The Cost of Living

This review of Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living appeared in the Irish Times on 7 April 2018, p. 34:

The Price a Woman Has to Pay For Unmaking a Home

The Cost of Living is the second instalment, and future centrepiece, in Deborah Levy’s autobiographical trilogy. Its pivotal nature becomes apparent when the narrator is loaned a shed of her own, where three books — “including the one you are reading now” — will be conceived. Such foregrounding of the work’s primal scene is no metafictional gimmick, however. It is consonant with Levy’s commitment to looking life in the eye, rather than reflected in the shield of allegory.

“It was there,” she explains, “I would begin to write in the first person, using an I that is close to myself and yet is not myself”. Gazing back at her textual avatar – becoming the reader, as well as the author, of herself – Levy opens up this gap through which she journeys towards the “vague destination” of a “freer life”.

There is a deeply moving, albeit somewhat disquieting, passage, where the nine-year-old Deborah, fresh off the boat from her native South Africa, comes knocking on the door of her middle-aged self in London, and ends up watching Bake Off with the two daughters she will later give birth to. This is a variation on the “flashback in the present” technique that the author frequently deploys to great effect in her fiction, but spectacularly fails to get across to a boardroom full of film executives, in one of the book’s many comic scenes.

Describing this ongoing project as a “living biography” is particularly apposite, not only because the author is alive, kicking and evidently at the height of her creative powers, but also because she eschews nostalgia, firmly convinced that the past is never written in stone. Towards the end of the book, she speaks to her mother for the first time since her passing: “She is listening. I am listening. That makes a change”. She goes on to recount a heart-rending anecdote about a pair of earrings she almost buys her as a gift in a department store, before the unspeakable enormity of death suddenly sinks in at the till.

If Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013) was a response to Orwell’s Why I Write, the emphasis here is on how to write in the wake of two traumatic events which occurred within a year of each other: the break-up of the author’s marriage and her mother’s demise. In the Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home (2011), one of the characters claims to only enjoy biographies once the subjects have escaped “from their family and spend the rest of their life getting over them”. Finding herself in a similar situation, the author now seems to be putting into practice all the themes she has been rehearsing in her works since the 1980s, as though the fiction were a prelude to her vita nova.

As Levy downsizes, her life grows bigger and she feels emboldened and energised by the adventure she has embarked upon despite all the hardship. She has no regrets about swapping her book-lined study for a “starry winter night sky”, now that she writes on a tiny balcony, where she falls asleep fully dressed “like a cowgirl”, in her north London “apartment on the hill”. Other people – including the family from down the road that she borrows for Sunday lunches, the Turkish newsagents and the Welsh octogenarian firebrand who kindly lends her the shed – are a constant source of fascination, but so too are the bees, moths, squirrels and birds she shares the world with: “everything,” she observes, “is connected in the ecology of language and living”. She delights in the practicalities of daily life, even proving a dab hand with a Master Plunger, and when she zips along the road on her electric bicycle, her party dress “flying in the wind”, she finds it difficult not to whoop.

The Cost of Living refers to the price a woman has to pay for unmaking the home she no longer feels at home in. In Levy’s case, this radical act of erasure inaugurates a quest for a new life that is inseparable from the writing of a new narrative. No longer willing to take part in the masquerade of femininity – that “societal hallucination” – she fumbles for a different kind of role to play. At this juncture, all she knows is that it will be a “major [as yet] unwritten female character”. The process of transitioning “from one life to another” also prompts her to reinterpret some of her fondest memories and past attitudes: “Did I mock the dreamer in my mother and then insult her for having no dreams?”

Deborah Levy describes women’s often thankless homemaking enterprise as “an act of immense generosity”. It is also a perfect description of this truly joyous book.


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The Deep Fuck We Found Ourselves In

This appeared in Review 31 on 7 March 2018:

The Deep Fuck We Found Ourselves In

Neil Armstrong hoped that someone, some day, would erase the footprints he had left on the moon. It is in this spirit that American author Russell Persson revisits the ill-fated Narváez expedition, covering the explorers’ tracks before loosing his characters into lostness. The Way of Florida, his outlandish debut, begins in medias res like an epic poem: ‘And waiting another day to enter port, a south wind took us and drove us away from land’. The colonial enterprise — blown off course after grinding to a halt — has already failed, and will keep on failing better as if The Odyssey had been redrafted by Beckett. Trapped in a ‘maze of unhaving’, increasingly ‘abundant in [their] lack’, the Spaniards soon want nothing more than ‘to not want’. For most of them, the voyage — ‘long for the things [they] do not come upon’ — will be a one-way ticket to ‘[h]igh nowhere of the utmost’. ‘I know there is no return,’ the narrator laments, ‘and I know there is no thing toward of which all of us sail’. Cut adrift from any destination, the journey loses its telos, becoming an end in itself. ‘I must be a man who walks,’ he acknowledges, likening life to an excursion we go on awhile until ‘the world moves on without us’.

