London (and everywhere else)

Owen HatherleyRed Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London (Repeater, 2020)

Red Metropolis, the most recent book by the admirably prodigious and prolific writer Owen Hatherley, makes the case that, for all its wealth and concentration of power, London has often been left wing. Telling the story of London’s local government administrations, he focuses on two experiments in radical municipal socialism: the London County Council (LCC) under Herbert Morrison in the 1930s, and the Greater London Council (GLC) under Ken Livingstone in the 1980s.

In spite of looking back at past actions and political figures such as these, it’s a book that is, at its core, rooted in the present moment. Red Metropolis began life during the first nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, a time when Hatherley was shielding due to his health and was, like millions across the country, confined to home for months on end. This was a period that was both terrifying and yet, for many, strangely optimistic: the reactions of Britain’s ruling class, from assuming responsibility for housing the homeless on a large scale, to introducing income support, to the nationalisation of transport, to the imposition of wide-ranging curtailments to personal freedom, were improbably remote from the usual policies of the Conservative Party. For a brief moment, it seemed there was an opportunity to imagine an alternative future, and that after lockdown business might not go back to normal. 

Originally conceived of as an essay for New Left Review, and subsequently expanded to book-length, Red Metropolis reads like a piece of journalistic reportage or a long-form opinion piece – and above all as a document and record of London at a particular moment in time – as much as a work of historical research or academic scholarship.

While at times I felt the book is a little lacking in depth and analysis (and some sections, dare I say it, would benefit from the input of a good editor), the book is propelled by Hatherley’s own personal politics and activism, as a member of London’s Labour left. It draws in particular on his experiences in the run up to the 2019 general election, in which the Conservatives (outside London) gained an unexpectedly large majority.

The 2019 election thus sets up one of the central themes of the book: the gulf between London and the rest of Britain, politically and economically, as a capital city which possesses power out of all proportion with the rest of the country it governs. 

This power, Hatherley argues, has historically emanated from three centres. Two of these are long-recognised: the seat of government at Westminster, and the economic powerhouse of the City of London. To these, Hatherley adds a third site, symbolising welfare state socialism: the Southbank complex, conceived in the post-war context as a new cultural centre for London.

As you would expect from a writer who made his name writing popular and accessible, yet critical, books about architecture, the book makes much of the built manifestations of welfare state socialism that characterised twentieth century London, beginning with the large-scale council housing programmes of the LCC, and other amenities such as schools and transport. While this is an important part of the story of London, and integral to understanding its physical environment and infrastructure, there has been considerable scholarship on and media interest in this area in recent years, and it feels like Hatherley has little new to add here; Red Metropolis readily acknowledges the work done by other writers, from John Boughton (Municipal Dreams) to Anna Minton, and reads as a companion piece to their writing. What’s more illuminating is the way in which he links the political convictions and needs of those of those in power to changing attitudes towards housing over time: from the demolition of existing housing stock and replacement by large-scale council housing schemes, to the displacement of the working-classes to New Towns beyond the London boundaries, to the retrofit of existing (often Georgian) houses, to the emergence of co-operative housing developments, such as the high-security Coin Street development in central London, to the introduction of so-called ‘affordable’ housing in private developments via Section 106 more recently.

It’s understandable that housing takes up such a large part of the book: access to affordable, decent homes continues to be one of the biggest issues for people living in London, and there’s little that exemplifies London’s social, political and economic inequalities better than the Grenfell Tower disaster. However, while the book makes some attempt at discussing other aspects of life in the capital, such as transport, migration to the city (both from within the UK and abroad) and cultural provision, and adds a little on education and the media, I’d have liked the role of the labour market, and changing experiences of work and employment, to have been foregrounded too. The availability of jobs (and earning potential) is, after all, one of the major differentials between London and the rest of the country, and one of the key magnets pulling both businesses and labour into the capital and away from the regions.

One of the most interesting elements of the book is the fundamental difficulty of defining ‘London’ as an entity, due to the way in which the city has grown over time, swallowing up sometimes far-flung towns, villages and suburbs in neighbouring Essex, Kent and Surrey (and in one case – Middlesex – even an entire county). Hatherley lays bare the political decisions which have influenced which areas are included within its boundaries, and those towns that are excluded from its metropolitan area, as well as the factors influencing cycles of population and depopulation. 

At times I was a little unclear on who the intended audience for Red Metropolis is. As Hatherley points out, London is a young city, and I felt that it was a generation of young, idealistic and already politically engaged readers and activists to whom he is appealing (born in 1982, Hatherley is at the upper end of the millennial generation and, to prove it, drops in the word ‘bougie’ – possibly the first time I’ve ever seen it used in print). This is a generation, observes Hatherley, who never fully experienced the welfare state before its erosion by four decades of neoliberalism. Its appeal, for those too young to remember the GLC, let alone the LCC, he suggests, lays in the fact they never had the opportunity to grow bored of it.

An interesting tension in Red Metropolis, therefore, is between the sometimes bureaucratic and top-down social democratic state of the interwar and immediate post-war periods, and the New Left which replaced it, and which is characterised by Hatherley as representing a more local, grassroots and co-operatively/communal-minded version of the left.

