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J. M. Coetzee, Late Essays 2006 – 2017 – TLS


One might suppose that the description of J. M. Coetzee as a South African writer was relatively uncontentious, but in an Introduction to his second volume of collected essays, Inner Workings: Essays 2000-2005 (2007), Derek Attridge – perhaps unwilling to define an Afrikaner writer steeped in the European tradition as African, or simply mindful of Coetzee’s well-known elusiveness – seems reluctant to place him in this way, and tries instead to define him through negatives: “Coetzee himself is usually thought of as neither a European nor an American writer: for most of his writing life he has lived in South Africa, and half his novels take place in that country. He now lives in Australia…”.

“That country” and its neighbouring territories – where Coetzee’s Afrikaner ancestors settled as colonists in the seventeenth century, where he was born and brought up, and where he lived on and off for over 50 years – is the place to which he returns in Late Essays 2006-2017, a new collection that winds across the continents of Europe, America and Australia, before giving Africa the last word. His envoi on the diaries of the nineteenth century tribal leader Hendrik Witbooi underscores the mixing and complexity of colonial history: the Boers “way of life had become as much African as European”, while Witbooi and his mixed-race tribe behave like white colonists, “plundering, castle-rustling”. But, scrupulously, Coetzee goes beyond Witbooi’s lifetime to the emergence of the European colonizers’ “larger and more sinister project: genocide”, a fact that cannot be ignored in his final reckoning.

Of course, there may be more to be said on the subject. Coetzee’s notoriously disciplined work rate may yet produce successive volumes – Later or Latest Essays, perhaps? Such an idea would not be out of character for a writer who studied and taught in various universities (Cape Town, Texas, Buffalo, Harvard, Adelaide, Chicago) between 1963 and 2003, and whose novels bear the imprint of this experience, engaging in postmodern games that resist conclusiveness while tipping their hat to literary history and theory. Beckett and Kafka are returning presences in his work, and in Foe (1986) Coetzee reimagines the story of Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday from the perspective of a woman castaway on their island who tries to tell her own version of the colonist’s story. She finds she can speak plausibly only with the aid of a man’s intercession, and as her words are mistranslated by a male writer called Daniel Foe, so she misrepresents Friday, who is mute. As with Jean Rhys in her revision of Jane Eyre, (“Read and write I don’t know. Other things I know”), the focus is on the politics of language and the problems of interpretation, appropriation and the value denied those who speak in foreign tongues – or not at all. In later work this concern extends to the cruel treatment of “dumb” animals.

Coetzee’s engagement with literary history was attacked at the peak of the battle against apartheid as nostalgic or irrelevant. I doubt it escaped his notice that the language of this criticism – Michael Channon argued that Foe provided a “masturbatory release…for Europeanising dreams” – resembles that used by hard-line communist critics who, in the inter-war years, condemned modernist writers for failing to respond to social upheavals in the prescribed realist fashion: Mike Gold denounced Proust as the “master-masturbator of bourgeois literature”, and Karl Radek accused Joyce of being morbid and backward-looking.

Coetzee resisted any such pressure. When he wrote directly about apartheid in South Africa he was excoriating, but by flouting orthodoxy and insisting on imaginative freedom he continued to trouble readers. It was not only Thabo Mbeki who was disturbed by the depiction of black men raping a white woman in the Booker Prize winning, Disgrace (1999). Frequently, the unsettling tensions in Coetzee’s work have lain between its controlled austerity its lapidary elegance, and the risk he has run of giving offence, in writing to the edge. Over time his fictions have became increasingly self-reflexive (among his characters are numerous avatars bearing his name), digressive and provisional (“to be explored…”), and removed from what many now regard as the bad faith, or at least the untenable use of realism at the end of the modern era. Elizabeth Costello (2003), for instance, consists of a series of lectures on the industrialisation of animals, hanging on only the flimsiest of story skeletons; Dairy of a Bad Year (2007) develops three parallel narrators demarcated by dividing lines; while Summertime (2009) sees the biographer of a writer, one “J M Coetzee”, interviewing unimpressed ex-lovers following the death of the author. The problem of placing Coetzee geographically or intellectually was the subject of an essay by Hedley Twidle which won the Financial Times/Bodley Head competition in 2012. As Twidle observed, for many reviewers the difficulty of analysing Coetzee’s writing is fuelled by the feeling that he has got there before them: his fictions include their own auto-assessments, creating a critical redundancy.

