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Joy Williams, The Visiting Privilege; Ninety-Nine Stories of God – TLS

15/12/2016

“Was it only a dream that Literature was once dangerous, that it had the power to awaken and change us?”, Joy Williams wondered recently in an unpublished essay. Among her peers, Williams’s attempt to put language to work in this way, to make it shake us from complacency, has won the admiration of writers as various as Raymond Carver, Stephen King, Edmund White, Chuck Palahniuk, George Saunders and Don DeLillo. She has written four novels featuring oddballs and discontents, and two non-fiction works – one, a sort of anti-tourism book about the Florida Keys, the other an ecological polemic, Ill Nature (2001). But the bulk of praise has been for her oblique and acerbic short stories, and her skill in conveying something beyond or below their frame, making darkness visible, or at least tangibly felt. Many have now been collected in The Visiting Privilege, together with some new stories. Written over the last forty years, these unconsoling tales (“There is no happy ending”, one character warns) lay bare the disturbed psyche of America. Cumulatively they seem to foreworn of the derangement we are witnessing in the age of Trump, the loss of proportion and propriety, and a vast carelessness, even about the truth. Beginning in ordinary circumstances her stories often lurch into something more sinister or perverse, presenting solipsistic individuals, environmental decimation, cruelty to animals, and an uncertain sense of what constitutes reality. The ‘Visiting Privilege’ of the title story, like the ‘Honoured Guest’ of another, intimates that man’s stay on earth is temporary and on sufferance – an idea that rebukes our habit of exploitation, but also sets the limits of our freedom. The question of who or what we have exhausted – God, other species, the environment, or maybe the author herself – and what we might have to forfeit as a result, looms in them all.

The short story still has a privileged place in American literary culture, finding a home in prestigious magazines such as the New Yorker, the Paris Review or Esquire where Williams’ husband, L. Rust Hills, was literary editor for many years, and it is taught on creative writing programmes where these days a sizeable portion of American writers learn their craft. The appeal for the neophyte lies in the story’s evident constraints, which can make it a more visible ‘turn’ than the novel, a form for showing off (something George Plimpton once castigated Williams for). And its principal subject is perhaps the biggest one of all. If the novel is pre-eminently concerned with time, and what we do inside it, the short story’s subject is time ending, and how we face death. Not by accident is one of the greatest story collections called The Dead.

Perhaps it is the story’s deathly cast which makes the form resonate so strongly in America: its shifts in gear or sudden revelations alerting us to the fact that life is never stable or safe; and its brevity warning that the end is always nigh, or just around the corner – especially in a country where, as Williams observes, opportunities for death proliferate with every new six-lane highway. Williams’ mastery of the form stems in part from her understanding of this. Her epigraph to The Visiting Privilege is from Corinthians: “we shall all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye”; and her most frequent character, showing up in over half of these stories, more frequently still in the later ones, is Death. The endpapers to The Visiting Privilege show a supremely American image of a group of people in a convertible driving breezily towards their fate. While in the book’s culminating moment, in the final story, ‘Craving’, a couple, who like nothing better than to drink and drive, abandon their effort to sober up in various rented rooms and motels, and head out to the road to flirt with death, playing their favourite game of tailgating, “teasing” the car ahead, before coming to an inevitable bad end.

joy-williams

For Williams, death, in its infinite variety, is the great deconstructor, pulling apart the ordered reality we cling to and exposing it as a sham or delusion, or at the very least as more furtive and strange than is generally acknowledged. For instance, in ‘Marabou’ a mother’s funeral for her drug addicted son begins with a kind of benevolent comradeship as his friends turn up and share their memories, but the wake descends quickly into unsettling territory and the story ends with first one and then several of the friends returning to her house and refusing to go away. In ‘The Honoured Guest’, another mother, “condemned” with cancer finds the torment of its slow progression brings her daughter to the verge of suicide. In both, someone tells a tale about the cruel or bizarre treatment of an animal – metaphors that serve to emphasise human beastliness – and in both, speech becomes inchoate and threatening: “Words at night were feral things”, the dying mother thinks, vowing not to speak after dark. But as so often happens in Williams’ stories, communication breaks down into angry or bemused non-sequiturs, painting a vast aloneness and inadequacy, particularly in the face of death. One tale that conveys a rare degree of compassion in this astringent collection, ‘The Mother Cell’, concerns a group of women, all mothers of killers, who have come together unwittingly, as if drawn magnetically to the same spot on the map. Their talk is declamatory and disjointed, but in their shared predicament this is tolerated, expected even, as if in their situation only ruptured conversation is fitting. In the same way, there is collective agreement that seeking redemption would be tasteless. More often, though, Williams’ characters struggle to come to terms with one another and are oddly affectless and blind to the people around them. There are several stories where the death or sickness of others is treated as an occasion for self-aggrandisement, a chance to play a starring role in the proceedings, often with an underlying violence to those people the characters in question are purporting to help.

But despite such mordancy, nearly everything Williams’ writes is laced with comedy – for the writer, death’s silver lining. In her novel I’m Dying Laughing, Christina Stead (an author much admired by Williams) identified the character of this humour, both disturbing and disabusing, of which Williams is such an expert: “American humour is another way of seeing the truth; and what a vision!…it is homespun, godlike truth stalking in from the plains and the tall timber, coonskin and deerhide, with a gun to disturb our little home comforts.” Many of the stories in The Visiting Privilege not directly concerned with the Grim Reaper are enlivened by just such a scything humour. Williams’ narrators are experts at cutting people down to size: “Martha is a comfy woman with a nice complexion but her hair is the colour of pork”; “She had corn kernels in her teeth, but apart from that she was the very picture of an exasperated woman.” Her humour can suggest aberration: “I saw an odd thing there in the mountains. I saw my father pretending to be lame”; or veer into something more sinister: “He goes at her without turning on the light. ‘I didn’t want to wake you up’, he says”. Often it turns on dehumanisation or the difficulty of acting naturally, as if we have forgotten how to behave, even in the most basic human relationships: “It is hard to know how to act when one is with the child, alone.”

This dark comedy is even more in evidence in Ninety-Nine Stories of God, a book of vignettes modelled on Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator (1997). These comprise amusing, shocking or unexpected tales, like the fait divers beloved of nineteenth century French newspapers, as well as philosophical statements or speculations, and many brief pieces in which the Lord is brought down to earth – their humour deriving from incongruity (the Lord adopting a turtle, the Lord giving a dinner party), or from mortals failing to recognise His omnipotence. In story 99, Williams distils the preoccupations of her oeuvre: inadequate human beings struggling to understand the mystery of life, death and a reclusive God. Here, the Lord is in Maine, in the messy home of a psychic who is trying, but failing, to see Him: “this can’t be that unusual”, she thinks. But then she has an epiphany. Maybe the point is not to see Him, but to “go directly to the questions most everyone had and visualise from there. What’s going to happen after I’m dead?”