Ultimately, Red Metropolis made me want to go away and read more (particularly about shifts in local and regional government and metropolitan boundaries since the 1980s) – and to spend more time exploring London once travel becomes possible again. I’m also keen to see what comes next. Will the move to home-working catalysed by the pandemic prompt a shift of business away from London? Will Londoners once again leave en masse for more affordable and spacious homes outside the capital, if the necessity for long commutes is reduced? Will London lose its world status in the light of Brexit? Red Metropolis is a record of London in 2020, and how we got to this point politically. To his credit Hatherley ends with some suggestions for the future (chief among them calling an end to London’s rapacious expansion into a megacity, and rebalancing power away from London to give other areas of the country more autonomy). I’m looking forward to reading his take on the state of the city in a decade, five years’ time, or even a year from now.

Natalie Bradbury

Explorations in The Lost City of Meaning

AJ Lees – The Brazil That Never Was (Notting Hill Editions)

Percy Fawcett was a British Geographer, explorer and inspiration for Indiana Jones. Andrew Lees is a Neurology Professor who was fascinated by books about Fawcett when young. The Brazil That Never Was wraps these two things up in a narrative which is immediately engaging and stealthily ambitious. That’s the easy bit.

Lees’ book appears to operate on four main levels:

1. the present, the shorter timespan of the writer writing the book; 2. The longer lifespan of the author and his family history, and; 3. The sprawling, scattered remnants of the myths of Percy Fawcett. This part happens to take in 20th century modernity and the emergence of science out of belief.

Much of the time we travel with the author in the present, albeit down the river of his past, as we inch forwards, and then we drift, into an incommensurable ocean and out of sense, via the hunt for Fawcett’s Brazil.

This fourth level, I think, explores language and meaning. There is also an implied foray into the structure of myth, particularly, I think, the Grail quest. What it meant to Fawcett to search for the Lost City of Z runs parallel to what it means for Lees to search for Fawcett and to write this book.

Sections of The Brazil That Never Was try to describe the edges of experience, the edges of language, the edges of sense. Lees did not invent Fawcett’s search for the Lost City of Z, but in the book the last letter of the alphabet becomes the last stage before we step out of meaning, into an empty space where there are no more letters.

M becomes a cipher for a strange female spirit inhabiting Fawcett’s son Brian. At other times she is codenamed XY. The middle of the alphabet and its extremes appear to refer to the middle of meaning – the comfort zone – and its edgelands. Both those phenomenological places are constantly being shuttled between in this book.

Stylistically, the book seems to owe something to Patrick Keiller and his Robinson trilogy. I sense it in the deadpan delivery of certain sections, and the way fact and fiction is being played with. We’re never quite sure whether we’re being given a real bit of the Fawcett myth, or an invented bit. The point Lees is probably making is that it in the end it doesn’t really matter. Lees is also exploring what meaning is, what kind of stuff it is, and how that breaks down and decays.

The early films of Peter Greenaway are in here somewhere, particularly the characters Gang Lion and Tulse Luper, although the distanciated, pure postmodernism of those films has crumbled. Those films showed us reality as facade. Here, those facades are seen again as a broken, old reality.

There is of course a lineage here, Iain Sinclair, Alan Moore and W.G. Sebald.

But Lees does what so many writers coming after Iain Sinclair don’t, which is to write with clarity and still create something huge and imaginative. I see so many books which seem to think that literary fog must be pumped in before the work can start. Lees proves the opposite. That he does so in such a short space is skill indeed. And the writing is often exquisite.

Lees’ book manages to encompass the narrative of the 20th and early 21st century west, to entwine a personal and very impersonal set of stories. In short, to do something ambitous and in places quite emotional at the same time.

Leeds, Saint Helens and Liverpool in the 1950s and 60s are rendered beautifully. The step-off point of Liverpool seems particularly apt. Lees describes its psychedelic incarnation of the late 60s and then we are in Brazil. The line between the exotic and the mundane is rubbed out. Again, the making fuzzy of the sensible and what lies outside its ken, the ‘normal’ and not, the sacred and profane, seem to be a concern.

For a long time we are with Fawcett, plus the cast of early natural scientists, Alfred Russell Wallace and the period of great exploration which yielded Darwinism. This is a big part of the story, but Lees seems equally interested in the otherside to the science and rationalism narrative. The further you go into the science, the more it looks like a strange belief system – this is stated quite plainly at one point:

‘For the Victorians and Edwardians, Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution meant that blind Christian faith was no longer acceptable, but its demise had created a spiritual void that could not be filled by capialist greed or rational thought. Modernity was bedevilled by the loss of the sacrosanct; the music of religion had been stifled by the adoration of reason and yet, ironically, at the same time, science had made the paranormal and the occult more credible.’

But this is proper Darwinism because it lacks logical sense. Ultimately, humanism as an overarching or underpinning concept is being eroded by Lees. It’s a posthuman, philosophical tract dressed as a very creative novel, finally covered with the scuffed dust jacket of a rip-roaring adventure novel from the 1920s. How brilliant.