J. M. Coetzee, 2017

All of which sets up intriguing questions when it comes to Coetzee’s own literary criticism. As with the two earlier volumes of his collected non-fiction, many of the selections in Late Essays, including those on Goethe, Irène Némirovsky, Beckett, Philip Roth and Patrick White, were originally published as reviews for the New York Review of Books. An insightful essay on Zbigniev Herbert first appeared in the small magazine, New Walk. But half of the essays began life as Introductions to other writers’ works (among them pieces on Defoe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gustave Flaubert, Ford Madox Ford, Heinrich von Kleist and Leo Tolstoy, as well as Beckett and White again). A glance at the Acknowledgements reveals that nearly all of these were for volumes published by El Hilo de Ariadne. What we are not told is that they are part of a grander project of canon-making that Coetzee has entered into with the Argentine publishing house to select, introduce and publish his own Biblioteca Personal – along the lines of Borges’s personal library for Hyspamérica. These books, Coetzee has said, are not only works that he greatly admires, but ones that have had a formative influence upon him as a writer.

Other than Hendrik Witbooi, all the writers discussed in this new collection are by men – Némirovsky is the only female exception – who made a living from their pens. The first essay, on Defoe notes that this was a profession “which, if he did not invent…he certainly pioneered”. He was, too, “an accidental pioneer of the novel of realism”, not quite understanding what he was doing, but how could he when he was “not only making the story up as he went along, he was making the form up too”? Defoe’s innovative writing emerged from his position as “an important social actor: the inquisitive, acquisitive man or woman of the ascendant protestant middle class”, and from “a certain inborn genius”. In interview Coetzee once said “there are no generalizations that serve and are true for all writers”, and the reach and depth of these sophisticated, authoritative essays certainly prove the case. But across generations and continents there are some recurring themes, reflecting perhaps Coetzee’s own preoccupations as a writer as much as those of the people he speaks of. It is the accident of talent (“which it is death to hide”) combined with specific historical forces and the way these feed into a work that he alights upon when trying to unravel the mysteries of writing – mysteries even to authors themselves who “cannot always tell the deepest motive behind [their] writing”. Kleist, for example, was born into a Prussian military family but lived “in the shadow of Napoleon Bonaparte’s grand plan to redraw the map of Europe”; becoming sick of army brutality and discovering the sceptical philosophy of the Enlightenment, he tried to fashion himself into a writer. These illuminating details help to explain why Kleist’s stories are so paradoxical, concerned as they are with people “torn between competing forces and impulses.” In the same way, Coetzee finds in the satiric counter-attacks, the ironic masks or Aesopian fables of Herbert’s poetry “evidence of his historical situation as a man trying to live out a poetic and intellectual vocation in a hostile environment”.

Along with the particulars of background and talent, Coetzee keenly identifies the honed techniques and “writer’s tricks” which keep pushing the form into new territory: Flaubert’s “ability to formulate larger issues…as problems of composition”, Kleist’s “invisible or buried narrators”, Roth’s complication of story “transmission”, and the methods Becket took from psychoanalysis (keep talking, free-associate: there is no point, and no end). In a group of novels by Defoe, Hawthorne, Flaubert and Ford concerning sexual betrayal, Coetzee seems less interested in the betrayals themselves than in the way in which their depiction makes of their creators (as with his own challenging stories) opponents of hypocrisy, moralising and cant; even as in the case of an essentially conservative writer such as Ford, the ambiguities and double-standards that The Good Soldier exposes, make him so. Indeed, one can draw a line in Coetzee’s thinking from the rebellion against bourgeois manners – Emma Bovary’s “right to desire in the face of the pious disapproval of society”, Ivan Ilyich’s “unseemly suffering…a breach in social decorum”, or Kleist’s Marquise, inexplicably pregnant (a plot so offensive one reviewer thought that even to summarise it was “to ostracize oneself from polite society”) – to the idea of the artist as an outsider.