With no backstory to speak of, or veritable narrative arc, The Way of Florida is a historical novel from which history has been all but excised. Were it not for the publisher’s blurb, I would have ignored that this quixotic attempt to establish Spanish settlements along the Gulf Coast was first chronicled by Cabeza de Vaca, one of only four survivors, or that his 1542 account had provided Persson with a general direction of travel. The erasure of most period markers (the first occurrence of the explorer’s name that I spotted was on page 175) allows a deep immersion in the here and now of lives conducted in extremis. A whole year elapses in the course of a four-line paragraph, while a single, unpunctuated sentence — reflecting the flow of real time — winds its way through an entire ten-page chapter. Significantly, the narrator comes to see his existence as a solitary long take, ‘the string of days entire from one until the end’: ‘Inside this now I live with my body underneath the sky’.

The beleaguered colonisers seek refuge in their corporeal abodes, envisioned with doors leading to closets where ‘olden acts’ are ‘ungone forever’. A counter-movement sees the self projected on to the hallucinatory landscape. The protagonist evokes ‘the lands inside [him] yet to fold out’ as though conjuring up the very ground on which he treads. This projection, imperialist as it may sound, inaugurates a fugue state; a desperate drive to leave oneself behind. Striding forth, he explains, is ‘our only path our only way toward some otherwhere some place we were not’. The narrative feeds off itself, like those stranded Christians who survive by partaking of the deceased — until there is only one cannibal left and nobody else ‘to enfooden him’.

It is through writing, however, that Cabeza de Vaca achieves an ecstatic, out-of-body experience. The true ‘otherwhere’ is the book in which he records his misadventures, ‘to bring me to the outside of this [situation] where I can look down to me and witness my own sentence’. Whether he is the author of his own sentence — his work, as well as his plight — remains a moot point. The narrator believes that he and his compatriots are doing penance for their sins, and that what appears like aimless drifting is all part of a grand design. He also claims to have been chosen as the recipient of divine messages, thereby establishing a direct link between ‘Our Lord our mapmaker’ and the figure of the writer.

The Way of Florida is thus a journey into fiction. The survivors — four unwitting horsemen of the Apocalypse — enter Indian lore as ‘holy men from the sky’. In the final part, there is a sudden switch from first to third-person narration, perhaps signalling that Cabeza de Vaca has absented himself through his work, reemerging as a godlike, omniscient voice. A subtle parallel is drawn between colonialism and the realist novel’s linguistic imperialism, exemplified by the narrator’s frustration at not being able to describe certain gestures or the sound the sun makes on the sand. The jarring notes provided by the regular intrusion of expletives — ‘the deep fuck we found ourselves in’ — advertises the underlying tension between contingency and necessity. The neat little blocks of text stranded in an ocean of blank space recall the breath clouds of the storytelling explorers (‘it is air in the shape of our sound in the shape of tales’) and the soothing blowing therapy of the faith healers. These typographical havens stand in stark contrast to the wildly poetic, often challenging, run-on sentences that compose them, stamping their hypnotic rhythm upon the reader. This is English, but not as we know it. The novelist seems to have taken it back to the dawn of language, producing a newly-minted idiom that feels both antiquated and timeless. It is this Adamic English that makes The Way of Florida sui generis, despite being based on a pre-existing text. As Maurice Blanchot put it, ‘What is important is not to tell, but to tell once again and, in this retelling, to tell again each time a first time’.

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.



Portrait of Author Damon Young as a Reader

This appeared in the Irish Times on 30 December 2017, p. 24:

Portrait of Author Damon Young as a Reader

The vintage fingerprints and splashes of egg yolk adorning my Ladybird edition of The Three Little Pigs. The wild flowers pressed between the pages of a Danilo Kiš. We measure out our lives with books as well as coffee spoons. Those we have read, those we have not; above all, those that have read us. “To my right is a small stained pine bookcase,” writes Damon Young at the beginning of The Art of Reading. “It contains, among other things, my childhood.”

On the latter subject, and his subsequent development, he remains rather tight-lipped. Reading, we learn, was initially “a prop in [his] performance of superiority” and, crucially, a “liberation from school’s banality and home’s atmosphere of violence”. At the age of 11, he sought refuge from his father’s “morning screams” in ninja books and make-believe. As a teenager he was “Prufrock avoiding Prufrock”. Finally he alludes to his wife’s “grave illness” which rendered him incapable of finishing AS Byatt’s Still Life. There ends the confessional: this is a portrait of the author as a reader.

In the expository chapter Young navigates his way round the labyrinthine shelves of his own Library of Babel, travelling back and forth in time, both personal and historical. His early passion for Sherlock Holmes was shared by William Gibson, whose evocation leads — “[t]wo shelves under” him — to Orhan Pamuk’s reflections on childhood perusal and then on to Edith Wharton’s — “[t]wo rooms behind and one century before him” — and from thence to Rousseau, Sartre, de Beauvoir (close to the former “in [his] library as in life”) and so on. Taking in Batman as well as Heidegger, the breadth of reference is impressive, but never overbearing, thanks to the Australian philosopher’s lightness of touch, self-deprecating humour and endearing deployment of the word “bunkum”. Having traced a desire path through a lifetime of books, Young reflects upon six Aristotelian virtues (curiosity, patience, courage, pride, temperance and justice) that reading requires, exhibits or promotes.