From early in her career Williams was making notes about the human disinclination to take responsibility or to pay for one’s pleasure: “They loved jumping off the cliff but…but they hated the climb back up”, says the narrator of ‘Taking Care’. By the latter stages, however, inertia has turned into intransigence. So a man attending a church meeting week after week looks down at a paper-clip wedged in the cracks of the floorboards, and wonders why it hasn’t been cleared away, but never picks it up. And a woman seeing a postcard she can’t remember displaying in her kitchen, of a city she doesn’t like, decides, perversely, she has “no intention of taking it down”. It’s in these details as well as in the bigger, showier battles with death, violence and environmental harm, that Williams illuminates the darkness in America where, rather than action, selfishness and stubborn refusal have become the hallmarks of resistance. Perhaps this is what Williams means when she says “I write out of a sense of guilt…There’s not enough guilt around these days for my taste”. She has even wondered if over-attention to the self, “this obsessional looking at the human [might] bring about the death of literature”. For Williams self-absorption is inextricably linked to the contemporary shoulder shrug, the ‘whatever’ attitude she fears is not just killing the great enquiry of literature but dehumanising mankind. In the collection’s final story, ‘Craving’, the car crash finale is brought about by something the drunk, careless couple seem to have conjured from their own squandering destructiveness. Another car smashes into them, a deliberate act by a driver who seems, terrifyingly, to be less than human: “Then whatever was driving it slammed on the brakes.”

“I believe that God is (and must be) a transcendent presence in any work of art”, Williams has said, but exasperated by her fellow Americans, wreckless and profligate, driven by death wish, she seems to doubt whether a work of art can accommodate them. She is now working on a novel set in the desert which will depict “species unknown, species never seen”.

This review appeared in the TLS, titled ‘Death Driven, on 16.12.2016.

Ali Smith, Autumn – Spectator

13/12/2016

Ali Smith is that rare thing in Britain: a much-beloved experimental writer. Part of her attraction for readers is that she continually connects formal innovation and the freedom to reinvent a story with the freedom to reinvent the self. It’s a beguiling proposition that can make liberation seem like a matter of style. Following the success last year of How To Be Both, the most dazzling and accomplished of her novels, Smith planned to write a long-gestated novel quartet, its four volumes reflecting successive seasons – an idea that would allow her to pursue her fascination with what is perhaps the novel’s greatest subject: time. But the times overtook her, and the events of 2016 turned Autumn, the first of her intended novels, from a farce in an antique shop into a meditation on the upheavals of Brexit.

Autumn opens by acknowledging that it is a tale, one, which like all tales, is influenced by others and fashioned in part from their language. “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times”, Smith begins, and once again, “things. They fall apart”. From the imaginative place Christina Stead once called the Ocean of Story, and Salman Rushdie, the Sea of Story, a figure emerges, washing up on some unknown shore. He is a literary figure trailing the memories of Odysseus and Crusoe in his wake, who questions everything (is he dead or alive?) and keeps changing shape, morphing from nakedness to leaf-dressed Green Man, from old age to youth. Daniel Gluck is his name and he recalls a life of good fortune, of being lucky through the accidents of time. But as he strolls along the beach to discover what kind of world he has landed in, Gluck finds the corpses of children lying close by holiday-makers sunning themselves under parasols. Something is amiss here: in more ways than one the times are out of joint.

From these dreamlike beginnings, Smith’s novel jumps into a prosaic world where Elizabeth Demand keeps vigil at Gluck’s bedside as he lies unconscious in a care home, hovering at death’s door. A refugee from fascism in Europe, Gluck was once a neighbour who befriended her in lonely adolescence. Watching him now, she thinks back over this vital relationship in which he opened up the world of art to her. The rest of her time is spent queuing for a passport in a soon-to-be-closed-down Post Office, battling with the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that seems determined to stop those unhappy about Brexit from leaving the country. She also visits her mother who lives in an English village where the mood is turning sour. People glower at strangers on the street, someone has daubed “Go Home” across the front of a house, and a faceless company erects a giant fence around a patch of common land. Meanwhile her mother, in the grip of nostalgia, obsesses about an antiques TV show. This is England 2016, Smith tells us: narrow, suspicious and backward-looking. As the three parts of her book progress through the season’s three months, the political climate darkens with the weather.

Pauline Boty, With Love to Jean Paul Belmondo, 1962

Pauline Boty, With Love to Jean Paul Belmondo, 1962

Against this all too familiar gloom, Smith offers ideas about the moral value of art. In How To Be Both she argued for the inherent “friendliness” of narrative, here (drawing on The Odyssey) she makes a demand for “hospitable” stories. And where in the former novel she lionised the swinging Sixties and the young, free and stylish women of the French pop scene, so here the figure of hope is another Sixties figure, the similarly young and glamorous pop art painter, Pauline Boty, discussing in particular her portrait of Jean-Paul Belomondo with a huge open rose on his head. It is clear that Smith is emphasising the delight and openness of art, its ability to hearten and fortify us in difficult times. But is this enough? The unease in Autumn stems not just from troubling signs of a nation becoming more divisive and cruel, but from a writer looking to aesthetics as a salve for ugliness in politics. The final demand of the book, the demand of art, is that we pay greater attention – in this case to a “wide-open rose” still blooming in the depths of November: “Look at the colour of it”. But it feels as if Smith has failed to do precisely this, to look hard enough at what’s novel in the Brexit situation, what might disturb well-trodden narratives, relying instead on the consolations of art.

This review appeared in the Spectator as ‘Things Fall Apart‘ on 19.11.2016.

‘Songs of Freedom’, RAR Reminiscences, ed. by Roger Huddle and Red Saunders, Redwords, 2016

08/12/2016

When the photographer Syd Shelton recently published his blazing images from Rock Against Racism, I joined him on a panel in East London, along with the critic Paul Gilroy, to discuss the RAR years. Forty years later, among all the theories advanced about its origins and politics, one glaring fact about RAR is often forgotten: at its root was the shared love of music. So thinking about the performers who appeared on our stages, and the music they played there, seemed like the best way to cut through the arguments and get to the heart of RAR. To this end, we were each asked to select three tracks that epitomised the era. What follows are a few reflections on the music I chose, and on my involvement with a movement that interrogated the past, prefigured the future, and celebrated the present – as Syd’s photographs attest – with passion and style.

