him to writer and artist A.E. Pearsall, who had been a student of mine on the Writing MA at JMU, and, when they hatched a plan for a series of limited edition boxes, I was invited to write a piece for the first one.”
That piece was 23 Proposals For Decay Magic, a curious incantation designed to “encourage a state of decay” according to Young. His second Stuplex contribution was 23 First Lines of Decadent Novels I Will Never Write, at which point it becomes clear that Young has an apparent fixation with the number 23 – and knowing a little of the way his mind works, I somehow doubt that it’s simply his favourite National Lottery ball.
In fact, Young’s reference point is the 23 enigma, a phenomenon that a number of writers and artists have cited over the years, from William Burroughs to Psychic TV to Bill Drummond. Put simply, it refers to the belief, or at least the observation, that many curious events, both significant and obscure, are connected to this innocent-looking arithmetical value. For Jeff Young, it is a conceptual nugget to nibble at rather than swallow whole, but, nevertheless, it has still proved an enduring idea.
“I first came across it in the mid-1970s from various places – Ken Campbell’s Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, which would have led me to Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy, which I would have picked up in the original Atticus bookshop on Clarence Street, and about the same time I’d have been buying William Burroughs paperbacks. I liked the idea that these worlds were overlapping and it all coloured my sense that Liverpool had an occult, counter-cultural aspect to it. I didn’t actually believe in the power of the number 23 but I liked the idea of it.”
It may be no surprise then that the third iteration of Stuplex won’t be a multi-author extravaganza like the first two, but will be the publication of Jeff Young’s 23 Enigma Vortex Sutra in a limited edition of 230. The work is a journey through 23 verses describing incidents and events, both real and half-imagined, in which that fate-bothering number seems to cast a mysterious, unsettling spell. Half the copies will consist of the text in pamphlet form, while the other half will also come with a CD of the piece recorded at the Everyman Theatre last October. Read by Young and the actor Penny Layden, the recording also features live music by Liverpool-based composer Martin Heslop.
“23 Enigma Vortex Sutra was first commissioned by the Everyman for an event called Radical City,” says Young. “When my play Bright Phoenix was on at the Everyman last year, it seemed right to regroup and perform 23 Enigma again. We performed it at 23 minutes past 23 hundred hours on 23rd October. It has always been accompanied by music, and it was always Martin who created it. We have similar tastes, interests and influences and we’re close friends too. That closeness provides us with a mix of instinct, intuition and spontaneity. The man is wondrous.”
According to Heslop, it was the original 23 Enigma commission that brought him and Young together. “We realised quite quickly that artistically we had similar reference points,” he says. “Since then we’ve worked on all kinds of things – live art installations, spoken word and music, and various theatre shows. Jeff’s themes and imagery, like mine, are submerged in the city as a dangerous, magical fairground full of cracks where forgotten spirits roam. He always finds a way of coaxing them out of the cracks and giving them back their lives on the page.”
Just like Young, Heslop has also contributed to every manifestation of Stuplex thus far, though as a poet rather than a musician.
“I love writing music but words are my main obsession,” Heslop continues. “I see each piece of work as crossing over into the next one anyway, whether that’s music, poetry or prose. You can describe war or the city or the sea with words or sounds or music, and it’s all one and the same.”
Young and Heslop are both currently conjuring phantoms around Liverpool – Heslop as a composer for Lizzie Nunnery’s play Narvik at The Playhouse, and Young in a number of small-scale pieces including a response to Niamh O’Malley’s Bluecoat exhibition in October. But keep your third eye open for Stuplex 003, and dose up on 23 Enigma Vortex Sutra. Then go out for an afternoon pint and a chinwag.
Perhaps the 23 Club would be a good place to start.