The Art of Reading is not just another bibliomemoir; it is also a manifesto of sorts. The author shuns a utilitarian approach to his subject — regarded as “an end in itself” — summarily listing its ancillary benefits with a commendable degree of scepticism. After all, “bastards enjoy fiction too” and, as he cheekily points out, some of them are authors. His ambitious goal is to re-enchant an activity which, “cosmically speaking”, is very much “against the odds”. Reading, he laments, is grossly undervalued, its wonders all too soon forgotten.

It tends to be thought of as a rudimentary skill, acquired in early childhood, rather than a lifelong project to be honed from Miffy to Proust. It has the added disadvantage of being a largely invisible pursuit, incapable of competing with the social cachet conferred by authorship, or rather the “fantasy of publication”. A text, however, is “only ever half finished by the writer”; it is the reader who brings it to life. Should the human race be wiped out, books would be “lived in, eaten, buried, climbed upon, oxidised, but not read”.

Young contends that the reader’s demiurgic power is not only forgotten, but also repressed, because of the anxiety it generates in highlighting the contingency of our books and lives: “Giddiness arises as I become aware of my responsibility for affirming one world and not another, and the fragility of whatever is chosen. Every string of letters can be an existential challenge”. What Michel Foucault called the “author function” is thus “a way of making reading safe”. Words become “someone else’s job”: the book “just means this, end of story”.

If Young explores how Rousseau or Sartre became fully aware of their existence through reading, he also considers how fiction may provide an escape from the confines of the self — Dickens’s “hope of something beyond that place and time” — and the increasing encroachment of the actual upon the possible.

In order to truly appreciate a text we must also “overcome our egocentrism”, which Virginia Woolf signally failed to do vis-à-vis Joyce, whom she initially read through the prism of class snobbery and rivalry. The philosopher concedes, however, that Iris Murdoch’s notion of “unselfing” has its limits. We are “partial beings” whose “incompleteness varies” with age, so that some novels — Henry James’s in the case of Evelyn Waugh — need to be grown into.

Most importantly, perhaps, literature enables us “to stifle the little oligarch” within. Villains — in fiction as well as fact — “see all things as a means to an end”, which is always “some vision of perfection”. Reading teaches us to accept that things simply are, and that they may end without concluding: “Only the Library of Babel continues. It makes sense to restlessly move between artworks, never believing that any one is perfect.”

Punk Bashing Time

Andrew Stevens interviewed me for Creases Like Knives, 16 September 2017:

Punk Bashing Time: An Interview with Andrew Gallix

It was no less than Garry Bushell himself who wrote of ‘dreading well-meaning graduates with crops and tailor-made crombies’ in Sounds when he met with the teenaged members of ‘Skins Against the Nazis’ in 1978. Stevo had a few less hang-ups about meeting a fully-fledged Professor at the Sorbonne in Paris to go over his new book Punk Is Dead (Zero Books), which in part deals with aspects of skinhead’s troubled history among punk.

But then Andrew Gallix, who also edits the eclectic and punked-up webzine 3:AM, was a little more gracious and even-handed than some of the book’s other contributors when it came to recounting his own experiences.

You begin by taking issue with claims in “certain punk memoirs, [that] the streets of London, in 1977, were thronging with skinheads”?

Well, I was thinking specifically of Viv Albertine’s memoir — possibly the best punk memoir ever published and a truly excellent book in its own right. The dates, however, are not always totally accurate, which, to be fair, is hardly surprising given the breakneck speed of change in those days. Besides, it’s a personal memoir not a history book. I’ve just spotted an anecdote that supposedly took place in 1976 although Johnny Rotten is said to be listening to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot — an album that only came out the following year. Either the date is wrong or he was listening to another record.

In a chapter devoted to the Roxy club circa 77, Viv mentions night buses being ‘full of skinheads and drunks’, which is highly unlikely. Sham 69 started getting a strong following at the fag-end of the summer of 1977 — they were on the cover of the August-September issue of Sniffin’ Glue following the release of their first single. There was indeed already a smattering of skinheads in their midst, but it was so small they had no real visibility at the time. Teddy boys, definitely — they were all over the place. As I write in the book, I can’t recall ever seeing a skinhead in the flesh before 1978, save for intriguing pictures of Skrewdriver in the music press.