 

Track 1.         Winter of ‘79Tom Robinson Band (1977)

There are many songs that convey the apocalyptic imagination of the late 1970s and early 1980s in Britain – the pervasive sense of urgency and danger, of state violence and fascist threat – but Tom Robinson’s ‘Winter of ‘79’ differs from others in treating the moment historically. Written in 1977, the song predicts an uprising in 1979 and then looks back at the insurrection from a time in the future when a world-weary activist addresses a new generation: “All you kids who just sit and whine, you should have been there back in ’79, You say we’re giving you a real hard time, you guys are really breaking my heart”. Robinson’s prophecies weren’t far off the mark: the next few years would see tanks in Belfast, bombs in London, and riots in cities up and down the country. Like many of the period’s best songs, his catch the jittery mood on the streets. You can hear it especially in ‘Long Hot Summer’, which was inspired by the Stonewall riots, and in the shifting allegiances of ‘Up Against the Wall’, where he confronts his listeners with the question: “Just whose side are you on?” Robinson wasn’t alone in his sense of foreboding, further warnings of collapse can be heard in the songs of many other bands who played for RAR: in the Clash’s ‘London Calling’, Aswad’s ‘Judgement Day’, the Ruts’ ‘Babylon’s Burning’, and, most potently perhaps, in the weird atmospherics of the Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’. On the verge of Thatcherism and the neo-liberal takeover of the world, much of the music of this pivotal moment records the sound of a country breaking apart, of old communities dying and new ones struggling to be born. Pop hadn’t yet been fully assimilated into capitalism, it was a playground the young still had largely to themselves, which meant these songs rang out like warning shots fired across a radio that no one in authority was listening to.

Tom was the first person who made me think about how you could link people together under the radar. Something of a graphomaniac, he wrote long letters to his fans, connecting them to one another. In the winter of 1977 I was seventeen, working in the hat and glove department of Debenhams on Oxford Street, and looking for people to share my anger with. He put me in touch with two Jewish schoolgirls from Camden who called themselves Scruf and Scruff; Karen, a stylish secretary, the daughter of East European immigrants; Alan, who was serving in the army in Northern Ireland and being tormented by other soldiers for his love of punk; and a razor-sharp Irish girl who went by the name of Anna Gram, and lived on the estate behind my mum and dad’s house in Clapham. Anna approached me on the tube one day, my badges giving out a signal, demanding to know if I was the Irate Kate that Tom Robinson had written to her about.

Not long after this happened, I walked out of Debenhams one rainy night and made my way over to the East End where RAR were a holding a meeting. I remember being embarrassed by my boring work clothes as I descended into a basement of anarchic punks, socialists, writers, photographers and graphic designers, most of them a decade or so older than me. By the end of the evening I was so fired up by their heady talk (they discussed Toussaint L’Ouverture, Alexandra Kollontai and Kurt Weill as if they were old friends), that I chucked in my job and volunteered to become RAR’s first full-time worker.

Red Saunders, the man who dreamed up RAR after Eric Clapton’s racist outburst, donated desk space I could use in his Soho photographic studio. Every morning I’d walk up Great Windmill Street as elaborately painted women pushed chairs out in front of the sex shops, smoked and drank espressos, and waited for the day’s punters to slink in. At the studio, the photographers put out their paraphernalia – maybe a wind-machine for a glossy Sunday Times portrait of Kate Bush – and I’d set to answering the letters that had begun to pour in from across the country. We quickly outgrew our spot in Soho and with the money coming in – school kids’ pennies sellotaped together, the odd fiver from a supportive vicar, tenners from the anarchist bookshop stocking RAR’s innovative poster-magazine, Temporary Hoarding – we could afford a room in Clerkenwell, not far from the Marx Memorial library. Here the operation got a little more sophisticated. The RAR office became the hub and contact point for a much larger group of people and activities.

By day I’d liaise with the now elected RAR committee and the rapidly increasing number of RAR groups in the UK and abroad, communicate with bands and their managers, send out press releases, gestetner newsletters, order new badges and stickers, encourage people to write reviews and reports for Temporary Hoarding, pay bills, draw up agendas, and talk to other groups with whom we often collaborated (the campaign against the Corrie anti-abortion Bill, the Right to Work marchers, and CURB, who organised against violent bouncers). By night we’d run letter-writing sessions, often working into the dawn with a gang of volunteers – teenagers, like my sister Jo and her friends, skiving from school; shop assistants, machine operators and secretaries bunking off work. We’d all squeeze into RAR’s tiny office, sackfuls of mail strewn around the floor. From the letters flooding in it was evident that there was a nation of kids out there, bored out of their minds, and horrified by the spectre of the National Front marching on their high streets. They described living in nowhere towns and suburbs that closed down at seven o’clock, while they ached for a wider, more glamorous world which they tried to discover by listening to John Peel late into the night or reading James Baldwin under the covers by torchlight.

(Clockwise) Tom, Jo, Karen, Scruf, Scruff & Kate - in a Glasgow launderette, 1979.

(Clockwise) Tom, Jo, Karen, Scruf, Scruff & Kate – in a Glasgow launderette, 1979.

RAR became a network before we knew what a network was. We told these kids: here are the addresses of other music fans in your area, set up a RAR group, design a poster, put on a gig, write your own fanzine, and challenge the local National Front. We told them anyone could do it and wrote step-by-step Gig Guides showing them how. And in Temporary Hoarding, the Mekons  published an article explaining how to build your own PA system, while the Au Pairs described how they recorded their first single by borrowing their mum and dad’s holiday money. The explosion of punk and reggae meant that there were bands all over the country hungry for gigs. And there was massive energy and frustration everywhere you turned, which RAR tapped into and transformed into action.

As well as organising our own gigs, tours and carnivals, RAR took a stall round the country when the TRB went out on the road. The band dressed like the school kids they sang about, “sullen, unhealthy and mean”, and Tom had 302.0 stencilled on his shirt. This was the code for homosexuality in the World Health Organisation’s classification of diseases – something he’d been alerted to by Paul Furness, a key RAR activist, who worked in the Records Office of Leeds General Infirmary. One of the characteristics that marked Robinson out from many of his contemporaries was that along with his insolence and irony in songs like ‘Glad to be Gay’ (“The British police are the best in the world…”), he also understood, instinctively, the importance of bringing people together. It was not enough to complain about discrimination against gays if you ignored what was happening to your “brothers in Brixton, backs to the wall”. Racism, sexism and homophobia – these things were all part of the same problem, and we would sink or swim together. For RAR, too, solidarity was the watchword. As David Widgery, the East End doctor who wrote so passionately for Temporary Hoarding, argued in an article on colonialism: “there’s no us without them“. This is why Robinson was so important to RAR, a movement dedicated to routing racism, but also to exploring a much broader cultural politics. He understood how to express and channel anger, but he was also hugely charismatic and convivial – something you can see in Syd’s great shot of him at the first RAR carnival in Victoria Park. Tom is facing the audience, back to the camera, his arms wide open, as if to embrace the crowd.

trb-victoria-park-78

 

Track 2.        Oh Bondage, Up Yours!X-Ray Spex (1978)

This was the moment when women got bored of being fans or groupies and started taking to the stage. There were all-girl bands like the Slits, the Raincoats, 15 16 17, and the Bodysnatchers; women who fronted otherwise male groups such as The Selector; or mixed groups such as the Au Pairs. Many of these were tribal, slotting into the already-established indie, ska or lovers rock scenes. But X-Ray Spex’s singer, Poly Styrene, couldn’t be pigeon-holed. Part Somali, part Scottish-Irish, she was like the advance party for the new self that was going to reinvent Britain. And her music was equally idiosyncratic. She captured the spirit of the time like no one else. Poly got started, as many others did, after seeing a shambolic, end-of-the-pier Pistols gig, and deciding she’d like to have a go herself. That was the basic Punk DNA — an egalitarian anyone-can-do-it, but you had to have swagger, an attitude that boasted: “This is me. Now show me what you can do.”

In ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’, Poly moves between two voices: the masochist “Bind me, Tie me”, and the refusenik “Up Yours!”. She begins by talking in an excruciatingly coy voice: “Some people say that little girls should be seen and not heard”, then yells out, “but I say, Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”, and the music kicks in. It was a declaration of war: and whether you read this as a women saying she was tired of the sexist shit and wasn’t going to take it any longer, or more broadly as a cry against all the ties that bind, Poly was here to tell us she had something to say and she was going to be heard. But her sense of herself as a performer also says a lot about the aesthetic of punk. As she indicated repeatedly in interview, she didn’t think of herself as a tortured artist writing about her own suffering, but as someone who was playing with ideas and words, sending up clichés and unexamined dogma. So when X-Ray Spex played at the first RAR carnival, Poly appeared sartorially resplendent in a tweed twinset, as if in pastiche of Margaret Thatcher. But she took over the archetypal English look and made it her own by combining her tweeds with an African headscarf and brightly-coloured socks.

poly-victoria-park

Punk has often been characterised as angry or nihilistic, and there are still endless arguments about its origins and purity: were you early enough on the scene, were you authentically English or, as John Lydon accused others, singing in an American drawl, imitating Jamaican patois? In fact, like some of the best reggae, its main mode was reportage of under-reported lives and places. RAR acts like The Members vividly evoked ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’, Steel Pulse, who also played the first RAR carnival, announced a ‘Handsworth Revolution’, while John Cooper Clarke, appearing at the Northern RAR Carnival in Manchester, was scathing about the misery and tedium of much everyday life: “The bloody train is bloody late, You bloody wait you bloody wait, You’re bloody lost and bloody found, Stuck in fucking chicken town”. But as I said, anger wasn’t the only mode; there was parody, too. The Clash had a nice line in skewering capitalist commodification in songs like ‘Lost in the Supermarket‘, as did the Gang of Four in ‘Damaged Goods‘ (“I can’t work, I can’t achieve, Send me back”), and X-Ray Spex in ‘Warrior in Woolworths’, or the sweetly melancholic, ‘GermFree Adolescents’. Other bands dragged up in the clothes of the oppressor: Robinson sometimes appeared on stage dressed as a policeman, while Steel Pulse, in an electric performance, donned long white robes for their protest song ‘Ku Klux Klan’.

When Poly sang about ‘Identity’ she wasn’t talking about her own, but the idea of it as something manufactured: “Did you do it before you read about it?”, she mocks. There’s a sophistication here that much of pop lacks now and which was evident among many of the bands who played for RAR and RAS (Rock Against Sexism): groups like the Gang of Four, the Mekons and the Au Pairs. RAS was the brainchild of another Temporary Hoarding writer, Lucy Toothpaste. She was also a member of the RAR committee alongside Syd, Red, Widgery, TH editors and designers, Ruth Gregory and Roger Huddle; photographer and banner-maker, Robert Galvin; myself, John Dennis and Wayne Minter – who both joined me at the RAR office. RAR had been keen to put women on our stages but Lucy rightly saw this wasn’t enough: the aim of RAS was to challenge sexism throughout the music industry. And this meant challenging the bands, too. In the Au Pairs interview she and I conducted for TH, and in another we worked on with the Gang of Four, she’s particularly interested in ideas of power, in dissecting the aggression that then characterised so much music, asking: what did it mean, was it necessary, and how might a woman utilise the power invested in her when she walked up to the microphone and took control of the stage?

If you look at the statement made recently by Grimes (“I don’t want to be infantilised because I refuse to be sexualised”) you can see that the problems RAS highlighted haven’t gone away, not least because Grimes still feels she has to answer that ‘man-hater’ tag which independent-minded women get stuck with even today. Much of the anti-racism RAR was arguing for became second nature in Britain (at least until the rise of UKIP), but RAS’s demands have proved more elusive, perhaps because of the way feminism continually flares and then falls out of fashion, having to remake itself all over again.

Kate at a RAR stall on RAR's Militant Entertainment Tour, 1979 (c) Syd Shelton

Kate at a RAR stall on RAR’s Militant Entertainment Tour, 1979 (c) Syd Shelton

 

Track 3.        Sonny’s Lettah – Linton Kwesi Johnson (1979)

In one of the finest examples of the reportage song, Linton Kwesi Johnson brought us news from the front line, conveying just what it felt like to be an immigrant or the child of immigrants then living in Britain. RAR supporters had seen how thuggishly the police behaved at Wood Green, Lewisham, Southall, and at a succession of anti-NF demos, and these had been widely reported. But this LKJ song, or dub poem, described something the TV and newspapers weren’t talking about: attacks on individual black people, the casual, everyday assaults and insults meted out on the streets and in the back of police vans. ‘Sonny’s Lettah’ is about SUS –  the stop and search tactics the police started to deploy at this time under the cover of a nineteenth century law, the 1824 Vagrancy Act. Nearly forty years before the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, it revealed a commonplace cycle of police violence, followed by black people’s self-defence, then their criminalisation.

The singer, Sonny, finds his brother, Jim, picked up by the police and roughly handled: “Jim start to wriggle and the police start to giggle”. Sonny responds angrily and the incident ends with Jim charged with SUS and Sonny charged with murder. The whole thing, immaculately produced by Dennis Bovell, is told in epistolary form, in a letter sent from Brixton Prison to the brothers’ mother back home in the Caribbean. The song is notable for the way that it contrasts the deference and respect shown to Sonny’s mother with the brutality of the British police when someone challenges their authority. To this brutality, LKJ answered with militancy. ‘Fite Dem Back’, he proposed in another song, and, more pointedly, “We don’t rock against racism, we fight against it.”

