Only Disconnect

This was published on the Flux magazine website on 13 November 2009:

Only Disconnect

Andrew Gallix on this year’s new literary model

“All of this intellect stuff is fine as a consolation (which is how it developed in the first place: Socrates not being Alcibiades),” claims the narrator of an early Toby Litt story. He has a point, of course. Jean-Paul Sartre, for instance, famously confided that he had become a philosopher in order to make up for his ugliness and attract women. Conversely, ghostwriters keep churning out books for celebrity airheads in search of intellectual credibility. And then there’s Gavin James Bower. The author of Dazed & Aroused is the stuff publishers’ wet dreams are made of: a model turned writer; Socrates and Alcibiades rolled into one. “I’m too pretty to be a serious novelist but not pretty enough to be a top model,” he aphorises, “I have no consolation.” Call me jealous, but I have no sympathy.

Bower is far more than just another clothes horse who can string a few sentences together. He started putting pen to paper when he was still reading history at university. Among his influences, he cites Fitzgerald, Burroughs, Ellis, Marx, Sartre and Camus, but also Flux magazine editor Lee Taylor, who gave him his first break: “He was one of the first people who got me excited about being a writer myself”. An internship at Dazed & Confused took an unexpected turn when he was encouraged to go into modelling rather than journalism. After a year or so, his career went the way of the “skinny-jeans-and-winklepickers look,” but not before it had provided him with enough material for a stunning debut novel.

Having walked the (cat)walk, Gavin James Bower can talk authentically about inauthenticity. Alex, the narrator and anti-hero of Dazed & Aroused, slides down the surface of things, barely batting an eyelid when he is fellated by his father’s gorgeous girlfriend. In a rare moment of insight, he realises that the “nauseating truth” about a world in which anything is possible is that nothing is also a distinct possibility. The key to the book probably lies in this oscillation between surfeit and emptiness. Instead of leading to objectivity, Alex’s psychopathological detachment conjures up nightmarish dreamscapes — unreal cities — in which glamorous models are for ever tripping over the vagrants who litter the streets. From the ranters whose messages are always incomprehensible to the news bulletins invariably watched on mute, information overload leads to communication breakdown. The protagonist is bombarded by messages — via leaflets, billboards, freesheets, bumper stickers, graffiti or even fridge magnets — but they remain mere juxtapositions. On Oxford Street, for instance, he passes two men holding placards: “One sells Jesus to passers-by while the other advertises a buffet lunch deal”. The only point, if there is one, is that everything has been commodified. Gavin James Bower describes his character as a “personification of the capitalist social relation — an estranged individual who exploits others and refuses to connect to anything”. Yet, in spite of all that, he remains strangely alluring. Even when it comes to coke, the devil has all the best lines.

Dazed & Aroused is published by Quartet Books.

One Thousand Cranes Can Be Wrong

This piece was meant to appear on the website of a magazine in November 2009, but the artist who is the subject of the article objected to certain passages. Here it is, for the record, minus the artist’s name:

One Thousand Cranes Can Be Wrong

An introduction to **’s “action painting of the heart”

“I want to paint massive canvases so that I can stand in front of them and sense a wave of shade rising high above my head and it feels as if it will break and come crashing down on top of me with surf and sand like the sea.” ** often resorts to maritime similes when describing his elemental artwork. “Each piece,” he says, “is as different as each swell of the ocean”. Not only is this perfectly true — the techniques he employs range from candle-wax dripping to origami via oil painting and photography — but also most apposite for one born in Brighton and bred in nearby Worthing. Like Venus, his giant oil monochromes seem to have sprung fully-formed from the ocean spray. There is also this sense in much of *’s work that the tide is slowly rising. It is both a threat and a promise.