Among many models of the author which Coetzee entertains, the romantic idea of the writer as outcast, pilloried for truth-telling yet steadfast in fidelity to their vision (“the great Accursed One” described by Rimbaud), is perhaps the one he finds most compelling. In Patrick White’s novel The Vivisector, he picks out the artist as “Luciferian angel”, and in an essay on Samuel Beckett he anoints Kafka as “the angel Misfit”. The Irish writer was the subject of Coetzee’s doctoral thesis: a lifelong preoccupation, he gets more attention here than anyone else. In Beckett, being an outsider is reformulated not only as the artist’s condition, but humanity’s – in our “plight of existential homelessness”. Coetzee’s quality of attention to Beckett is superb, though one could argue that he misses something of the comedy at the kernel of his work. But in the last of four pieces on him in Late Essays, Coetzee performs an imaginative dance with Godot’s creator that masters some of his playfulness, revealing, perhaps, as much about Coetzee as it does about Beckett.

In an essay of parts, divided by numbers, he begins by reflecting on how the mind/body divide gave rise to the dualism of radically self-conscious humans, an over-adaptation some thought, leading them to wonder if “the hyper-reflective Western bourgeois male” was doomed liked the dinosaur. Then, in a move that is part-homage, part-usurpation, he muses on what Beckett left out of his world picture: “the great scheming animal mind…incommensurate with human thought”. So he tries to conjure this for himself with a story about a laboratory animal also struggling to understand where it fits in a “universe [that] is never as it appears to be”. Coetzee rounds off with the true story of how in 1937, after his professor at Trinity saw an advert in the TLS, Beckett applied for a Cape Town University lectureship. He failed to get the job, of course, but for a moment Coetzee imagines another universe with Beckett, Crusoe-like, “an indolent Irish castaway” at “the southernmost tip of Africa” teaching Romance languages to daughters of the merchant class, even marrying one of these “sweet-breathed, bronze-limbed Calypsos”, and wondering would he ever have returned to Ithaca. The idea of Kafka or Beckett as university professors amuses him: “What would Kafka teach, anyway? How not to fit in?” But ever alert to the counter-thought, refusing all conclusions, Coetzee reminds us that Kafka was once a “perfectly competent insurance adjuster”.

How can we know the mind of a writer? What kind of portrait can we draw of these elusive creatures? Beckett and Kafka were both lean and both had a piercing gaze, Coetzee notes, and their photographs show men “whose inner being shines like a cold star through a fleshly envelope”. It is a beautiful image with the ring of truth about it, but one, characteristically, that Coetzee quickly dismantles: if soul and flesh belong to distinct realms, no photograph can tell the truth, and our conjunction “is an everlasting mystery”.

This review appeared in the TLS as “Plundering, rustling” on 22.9.2018.

Neel Mukherjee, A State of Freedom – Spectator


Neel Mukherjee has had a two-handed literary career working as a reviewer of other people’s novels and writing his own: in 2014, his second novel, The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His latest book is a state-of-the-globalized-nation novel which gives human particularity to those deadened concepts we pass around such as migration, inequality and neo-liberalism. A State of Freedom breaks into five chapters, each telling the story of a distinct individual in India, whose connection is only fully revealed in the final pages. Mukherjee has observed wryly that due to stereotypical ideas about the Indian novel, whatever their formal properties, his fictions tend to be read as family sagas. Perhaps with this in mind, the relationships in A State of Freedom are more often horizontal than generational, and the stories, taking place across the country, emphasise wildly different fortunes and experience. Refuting Western preconceptions, one of Mukherjee’s protagonists, a manqué cookbook writer, asserts that there is no such thing as Indian food (the cuisine varies tremendously between states and cultures, something Mukherjee shows in mouth-watering detail), and in his novel there is no exemplary character: everyone’s perspective is partial and fragmented, and the ability to read the lives of others is less a product of education than a function of power. So the beggars, servants and manual labourers who appear ghost-like and inscrutable to the wealthy émigré visitors of the first two chapters, glimpsed only in their “periphery of vision”, emerge subsequently from this state of illegibility into fully-realised human beings, each with their own chapter, context and rationale.

The story begins with a man undone by India, a returnee after years away in America, now “broke[n] down” by an event made all the more horrific for seeming inexplicable. The unnamed man, bursting with pride but sensing he is “no longer a proper Indian”, has brought his young son in the back of a chauffeur-driven car to the Taj Mahal. But the American boy is too young and too hot to appreciate his father’s tales of emperors banqueting under white moonlight, and is bewildered by an onslaught of beggars and amputees from whom his father tries to shield the stunned child. This brief sketch opens the novel like a short, sharp slap, alerting the reader to how proclamations of India’s dizzying too-muchness – hoardings in multiple languages and styles make the father think, “how unsettled their orthography” – become the excuse for not really looking at the violence of poverty, or reading the effect on everyone in its orbit.