The demand for respect, even in the midst of disobedience and insurrection, was something that the black community kept insisting on. Black people were not, as the police or politicians said, or the gutter press frequently reported, aliens or savages, but people with cultures and histories of their own. And reggae musicians often extolled their culture, expressing a determination to resist those who would deny or eradicate it. Dennis Bovell’s band, Matumbi, who performed at RAR’s first official gig, made just this point in a song called ‘Black Civilisation’. For many alienated white kids this was a new idea. If black people had a culture in which they took pride, what was white culture? What was whiteness? It made legible to them something that had previously been invisible. At the first RAR carnival the Clash sang a furious version of ‘White Riot‘, their response to this sudden realisation. They were abetted in this by Jimmy Pursey, the Sham 69 singer – a band with a significant National Front following. Pursey was incredibly loyal to his largely working class supporters and reluctant to tell them what they should think. But his appearance at the carnival confronted the racism among some of his fans, a stand underlined in a song he released shortly after, ‘If the Kids are United’: “Understand him, he’ll understand you, For you are him, and he is you”.

sonnyslettah

Slowly these values of respect, and of cultural curiosity and appreciation, injected something new into the anger of punk, shifting the way that a whole generation learned to talk to, listen to and live with one another. The moment when black and white musicians came together at the end of every RAR gig was nearly always achieved with a reggae jam, something celebratory and uplifting – sentiments largely unavailable in the disaffected vernacular of punk. This coming together, and the ecstasy of the crowd at many RAR gigs and carnivals – the joy in celebrating a togetherness that politicians from Enoch Powell to Margaret Thatcher kept denying – was most frequently orchestrated by one of England’s finest live bands, Misty in Roots. Misty often performed with the Ruts, stable mates on their co-operatively owned Southall record label, People Unite; with the TRB; with Elvis Costello at the second RAR Carnival in Brixton; but also, crucially, with Pursey and Sham 69. And when Clarence Baker, the singer from Misty was brutally beaten by the police during the Southall riot, putting him in a coma, RAR responded with two benefit concerts at the Rainbow called Southall Kids are Innocent, at which Aswad, the Clash, the Ruts, the Members, the Pop Group and Pete Townshend all played.

The final RAR Carnival at Leeds in 1981 featured the Specials. Like The Beat and UB40, they were a mixed-race band who had come up playing through the RAR clubs. Together on stage, they embodied everything RAR stood for. And in songs like ‘Doesn’t Make it Alright’, their lyricist, Jerry Dammers, addressed head-0n the way that poverty and alienation led to prejudice and violence, telling their audience “it’s the worst excuse in the world”, but also suggesting a way out of the trap racism set for working class kids: “Just because you’re a black boy, Just because you’re a white, It doesn’t mean you’ve got to hate him, It doesn’t mean you’ve got to fight.”

On the thirtieth anniversary of the first RAR carnival Jimmy Pursey expressed what many people involved in RAR and the music of this critical moment felt: “We are still depressed by the government, but we are not confused by our culture. Britain is a multi-cultural society and it always will be if I have anything to do with it.” That was a decade ago. Then, in the summer of ‘16, UKIP and Farage dominated the airwaves, bigotry went unchallenged on the BBC, Britain voted to turn itself back into a parochial little country, and the blood of foreigners ran on our streets. Perhaps this winter we should be remembering the architect of punk, John Lydon, a man inspired and educated by his love of reggae, singing to us in ‘Rise’: “I could be black, I could be white”, and then repeating insistently, as if trying to instil the message: “Anger is an energy”. Forty years on from RAR, when the country is sleepwalking back into fantasies of racism and separation, we could do, once again, with some of that galvanising spirit.

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This essay is one of 67 contributions to RAR Reminiscences: Rocking Against Racism 1977-1982, edited by Roger Huddle and Red Saunders, Redwords Publishing, 2016.

 

Hélène Cixous, Abstracts and Brief Chronicles of the Time: 1. Los, A Chapter; Death Shall be Dethroned: Los, A Chapter, The Journal (translated by Beverly Bie Brahic) – TLS

18/11/2016

“Clearly literature is never where you think. It is not in the story. It is in the elbows of the sentences…It is guarded, dissimulated, behind a piece of canvas, disseminated in the idiom…” For Hélène Cixous the elusiveness of literature has long been a badge of honour, something she has diagnosed in her criticism and perpetrated in her fiction over nearly half a century of writing. Her work has always explored what it means to be a writer, the prerequisite “state of without-me” necessary for an author to be inhabited by her characters. In turn, those who “possess” Cixous most powerfully are themselves missing, for it is the dead – their loss, absence, and revisitation in memories or dreams – who give life to her beguiled, yet ultimately death-defying prose.

Two new associated works, elegantly translated by Beverly Bie Brahic, epitomize this condition. They aim to “give death its due” while at the same time, dismantling its power over us. Both are subtitled “Los, A Chapter”. Both are haunted by “The-Book-I-Don’t-Write” – a platonic or ultimate book whose failure to materialize has preoccupied Cixous over the years. And one is described as “the journal” of the other. Contained within these works there is the promise of more to come in the “Los” series, but “none will be more first than the other” Cixous reassures us, characteristically refusing any suggestion of hierarchy. The books also elude classification, being in turn, poetic elegy, dream diary, time-travel and ghost story, and their uncanniness is mirrored in the narrator’s sense of herself as spectral (“I myself am the shadow of myself”) and scattered (“I have several selves to house, I visit myself diversely”).

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Abstracts and Brief Chronicles of the Time tells of the narrator’s attempts to come to terms with an author’s death, a Latin American writer called Carlos (Cixous was a friend of Carlos Fuentes). His unexpected loss evokes memories of their love affair and nostalgia for the revolutionary upheavals of 1968, making her marvel: “To think that in France you [could] kill a state with ridicule.” The “Los” of Cixous’s subtitles also refers to the transvestism of authorship and, in particular, to the figure of William Blake’s Los whom she imagines as the kind of circular puzzle she’s partial to: “the malefemale offspring of the author he is”. In the companion journal, Death Shall Be Dethroned, Cixous’s narrator discovers that her letters to Carlos have been stored in a box at Princeton University, giving rise to further meditation on their life together and on his turbulent afterlife, still inhabiting her head and her heart. The locked box has the allure of Pandora’s: it is a kind of “death’s door”, containing “the excess, the phosphorescence” of their relationship.

For Cixous’s generation the death of the author, of course, means the amplification of authorship, the freedom to speak in other voices. So her texts are sprinkled with quotations and commonplaces: “Call me Ishmael…Call me Los…Call me It All Depends”, she jokes. But for all Cixous’s inclusiveness (“The whole troop of them. Welcome!”), and her refusal to be pinned down (all her thoughts contain counter-thought), she is never as universal as she aspires to be. However atopic Cixous’s writing becomes, her “state of without-me” is unrealizable. This is because anonymity is in itself a style – defining, like any other – and it places her on the literary map. That she is aware of the paradox only makes her efforts more heroic. What matters in her lifelong writing project is the determination to be “myriad-minded”, to elude ready-made meaning, and to ceaselessly interrogate herself and her art. So, Cixous asks us: “This life born of death, might this be literature?”.