Everything falls apart towards the end. The search for Fawcett is nothing more or less than a search for meaning, just like the old Grail Quest, under which lies libido and the other drives. But seen outside of a narrow human context it’s a waste of time, nothing is left but tales of weird psychic phenomena and occultism.

A note at the end of the book, a speculation on the location of the ruins of Camelot under St Helens, makes me remember the ruins of the Roman Amphitheatre at Caerleon. Until Victorian excavation it was thought to be the site of Arthur’s round table. Knights debating, fairness, chivalry. Turns out it was for bear-baiting and combat to the death.

Arthur Machen – who appears in Lees’ book – wrote fiction up in Caerleon based on the Roman ruin, and that fiction was later hoovered up by HP Lovecraft. Machen’s Great God Pan is based in part on a Roman prayer statue at Caerleon. It was probably dedicated to Nemesis or one of the other gods called on for good fortune when backing a winner at the amphitheatre.

It is likely that the statue Machen saw originally stood in an alcove in the amphitheatre to allow gambling sports fans to make an offering. If this is the case, then H.P. Lovecraft partly based the Cthulhu myth on Machen’s Pan. This means – if we follow the curve of influence on its oxbow mythological course – that Cthulhu is a kind of good luck keyring for blokes out for a flutter. Not so scared now eh?

Lovecraft’s Cthulhu might be based on a fetish for ordinary Romans betting on some savage entertainment. You can track things back a long way, but at a certain point they always disappear into non-sense. The Grail Quest was always the search for meaning, and this book is definitely about that.

In fact long sections of the book work through precisely the kind of interrogation I have just given you. The place where myth and fiction break into speculation, half-truth, rumour, and often the resulting tangle is quite absurd.

Early on we see Lees tracking Fawcett down through literature, in paperbacks, in libraries. Rider Haggard’s ‘lost world’ genre was horribly colonial, but actually there is a sense here of how that past produced the horrors of 2020. If Fawcett is Indiana Jones, this book provides fuel for the bonfire under that swollen Hollywood quotation.

Lees’ life moves from the Pennines to Saint Helens to Liverpool to Leeds. Online life is another cliff edge. It is rendered as large as the geographicl moves. Lees immerses himself in Fawcett via the internet. Fawcettology gets more and more bloated here, not clearer.

As Lees hits the internet, the Fawcett material takes him pretty close to the Nazi fetish for the occult, the secret white brotherhood, Blavatsky, theosophical societies, it’s dodgy stuff.

What’s interesting about Indiana Jones is that he is a scientist and myth-sceptic, you will note that Fawcett, the model for Jones, according to many accounts, was basically an occultist. Alan Moore wrote of entering the Ripper myths, Ripperology, and finding an endless labyrinth, so does Lees:

‘I was beginning to regret hunting down my dreams’ he states, ‘Fawcett was now nothing more than a figure for what had gone missing.’ Conrad, then, is at the core of this work. As is Borges. The book calls on these core modernist literatures at the same time as it avoids being a pomo ‘take’, it is far too strange, and its implied conclusions about humans and meaning are much bigger than that.

Lees eventually goes to the Amazon himself, but it’s all ruin, 21st-century pollution, decay and chaos. Still, he appears to have some sort of epiphany and returns talking about how he had been at the very edge of things. He refers to ‘journeys to the end of the night’, and of course Céline was a doctor too.

There are all kinds of references to pick up on here, for those who like doing so (and I do). For instance, I wonder if the chapter title of ‘Militant Geography’ refers to Geography Militant by Felix Driver (I happen to own Doreen Massey’s old copy of that). It is certainly relevant. You can philosophise in this book very well, but it plays as a great novel too. There are passages to linger in, like a hot bath, in order to think about all of our lives. This is first rate literary fiction which often achieves the status of poetry:

‘The half-tone town with its over-shuffled memories was bathed in golden particles. The people drifting through those plain streets were blurred with uncertain voices. There was something in the air and, for a few moments, I became a better Andrew Lees, a no-nonsense libertine who lived for the weekend, appreciated the importance of humour and loved the sound of breaking glass. The sweet sadness of that wonderful afternoon was forcing me to go in search of a part of myself that lingered in the fragments of another life.’

Another Notting Hill Edition in cloth bound hardback for very good reason. I hope this book is around for a very long time, it deserves to be.

Steve Hanson

All Killer, No Filler

Ian Seed, The Underground Cabaret (Shearsman, 2020)

What do you call a short story with a perfect structure? Answer: a prose poem.

At least, that’s what Ian Seed’s latest collection suggests. The fourth and final instalment in a series that began with 2014’s Makers of Empty Dreams and continued with Identity Papers (2016) and New York Hotel (2018).

The Underground Cabaret takes our unfortunate and hapless protagonist to Italy. Here, in the land of Fellini, he is persecuted by small children, fails to enchant a host of women, and is consistently misunderstood and ignored.

Every opportunity slips by him. Every scene provides new potential for embarrassment.

Could there be a more perfect protagonist than this? Relatable one moment, pathetic the next; but always persistent, always optimistic. Never beaten.

The book contains ninety-six moments in the life of our protagonist. Each is detached from the others, containing only a continuity of character and tone. Our hero has a long-suffering wife, who is sometimes present, sometimes not. He is often in Italy but, occasionally, will crop up in Paris or London.