Mukherjee, on the other hand, confronts us with the deranged performances of both master and slave. There is Lakshman, forced by poverty to beat and tether a wild bear so that it will dance for a handful of rupees. The power struggle between this unlikely couple is profound, and the entertainment they produce enacts their mutual humiliation. And Milly, in service from the age of eight, treated like an animal by successive employers, forced to sleep on the kitchen floor, fed leftover scraps, and beaten when she breaks a cup. The worst of these employers becomes so enraged at any sign of independence she imprisons Milly, and threatens to brand her face with a hot iron: “Flat 10”, the narrator observes, “had become like a circus.”

Neel Mukherjee

Mukherjee repeats certain words, complicating his novel with every accretion of meaning. So the cookery writer observes that recipes handed down can never be reproduced: each cook brings their own “hand” to the food, and it is this unique creativity, the expression of freedom, that power is threatened by and seeks to control. In Milly’s village Maoist rebels cut off her brother’s hand, while the ‘romantic’ emperor who built the Taj Mahal, cuts off his workers’ fingers so that his mausoleum can never be reproduced. In the same way, images of breaking amass to the point where the story withdraws from its own performance, reduced to a break-down of material cost (rent, water, electricity, food).

Finally in its dialectical ending A State of Freedom’s artfully-handled piecing together of story fragments is held in tension by a counter-force of textual disintegration. Capital letters and full stops disappear, sentences fragment, words break into poetic suggestion reminding us of the reduced, hollow men and women, trapped and fated by an order the writer would break, while acknowledging that art, in the end, cannot achieve this: “he is husk of course he is at last”.

Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant; Brian Van Reet, Spoils; Elliot Ackerman, Dark at the Crossing – TLS


“We don’t think Iraq books are going to sell,” Whitney Terrell’s editor told him when he first submitted The Good Lieutenant. Because he had spent years as an embedded reporter in Iraq, and believed he had something to say, Terrell treated this as a dismissal of his novel, rather than of its subject. Concerned that his tale of a soldier ruined by war was banal, he decided to run the narrative back to front, rewinding his protagonist from innocence lost, through killing, kidnap, lying, training, enlisting, all the way home to an American “philosophy” of goodness and innocence, to a belief that the rules of the family and the rules of the military were one and the same: “You don’t fucking run out on people…You don’t lie – or at least not to the people who are supposed to be on your side.”

The reverse narrative, as a technique of recuperation, has been deployed in war novels before, of course: Martin Amis used it to undo the murders of Nazis doctors in Time’s Arrow (1991), writing under the influence of Kurt Vonnegut who, in Slaughterhouse Five (1969), sucked bombs back into American planes to stop them from being dropped on Dresden. Chroniclers of twenty-first century wars face the same problem that Vonnegut dramatized so intelligently and with such imaginative courage: how to create an anti-war novel while exploiting war’s language, technology and murderous intent for the sake of a gripping or poetic narrative. They also face new difficulties. The so-called “global war on terror”, drifting from Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria, has gone on for so long it seems intractable and fathomless; the phrase “fog of war”, adapted from von Clausewitz, is often used to explain our intellectual resignation. At the same time, with combat live-streamed on the internet, and news bulletins on the injured or dead, on patches of ground gained or lost, on cities under siege or weapons deployed (most recently, “the mother of all bombs” dropped on Afghanistan), war is endlessly repeated and over-familiar. Under these circumstances, as Terrell’s editor warned, finding a readership for a war novel can prove difficult.