The (noble) savage beauty of the Hand Bursts series — which culminates in a bloody mess that could incarnadine the multitudinous seas — conjures up the fleeting patterns * creates on sundry beaches and then captures on camera. The Lines You Should Not Cross are vicious red pencil renditions of the artist’s bouts of self-harming, but they are also reminiscent of those lines literally drawn in the sand that will be, as it were, littorally washed away. The vibrancy of *’s works often comes from this tension between the compulsion to freeze moments in time (the large paintings are even entitled Frozen Moments in Texture) and the desire to dissolve into an eternal here and now. One of the most poignant pictures is that of hundreds of footprints left by so many Man Fridays on some deserted, seemingly godforsaken South Coast beach. Have all the holidaymakers gone home? Are we looking at fossilised vestiges of prehistoric humanity or the posthistoric consequences of Armageddon? Stone Age or Stoned Age? All we can be sure of is that the image is full of emptiness, achingly so. * shores these fragments against his — indeed our — ruin, but that, I suspect, is only part of the story. I can see him — all at sea on Worthing or Brighton sands — connecting nothing with nothing. Soon, however, the slate will be wiped clean and the canvas will heal: the world will return to its pristine, prelapsarian state. He closes his eyes, sensing a wave of shade rising high above his head… “We are the sea,” he writes, in his beautifully exalted, seer-like prose, “rushing in and out, forever changing as we alter with each swell of the waves. We are the sea.”

I first met ** at a reading I had co-organised at London’s Aquarium Gallery back in 2005 to showcase the thriving underground literary scene. He was just a member of the audience, but most female eyes were on him owing to his dashing Clark Gable looks. I remember a young lady in thigh-high boots gushing to no one in particular that he was the most handsome man she had ever seen. At the time, Coleman was shooting videos for up-and-coming bands and organising events at a trendy Shoreditch pub. He was also convalescing from a suitably ill-fated affair with a Norwegian junkie he had fallen madly in love with while exploring South East Asia. Soon he would gain a degree of notoriety as the Lord of the Unbuttoned Flies; a kind of Divine Marquis for the Offbeat Generation. Through his prolific priapic prose, he came across as the bastard offspring of Valmont and Sid James — the missing link between libertinage and the saucy seaside postcard.

Deep down, * had always been an artist — rather than just a peddler of literary smut or a budding avant-garde filmmaker — but it took the mother of all depressions to open up his eyes. His breakdown acted like a conversion; suddenly, he was born again. “The intensity, the violence of what I went through completely changed me,” he explains. ‘Intensity’ is a keyword here. *’s artwork is the product of “heightened states of feelings,” hence its air of jubilant inevitability. This, one senses, is a matter of life and death rather than a mere distraction. The canvas is a “battleground” on which the artist squares up to his demons, wielding the palette knife like “a sword”. *, however, is at pains to point out that depression is only the catalyst for his “action painting of the heart,” not its subject.

“I paint from within. I paint what I am.” Contrary to appearances, * is in no danger of disappearing up his own ars rhetorica. The result of his painting “from within” never feels introverted at all. In fact, it looks remarkably like without. Reflecting some kind of inverted pathetic fallacy, mindscapes are expressed as landscapes. Escaping the petty confines of the self is what this is all about. The aforementioned Hand Bursts could be the bloody handprints left by cavemen pounding away at the walls of their caves. When superimposed, they begin to resemble the graceful beating of wings. This metamorphosis reflects the artist’s desire to shed “the thing that wraps an anchor around the self and lets it drop into the dark abyss of fear” — an idea best expressed by his origami installations.

The Cry of a Thousand Cranes — red, blue and yellow paper birds hanging in the Saatchi Gallery or from a tree in the artist’s back garden — was inspired by the old Japanese legend according to which whoever folds 1,000 paper cranes will be granted a wish. When I ask him if he believes in this legend, — just smiles. Then he says, “I want yellows and blues and reds, I want to see them everywhere I walk, all exploding like fireworks”. We both stare in silence at the cranes gently swaying in the breeze.