There is a dream logic to many of the stories. He goes to answer the door and finds a beautiful, highly-esteemed society woman there. Suddenly he remembers that his flat is a pigsty. Now he has to keep her from getting in.

He takes the poet Jeremy Over to Shakespeare & Co in Paris. He shows him around the famous bookshop, describing it in detail. Suddenly, he remembers with horror; Jeremy Over already knows the shop and has read there before. Then he realises that he too has read there, and it went horribly, and that, really, the shop ought to be a source of embarrassment to him as it reminds him of that fateful night.

In both of these cases it’s the sudden “remembering” of things that appears dreamlike. Seed perfectly captures that uncanny capacity of dreams to ret-con scenes while you are living them, changing key details as you go.

He incorporates other dream elements too; the urgent need to get somewhere, strangers who act like old friends, the irrational fear of benign things.

And yet the overall effect is not one of a dream diary. The incidents are grounded and the characters are material, embodied. We are certain that this is happening in the real world.

As a collection, The Underground Cabaret is more precise, more tightly structured than even its predecessors (which were themselves masterpieces of concision). It is compellingly readable, funny and at times filled with an eerie menace; all of which should appeal to the general reader.

If there were any justice, it would be a bestseller.

Joe Darlington

Well Hard and Hardly Well

Paul Dobraszczyk and Sarah Butler (eds), Manchester: Something Rich and Strange (Manchester University Press, 2020)

Okay, you know the story. Industrial revolution, workshop of the world, post-industrial decline, Madchester, The Smiths and football.

This book has some of that. There’s no escaping it; it’s true after all. But it also offers something different. Manchester: Something Rich and Strange is simultaneously one of those books you’d find on Waterstones’ local history table and the inversion of that.

As book of local history it makes a fascinating read. A collection of sixty short essays by twenty-three writers, brought together under the masterful curatorship of Paul Dobraszczyk and Sarah Butler. Every nook and cranny of Manchester is explored.

High points include Martin Dodge’s history of the Arndale Centre; the carbuncle that manages to be both terribly squalid and somehow endearing at the same time. He covers everything from its name (the “Arn” from Arnold Hagenbach and the “Dale” from Sam Chippindale; its two co-founders), to its infamous public-toilet style cladding to, of course, the IRA bomb of 1996.

Further from the beaten track, Tim Edensor’s piece “Stone” explores the little-appreciated material geography of the city. Manchester’s buildings are made from stone from many different quarries, not like Edinburgh or York with their matching colour-schemes. The varieties of stone make the city’s walls a “kaleidoscope of colours”, as Edensor puts it. Something I’ve honestly never noticed.

Natalie Bradbury’s potted history of printing describes the former importance of Manchester’s Printworks in the production of the nation’s newspapers. The medieval origins of Cheetham’s, the Cathedral and the Shambles are unpacked by Clare Hartwell; a fascinating view into both the pre-industrial city and the heritage concerns of the post-industrial one.

The book is a collaborative effort and there are many recognisable names here. MRB co-editor Steve Hanson offers both insights and warnings; reminding us that Manchester is a city of facades, where what we’re meant to be seeing is often more important than what we actually see.

Legendary Mancunian walkers Morag Rose and Nick Dunn offer us views of the city that are anything but pedestrian. Dunn, author of Dark Matters, a book about walking at night, explores the city’s nightlife, its shadows and its hidden corners. Rose, founder of the Loiterer’s Resistance Movement, shows us its blockages, its inaccessibilities, and hints at the rotting things lying beneath its waters.

And then there’s the pictures. They are beautifully shot, if occasionally depressing in their choice of subject matter. The images alone have the makings of a great coffee table book, albeit a disconcerting one.

It was somewhere towards the end of the book where I found myself feeling a little bleak. No individual writer produced this effect. It was the overall result of many writers writing about buildings, places, and history, all from external angles, often out on walks alone, or staring through a camera. Perhaps it’s just the way these things are done, but it felt like a lonely book; a book for outsiders.

Thankfully, we have contributions from Qaisra Shahraz and Peter Kalu at the end which lift the collective spirits.

It’s only at the end, in a section called “Home”, that the speakers finally move indoors. Tight-knit communities, whether in the Mosque or the laundrette, are rare in Manchester these days, and its only in these places where we seem to find a little hope for the city, a little shelter.

This is a hard city after all, made of hard surfaces and populated by hard people.

Something Rich and Strange is an extremely valuable addition to the panoply of books already out there with the title Manchester. It is a book like the city; bold, brash, and gobby, moving from morbid self-pity to delirious triumph in mere moments. A guided tour where they pull up the floorboards and let you see what lies beneath.

Joe Darlington

Plath in Paris

Dave Haslam, My Second Home (Confingo, 2020)

Who exactly is Sylvia Plath? She’s a writer I’ve always veered away from, but I’m not sure why.

Her poems are captivating. Brutal, jagged, and modernist without being dry. Her novel, The Bell Jar, sparkles with a fragility matched only by Jean Rhys, or Salinger on his good days.