The books on this subject that have proved popular, selling in their millions in America, are those that publishers call ‘kill memoirs’ – tales of exploits in battle in the ‘authentic’ voice of an army veteran. The most notorious of these is probably Carnivore, co-authored by Sergeant Dillard Johnson, whose claim of a KIA (killed in action) rate of 2,764 dead Iraqis, trumpeted by his publisher, has been disputed. Despite their popularity, many soldiers, and war reporters such as Terrell, have instead chosen to write fictions that bear witness to the experience of war while complicating the one-sided bravado of the kill-and-tell accounts. These novels and stories have appeared in two waves: what distinguishes the latest batch from earlier works such as Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds (2012), or Phil Klay’s powerful story collection, Redeployment (2014), is the desire to broaden the picture. So Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant and Brian Van Reet’s Spoils, both published this year, give the lead role to female soldiers. Similarly, they make serious efforts to incorporate the voice of the “enemy” – a late recognition of John Berger’s decree that “never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one”. In Spoils, side by side with the story of an American soldier, there is that of a jihadi who fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya before ending up in Iraq; in The Good Lieutenant, a deaf Sunni man and his Shia friend play pivotal roles. Roy Scranton devoted a part of his excoriating novel, War Porn (2016) to the life of an Iraqi mathematician caught up in the war; while Elliot Ackerman goes further still, making the ambiguous figure of an Iraqi interpreter into the central character of Dark at the Crossing (2017). His novel concentrates not on the action of war, but on the refugees and the NGO workers who gather at its edges – in a Turkish park full of rough-sleeping doctors and architects; on a roadside near the Syrian border where abandoned kids sell lighters, mints, their own bodies, anything to put food in their bellies or catch a ride out of limbo.

Whitney Terrell

The Good Lieutenant takes place in 2006. Its central figure is Emma Fowler, a working class midwesterner, suffering from guilt over a brother she was forced to mother from a young age, and has now left behind. Recruited into the army, she begins an affair with a fellow sergeant, a middle class man called Pulowski, who is fond of advising her how to assert authority over a platoon of men who – because of her homilies about looking out for one another – have taken to calling her “Family Values”. It’s an unlikely nickname but it sets up the tension Terrell wants to explore between the military’s rules, hierarchies, technological and linguistic abstractions, and its codes of honour and fraternity, which Fowler clings to and tries to inculcate in her men.

In contrast to the quagmire that Fowler inhabits – judging what amounts to “illegal crap… pulled” by other officers, finding the line between self-preserving and trigger-happy soldiers, negotiating the gender and class wars that carry on inside the military one – Terrell writes well about the simple pleasures of sex. These scenes are a reminder of the playfulness and vulnerability of the body, of all that the violence of war can eradicate in one explosive moment. Which brings us to the inevitable ending where The Good Lieutenant begins, with a reconnaissance mission gone awry after a soldier’s kidnap, with Fowler holding Pulowski’s bleeding body in her arms, and with “Family Values” now a justification for the laying waste of anyone outside the Family. By The Good Lieutenant’s last act, having got to know something of their story, we feel for the Iraqis – one is “innocent”, a fan of American films and its images of freedom, the other in cahoots with the enemy. For all this, it’s hard not to feel that their their torture and killing is made instrumental to the real tragedy of the book: the corruption of Emma Fowler.

As in Terrell’s novel, Van Reet disrupts the chronology of his story. Spoils opens in 2003, with a mortar attack on American troops at a roundabout in Iraq, before ranging back over two years leading up to the event, and then progressing to the eight weeks in which their fate is determined. Like Emma Fowler, Specialist Cassandra Wigheard (another young, white, working class midwestener) joins an army that is full of “mixed messages”: soldiers are indoctrinated about their mission as great liberators while training to ironic ditties about slaughter: “Shot ninety-eight till my barrel turned blue. Then pulled out my knife and democratized the other two.” After her truck is hit, Wigheard is kidnapped with two male soldiers by a group of mujahideen, who hide their prisoners in a disused factory. Among the captors is Abu Al-Hool, an Egpytian growing weary of war and wrestling with his faith; Dr Walid, one of the new Islamist ideologues, encouraging the filming of prisoners’ executions; and a young Yemeni recruit who the older men compete over, each trying to pull him over to their way of thinking.

Brian Van Reet

Imprisoned in a lightless cell, Wigheard emerges as the toughest of kidnapped soldiers, tapping on the wall to check on her comrades, building a relationship with the young Yemeni guard, and surviving even when she is cast out into an animal pen because of her periods. But as Van Reet makes clear her resilience is in large part just a product of youth: the adult fear of death makes taking the risks necessary to win a ground war “too unlikely a feat for anyone but a megalomaniac, a closeted suicide or a teenager.” Finally there is Sergeant Sleed, who provides one of the novel’s most arresting scenes when he and a renegade group break into one of Saddam’s golden palaces in search of trophies. But as in The Good Lieutenant, the spoils of war refer to more than bounty: like Emma Fowler, Wigheard suffers a cruel fate, but this time, the pity of her lost youth is joined with that of someone from the other side – the young Yemeni, who dies with his hand in hers.