In 78-79 there were also quite a few punks with skinhead-style crops, so there was a lot of overlapping and ambiguity. The guttersnipe hanging out of the open platform at the back of a double-decker in the ads for ‘Clash City Rockers’ (1978) is clearly meant to be a punky urchin, with ‘CLASH’ stencilled on his trousers, but he also has a very short haircut that makes him look a bit like a skinhead. He’s a good example of this hybrid style that reflected a radicalisation of punk in the face of commercialisation and due to an influx of working-class punters on the scene. Paul Simonon himself sported braces and a proper skinhead crop, complete with a shaved parting, at some point in 78.

One of the ideas I develop in Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night is that punk was haunted by its lost beginning. If I may quote myself quoting the Cockney Rejects, ‘Punk’s year-zero mentality (like all other attempts to start again from scratch) was haunted by a yearning to return to some original, prelapsarian state — back in the garage, when the cult still had no name, before they killed the fucking thing. Being born again is just that: being born again. Being borne back’. The radicalisation of the movement that led to the skinhead revival is, in my opinion, part of this quest for authenticity. Steve Jones, Paul Cook, Simonon and Weller had all been little skinheads or suedeheads.

I believe there’s another passage in Viv Albertine’s book where she talks about Mick Jones and herself being attacked by a gang of skinheads after a gig on the White Riot tour. I’ve just flicked through the book to check, but alas couldn’t find it. Once more, however, I suspect the date is wrong.

All this is very anal, of course, but I can’t help thinking historical accuracy is important; that the devil is in the (lack of) detail. Maybe it’s because it’s also my own past we’re dealing with here. Yesterday, on Soho Radio, someone was talking about seeing mohicaned punks on the King’s Road in 1977 — another common anachronism which annoys me no end.

But there’s plenty of accounts which claim that skinhead ‘came back’ at the Roxy in 1977?

It’s extremely difficult to say for sure when punk started and ended, but one possible cut-off point is the closure of the original Roxy club in April 1977. I believe Sham only played the real Roxy once, supporting Generation X — that is, Andy Czezowski, Susan Carrington and Barry Jones’ Roxy. I may be wrong, but in any event, they were totally unknown at the time and the whole skinhead thing only really started taking off at the Vortex and at the Roxy Mark 2, when the club reopened under new management, immediately becoming a parody of its previous incarnation.

The atmosphere on the punk scene grew much darker following the ‘summer of hate’, as the NME called it at the time, which had been the movement’s high-water mark. Things started going awry over the autumn and winter, culminating in the Pistols’ acrimonious split in January 1978. These are the bad days when the streets were ‘paved with blood,’ as Paul Weller sang: ‘I’m stranded on the Vortex floor / My head’s been kicked in and blood’s started to pour’.

How old were you when all this was happening? You make reference to boys around your way kitted out in skinhead clobber and the ‘prepubescent, second-generation skinheads in a black-and-white photo spread — doubtless compiled by Garry Bushell — from around 1979’.

Yes, there were little skinheads everywhere! That was in 1979, and I was 14. Skinheads were ubiquitous for a while, and not only in London, of course. Up and down the country. It was absolutely massive, not a fringe thing. Weetabix even had commercials with cartoon skinhead characters: ‘If you know what’s good for you, ok’.

What about in Paris? Who were the ‘once dodgy skinheads’ you mention in your chapter?

I’ve written two chapters somewhat tangentially linked to the Parisian punk scene. One of them is devoted to L.U.V., a fascinating all-girl phantom band; the other focuses on the Bazooka art collective. I wish I could have covered more aspects of French punk. Hopefully in a future book.

The whole skinhead phenomenon was largely lost in translation abroad. What, in an English context, referred back to London working-class culture immediately took on a more sinister, neo-Nazi complexion on the Continent. To be honest, the French skinhead scene had no redeeming features whatsoever. It produced very few bands and they were all beyond crap — initially, Parisian skins followed La Souris Déglinguée, who were not themselves skinheads.

The very first French skins may not have been racist, but they were only interested in fighting. Many of them went on to become drug addicts. The following wave, however, was almost exclusively made up of glue-sniffing fascist nutters. There were also far-left skinheads, calling themselves redskins, whose sole purpose in life was to beat up far-right skinheads. To all intents and purposes, they were the mirror image of their enemies, on whose existence their righteous identity as anti-fascists was entirely predicated.

Those I refer to in that quote are Farid and his gang: la bande à Farid. They were the most interesting on account of being the first and having, paradoxically enough, an Arab leader. As French skinheads, they had a kind of exotic cachet. There hadn’t been any in France the first time round — I understand Australia was the only foreign country to have had an indigenous scene in those days. Most of the members of Farid’s gang hailed from Colombes, a nondescript Parisian suburb. Hanging out in and around Les Halles, they thrived on gratuitous violence, relishing the fear they generated throughout the capital. I remember travelling around Paris, in 1980-81, and wherever we went fellow punks would tell us to watch out because Farid was about. He seemed to be everywhere at the same time!