And yet, to me, she’s always felt like someone else’s property. I have always the sneaking suspicion that somebody, somewhere, is sharpening a knife in her defence. A knife freshly blunted, perhaps, against the much-carved stone of her grave.

In choosing Plath as his subject, Dave Haslam is walking on hallowed ground. And yet, in his new book, My Second Home, he engages with the life of this cult icon with a touch as light as it is masterful.

A convincing portrait is drawn of Plath and her life, but no claim is made to have “captured” her; surely the objective of most biographical writing.

Instead, we are promised a book about Plath’s relationship with Paris. A city that filled her with elation, but also fear and sadness. She was in love with an image of Paris, its surfaces, its shining lights. She knew of its dark corners too, but she chose to ignore them or, more rightly, repress them.

By holding these Parisian moments to the light, Haslam reflects facets of Plath’s wider life. We hear of her early years, the suicide attempts, the search for a dangerous love that culminates in her marriage with Ted Hughes.

All of it comes through quickly, concisely and very naturally as part of Haslam’s Parisian story.

What comes through most clearly is Haslam’s enthusiasm for the young writer. He captures her personality without judgement, showing her as both a moon-eyed, bubble gum chewing American tourist and the girl capable of reaching unprecedented psychological insights in her writing.

It is because of her very ordinariness, her naivety, that she could write like that. The writers that surround her, serious men and women in plaid, come across as pompous old dinosaurs by comparison.

My Second Home is part of Haslam’s Art Decades series. Pocket editions put out by Manchester-based small press Confingo. This book is, in this writer’s opinion, the best one yet, and a good initiation into this highly collectible little series.

Joe Darlington

Home, it’s where I want to be

Nell Osborne – On Dog Perverts (independent)

Questions concerning the idea of home have been much on my mind lately. Yesterday, for example, I spent a lot of time listening to a track by a New York duo Black Marble, now relocated to LA I believe, called In Manchester. The song is a beautiful, dreamy hymn to the city where I live delivered by musicians who live somewhere quite unlike Manchester (check the song out, it’s great, there’s a tip for you). For the duration of my listening it felt like I was inhabiting their fantasy of what Manchester is like, a fantasy that I feel my actual lived experience of the city, however, somewhat disproves: Manchester just isn’t a beautiful, dreamy place. 

Sure, the song was a lovely place to be for as long as I was in it but then I started wondering how their ideas about Manchester, and the ideas of people like them, have shaped my own and to what extent the idea of home I have when I think of Manchester is my own idea or a composite I’ve spent my life, up to this point, constructing. Added to all this there’s the fact that me and my partner are currently in the middle of moving home ourselves, well, we’re either in the middle of or coming towards the end of this incredibly protracted process, it’s hard to tell where exactly we are at times, all sense of linear progression towards the fixed end of a new place to live having been lost some months back. 

So with all this in mind when I picked up Nell Osborne’s new pamphlet On Dog Perverts and read the opening piece reflecting upon repeated watches of the film Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey and some of the associated meanings of ‘coming home’ I think this pamphlet has reached me at exactly the right time, and then moments later, or maybe all this is going to prove just too close to home, and, yes, I do realise I used the word ‘home’ there . . . 

One of the things Osborne’s work seems to me to be doing is unpicking the idea, and ideas, of ‘home’, and the impacts upon us of those differing ideas. ‘Home’, in this work, is not about images of tired dogs dosing contentedly on hearths in front of roaring log-burners, no, this is more concerned with the social-property relations which lie behind the formation and circulation of such stereotypical images. Early on in the text we find: “When we are talking about the historic alliances between property ownership, marriage, romance, patriotism (and their monopoly upon ideas of protection, safety, security and shelter), we are always already talking about the strength of our investment in a certain orientation: to be homeward bound”. 

Which isn’t to give the impression that this pamphlet is a dry work of theory as it’s anything but, really . . . the sense of a singular vision of the world comes through strongly in a lot of the pieces here. One such being the section from which the pamphlet derives its title, I should say the first of the sections from which the pamphlet derives its title, the consideration of the hitherto unknown to me phenomenon of ‘dog perverts’ where we learn that the protagonist’s “collection of unauthorised dog photos saved as screensavers at work has not gone unnoticed by management”. 

The content of On Dog Perverts is made up, mainly of prose pieces, with a single poem coming towards the end. The prose pieces themselves varying from autobiographical, to explicitly political commentary, to film writing, each imbued with that already remarked upon singular vision of the world, so in other words, then, it’s hybrid literature that we’re dealing with here . . . Accordingly, the pamphlet seems to sidestep classification to a certain extent, it being impossible to nail down exactly what it is, that elusiveness being experienced, by me at least, as an important, exhilarating and very much political part of the work and all adding up to making the work very much my cup of tea indeed. It’s forebears in form being writers I’ve loved for ages such as Maggie Nelson and Chris Kraus.

And one of the most disarming movements of the book comes when it’s at its most directly historical-political in the section that begins “The CIAs behavioural science laboratory identified total nudity, sexual humiliation, and dogs as key strategies for the political exploitation of Arab cultural sensitivities” and we’re plunged back into the horror Abu Ghraib and the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers. It’s a section which shocks because of it’s unexpectedness within the work and succeeds in pulling this period of history right back to the forefront of the reader’s consciousness, its reterritorialisation, here, forcing you to consider those horrors with fresh eyes. 

