Golden Age

Kraus, Chris. “Howl – Punk: the Twentieth Century’s Last Avant-Garde.” Times Literary Supplement, 12 January 2018 , p. 33

Composed of essays, interviews, memoirs and manifestos by veterans of London’s punk scene, Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix’s Punk is Dead is a nostalgic, intelligent homage to the brief, hazy era of “pure” London punk, before it was named, over-described and turned into another sub­cultural phenomenon. This golden age lasted somewhere between four and eighteen months, depending on who’s recollecting, although most agree that by 1978, it was over. Since punk began as a rebellion against boredom, the dead space of commercial music production and the empty hedonism born of the hippie era’s “great sexual revolution”, it was only a matter of time until it, too, would become corrupted. A yearning for its own prelapsarian state was built into punk’s ethos. As the punk musician-turned-philosopher Simon Critchley tells Gallix, “Because of the acute awareness of the fact that punk . . . would become a creature of the very music industry whose codes it subverted, we knew that it was going to be shortlived. And that was fine”. To Critchley, punk was most of all, lucid: a Protestant reformation without God: “We wanted to see reality for what it was in all its ugliness . . . and tear away the decadence and fallenness of the culture industry that surrounded us”.

. . . “Bands are necessarily approximations of the dreams that conjured them up”, Gallix writes in his essay “Unheard Melodies”. Punk is Dead shows the transmission of culture as a kind of lucid group dreaming. The accounts of its contributors capture the role that coincidence plays in history. Ideas can rarely be traced back to one person; they accrete and recur. . . .

Gallix is eloquent in his defence of nostalgia against the cult of an amnesiac future. Punk might be not only the last great subculture in the rock and roll mode, but the most analysed and documented. Nevertheless, art and cultural histories are always reductive, and, as he writes, “the past is subtly rewritten, every nuance gradually airbrushed out of the picture”. . . .

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It Was Bound to Go Wrong

Walton, Stuart. “It Was Bound to Go Wrong.” Review 31, 24 January 2018:

… On the other hand, co-editor Andrew Gallix’s essay on the rootless Anglo-Swiss provocateur Arthur Cravan, a gifted self-mythologist who was ‘just too bad to be true’, is a pertinent contribution.

The same author’s ‘Unheard Melodies’, on bands who never got to record anything and, in some pristine cases, never even performed live, existing only as hypothetical propositions, but were nonetheless profoundly influential as such, is a fascinating study of cultural subversion all on its own.

Don’t Just Do Something: Sit There

Will Self, “Will Self on the Literary Novel’s Demise, and Why Naomi Klein Won’t Fix the World” by Nick Doherty. Maclean’s, 16 January 2018

It’s hugely unpopular in our overcharged, hollowed-out humanist democracies, to be quietistic: to think in terms of doing less harm rather than doing more good. People experience that as a counsel of despair, but they’re profoundly wrong to. Indeed, I would argue that if you think about the problems the world is facing, a quietistic movement is the best possible response. Don’t just do something; sit there. Don’t fly Naomi Klein to another country to talk your arse off, which is really about commodifying your own career. Nothing she has done in the past 25 years has led to any reduction in corporate activities, global warming—so what’s she f—–g for? Nothing [laughs]. If she’d spent her time telling people to do less, we might have a more pacific, less febrile world.

The Great Internal Rumination

Will Self, “Will Self on the Literary Novel’s Demise, and Why Naomi Klein Won’t Fix the World” by Nick Doherty. Maclean’s, 16 January 2018

Years ago, I said [novel-writing] would become a conservatoire form, like easel painting or the symphony, but I didn’t quite understand how all of these kids in creative writing programs, and their constant focus-grouping, would create a new form that’s halfway between hobbyism and literature. It’s an occupation for wealthy Western youth who are marking time. Because there are more writers than readers now, it’s decoupled from any conversation. It’s like a great internal rumination.

The Unmapped Country

My review of The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments by Ann Quin. The Guardian (Review), 13 January 2018, p. 10.

Reduced to an anomalous footnote in British literary history — a female, working-class, avant-garde author — Ann Quin is all too often taken as read. Yet her work is as open-ended as those sentences she regularly produced that trail off into silence, casting a spell instead of spelling out; floating away on their reserve of potentiality. As open-ended, indeed, as her life, which she took at the age of 37, swimming out to sea off Brighton’s Palace Pier in 1973. She left behind four novels — including her celebrated debut, Berg (1964) — along with scores of short-form pieces, some which now appear in a thrilling new collection of miscellanea.

Spanning the author’s entire career, The Unmapped Country, edited and introduced by Jennifer Hodgson, builds up a portrait of the artist as a restless spirit, forever adventuring into the unknown. In an autobiographical skit, Quin mocks her reputation as an experimental author, attributing the Arts Council’s rejection of her grant application to their having read her last book. The diversity on display is impressive, however, as she studiously avoids getting trapped in any one style or genre. “Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking”, with its enchanting evocation of childhood and unflinching depiction of the decrepitude of old age, is a technically accomplished but surprisingly conventional short story.

“A Double Room” is kitchen sink drama set in Patrick Hamilton territory, while “Tripticks”, which developed into the novel of the same name, recalls Donald Barthelme at his quirkiest. “Living in the Present” (1968), a Burroughsian exercise in cut-ups conducted with the American poet Robert Sward (her then lover) seems to pave the way for JG Ballard’s media-saturated The Atrocity Exhibition.