When the Specials played a gig at the Pavillon Baltard, on 14 March 1980, the French skins were all wearing Onion Johnny black berets to distinguish themselves from their English counterparts. Before the gig, they beat up a mate of mine and stole the white tie I had lent him. During the Specials’ set there was a massive brawl, like in a western, between the French and English skins. You can guess who started the trouble.

Violence is something of a motif throughout the book, for instance both Bob Short and Tony Drayton cite regular skinhead violence against punk squatters (‘gangs of skinheads who would rape and beat at will’). Tony even went so far as to include a manifesto against Oi! and skins in Kill Your Pet Puppy! Did that surprise you?

It didn’t surprise me at all, because violence on the streets was a fact of life back then. If you were a punk, you attracted random abuse and aggression all the time. In 1977, it was teddy boys, football hooligans or outraged members of the general public. I remember seeing blokes stepping off Routemasters on the King’s Road to punch a passing punk, then jumping back on. One of the most famous incidents, of course, was when Rotten was razored by vigilantes. That was part of a widespread anti-punk backlash in the wake of ‘God Save the Queen’. Before that punk violence had been largely symbolic: from the Silver Jubilee onwards, it became literal.

Thereafter, it was usually members of some rival youth cult you had to worry about. The early 80s were very tribal, and there was trouble on all fronts, but skinheads were obviously the worst of the lot. After 1982, almost all the gigs you went to involved some degree of violence at some stage — it just went with the territory. On one occasion, I was walking down Putney Hill with my then girlfriend, when we noticed hordes of skinheads ahead of us on the other side of the road. We were on our way to a gig by anarcho-punk band Conflict — and so were they. Sensibly, we decided to beat a hasty retreat as it would have been a bloodbath. I actually stopped going to gigs for a number of years because it just was not worth the hassle any more.

In all fairness, that adrenalin rush that kicked in as soon as you left home was intoxicating. Boredom may have been a buzzword, but there was never a dull moment: punk really was a revolution of everyday life. After a few years, of course, it started taking its toll.

Around 1985, and still with the same girlfriend, I came face to face with another large gang of menacing-looking skinheads, this time in Brighton. The only way to avoid them would have been to turn round and flee, but I feared they would come running after us, so we walked on petrified. As we got closer I noticed that some of them were holding hands. Nobody had told me that the skinhead look had been subsumed into gay subculture.


Indeed, I noticed David Wilkinson levered in a mention of Nicky Crane’s double life in his chapter on ambivalence of queer in punk. Richard Cabut, who co-edited the book, suggests in his ‘Punk Positive’ chapter’s many dismissals of ‘glue-swamped’ Oi! by ‘lobots’ that by the early 80s skinhead (as one of three ‘tribes’) had become ‘mindlessness wrapped in a dull, grey, lazy uniform of bitterness’. You yourself give the Cockney Rejects more credit, though, i.e. splinter groups capturing original unity.

Yes, I liked Sham 69 and then some of the early Oi bands — Cockney Rejects in particular. The first Oi compilation was really great. The musical boundaries were actually very porous in spite of all the tribalism: mods would listen to punk bands, for instance, and vice-versa. By 1980-81 I was more into the Ants and the anarcho side of things, but I was interested in everything that came in the wake of the initial punk explosion. As I said earlier, the skinhead revival was essentially a response to punk’s commercialisation, as was the mod revival. If I may quote another extract from the book:

Every splinter group that joined the ranks of the punk diaspora (Oi!, the mod revival, 2-Tone, no wave, cold wave, post-punk, goth, early new romanticism, anarcho-punk, positive punk, psychobilly, hardcore etc.) was a renewed attempt to recapture an original unity, which the emergence of these very splinter groups made impossible. As Paul Gorman put it in a recent documentary, ‘People began to play with, and tease out, the strands which were therein, and it was so rich, and so full of content, that one strand could lead to a whole movement.’ When Garry Bushell claims that the Rejects were ‘the reality of punk mythology’ — which is precisely what Mark Perry had previously said apropos of Sham 69 — he is referring to a very restrictive, lumpen version of punk that excludes most of the early bands bar the Clash. (Even within the Clash, only Joe ‘Citizen Smith’ Strummer ever really subscribed to this view.) Many Blitz Kids felt that it was their scene — which was not only contemporaneous with Oi! but also its inverted mirror image — that captured the true spirit of the early movement. Each new wave of bands sought out this point of origin: punk prior to its negation by language, when it was still in the process of becoming. The moment when memory’s exile would come to an end and literally take place.

Finally, is punk really dead? And did modernity kill every night?

The original title we wanted was Modernity Killed Every Night, but the publisher probably found it a little obscure, so I suggested a series of alternatives. Eventually we settled on Punk is Dead, with the original as subtitle.

Punk is Dead works on several levels. It’s a reference to the early Crass song, which is fitting as Penny Rimbaud has contributed a piece to the book, and an oblique response to the Exploited’s ‘Punk’s Not Dead’ — which, of course, was a response to Crass in the first place. I remember Jordan, around 1980-81, pointing out that the ‘Punk’s Not Dead’ slogan was an admission of defeat. I believe this was in The Face magazine.