Colossal Youth (Abridged Version)


An abridged version of “Colossal Youth,” my piece on Arthur Cravan, was posted on the Flux magazine website on Friday 13 November 2009:

Colossal Youth

You may never have heard of him, but Arthur Cravan was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. The fact that he wrote precious little — and certainly nothing of any lasting literary value — should not be held against him. Quite the contrary, in fact. Oscar Wilde’s nephew put all his genius into his life, turning it into a magnum opus full of sound and fury, high farce and convulsive beauty. In so doing, he influenced every single major avant-garde movement from Dada onwards. Cravan was the original Sid Vicious, the blueprint for all the subsequent outrages committed in the name of art. “Let me state once and for all: I do not wish to be civilised,” he wrote — and he meant it, man.

Arthur Cravan (or Fabian Lloyd, to call him by his real name) was born in Switzerland in 1887. After being expelled from an English military academy for spanking a teacher, he relocated to bohemian Paris where he partied hard with the likes of Blaise Cendrars and managed to become France’s Heavyweight Champion without throwing a single punch.

Cravan first gained the notoriety he so craved through Maintenant (“Now”), the literary journal in which he wrote everything under various noms de plume. Sourced from a butcher’s shop, the very paper it was printed on highlighted his utter contempt for belles-lettres. He filled an entire issue with gratuitous insults aimed at the artists taking part in the 1914 Independents Exhibition. As a result, he was challenged to a duel by the poet Apollinaire and almost lynched by a posse of avant-garde painters. Result.

Art, for Cravan, was essentially boxing by another means, as proved by the infamous conferences he gave in Paris and New York. During these happenings, he would knock back absinthe, perform drunken stripteases, shout abuse at the spectators and even fire gunshots over their heads. His final Parisian gig descended into pandemonium when he failed to commit suicide as advertised.

The onset of the First World War marked the beginning of a convoluted vanishing act that led him — in various guises — from Paris to Mexico where he disappeared at sea on a drunken boat of his own making. His body was never found. For years to come, he would continue to be spotted throughout the world. Arthur Cravan is still at large.

Libraries of Unpublished & Unwritten Books


Two interesting posts from Chris Flynn‘s Fly the Falcon blog:


“Brautigan Week Part 1: Library of Unpublished Books,” 19 October 2009

In 1970 Richard Brautigan released his novel The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, which featured a library for unpublished books. Whilst an abortion does take place in the book, it is best remembered for the enticing prospect of a library that accepts single copies of books that have just been completed by their authors and that will never in all likelihood be published. The unnamed central character lives in the library with his girlfriend Vida in order to welcome authors at any time of the day or night and give them a chance to lodge their masterpiece.

Sadly Brautigan’s cult faded as the seventies progressed, leading to his eventual spiral into depression, alcohol and ultimately suicide in 1984. The idea of a library for unpublished books persisted though, and was taken up by photographer Todd R. Lockwood in 1990. The Brautigan Library was founded that year in Burlington, Vermont and opened its doors to unpublished manuscripts from around the United States. Much like the original in The Abortion, the library was manned by volunteers and supported by donations. Unlike the fictional library, which was secretly funded by an admiring millionaire, Lockwood’s venture struggled to stay afloat and in 1995 closed its doors. The collection of 325 manuscripts was taken in by the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington, where it remains to this day. Lockwood is still the caretaker of the books, although negotiations are under way for the library to be moved to Vancouver, in Southwestern Washington state.

The curator of online repository, John F. Barber, is working with Clark County Historical Society Museum to have the library moved to a permanent home in the Andrew Carnegie-designed Museum, which ironically bears a striking resemblance to the San Francisco Public Library on which the fictional library in The Abortion is based. Brautigan was born in Tacoma, a short drive away and published many of his early works just across the Columbia River in Portland. Barber has ambitious plans for the library and considering he is probably the nation’s foremost expert and fan of Brautigan, it seems correct that responsibility for it should fall to him.

As well as re-opening the library to unpublished manuscripts, perhaps more appropriately in digital format, Barber is also considering a National Unpublished Writer’s Day and a Brautigan symposium, with scholars and writers the world over descending on Vancouver for a veritable Brautigan-fest. As the San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle once famously said, “There is nothing like Richard Brautigan anywhere. Perhaps, when we are very old, people will write ‘Brautigans’, just as we now write novels. This man has invented a genre, a whole new shot, a thing needed, delightful, and right.”