Like many earlier Iraq novels, The Good Lieutenant and Spoils focus on contemplative soldiers who believe in the ultimate rightness of their mission, while being aware of the lies and rottenness of war – often showing them in opposition to more jingoistic and gung-ho figures. But whatever their political or intellectual stripe, all the soldiers in these stories ironize their situation (when Pulowski and Fowler are photographed outside the army HQ, he jokes: “Say WMD!”), and this irony is quietist, reinforcing their lack of agency and making them more dependent on the military machine. Terrell’s and Van Reet’s attempts to enlarge the story are significant, but as Scranton has argued of the preponderance of novels about the post 9/11 wars, they still fail to address the broader question of responsibility. This leaves the reader’s sympathy with soldiers on the ground who remain victims of a situation where “everything is going to shit too fast to believe”, the deaths they perpetrate, exonerated or subsumed by the ethical dilemmas which they face. In the summer of 2016, exasperated by this state of affairs, Scranton took to Twitter: “You know what would be awesome? More veterans whining about how nobody understands the moral complexity of being an imperial stormtrooper.”

Elliott Ackerman, however, has evaded this trap. As an ex-soldier who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more recently as a war correspondent in Syria, perhaps his more varied experience has afforded him a broader perspective. If he does not directly address the Scranton question of who is ultimately responsible, he does expand the focus to think about the war’s effects beyond the site of battle. Death at the Crossing tells the story of Haris Abadi, an Iraqi made guilty by his time as a translator for the American army, who has moved to Michigan before returning to the Middle East with the idea of fighting for the Free Syrian Army. He lands up in Turkey, and makes a failed attempt to cross the border, but is ripped off by a Daesh operative. Without money or wherewithal Haris hangs around the border – one of the ephemeral spaces that war creates, filled with plastic tarpaulins, sagging tents, impromptu cafes, shipping containers, satellite dishes, and scrawny kids who fight to stay alive by ganging together, adults who give up and lay down by the wayside.

Elliot Ackerman

Picked up by Amir, a former Syrian revolutionary now conducting research into the border kids for an NGO, Haris is taken to Antep where Amir has an apartment. Since the euphoria of revolution turned into the despair of war, Amir has struggled with his beliefs. Worse than this, he is plagued by guilt because a group of fighters he allowed into the basement of his daughter’s nursery, accidentally blew up the building, resulting, in all probability, in her death. Despite this, Amir’s beautiful, wife, Daphne, made crazy by her loss, and not knowing for certain what happened, is determined to return to Syria to search for her. These three displaced adults inhabit a circle of sexual attraction, but even this life-force is not strong enough to break down their individual isolation and doubt. Rather than irony, the tone here is one of futility, a sense that no one in the vicinity of war can escape its deathly pull. When Harris and Daphne finally cross back into Syria, paying a Daesh member to take them, they are now so morally compromised that they pick up one of the young border boys, Jamil, who wants to become a fighter, simply because he can navigate the way. Arriving at Daesh’s headquarters inside Syria, they find a wall covered with pictures of martyrs. But Haris notes that martyrdom is not about sacrifice, as Americans think: “The literal meaning was ‘he who bears witness’… Haris considered Amir, Daphne and even Jamil. Watching them, he no longer felt like a voyeur in their war – he was their witness.” It is unclear how Haris can be their witness, except at a metatextual level where the statement can be read as a declaration of the novel’s extension of interest and sympathy.

Perhaps Scranton’s complaint against soldiers who focus on their own involvement in these wars, failing to envisage a larger context, should more properly be levelled against non-combatant writers. As if to reassure us about the dearth of American fiction that engages the bigger picture, many critics have cited the argument that the ‘best’ war novels are only produced long after the event. But there have already been a welter of post 9/11 novels from the big beasts of American literature (including works by DeLillo, Franzen, MacInerney, Messud, Pynchon, Safron Foer and Updike). These, however, have all concentrated on the effects on what American politicians like to call “the homeland”; none have addressed the havoc wreaked on other countries. This, perhaps, is a sign of the parochialism of the American imagination, its failure to consider the wider world, or at least to imagine the consequence of its actions for the “other side”.