This section of the work stands out and, as such, could perhaps be considered a pivot or centre of the text, though for some reason that i can’t quite put my finger on at the same time that this section does feel like a centre there are other things going on in these pages denying that, resisting that sense of a centre. The ultimate effect being that there’s a strange, simultaneous pushing to and pulling away from the Abu Ghraib section which is, perhaps, nothing more than just an echo of how the mind and body themselves work: we want to know about things, we want to be aware and to keep them in mind but at some point we reach the limits of what we can handle and the mind and body shut down, begin to pull away . . .  

To return to that notion of a singular vision evident in these lines however, there are times in this pamphlet when Osborne’s love for dogs seems somewhat hard to distinguish from an almost Kafka-esque fear (and yes I do realise I used the word “Kafka-esque” there . . . ) that the author might have metamorphosed into a dog themselves with visions of bra’s as collars and homes as kennels. And at other times that fear becomes hard to distinguish from a kind of willing of this metamorphosis. All of which just goes to underline how wonderfully slippery and hard to get a grasp of this short pamphlet is.  

Finally, reading On Dog Perverts again, this morning, and mulling on its picking apart of the concept of ‘home’, I was led back to Lukacs’ idea of Transcendental Homelessness which Lukacs thought was characteristic of modern literature: the unmoored subject, separated from any fixed attachment to the eternal to call home, roaming free and isolated through a universe full of other similarly unattached subjects . . . The final lines of this work of Osborne’s, I feel, situate it squarely in that modern tendency identified by Lukacs: “Imagine longing for kennel, everywhere. So s/ tupid”.  It’s in all that precedes those final lines, however, that we can find reasons to hope – if we’re so inclined to look – in the face of this sense of Homelessness.

Richard Barrett

The Shifting City

Isabelle Kenyon (Ed.), Mancunian Ways (Fly On the Wall Press, 2020)

Maureen Ward and Richard Barrett (Eds.), Shock City, Issue 1, Autumn 2020

Now is a fascinating time as any to reflect on the status of the city one inhabits. Over recent months we have seen the streets transform from post-apocalyptic hinterlands to slowly regenerating hubs, whilst mass inequality is exposed.

Both poetry anthology Mancunian Ways and zine Shock City consider Manchester as it is at present, trawling through the annals of history and chronicling its contemporary landscape, either through celebratory lyrics or scathing essays. 

Shock City is a new zine with a ‘critical eye on Manchester’. The editorial note roots this issue – “Fauxthenticity” – in Guy Debord’s theory of the bête noire; the demonic commodity. EP Niblock’s opening article “The Art of Cynical Placemaking in an Age of Fauxthenticity” takes aim at the inauthentic construction of a city through corporate placemaking. He attacks the constant presence of cranes building “hip new neighbourhoods”, and the HS2 connecting London and Manchester.

Many poems in the Mancunian Ways anthology present Manchester as the second-city to London, a site to flee from to “pursue big dreams in the big smoke” as Abbie Day puts it in her homesick ode “Long Distance”.

But there is a collective awareness of Manchester’s assumption into a homogenised metropolis. Particularly in “Ascension” by Joseph Darlington, with its modernist fixation on the metallic industry of urbanisation, the “shimmering steel ” that “shatter[s] open the sky”.

This “new Manchester” is gazed upon in Sarah Pritchard’s “City of Cranes” with an ecological leaning. The anthropomorphised cranes which litter the skyline usurp the position of nature; “Red-eyed in the night sky, keeping watch over the city.”

A common enemy is shared between Niblock and Tina Tamsho-Thomas. Her poem “Before The Dual Carriage Way” records elegiacally urban division and the suffering of black-owned businesses caused by city planning. His article, along with others in Shock City, carries the same scepticism present in many poems harking back to the pre-modernised city.

It is unsurprising how diverse and inclusive Mancunian Ways is, yet thrilling reading about so many identities forged and fostered in Manchester nightlife.

“FAC-51” by Billy Morrissey relates an mythologised time in the heyday of Madchester. “The Ritz” by Vicky Morris and “Before The Village” by Sarah Pritchard, by contrast, offer us a glimpse into a more transgressive side of nightlife.

For Morris, it’s 1991, with “soap-spiked Mohicans” and crust punks. Whereas Pritchard’s remembers the LGBT+ scene before the Gay Village existed.

Much of the same themes are explored by Morag Rose in her essay “UnManchester: A Warning to Soul Seekers” in Shock City. She argues against a “One True Manchester” as so many sub-cultures and identities make up this “complicated, complex, fucked up and wonderful” city. Rose’s outrage at the inaccessibility of the Peterloo memorial for disabled people reminds us that Manchester is a city of trauma.

A more familiar terror, recalled by Jan Berry in her poem “My Tribe”, is of the Manchester Arena bombing at an Ariana Grande concert; the “Young star whose music / enchanted children and teens”. After this event the bee symbol came to represent “waves of grief”; consolidating resilient collectivism which has defined the city since the Industrial Revolution.