In fact, when punk was alive and kicking, no one used the word ‘punk’ apart from journalists who had to call it something. Using it was very uncool. In the book I argue that ‘punk died (or at least that something started dying or was lost) as soon as it ceased being a cult with no name — or with several possible names, which comes to the same thing’:

Punk — in its initial, pre-linguistic incarnation, when the blank in ‘Blank Generation’ had not yet been filled in by that ‘bloody word’ [Jonh Ingham] — was the potentiality of punk. It escaped definition, could never be pinned down, as it was constantly in the process of becoming. Punk was a movement towards itself, made up of people who disliked movements and kept pulling in opposite directions.

So the whole question of onomastics is an important one, in my view. It is related to the controversial issue of punk’s birth and death. Borges claimed that writers create their own precursors. In the same way, there is a punk spirit that people now recognise in individuals or movements that predates (and indeed postdates) punk. In this book, we wanted to highlight the socio-historical specificity of the British punk scene of the late 70s and early 80s. Punk’s influence is everywhere today, but for a whole variety of reasons it’s not the same thing as the real thing.

In 1974 Malcolm McLaren contemplated using ‘Modernity Killed Every Night’ as the name of his boutique. In the end he opted for SEX, but the slogan was sprayed on one of the walls inside the shop. It came from a letter Jacques Vaché sent to André Breton during the First World War:

Despite his bovine-sounding name, Vaché (1895-1919) was a dandified anglophile, who enjoyed walking the streets dressed as a loose woman or a Napoleonic soldier. Choosing to be an actor rather than a puppet, he subverted army life, by — as he put it — deserting within himself. There, in that Switzerland of the mind, he would pretend that his superiors were under his orders, or that he was fighting for the other side. It was gun in hand, sporting an English pilot’s uniform, and threatening to shoot at random, that Vaché interrupted the premiere of Guillaume Apollinaire’s The Breasts of Tirésias (1917) on account of its arty-farty production. Apollinaire had coined the word ‘surrealist’ to describe his play, but it was Vaché’s radical brand of criticism that embodied the true spirit of the forthcoming movement. A couple of years later, he died of an opium overdose, which may have been an accident, but is commonly regarded as a defiant parting shot to everyone and everything — the ultimate artistic statement. For André Breton — who befriended him during the war and always claimed that he was the true originator of Surrealism — Vaché was poetry incarnate. After listing his early literary influences — Rimbaud, Jarry, Apollinaire, Nouveau, Lautréamont — he added, ‘but it is Jacques Vaché to whom I owe the most.’ His stroke of genius, Breton maintained, was ‘to have produced nothing.’

 

Wicked Wordplay and Home Truths

This appeared in the Irish Times, 16 September 2017, p. 10:

Wicked Wordplay and Home Truths

Joanna Walsh is Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s sister. Not literally, of course, but in Worlds From the Word’s End — the story that lends its name to her new collection — she channels Hofmannsthal’s The Lord Chandos Letter (1902), giving it a fierce feminist twist. A woman comes to realise that she and her partner have always been “words apart”. Given that he is “only interested in the sound of [his] own voice” and prefers his “women quiet”, she makes a virtue of necessity by spearheading a mute mutiny that reverberates throughout society. Female hipsters — “seeking something retro as usual” — start modelling themselves on the “silent women in cardigans” of yore. The “new silence” goes mainstream. Newspapers become blank. Talk shows ditch the talk. Social media users post “photos of silent activities”. Signage is removed and libraries burned down as couples everywhere tire of “explaining things they’d already said to one another, exhausted by the process of excavating words with words”. In her struggle against mansplaining, Eve rolls back Adam’s enterprise of linguistic imperialism, returning all things to their (nameless) sui generis nature.

“I’m writing to you so you’ll understand why I can’t write to you any more” — this paradoxical mission statement delineates the liminal space Walsh explores, charting a middle course between inscription and erasure.

The Story of Our Nation lies at one end of the spectrum. With great fanfare, we are informed that the eponymous story will differ from all past chronicles, criticised for being “parallel but not the real thing”. “What was missing,” the character explains, “was bare fact.” The national epic she is working on will log everything, from “gaps between doors and doorsills” to the “light that arcs night ceilings through the slits between curtains”. It brings to mind the legend (found in Lewis Carroll and Borges) of a map on the exact same scale as the territory it charts. This gesamtkunstwerk should likewise coincide with its object: “once we input all the figures you will be able to see everything in a flash.” The snag is that it can only be achieved by freezing the nation in its current state, lest the quest become “uncompletable”. The “real thing” is turned into a dead thing.

This is also the case in Two, which revolves around a pair of statuettes petrified in their verisimilitude: “So poised to move, yet so immobile, so lifelike and at the same time something that only looks like life.” Their owner fears the fixity of writing as well as that of art; the death of the author, whereby a text escapes its progenitor: “I must be careful describing the seasons as they may also be mistaken for metaphor, and I would not like to lay down some kind of mood setting I didn’t at all mean”.