Boualem Sansal, 2084: The End of the World (translated by Alison Anderson) – TLS


Two things we can say for certain about the troubled times we live in: art and literature are once more being viewed in the light of politics, and these complex, often convulsive politics are throwing up strange bedfellows, complicating the act of interpretation. Take the Algerian writer, Boualem Sansal, and the American President, Donald Trump, for instance, and the warnings both men have issued about Islamic fundamentalism. In Sansal’s dystopian novel, 2084: The End of the World, (unabashedly based on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four), the narrator wonders how he can reach back in time to warn people about the catastrophe of totalitarianism that is about to befall them. Set in a future when the clocks have stopped, and following a Great Holy War, an authoritarian theocracy (resembling ISIS, though never named as such) has taken control of the planet. Abistan is now the only country in existence, Abilang, the only language spoken. Religious pilgrimages traverse mountains and deserts but like many other aspects of life, the country’s geography, “so vast and so thoroughly unknown”, remains obscure; obligatory prayers are held nine times a day, and public executions and stonings keep the masses bowed down. The ignorance of history, deleted from Abistan’s official records, or of any other way of life, has created willing adherents to the creed of “Submission”. Only a few artefacts remain from some unacknowledged prior existence and these are hidden in a secret museum called the “Louvre”.

A few days after the publication of Sansal’s novel in English, an Egyptian fundamentalist – as if from some alt-right playbook, wielding a machete and shouting “Allahu Akbar” – assaulted soldiers guarding the real-life Louvre. President Trump issued a warning on social media: “A new radical Islamic terrorist has just attacked in Louvre Museum…GET SMART U.S.”, and as an afterthought: “We must keep ‘evil’ out of our country!” Sansal, who has described the collective effort of North African writers as the “struggle to free ourselves from evil and archaic dictatorship”, has been on a list of banned authors in Algeria since 2006, but in France his work has been lauded: 2084 won the Académie Francaise’s Grand Prix du Roman, and Michel Houellebecq praised Sansal for going further than he had dared to in Submission (2015), his controversial novel imagining an Islamic France. In Paris recently, Sansal gave a lecture to journalists: the French are acting like “useful idiots”, he told them, pandering to Islamists who are akin to Nazis and in the process of taking over their country.

Sansal’s speech seemed like a howl of pain from a man who has seen his country transfigured by Islamisation: once his home town had one mosque, now there are eleven, and he has watched non-religious friends become pious and conformist. But his appeal to the superiority of a secular and modernist France comes at a time when racist, anti-Muslim feeling is rising: Marine Le Pen – who herself said the spread of Islam in France was akin to Nazis occupation – may soon be elected President. Such a climate means that translators of fiction have to think, more than usually, long and hard about the inflections they give to any story. As Elisabeth Jaquette, the English translator of Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue (2016) – another dystopian novel examining the way Islam is used by the state to bolster its own power – told me: “In a country like Egypt, where Islam is the state religion, writing against a Muslim regime is writing against state authority; in the US/UK, it plays into prevailing Islamophobic narratives.” Alison Anderson’s deft and intelligent translation of 2084 from its original French into English, helps to overcome such binary thinking by conveying Sansal’s abhorrence of a system that controls people’s minds, while explaining that the system was not originally evil but has been corrupted: “an inner malfunction in an ancient religion which had once brought honour and happiness to many great tribes…its workings had been broken by the violent, discordant use that had been made of it over the centuries, and this had been aggravated by the absence of competent repairmen or attentive guides.” In the current political context of fear-mongering and obfuscation, and of competing arguments about the free play of the imagination versus the need to defend the bullied or traduced, the challenge for readers is to encounter texts from other countries without prejudice or complicity, or at least to recognise when these might be in play.