On the whole, these writings on Manchester record dismay regarding foreign investments flooding into its urban core and the new scourge of luxury apartments. The general feeling is that this modification threatens some “authentic” nature of the city, whatever that may be; just read Shock City to delve into this discourse.

Whether “authenticity” exists in the diversity of the city’s inhabitants, in its peculiar history or its resilient places and spaces, there is a sense of its realness and the imminent threat to it, witnessed in the red-eyed skyline, and hiding behind omniscient glass-plated monoliths.

Tom Branfoot

Serendipity and Wisdom

Eileen Myles – ‘For Now’, Why I Write (Yale, 2020)

At one point Eileen Myles talks about horses shitting, ‘there’s so much shit and so much horse’, she says. It both is and isn’t about the whole world, this line, which is a good way of describing exactly what has always been great about Eileen Myles’ work.

Life details bouff out like smoke, into much bigger forms. At the start of the book, her building in New York is bought. The new owner wants to hand deliver the new leases. The landlady comes round and offers her $75,000 to leave her rent-controlled apartment. The landlady knows, somehow, that Myles stays for some of the time in Texas.

Later, it becomes clear they have been watching her, using surveillance, to see how she moves. They try to prove she is living in Texas, when she goes all over the world. It goes to court and in the meantime there’s a rule change. It gets dropped. The judge asks why the landlady continued pursuing, after the rule changed. She has relatives, is the answer, who need apartments.

So much shit and so much horse.

Myles describes rent-stabilised apartments as ‘a trust fund for the working classes’. These places and the legal oases they are in are the political conditions of what created her. In Manchester right now I can only describe – the odd herioc housing co-op apart – their absolute lack.

Here, TV programmes still try to explain Manchester’s building frenzy as ‘cool’ and in some ill-defined way related to creativity (and often New York) at the same time as the city’s radicalism is only that of the right.

Myles describes her landlady as ‘a gift’ and I can hear Allen Ginsberg from beyond the grave here. He appears at other times in the book more fully. The buddhist serendipity. The love of your enemy. The realisation of the moment of catastrophe as a moment of illumination. The fee for the lawyer to deal with the landlady and the court case is the same as the fee for the talk which this book is based on (it began as a Windham-Campbell lecture).

Having nearly died because of negligent landlords and estate agents, agnostic is the absolute best I can do here and let’s not talk about the worst.

But Myles’ acceptance is something to aspire to, and I understand exactly when she talks about writing and time.

The title ‘For Now’ is about the present and being temporary in the world. ‘For now’ she is here, for now. As we all are. But how do we live in the now and not in the past, or in a constantly collapsing present which is always raided by anxious, angry ghosts from the future?

It is also about seeing, then. She talks of copying, and art schools. God. If god is anywhere, it is in the copy. But after finishing the book I conclude that if god is anywhere it is in time. Time is a lens, for Myles.

Myles talks about the ‘alibi’. She feels to be getting one late in life – an alibi – selling her archives, taking up esteemed positions. But she also talks about having fewer concrete plans as you move out of childhood. This is the bravery of the writer. It coincides almost exactly with that of the beat or the punk. Driving the other way with no aim, past the traffic jam to the offices in the centre of town. Past all the angry stares and new cars on tick.

It’s a bad metaphor I know, many of us would not be around to see the commute.

Literature is ‘wasted time’ she says, ‘there’s nothing good about it’, it isn’t a moral project. At the same time she is not denying literature its potential good, far from it. This kind of experience, a long way into the game, is what I value now. The out-of-breath pronouncements about engaging every marginalised and oppressed group are not here. Eileen Myles never did that, to be clear, but right now lots of people are doing it all the time.

There’s a dead-on honesty about Myles’ work. There was in 1969 (and how) and in Chelsea Girls, but this is a little different. This Myles seems more comfortable in herself, and in her temporariness (there’s a final line about this I don’t want to spoil).

But that insight about literature and its pretensions, I want it on every first year arts and humanities curriculum all over the world. Orientations 101: This Is Not A Moral Project.

People turn it into a bauble and bounce it, literature, she says. What an insight.

And her insights were produced by a particular time. In our time literature is trinketized and bounced by human capital as well as agents and publishers. They maketh themselves anew with it. It is make-up.

She talks about her generation, via Robert Smithson’s notion of ultra modernism, all mirrors and displacement, her contemporary scene. You radically understand your own condition, she explains. She is not nostalgic at all. I like that.

Myles talks of rolling in the shit of time. She wants ‘all the time in the world’. That’s the ultimate hit. The deepest fix. I understand that so acutely. But where is it hiding? Not in Europe or San Francisco. If you have kids or a job you will think about them all the time. She couldn’t take that on.

She talks of writing until sleep pulls you in. I understand this through long practice, right down to the details. It’s a different sort of sleep to that of an office worker. A full, fat sleep. You wake up and begin again as though your whole surface is wiped clean, but the last round of writing is in you, under the new surface. Some aspects of it, of whatever quality, are in your laptop, or on paper.

That’s how I understand it, but I think it’s how Eileen Myles understands it too. She also understands that stuff making it onto paper doesn’t signal the end of the task either.