Everything else is in a state of flux, and it it is this indeterminacy Walsh’s fragmentary prose taps into. Domestic settings grow uncanny: in one case, everyday objects migrate around the house as a daily routine goes awry. The characters are almost all anonymous or identified by a letter à la Kafka (this is even turned into a deftly executed extended joke in Reading Habits). More often than not, their gender remains unspecified. Femme Maison is one of several stories told in the second person singular, where you is I and I is another: “You wanted to be someone else, someone neither of you knew”. Hauptbahnhof is a monologue in disguise, the narrator addressing herself to the absent man who stood her up at Berlin Central Station, where she now resides: “Sometimes a demonstrator [in a shop] makes me over to look like someone new.” The longed-for metamorphosis fails spectacularly to materialise in Simple Hans, where a woman’s head is cut off at her behest: “This is the moment the good things happen in stories, but this is real life. She was meant to change into something else.”

The author’s fourth collection is made up of skittish vignettes and longer, more surreal pieces. There is a great deal of wordplay, but it is never gratuitous. “I’m not aloud”, for instance, speaks volumes about the silencing of women. Puns burrow rabbit-holes into the unconscious of language, where the text seems to become self-generative.

In Bookselves, Walsh conjures up a creature who emerges from someone’s bookshelf, having devoured all their unread books: “It will be the opposite of you, your inverse.” Her prose orbits a black hole whose presence it reveals but cannot express. Postcards from Two Hotels ends on a characteristically ambiguous note: “Tomorrow I return to the first hotel. It is in the second hotel that I did all my writing.” Walsh’s style finds its perfect expression in the troubled housewife who, having cut but not pasted, realises that her words “hover in vacant space”.

A Zen Guide to Paris

This appeared in the New European, 27 July-2 August 2017, pp. 38-40:

A Zen Guide to Paris

It is a testament to the loving preservation of the French capital that a guidebook, published in 1968, should still be fit for purpose. The quaint period detail (snacks “for five or six bob”) must not distract us from the enduring brilliance of Nairn’s Paris, republished by Notting Hill Editions with an introduction by Andrew Hussey. The author’s descriptions — crystalline, lapidary — are still in a league of their own. Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin? “Simple really; just a straight street with something solid at either end and a firework in the middle”. La Trinité’s façade breaks out “into cupolas and groups of statuary on the least provocation”. From the side, Porte Saint-Martin really does resemble “a slice of highly vermiculated slab-cake”. The buttoned-up naughtiness of Pigalle is, perhaps more than ever, “like a matron of forty-five unhooking her corsets with a simper or two”. Conversely, Goujon’s nymphs, with their “[f]ull breasts and infolded thighs suggest devotion beyond the line of public sculpture”.

Ian Nairn was a celebrity during his short lifetime. He found instant fame, at the age of 25, by launching a high-profile campaign against the blandness of “Subtopia”. He soon became one the country’s foremost architectural critics, writing a string of essays and books, including his masterpiece, Nairn’s London (1966). He also produced several travel series for the BBC. Driven by his demons, he drove a Morris Minor convertible around the country, resulting in a very British take on the road trip format. He eventually drank himself to death in 1983, aged just 52.

One of the reasons why Nairn’s works were out of print for so long is — as writer Owen Hatherley pithily put it — that he was “too modernist for the preservationists, too much a preservationist for the modernists”. His travel writing is impressionistic, guided by his “uncommitted eyes”; energised by what moved him, what he “enjoyed”. Scourge of “gratuitous notice-boards”, he railed “at the way people try to put words all over the landscape”. Nairn’s Paris could thus be seen, in part, as an act of erasure. The city’s romance is arrived at adventitiously, like the serendipitous poetry of métro station names: “What administrator could invent a poetic conjunction as rich as Sèvres-Babylone?”

His guidebook is “an invitation not to argument but to discovery”. Yet, for all his vision of an uncharted Paris, cut adrift from cliché and dogma, some passages remain resolutely and endearingly English. Apropos of a department store, he writes: “An incautious step will put the male visitor in a landscape which looks as though it is panties as far as the eye can see. The same situation could occur, doubtless, in Selfridge’s or Barker’s, but it wouldn’t feel the same”.