This review appeared in the TLS on 9.11.2016 as Hélène Cixous and her Art.

Rachel Cusk, Transit – Spectator

01/10/2016

Rachel Cusk is a writer who provokes strong reactions in her readers, and her critical reputation has swung wildly in a short space of time. Many, who not long ago were offended by the overflowing emotion of her memoirs of motherhood and divorce, are now full of praise for her current trilogy of novels, admiring particularly their restraint. What’s interesting about this turnaround is that while Cusk’s mode of presentation has changed, her subjects — the uncertain nature of reality, the relation of the individual to society, and the calibration of power — have not. Moreover, switching her focus from an outraged, opinionated woman to a recalcitrant, enigmatic one, has intensified her writing and clarified her project.

In Outline and Transit, the two volumes published so far, we learn little more about Cusk’s first person narrator than that she is recently divorced and temporarily living apart from her children (they phone in occasionally, often in a state of mild distress). We know, too, that she is a writer disinclined to interject or interpret, emphasising instead the value of listening. The people she encounters (ex-lovers, builders, hairdressers, friends, fellow writers, students, relatives) all tell her stories that stand out from the day’s ordinary muddle with an electric charge. The purity of these narratives and the individuated humanity they contain has a narcotic, transporting power, yet they remain at the centre of the writer’s daily life, and her occasional prompts or questions show her shaping them. In both novels the writer is named only once, and her name, Faye — which denotes either unreality or belief — underscores her scepticism: ‘I did not have the blind belief in reality that made others ask for concrete explanations.’ Instead Cusk’s rather proud and brittle narrator is drawn to dramas of perception — the neurosis involved in looking and judging, and the reciprocal fear of being misread, disregarded or found out.

At the beginning of Transit, Faye is homeless. An estate agent warns her that buying a house requires ‘the blindness of fixation’, but she immediately feels he is trying to marginalise her, and decides she will ‘want what everyone else wanted… run with the pack’. She acquires a shoddy house in an expensive neighbourhood and then battles to make it over in a style of her own. But something about the process of following convention, and becoming fixed or placed, leaves her at odds with herself. It’s as if Cusk has taken central metaphors from literary criticism — about the figure of the modernist artist, exiled and unaligned, about the estrangement of the woman writer in the house of fiction, about the violence of creativity — and translated them back into life. From the outset the house is inhospitable: floors undulate, plaster blisters, the garden is full of grot and junk. And she is beset by neighbours who intimidate or humiliate her. The tenants in the basement make dark threats about noise, while the members of the perfect family next door — who eat al fresco while talking loudly in multiple languages — high-handedly informs her that by tradition they are given the apples from her tree.

There is a great comedy of mismatching and cross-purpose here, but the reader is never allowed to find consolation in it, nor any affinity with Faye, whose alertness to her neighbours’ class-inflected putdowns and incursions are mirrored in her own petty-bourgeois snobbery. But Cusk is not writing to be liked. She once said admiringly of D.H. Lawrence that he left more room for the reader to hate him than any other author in the English language. In Transit, the ‘ambiguous glint’ of Cusk’s writing often induces a sense of panic about the validity of one’s own responses, and frustration at being unguided through an uncertain world where, as her hairdresser observes, ‘the fake generally seemed to be more real than the real’. But this refusal of ‘concrete explanations’, or a secure guiding narrator, is not an expression of nihilism or futility; rather, an exercise in the morality of freedom. When Faye picks up her son’s diary, she finds a message blazoned on the front: ‘You read, you take the consequences.’

cusk-outline    cusk-transit

The jackets for Cusk’s novel trilogy are from Man Ray’s solarised portraits of Lee Miller – a technique which she discovered while working as a photographic assistant in his Montparnasse studio in the early 1930s. This review of Transit appeared in the Spectator on 1.10.2016.

 

Dave Eggers, Heroes of the Frontier; Sara Taylor, The Lauras; Adam Haslett, Imagine Me Gone – TLS

11/09/2016

“To be American is to be blank, and a true American is truly blank. Thus, all in all, Josie was a truly great American.” This is Dave Eggers’s narrator, at the beginning of his latest novel, Heroes of the Frontier, joking about the story’s heroine. Given the state of Josie, an angst-ridden single mother, it is a self-evidently false statement – but the logical fallacy is just one of many means Eggers uses to interrogate contemporary reasoning, or, to be grand about it, the logic of late capitalism. His book is among a group of recent novels about families which, like much current American fiction, are preoccupied by the legacy of trauma and the question of whether this can be overcome. The blankness referred to here is psychological as well as geographic. Josie has no idea where her family hail from, remembering only “vague references to Denmark . . . some connection to Finland”. So when, in quick succession, she is deserted by her husband, sued for malpractice as a dentist, and faced with the news that a young patient she encouraged to enlist has died in Afghanistan, she feels she has nowhere to run to but America’s furthest edge: the empty wilderness of Alaska. Packing her two small kids into the back of a rickety RV, she heads out into its vast open spaces, searching for “purity” – a blank canvas on which to redraw their lives.

Josie has become so worried about the “anxiety of influence” (Harold Bloom’s phrase, smuggled in by Eggers as if to pre-empt the inevitable comparisons here with Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth et al) that she decides she is “done with all mouths, beginning with her own”. The gamble she is taking is that the “oblivion” of Alaska’s frozen landscape will help to mute and control her, to numb her anxiety and mitigate her sense of guilt. But the journey doesn’t turn out as she had hoped. Presented with the radical uncertainty of their new lives, her kids have endless questions about where they’re heading and what they’re doing, questions to which Josie has no ready answers. And she finds that having escaped the tyrannies of suburban life,the freedom of the open road presents unexpected dangers. Soon, her children’s interrogations are supplemented by her own as she tries to discern the level of threat. Some threats are just phantoms of the timid, suburban mind she is working to free herself from (a “leering” old man turns into a friend). Some are universal, such as the danger children let loose can pose to themselves. But others – like the father of a family her kids play with, who suddenly pulls out a gun – are more distinctly American. This ever-present menace feeds into the children’s enquiries about the world. Even the fiercely unafraid five-year-old Ana, when introduced to new phenomena like planets and stars, wants to know: “Are they good?”