“Brautigan Week Part 2: Library of Unwritten Books,” 20 October 2009

In continuation of my Richard Brautigan celebration week, today I’m looking at The Library of Unwritten Books, an extension of the Library of Unpublished Books seen on yesterday’s blog post. Two British artists, Caroline Jupp and Sam Brown, decided to take the idea one step further when they formed their library of unwritten books project in 1996. Jupp and Brown spent years recording informal conversations about ideas for books with random people in the street, in parks, at festivals and of course, in libraries. Often working with community groups, the homeless, housebound elderly, children excluded from school and on hospital wards, Jupp and Brown transcribed the recordings and converted the dialogues into pamphlet-style books, which were in turn distributed in specially-designed book boxes to community centres, doctor’s waiting rooms, cafés, Laundromats and galleries.

Currently standing at 761 titles, the collection will eventually be housed at The University of West Sussex Mass Observation Archive. This eclectic organisation was started in the 1930s and holds regular surveys on the opinions of ordinary people concerning such matters as what they fed their dog during wartime or their views on cellphones.

Jupp and Brown believe unwritten books are valid literary forms that deserve to be valued, irrespective of their potential worth as a published manuscript. In one interview a boy of seven confessed to hating fruit despite his parents determination he should eat some daily. He was persuaded to take a box of raisins to school every day, which he would duly bring home uneaten and hide in his toy box. After a year his mother discovered the mountain of raisins and he describes how his brother was jumping up and down gleefully shouting, “Make him eat them all now!” He wanted to recount his story for the library of unwritten books because he was ‘living proof that you can live without fruit!’

Richard Brautigan ended his life 25 years ago in 1984. His body was discovered on October 25th.

A Pint and a Molotov Cocktail


This appeared in 3:AM Magazine on 14 September 2007. It was reprinted in George Berger’s Let’s Submerge: Tales From the Punk Rock Underground, published on 26 November 2013:

A Pint and a Molotov Cocktail

George Berger interviewed by Andrew Gallix.

3:AM: How did you get into punk?

GB: Seeing the bizarrely-dressed head-turners strolling around Bromley and surrounding areas really turned my head. Clothes and hair and a way of walking that just said “fuck off” to everyone, and straight society in particular. I don’t remember the individuals individually, just the feeling of seeing unrepentant weirdos expressing themselves via their appearance. I’d imagine this was before the word ‘punk’ came into popular use, but it doesn’t really matter either way. Seeing similar — or perhaps the same — people then interviewed on the London Weekend Show by Janet Street Porter, and then on ‘Young Nation’ on Nationwide turned my head yet further: they were sullen and obnoxious and that confused my hormones. I can’t say I liked the look of them, but it opened a door in my mind that had previously been locked and marked ‘no entry’. Finally, the famed Bill Grundy interview drew a line in the sand as I watched it with my outraged parents, trying to conceal my glee. This was clearly a step beyond their affectionate mock-outrage at glam rock.

‘No more apologies’, as Morrissey later described it so beautifully. My zits cleared up almost immediately, perhaps because I wasn’t scared of them anymore. Freedom of feeling, the feeling’s appealing. In other words, punk pushed the right buttons by opening the right (mental) doors at the right time. The music was often great, but was never the point.


3:AM: Your band, Flowers in the Dustbin, were part of the anarcho-punk scene, so you wrote this Crass book as an insider…

GB: Is there any self-respecting anarchist who would admit to being such? I wouldn’t know…

Being part of the London anarcho-punk-goth-crazy-coloured-fools-with-no-rules scene certainly informed the perspective that the book is written with of course, because it meant my early experience with anarchist thought and practice wasn’t limited to Crass. A sense of perspective, as Tap philosophised. But I’m not so sure FITD as a band were as much a part of all that in the way it’s now remembered. There’s a book about anarcho-punk coming out called The Hippies Now Wear Black — we were innocent on both those charges!