Some pieces are straightforward memoir; others are clearly fiction, but there is a great deal of overlapping between the two (from this perspective, the author could be considered as a pioneer of autofiction). Quin frequently displays an ambivalent attitude towards mothers in general, and her own in particular, mirrored by a love-hate relationship with a dreary postwar England, where vegetables were still served up “as though chewed already”.

She resolved to become a writer after being “struck dumb” during her RADA audition, and her work always retained a strong theatrical quality. Several stories here are monologues. The two pieces written in the early 60s for pop artist Billy Apple (another lover) give voice to the ludic, transatlantic idiom of the emerging counterculture. Inevitably, considering her recurring bouts of depression and the electroconvulsive therapy she endured, mental illness looms large. The eponymous novella offers a devastating – albeit often hilarious – critique of psychiatry. Sudden shifts in perspective are common, as one character points out during a train journey: “Already I’m thinking in the third person. Seeing us as another passenger might.” And then there is the encroachment of the sea. A girl envisions her bedridden grandmother’s legs as sticks with “barnacles and millions of half-dead fish clinging”. In “Nude and Seascape”, which channels the affectlessness of Camus, a woman’s corpse becomes an object in a gruesome still life composition: “Against the landslide he found the body alone spoilt the effect, it was really only the head that was needed. He searched for his pocket-knife, it was a little rusty, which meant it would take some time”.

This struggle between order and chaos runs through Quin’s work. The husband in “Never Trust a Man Who Bathes With His Fingernails” wants to impose a tight schedule on his handyman to curtail the “impression he gives of unlimited time”. Sandra’s descent into madness, in “The Unmapped Country” (1973), takes the form of a hermeneutic disease, whereby everything – even birdsong or “the placing of twigs and leaves” in a park – is construed as a cosmic message. This is, of course, an eminently literary malady: “It takes me a long time to read now, a paragraph holds so much significance, and everything links up.” After being sectioned, she attempts in vain to piece together her hallucinatory journey: “Last events came first, the beginning at the end, or suddenly reversed, or slid into panels mid-way.” The grand narrative eludes her, leaving only “vague notes for the basis of a shape”. A subtle parallel is drawn between the signals Sandra picks up – the broadcasts she tunes into – at the height of her delirium, and the analyst’s Freudian worldview. In her journal, she scoffs at his “stupidity in listening and believing in the radio he switches on” at the beginning of each session.

Although the novella remains unfinished, an alternative to the absolutist, patriarchal vision of art depicted in “Nude and Seascape” seems to emerge when Sandra dismisses her boyfriend’s pursuit of posterity through painting: “How much better to create like the Navajo Indians, beginning at sunrise in the desert, a sand painting that would be rubbed out by sundown.” Having burned her latest contribution to the hospital’s weekly art session, she elects to make “paintings with her footprints in the snow”. The temptation to go beyond the confines of the canvas or page finds its natural expression in Quin’s penchant for juxtapositions and lists. This vagabond style is the perfect vehicle for the ecstatic urge to “go over” and “live beyond” oneself. To keep on walking through the snow, like Sandra, with unlimited time on your hands.



Over Before It Began

Hoskins, Zachary. Review of Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night, edited by Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix. Spectrum Culture, 9 January 2018

. . . Punk may be, as co-editor Andrew Gallix admits, “probably the most analyzed youth cult ever,” but its resonances with the contemporary zeitgeist make it ripe for such analysis — even if, he is also quick to add, it continues to resist tidy theses. Gallix, the founder of literary webzine 3:AM, and his fellow editor, music journalist turned playwright Richard Cabut, are wise enough not to attempt any grand summations. Instead, they curate and contribute to an eclectic, dialectic collection of 28 short essays, juxtaposing historical testimonies from the eye of punk’s hurricane with more critically distanced analyses of its aftermath.

As its title implies, the ultimate failure of this revolution in the head is the closest thing the book has to a running theme. Virtually every contributor avers that punk, in its most exciting form, was over before it ostensibly began. As Gallix writes in his essay “The Boy Looked at Euridyce,” the movement died “as soon as it ceased being a cult with no name… Punk — in its initial, pre-linguistic incarnation… was the potentiality of punk.” By enshrining these six months or so of ferment, before the cult became a commodity, Punk Is Dead embraces what is, on its surface, a decidedly un-punk emotion: nostalgia. But this is not the ineffectual, ideologically empty nostalgia of events like 2016’s “Punk London” celebration, presided over by the city’s then-mayor, Conservative politician and chief Brexit cheerleader Boris Johnson. Cabut, Gallix and the other contributors use their critically productive nostalgia to correct decades’ worth of the former variety: to prevent punk from being, as Judy Nylon puts it in her foreword, “reduced to a coffee-table book of white English boys spitting.”

. . . It’s impossible to read Punk Is Dead without realizing on some level that the likes of punk will never happen again: The contemporary cultural landscape is at once too diffuse and too adept at absorbing insurgent trends and attitudes; the current youth cultures are both too diverse and, frankly, not naïve enough to view mere aesthetic affront as a viable revolutionary tool. It’s almost quaint to read about Siouxsie Sioux’s affectless appropriation of the swastika in the wake of rallies by punk-age white nationalists who, to quote Rotten et al., “mean it, man.” But if reading these essays in early 2018 brings any solace, it’s the knowledge that punk has retained its vitality as an ideal, even if it has long since failed as a movement. “Once we were part of punk,” Gallix writes. “Now punk is part of us.”