As Josie leads her small tribe to ever more remote places – sleeping on the roadside, in campsites, or, like some latter-day Goldilocks, breaking into deserted cabins in the woods – her search becomes indistinguishable from flight. The family flees from forest fires, from possible emissaries of her husband, and from a past Josie wants to “write . . . in disappearing ink”. She is haunted by a scandal from decades earlier, known popularly as “Candyland”, involving the suicides of over-medicated Vietnam veterans at a hospital where her parents worked. Once Josie’s parents started dipping into the patients’ drugs family life collapsed as her mother fell into addiction and her father absconded to Cambodia. So the idea of starting again is not new: we learn that at seventeen Josie “emancipated herself” from her parents and then moved around, living in Panama, London and Spain. But in modern America, movement has become a dubious practice, associated by Josie with failure, insecurity and her parents’ disgrace: “Was it wonderful to have changed so many times? She suspected it was not”.

Candyland stands as the emblematic centre of Eggers’s novel, from which the ills of American – and by extension, Josie’s – life flow. The country is ignorant of the wars it is fighting (Josie and a lover argue about whether her patient died in Afghanistan or Iraq, uncertain as to how long hostilities have lasted), its people increasingly aggressive and entitled (she singles out the “breed” of lycra-clad cyclists and pony-tail mums whose rage erupts at any infringement of what they believe is their due), tranquillizing themselves with drugs, or, like Josie, unable to get through the day without knocking back the wine, and penning their children in to keep them safe. Against all this enclosing, sedating and forgetting (here we are again in Gore Vidal’s United States of Amnesia), there is the wonder and subversive riot of Josie’s children: the wild, red-haired Ana, a force of nature, “bumping into things, yelling randomly, making up words”; and the sensitive Paul, three years older, who acts as Ana’s proxy parent. What Josie wants for her children, above all, is that they don’t merely succumb to life, but show courage in the face of it; and the further they travel, the more resilient they become. Heroes of the Frontier ends with one final test of endurance, in which by heading into disaster the family overcome it, approaching “something like sublimity”, a touch of American greatness. The frontier may be long gone, but setting the inertia of his countrymen in his sights, Eggers is banking on the idea that pushing ahead still lies deep in the American psyche: “She wanted to tell every mother, every father: There is meaning in motion”.

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Sara Taylor’s second novel, The Lauras, also takes the form of an American road trip. This time it is the wife who walks out on her husband, bundling her adolescent daughter into the car one night and setting off on a journey that will take the two of them zigzagging across the country. The Lauras is the (still) rarely told story of a girl’s romance about the life of her mother – here less a source of anxiety than of mystery. The novel is narrated some thirty years after the trip by Alex, the androgynous daughter, in a Southern vernacular thick with the imagery of sweet things (“the land behind us was a caramel-peanut-butter smudge”) and of blood, or menstruation (“she lay back in the trail of the dying sun,it’s blood clotting in her clothing”), reflecting both the teenage sexuality of the speaker and also something of the country’s immaturity.

Held in her daughter’s regard, “Ma” is an alluring, enigmatic presence: chain-smoking to keep herself awake, pulling in at truck stops when she is too tired to drive, and grabbing greasy burgers for the two of them to munch on. The reason for their leaving is undivulged; Ma tells Alex only that she wants to “figure out which way is up”. As they cross state lines, improvising their lives, it becomes apparent that Ma is in pursuit of the existence she had before her daughter was born. Astonishing as this idea is to Alex, her mother’s focus on herself is also oddly reassuring: Alex’s questions about the safety of their trip are breezily batted away: “Quit worrying kid. We should be golden”. Pressed to reveal her story, Ma remains taciturn, only slowly doling out the tale after successive dramatic encounters with the people or places she once knew.

What Alex finally gleans is that her mother was abandoned repeatedly by immigrant parents who “were horrible at life”, forgetting to clothe or feed her, and who “didn’t understand how America worked”. Moved between group homes, then living in a station wagon, drinking absinthe, possibly dabbling in prostitution, she encountered a succession of girls called Laura (the intensity of her relationship with the first makes the name talismanic), each of whom demonstrated styles of being that, even in unpromising circumstances, offered new possibilities. Alex herself gets into trouble when she hitches to another city to post her father an (untrackable) letter, forced into performing a blow job on the man who picks her up. But though she later traces “the blank in me to that event”, when Alex comes to explain to Ma what happened, she creates a story that allows her to hold back the worst of her journey. She does this in part because she has no words for what has been done to her, nor her ambivalent feelings about it, but also because she’s learnt from her mother’s continence.

What marks Taylor’s novel out from many of its contemporaries is how little psychic damage Alex and her mother sustain – or pass on – from their experiences. Indeed,the storytelling mode allows them to cast their lives as adventures through which they “hustle”, extemporize, love and sometimes act heroically. Alex understands that “reality rarely rustles up a satisfying narrative shape”, but her “mythic desire” gives her the ability to see her mother not just in relation to herself but as autonomous, sometimes even as legendary. When Ma finally reunites with one of the Lauras, Alex describes them as “outside of humanity, the way lovers are”. There’s a lesson here, important for storytellers and for women, about not giving yourself away too easily, about possessing your own life. What it instils in Alex is the bravery to be herself (to maintain an open sexuality and not be boxed into definition) and confidence in her instincts: “I didn’t know where I was going, and I didn’t have to know. The road was beckoning; all I had to do . . . was follow where it led”.

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The intergenerational trauma at the heart of Adam Haslett’s new novel is rather harder to shake off. Imagine Me Gone features five narrators, all members of one Anglo-American family beset by the “beast” of mental illness, their lives recounted over half a century, by the parents, John and Margaret, and their three children, Michael, Celia and Alex. As one might expect of a novel exploring the irrational, there is also much concern with form – from the repressive British manners John has inherited (“asking questions wasn’t the proper form”) to the linguistic and political structures in which Michael becomes passionately interested. The novel itself is tightly formatted: divided into three acts, with an epilogue and prologue, and each section further demarcated by the different speaking voices. We begin near the end: Alex, the youngest sibling, is at a cabin in the American countryside, and traumatized by something terrible that has happened to Michael. At first he imagines the sound of a neighbour chopping wood might revive his brother – a desire stronger than reason: “What kind of person would I be if I didn’t try to call him back?”

Then comes Michael’s voice: ghostly, disembodied (and yet, like all voices in fiction, as if looming out of the ether). In what we will learn is his characteristically parodic mode, Michael speaks “as” the telephone answering machine of his  therapist, one Dr Walter Benjamin. And because his is a parodic voice, always carrying multiple meanings, this is also a suicide note – a salve to himself and anyone out there listening: “[if] it seems likely that the words you are about to speak into this machine may be your last, then please know that you tried very hard indeed, and that you loved your family as deeply as you could”. In a way that only fiction can, Imagine Me Gone then proceeds to do what Alex wanted, what anyone bereaved wants: to bring the dead back to life.