Nairn’s relationship with the French capital began rather inauspiciously. On his first visit he suffered from a mild case of Paris syndrome — the (then undiagnosed) malady said to afflict some tourists when the City of Light fails to live up to their expectations. Of all the “world-famous attractions”, only the Palais Garnier, Louvre Colonnade and Eiffel Tower passed muster. He cleaves to this heretical view in the guidebook, describing Notre-Dame as “one of the most pessimistic buildings in the world”. Several entries — including such crowd-pleasers as the Sacré-Coeur — are cordoned off within sanitary square brackets, making it perfectly plain that these landmarks did not “appeal” to the author, although it would have been remiss of him not to cover them. Nairn’s Paris — for that, after all, is the title of the book — is a “collective masterpiece”, not “a place for individual wonders”. It may be glimpsed at in the interstitial spaces when “travelling from one piece of architecture to another”. Paris is what happens, unseen, in between the sights, unless you (like him) have the “ability to turn off the main road” in pursuit of a “topographical hunch”. Nairn cuts a rum figure of a Virgil, providing tourists with a supremely serviceable Baedeker while encouraging them to lose themselves in the city, like part-time Baudelairean flâneurs. Going off-piste, however, is easier said than done. In a passage reminiscent of Walter Benjamin, he describes an archway, on rue des Ecoles, “embroidered with posters, inches thick”. The name of French Communist Party leader Maurice Thorez — who had died four years earlier — “still peers through”, along with far older “Art Nouveau fragments”. Nairn muses, dreamily, that “something by Toulouse-Lautrec” may even have been preserved under all the layers.

Paris, in other words, is a palimpsest; its cityscape always already written. No wonder, then, that the travel writer should long for a blank slate, or, failing that, one that resists easy decipherment. Something akin to the restaurant menu boards he was so fond of, “written up daily in near-illegible purple ink”, or the “inscrutable lettering” adorning bus stops (designed, presumably, to delight and wrong-foot the unseasoned passenger in equal measure). His is not the Paris we will always have, but the one we never will; a city for ever in the process of becoming, like the “magnificent compositions” greengrocers conjure up out of fruit and veg: “a daily, renewable work of art, as valid,” Nairn argues, “as any of the creations that come out of art schools”.

Defamiliarising Paris — rendering it “near-illegible” — is no mean feat, given the “unthinking respects” successive generations have paid to the city’s “acknowledged sights”. The author recognises, with heavy heart, that Place Vendôme’s reputation is “impregnable”, however much scorn he may pour on the “swishest part” of this “swish city”. Instead, he limns the liminal; points visitors towards less canonical climes, wondering, for instance, why Ménilmontant’s “genuine poetry” remains largely unsung, compared with “over-praised and grossly over-painted” Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

More radically, Nairn goes in search of Paris’s genius loci, which, owing to the city’s “homogenous” and “monolithic” nature, is not rooted in any specific locale. “Specific buildings and specific views” are the “least part” of l’Île-Saint-Louis, he declares, “as they are of Paris as a whole”. Promoting the joys of the river Seine, he reaffirms this notion of a moveable feast: “The actual place is unimportant: there will always be a view of something. What counts is water, the gleaming stone kerbs, the angle of a tree, the look of someone else’s upturned feet, their view of your own, the perspective of buildings on the other side”. Likewise, the author’s elegant black-and-white photographs tend to focus on the aura of a site in lieu of the site itself. The Jardin des Tuileries, for instance, is adumbrated by a couple of empty chairs facing each other, like a Ionesco play on a budget.

Nairn has a penchant for undistinguished locations, where “there is almost nothing to look at in the usual sense”; where space spaces out and place can take place. In an entry not included in the present edition, he praises Quevauvillers’ features, “all lying around waiting for nothing to happen”. Nothing happened with a vengeance, when he and his wife, high on hiatus, spent a “very wet day” near a suburban station “not going to the Air Museum”: “In London it would have been a misery; in Paris it became The Day the Rain Came, luminous and isolated”. Numinous too. There is a Zen-like quality to these mini epiphanies — these lulls in the topographer’s relentless perambulations — which signals a fleeting sense of arrival: “the moment you give up and relax, the city will accept you. All you have to do is put your arse on a café seat, park bench, or low wall, and look”.

Transmuting the infra-ordinary into the extraordinary is Paris’s party trick, hence the “magic-city” sobriquet. It is “a memorable experience,” Nairn enthuses, “to have banality transform itself into ideal as you sit and look, hear, smell, and taste — the whole city is urging you to greater depth of feeling, the opposite effect of a Birmingham”. The humdrum is magicked, by dint of “atmosphere”, into the everyday sublime, a transformative experience that leaves visitors feeling “more alive”: “You and the city, together, have built an event which is neither personal nor impersonal”. Once tuned into, Paris achieves a flow state, where everything is “plugged in” while remaining a “vehicle for the expression of millions of disparate desires”. This version of the French capital is resolutely “on the side of life” unlike many of the fusty, musty national monuments — “desexed” and “stone-cold dead” — which Nairn inveighs against. It provides “pure urban freedom”; a framework within which “life can take what shape it likes”, allowing “full space for your private world”. It is perhaps best exemplified by the Tuileries, where I am writing this, sipping a cheeky rosé: “These are enchanted groves for world-citizens, where each gesture has its own weight and space: absolute, unimpeded by any outside influence: assessed by its own nature and no other — whether it is a kiss or a system of philosophy. (…) Not bad for a thick copse and some gravel; but that’s Paris”. I think we can all drink to that.

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