3:AM: To what extent did the members of Crass help you with your research and how have they reacted to the book?

GB: The members of Crass — Andy Palmer excepted — were as helpful as anyone could reasonably be expected to be, and in the cases of most, well beyond that.

The Crass members were also strikingly, unusually, generous and kind in a way that prods your conscience into examining its own parameters. Whatever happened to the members of Crass in their respective life-journeys at the time, it seems to have left an indelible urge to be kind and generous. Perhaps that was the energy that originally attracted so many towards them. In fact, I’m certain it was.


3:AM: In another interview you said: “I always felt a bit sorry for the people who bought into Crass at the expense of everything else”. However, when you read the book, it is obvious that the Ants/Crass dichotomy still seems to rankle after all these years. Crass offered a whole lifestyle that was difficult to reconcile with non-anarcho punk bands like the Ants or UK Subs. It was a bit like joining a fundamentalist sect, wasn’t it? Do you think you might have been attracted to this aspect of the band because of your Catholic upbringing?

GB: Meaning Crass were a part of the whole and people who bought into the sideshow ‘anarcho-punk’ often missed out on the other colours of the rainbow — Killing Joke, Bauhaus, Swell Maps, Au Pairs, Slits, etc etc… I don’t think it was a dichotomy at all in the early days, but sadly neither side could resist the bitching that subsequently became one of anarcho-punk’s main characteristics.

I should point out that I wasn’t attracted to Crass so much as fascinated by them, i.e. I was massively drawn to the idea of somewhere like Dial House working for decades as an open house, but could never quite reconcile the difference between the harsh Crass rhetoric and the gentle people in Crass. Frankly, you’d expect Crass to be aggressive and confrontational as people, but they were — and are — lovely. Delibrate dada contradictions? Maybe.

The Crass image encouraged the fundamentalist thing, which I would suggest was due to some kind of archetype hangover from the hippie times (where sects flourished of course). The Ants, Subs etc were far more healthy in this respect, I’d say, as they weren’t playing the parent. Saying ‘be yourself’ is great (Ants / Subs / punk), but the minute you start defining what that self should be, albeit unintentionally, you’re risking straying into a difficult place. The Crass output became self-conscious and ‘preachy’ once they got an audience — I felt sorry for the people who were perhaps young and encountering Crass / punk for the first time at this juncture and so bought into an opinion as though it was a reality. The map is not the territory.

I was repelled by the perceived fundamentalist aspect of Crass, not attracted to it. Whether or not this was connected to being brought up a Catholic, I’ve really no idea.


3:AM: Crass’s obsession with political freedom was so extreme that it enslaved some members. Steve Ignorant actually describes leaving the band as a liberation from the band’s politically-correct shackles: “I couldn’t look at the barmaid’s arse without being branded sexist. I couldn’t have milk in my tea without being called a bastard cos I wasn’t a vegan”. He also told you that if he’d been a 16-year-old punk at the time Crass’s rhetoric would have put him off and he would probably have been an Exploited fan. Even Penny Rimbaud, the band’s éminence grise, admits that they were “too serious”. It’s a double-edged thing, though, isn’t it? Crass meant so much because they were for real, but that purity also implied a po-faced, puritan zealotry…

GB: I don’t think Crass came across like that initially (before Penis Envy, if I’m forced to draw a line in the sand). I’m also not sure Steve is right – I don’t think that whatever took him to Dial House would have otherwise taken him to the Exploited; just a glib quote possibly out of context here. (In book interviews, Steve just spoke his mind whereas some other members of Crass pondered for literally minutes before replying to questions — which is quite unnerving but simultaneously inspiring).