Boualem Sansal

Ati, the protagonist of 2084, wrestles with his dawning non-belief. At a mountain sanatorium where he goes to recover from tuberculosis (one of many intertextual references to Orwell), he becomes obsessed with the “legend of the border”, something that if found would belie Abistan’s claim of global domination. He makes illegal journeys to the ghetto, to “Abigov”, the centre of power, and is finally taken to a compound where the “Louvre” museum is housed. In all these places he finds different ways of living and hears other languages spoken. Abistan, he learns, is a religio-corporate empire whose rulers, the Just Brotherhood, plot against one another over the pilgrimages’ commercial concessions. Yet he remains credulous, failing to read the signs when he first meets the museum’s curator, and recognise that he is a double agent. By the time he understands this, Ati has made a deal, agreeing to entrap one side of the feuding Brotherhood to help another’s bid for power in return for safe passage to the mountains.

The Machiavellian figure behind this operation bears some resemblance to O’Brien in 1984, but unlike Winston Smith, Ati’s collaboration does not require torture. Sansal forgoes what Stephen Spender called Smith’s “total conditioning”, and the absolutism of tragedy for something more in keeping with his faith in modernity and pluralism. At the culmination of Sansal‘s moving and cautionary story, Sansal dispenses with the totemic moment of Ati’s betrayal in favour of a hurried synopsis. The novel ends with quarrelling messages from different factions of the state. The final report of a man in the mountains searching for the border reveals the regime’s false news, or doublespeak, opening under pressure to multiple readings, and thus to a glimmer of hope: “If the border does not exist, and that is certain, its legend does and is still growing.”

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


“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.


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


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: Rock Against Racism


When Syd Shelton recently published his photographs from Rock Against Racism, full of the drama and intensity of the times, I joined him and the critic Paul Gilroy, at Autograph Gallery in the East End of London 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. This is why 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. Syd, Paul and I each selected three tracks that in some way epitomized the era. What follows are a reflections on the music I chose, and on my involvement with a movement that interrogated the past, prefigured future networking organisation, and celebrated the turbulent era we were living through with – as Syd’s photographs attest – passion, style and commitment

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

There are many songs that convey the wild and 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 audience 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’, Stiff Little Fingers’ ‘State of Emergency‘, 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. And it’s importnat to remember that pop music 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; Patsy, the daughter of West Indian immigrants who was working as a back-up singer; 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 Northern line 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.

Patsy, Anna, Karen and Scruff at the RAR Carnival, Victoria Park, 1978 (c) John Sturrock

Not long after this happened, decanted early from work one evening because of another IRA bomb threat, I walked out of Debenhams 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 noisy 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 in Birmingham, 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.

Ruth Gregory and Darla Gilroy on the cover of TH.

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, aching for a life less parochial. What they wanted was the glamour of dissident art and radical ideas – a new world they tried to fathom by listening to John Peel late into the night or reading James Baldwin under the covers by torchlight.

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.

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

(Clockwise) Tom, Jo, Karen, Scruf, Scruff & Kate in a launderette during the TRB/Stiff Little Fingers tour, 1978 (c) Syd Shelton

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, embracing the crowd.


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. It was a defiant attitude that boasted (as Angela Carter once described Louise Brooks’s manner): “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 began by talking in an excruciatingly coy voice: “Some people say that little girls should be seen and not heard”, then yelled out, “but I say, Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”, and the music kicked 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 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 twinset, as if in pastiche of Margaret Thatcher. But she refashioned the archetypal English look, combining her tweeds with dayglo socks and an African headscarf.


X-Ray Spex, RAR Carnival, Victoria Park, 1978.

Punk is often been characterized 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 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 Poly Styrene demonstrated, 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 donned long white robes for their protest song, ‘Ku Klux Klan’, which they played in an electric performance at the first RAR carnival.

Steel Pulse, RAR Carnival, Victoria Park, 1978

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 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. (After death threats and a letter bomb, our operations moved to Cable Street and then to Finsbury Park.)

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 characterized so much music, asking: what did it mean, was it necessary, and how might a woman utilize the power invested in her when she walked up to the microphone and took control of the stage?


Kate 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 living in Britain. RAR supporters had seen how thuggishly the police behaved at Wood Green, Lewisham and Southall, where Blair Peach was killed, 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 Sonny show to his 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”.


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, putting him in a coma, RAR responded with two benefit concerts at the Rainbow called Southall Kids are Innocent, at which Aswad, the Clash, Misty, the Ruts, the Members, Bongo Danny, 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-on 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 an insular 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.

RAR Carnival, Leeds 1981, John Sturrock

RAR Carnival, Leeds, 1981 (c) John Sturrock

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

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