Haslett’s novel masterfully negotiates the different planes on which it operates, sustaining for a long time the ambiguity whose exploration, he has said in interview, is the business of fiction. From the beginning, John expresses anxiety about the future of his garrulous son: words pour out of Michael as if nothing can contain him. John moves the family about, even back to England for a while in pursuit of work that never materializes. And this failure to settle down symbolizes to Margaret her husband’s failure to get a grip on life. On returning to the States, he commits suicide – the only way to chase the “monster” of depression out of him. Michael, called home from school in England, finds that he is numb: “You were all so upset. But I didn’t feel anything. Nothing. I was blank”, he tells Alex later. The pain of this moment lingers on in Michael’s life as an indefinable ache – something for which he finds correlatives in ideas about slavery’s “transgenerational haunting” and black music: “The backward ache. That’s what music is. The trouble – for me – is that at some stage I realized those aches, they have a history”.

From these traumatic beginnings, his siblings develop lives of ordinary difficulty, though perhaps with greater wariness: Celia struggles over the question of motherhood, Alex in building a monogamous relationship with his boyfriend. And their chapters convey this, expressed in the particularity of the real. But Michael is never ordinary: from the beginning his flamboyant intelligence and intense political theorizing make it seem as if he were somehow a different order of being. His chapters, reflecting this apartness, are delivered as exercises in literary style that challenge the “realist” frame surrounding him – whether in letters to his aunt, where his commitment to the fantastic, comic form overtakes the plausibility of events he is relating; or in medical questionnaires, in which his answers satirize the premiss of healthcare, refusing its narrow logic, while also being utterly honest: “What are your treatment goals? 1. Ordinary happiness 2. Racial justice”.

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The degree to which Haslett allows the reader to entertain the possibility that these everyday forms and political structures that shape our lives may be at fault, and not Michael, is the degree to which ambiguity is richly sustained in Imagine Me Gone. But Michael’s obsessions are not just a matter of worldly critique; they are also a product of his solipsism (“the problem – for me”). At the beginning of the novel Margaret reflects on Armies of the Night and Norman Mailer’s idea that “it’s in motion that Americans remember”. But Michael never finds a cohort or movement, remaining boxed in, static in his obsessions and unchallenged in his relationships. While this may be true to the character of obsession or mental illness, it comes close to manipulation in terms of the novel. Successive black girlfriends remain somehow beyond his reach, as if such relationships were themselves a category error, outside of acceptable forms. Looking back on the story’s beginning and her love affair with John, Margaret says: “I had that American openness he admired”. However, unlike Dave Eggers and Sara Taylor, who keep faith with the idea of American openness and the possibility for remaking that it entails, Adam Haslett casts doubt on this notion. Sealing Michael’s fate from the outset, he suggests instead, as Celia advocates, the need for “acceptance” of who we are. Alongside this stoicism, in the presentation of Michael’s isolation, and the speed with which people stop listening to him, there is also something gloomier in play here, like the closing of the American mind.

Sean O’Brien, Once Again Assembled Here – Spectator

02/09/2016

At first glance Sean O’Brien’s new novel appears to focus on England’s devotion to the past. Even its title carries the sense and long-sustained rhythm of things going on as before. As if to underscore the point, Once Again Assembled Here is set in the autumn of 1968, a year often portrayed in fiction to describe a revolt into the new. But in O’Brien’s novel it merely serves as a reminder that whatever ideas were being cooked up elsewhere, here tradition and continuity would prevail.

Here, in this case, is Blake’s, a jingoistic public school on the outskirts of a city still marked by the Luftwaffe’s bombing raids. In the peculiar way in which enthusiasm for England often turns on the degree to which one is excluded from its centre, this gloomy provincial establishment — stuffed with military historians, minor poets nursing grievances and an army of boys acting out war games — sees itself as a bastion of the country.

Stephen Maxwell, a retired history teacher, still lives in the school’s grounds. A man of marked literary pretensions, he has been commissioned to write the second volume of Blake’s history. In an Epilogue from 2010, however, he warns us that the secret ‘manuscript’ we are about to read is not that dreary tome, but his private, shadow journal — a darkly entertaining thriller of secret goings-on, treason and murder. Maxwell confesses from the outset that he is guilty of having a hand in the murder and of maintaining the cover up all these years. However, his many references to Boys’ Own adventure stories, tales of espionage and war, and in particular to Graham Greene, give us a clue not only to this manqué novelist’s imaginative aesthetic, but to the moral wriggle-room the English like to afford themselves: Maxwell’s style gives him the leeway to portray himself as a kind of hero, even as he admits to being a culprit.

This moral and intellectual murkiness is reflected in the novel’s landscape. The autumnal Blake’s is often wreathed in fog or mist, and Maxwell’s sojourns into the war-scarred city are by night, when his literary cast of mind picks out the frost glinting off rubbled buildings or, from high windows, stars glimmering above the dark streets below. The high windows — one of several Larkinesque touches — belong to various lovers. Maxwell is far from rebellious, but his penchant for married women repeatedly gets him into trouble, leaving him with a reputation for minor disgraces, for not getting on board.

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Then, rising out of the tedium and gloom, the worship of war dead and unthinking obedience to authority, something with its own sharp glint of fascination catches the imagination of Blake’s pupils.Encouraged by the aristocratic Rackham — once a German collaborator, now a quasi-Poundian poet and charismatic English teacher — they stage a mock election, mirroring the by-election taking place in the city. Maxwell’s failure to act means that, as in the city, a fascist candidate is fielded, and with incredible rapidity the atmosphere shifts from boredom to menace: a fight breaks out; a fire is set; a Jewish boy’s life is threatened.

As it transpires, for a novel about the past, O’Brien’s book is extraordinarily prescient. It’s impossible to read of Rackham’s sense of immunity without thinking of Tony Blair and the Iraq War. Nor fail to hear David Cameron’s recent tirade against Jeremy Corbyn, when Blake’s headmaster exhorts Maxwell: ‘Resign, man. Do it today.’ In 2010, O’Brien discussed the political history of this phrase — from Oliver Cromwell to Leo Amery — in Journey to the Interior, a monograph on the idea of Englishness in contemporary poetry. In this prose work, as in Once Again…, it’s the coercive clubbableness of the English that O’Brien dissects — an establishment so keen to re-enact tradition and so punitive to anyone less than ecstatic about its continuation.

Because of this, at Blake’s even someone as ambivalent as Maxwell poses a threat. But just as the pupils are excited by Rackham’s demagoguery, his poetry of blood and soil, so Maxwell is emotionally tethered to Blake’s, finding it hard to extricate himself from the school or from his affair with Rackham’s striking (in both senses of the word) sister. As the initials of his name suggest, sado-masochism runs deep in the English psyche.

This review appeared in the Spectator on 27. 8.2016 as ‘Sean O’Brien explores a very English form of sadomasochism’.

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