3:AM: Your book often reads like a demystification of Crass’s political correctness. Whereas at the time, they appeared so self-assured — with their black uniforms, military backdrops and corporate logo — here, they come across as far more human and vulnerable. Steve and Pete admit that they knew little about anarchist history; Eve Libertine explains that she had qualms about “Reality Asylum” because of her Christian upbringing; Steve wrote “So What” as a kind of childish dare “to see if there’d be a bolt of lightning” when he sang the blasphemous lyrics… Did all this change the way you perceived the members of the band and the Crass phenomenon or were you conscious of this vulnerability at the time?

GB: I didn’t know the band well enough as people at the time to be sure of the vulnerability. I’d wager few, if any did.

With the book, I wanted to try and find the people behind the image / wall of anynomity. Demystification hits the nail on the head. Whilst Crass were always approachable back then as ‘Crass’, the individuals behind the job were often impossible to discover. Even to themselves, it would appear. At the time, I thought this was counter-productive to ideas that ‘anyone can do it’, so with the book I tried to show that the people that made up Crass and did/didn’t change the world (delete as your reality tunnel dictates) did so without being special and without access to any privilege that you or I haven’t got. And surprised myself with my findings…


3:AM: The more I read your book, the more contradictions appeared. Crass avoided the star system through anonymity but this very anonymity inevitably created a mystique of its own. But the paradox doesn’t stop here as the band were also one of the most accessible ever…

GB: Were they? On one level yes: you could go meet them, chat to them, even visit their house. But as I’ve said, getting to know the real people was out of the question for fans. Still, they did draw the line in a very different place to the stars of the day, even the punk rock stars.

Did they avoid the star system? I’m not so sure — accessibility is surely only one aspect of stardom. People looked up to Crass and looked to them for guidance. By the time they were getting big, they appeared to want to give it, albeit way more responsibly than most of their peers.


3:AM: A couple of other contradictions highlight the band’s unique nature. Politically, they were caught between the old school anarchists and the pacifists; financially, the more records they sold, the more money they lost.

Crass created a massive grassroots anarchist movement, for the first time in British history. They invented their own brand of anarcho-pacifism. They were also the only political band to practise what they preached which is why they sold records by the truckload without any advertising. I remember an interview with Joe Strummer, in the early 80s, in which he said that wherever you went, even in a remote Greek village, you’d see graffiti of the Crass symbol. He was gobsmacked and clearly envious. The band’s achievements were huge, but until your book came out their story went largely unrecorded — weird, isn’t it?

GB: Weird yes, but what Crass were offering was so beautiful — yet so fragile — that it was only ever going to appeal to the demographic who considered it a possible reality.

You’re wrong about their losing money on records — that only happened with “Reality Asylum” — otherwise they made a lot of money. Then showed an inspiring amount of integrity by returning it to what they considered ‘the movement’ and simultaneously arguable tactics and taste in the way they did this by releasing records by a plethora of copyists (not all of course, but many).


3:AM: Crass are obviously still influential and will continue to be so, but they were also very much of their time, weren’t they? I don’t know if you remember, but a few years ago, David Beckham was photographed sporting a T-shirt bearing the Crass logo: I’m sure he had no idea what it was; it didn’t mean anything anymore. I don’t think Crass would have been as influential in a prosperous, post-Thatcherite Britain, do you?

GB: I believe that T-shirt was a Jean-Paul Gaultier creation, but don’t quote me on it. The Crass symbol never meant anything beyond ‘Crass’ and it wasn’t even designed to mean that in the first place.

Crass were of their time, obviously. Our job is to be of ours… I think Crass would have got nowhere without punk, but then neither would so many bands, or any of the rest of us for that matter — it’s all so many ifs and buts.

I’d also mention that I don’t think we do live in a post-Thatcherite age yet.


3:AM: I’ve always thought that anarcho-punk was killed by the fans. All the bands were banging on about peace while the fans were beating the shit out of each other — there was such a contrast between rhetoric and reality…

GB: The anarcho-punks were generally peaceful. Trouble at anarcho gigs was invariably from skinheads, usually right-wing and preying on pitifully-easy pickings. The inherent aesthetic contradiction between the ranting aggressive anarcho noise and the ‘peace’ lyrics was bound to attract a percentage of people who liked the former to the point where they didn’t care about the latter. I’d say the lack of trouble at Poison Girls gigs illustrates that.

Of course, to treat anarcho-punk as a music scene is to ignore the much more pervasive and lasting political movement that included the popularisation of animal rights, the peace camps, the birth of the anti-capitalist demonstrations etc. — you can beat the shit out of a few people at a gig, but you can’t kill the spirit.

3:AM: You write that “If the Buzzcocks wanted a generation of kids to turn up the volume to annoy their parents, Crass made you turn it down so they couldn’t hear the blasphemy”. Maybe that was also part of the problem: over the years, Crass’s righteous anger seemed to turn into a permanent tantrum…

GB: Yes, I’d say so. They weren’t like this at all as people, so one can only conclude that they’d got too stuck into ‘punk’ as cliché and failed to follow their own advice. What seemed so vital and loyal to ‘the cause’ at first ended up feeling reactionary to me, particularly as newcomers appeared to buy into the scene as some kind of rule-book.

3:AM: Another big problem was the old class thing. In spite of the anarchist rhetoric, a class divide remained within the band — in particular between Steve Ignorant, the geezer who wanted to wink at the girls in the front row, and Penny Rimbaud, the public-school educated hippie intellectual…

GB: Actually, I don’t think there was any personal divide between Penny and Steve, but I do think that going on about classlessness against a backdrop of the biggest war of the 20th century in the UK against the working class caught them a bit short.

3:AM: It’s interesting that both Steve Ignorant and John Lydon were influenced by Brighton Rock, which they both read at school…

GB: I bet they’d love a drink together — Steve, Johnny and Pinky, getting leathered in Horatio’s at the end of the pier! I’ll get the first round in: mine’s a pint and a molotov cocktail!

3:AM: When Penny Rimbaud claims, for instance, to have seen flying tribesmen in Africa, do you ever think: this guy is a nutcase not a visionary genius?

GB: I’m amazed people haven’t picked up on this more. If Penny was deliberately winding me up saying this, then he was doing so with an intensity that would put him up there with Brando and De Niro as one of the greatest actors of all time.

Nutcase / visionary genius — as Penny himself has asked on many occasions regarding Wally Hope, where do you draw the line? I think Penny Rimbaud’s whole life appears to be lived as polemic, which may give a clue here, as may his interest in existentialism.


3:AM: On the hippie vs punk debate, you claim that “Crass was right and Malcolm McLaren was wrong”. Obviously, there was continuity as well as rupture, but wouldn’t you agree that punk was the first movement to create a generation gap among youth itself? The hippies were the first generation to refuse to grow up, then punk came along with Sid Vicious stating that he couldn’t remember the Summer of Love because he was too busy playing with his Action Men…

GB: I’d say that there was a generation gap between teds and hippies, mods and teds (rockers) etc

Sid was a great comedian for the zeitgeist one-liners and I’m sure a generation knew instinctively where he was coming from with lines like that. But I think to pick up on generational trivia is to miss the point, particularly in hindsight.

3:AM: You seem to agree with Stewart Home that Crass took the fun out of punk…

GB: Yes, I do. But maybe half the fun was the incredibly broad church punk produced — seeing as that would have disappeared with or without Crass, it’s possible it would have gone anyway. Look at some of the others around then: Six Minute War, Crisis, Pop Group, Discharge, Au Pairs etc: hardly a laugh a minute. Maybe it was something in the air.

3:AM: You have described the composition of this book as an “intense experience”: did you need to write it in order to put this whole period behind you?

GB: Not the period itself — that’s already and unavoidably behind me. This was the period I became a vegetarian and turned the teenage angst into something more structured in my head. But, yes, there is a definite sense of catharsis in writing this book — I still find myself referring to ‘punk’ attitude all the time with a nagging sense that I must sound like an old ted. So I hope that all this ‘30 years of punk’ lark will help me draw a line somewhere if I’m honest. Not with the attitudes it imbibed me with, but maybe with the word itself.


George Berger’s latest book is The Story Of Crass. His previous one was a biography of the Levellers. His next one is under contemplation. He also fronts Flowers In The Dustbin and writes a blog from there.




Robert McCrum, “The Final Twist in Nabokov’s Untold Tale,” The Observer 25 October 2009 (Features section, p.4)

“…As his condition deteriorated, he worked obsessively to finish the new novel that was so synaesthetically vivid in his imagination. In the end, he had to acknowledge his fate. If the manuscript could never be finished to its perfectionist author’s satisfaction, it must never see the light of day. Now the spell he had nurtured would become an old man’s malediction. He instructed Vera that, after his death, it should be destroyed forthwith.

Nabokov died from bronchitis on 2 July 1977, in the presence of his family and, according to his son, Dmitri, “with a triple moan of descending pitch”. The writer’s departure seems like just another piece of wizardry. “The echo is so strong,” his son writes, “that I imagine that it is indeed all staged, that he will soon speak again.”

It could not be and the spell became a curse. The 138 index cards of “Tool” were placed in a safe deposit box in the vault of a Swiss bank while Vera wrestled with her late husband’s injunction. From time to time, she enlisted sympathetic outsiders for advice. Brian Boyd, Nabokov’s distinguished biographer, was given a taste of the manuscript amid conditions of great secrecy during the mid-80s and advised against publication, an opinion he later rescinded. “People shouldn’t expect to be swept away,” he has said, tactfully. “It’s the kind of writing that induces admiration and awe but not engagement.”

Those for whom Nabokov is, in the words of Martin Amis, “the laureate of cruelty”, see his deathbed decree as peculiarly vexing. But it was not unique. Virgil instructed his heirs to destroy The Aeneid, and was defied by the emperor Augustus. Kafka asked his friend Max Brod to burn all his papers, which included the novels we know as The Trial and The Castle. “Fortunately,” said Nabokov in his own lecture on Kafka, “Brod did not comply with his friend’s wishes.” This remark has been used by the Nabokov estate as a prescient approval of its failure to destroy The Original of Laura.

… In November 2005, [Ron] Rosenbaum, who enjoys a reputation as a literary gadfly, wrote a column, “Dear Dmitri, Don’t burn Laura!” in the New York Observer.

Having rehearsed the history of “Tool”, Rosenbaum reported an email exchange with Dmitri Nabokov about the manuscript (“He will probably destroy it before he dies!”) and closed with a passionate plea: “Won’t some university library step forward with a detailed plan for funding the preservation of The Original of Laura, this irreplaceable literary treasure ?”

The result: uproar. The eccentric, worldwide fraternity of Nabokov scholars had a field day. Dmitri, apparently maddened by the controversy, now adopted his father’s teasing stance. He declared himself to be “torn” between his obligations to posterity and to his father’s shade. Asked if he would burn or shred the manuscript, he replied, mischievously: “Perhaps I already have and prefer not to reveal the method.”

The teasing went both ways. In 1991, an American librarian published a literary critical essay, apparently by a Swiss professor, entitled “A first look at Nabokov’s last novel”, which was quickly exposed as a brilliant spoof. Others became entangled in the debate. “It’s perfectly straightforward,” said Tom Stoppard. “Nabokov wanted it burnt, so burn it.” Novelist Edmund White, whose early work had been championed by Nabokov, was equally blunt. “If a writer really wants something destroyed,” he told the Times, “he burns it.” John Banville said that this situation was “a difficult and painful one”. Conceding that The Original of Laura may turn out to be inferior, Banville decided that it should be saved from the flames. “A great writer is always worth reading,” he said, “even at his worst.” …

…Designed by Chip Kidd, The Original of Laura will appear in a highly collectible edition: Nabokov’s handwritten index cards are reproduced in facsimile to display his neat handwriting, his furious crossings-out and his fascinating inserts. There’s one valedictory wink from the great magician, a final card containing a list of synonyms for “efface” – expunge, erase, delete, rub out, wipe out and… obliterate.”