She talks about risk. Every writer has weighed this up, sacrificing the medium-term gains of stability, with one cynical eye on the crashing pension funds and the redundancy rounds. But Myles talks of the people she met and how she just kept on walking. The horizon got wider, opportunities opened up. But that’s New York, I guess.

Myles’ neighbours do not exist like this, though. Not all of them at least. They struggle, prison happens to them. That she understands this so well is essential to my respect for her.

Myles says that when she had eclipsed her twenties she learned that ‘to be real was an interior project’. But she can, through artistic strategy, communicate this interior beyond itself.

She talks of the moment of a fret buzz in a recording. She claims that the way she pulls in similar things, things that initially seem extraneous, actually mark the moment of politics in writing. She is right.

The way a fret buzz makes the guitar realer – its playing more miraculous – is similar to what happens when the image of a horse shitting connects, sometime later in your head, to the rest of the world.

It isn’t exactly the same thing, but it is part of the mystery of human communication, a mystery that is being strategically employed within itself to do productive work. It isn’t so occult, it has an ordinary name, which is art!

I’m often amused to receive a review copy of a supermarket novel in hardback. There’s a tiny comedy there. But here is a book with a real point to having in hardback. Because it is a book I want to go on after me, for as long as there are humans left.

At one point Myles says she is making a public building with her writing, with her art, she goes in first and you go in after. It might be messy in there, in places, but that is what is good about it.

This book stitches wisdom and philosophy into the world anew via phrases that sometimes seem like strings of afterthoughts. It is the opposite of the polished novel that hides its own sheen. It has the skill and years of the seasoned jazz musician.

Listen to a Roland Kirk record, say The Inflated Tear. If that record has a main theme, it’s about making jazz. It’s about blackness, joy and slavery, but the theme underneath, that is making jazz.

But somehow, and it isn’t explicit how, it’s also about everything else all at once.

This book is about making writing, and being a writer, but it also speaks directly to everyone who ever lived a life. It paints a backdrop and then improvises. The result is as rich and worthwhile as a late Beethoven quartet.

A real keeper.

Steve Hanson

Murder Between Continents

Jan Pearson, Blue Dragon Spring (Proverse, 2020)

Jan Pearson is Hong Kong’s top thriller writer in English. Her thrillers Red Bird Summer (2014), Tiger Autumn (2015) and Black Tortoise Winter (2016) are classics of the genre. Heart-racing puzzleboxes bursting with Triads, high financiers and fraught Anglo-Sino political relations.

As Peter Benson, the novels’ “man in HK”, opens the novel by telling us; phoenix, tiger and tortoise represent three of the Four Directions in Chinese mythology. We’ve also had summer, autumn and winter.

Now, four years after the last book, spring is coming and “there will be a time for dragons”.

This time, the action moves between HK and GB (Great Britain). A series of murders is taking place across the country in restaurants named the Blue Dragon. GCHQ don’t waste time in connecting them to Hong Kong Triads. Fingers are being removed from bodies, after all.

And ending up in boxes, sent to Yip Yee Koon. Koon, a financial mogul well-known already to Pearson’s readers, is shown here as undaunted and unbowed as always. His nephew stepped down from leading the Kowloon Walled City Triad two years earlier and this seems like a transparent hussle originating from his predecessor.

Yip is the kind of man whose in-tray could be stacked high with severed fingers and he wouldn’t bat an eye.

His daughter, Annie, meanwhile, is another matter.

From Annie’s first appearance, demanding to be picked up by Yip’s Rolls Royce Silver Shadow (“You know how I love the Rolls daddy”), she’s a captivating character. The spoiled brat whose very stereotypicality makes her compelling. Her particular brand of pouting innocence, we are sure, can’t last long in the brutal world of the HK underground.

Set in the 1990s, the novel is at its best when depicting the fluid movement of the HK elite and British intelligence between the UK mainland and its leased territory.

It paints a picture of a bygone era, but one not so bygone; still, in fact, alive in many resident’s memories. Its freedoms after all were, in the main, still enjoyed until only a few months ago. Their disappearance coincided with our own lockdown, but it will take more than a vaccine to restore them.

As the novel ends by saying: “All seems well enough in Hong Kong, but for how long?”

This places the novel in a curious position. Both current and nostalgic. Hard-boiled and cynical, and yet still glamorous and dazzling. It’s a fitting finale to the Four Directions, and a hell of a page-turner.

Joe Darlington

A shattered symphony

Susan Finlay – My Other Spruce and Maple Self (Moist, 2021)

The cellist voted ‘most sexy’ by Gramophone magazine broke her wrist. Allegra. She can no longer spend between four and eight hours a day practising. Into a spiral of destruction she goes.

You can see her already, with barely a description. Charcoal background and velvet drapes and dress, cream and ivory skin. A living trope that emerged through various female classical musicians across the 1990s.

It walked through these women and out into the world, like a dybbuk. A ghost image that blended in, became part of the landscape of the millenium. Everyone thought that view was fixed, until recently.

Allegra buys poetry volumes that are well reviewed in weekend papers. You already know the publishers. But she also talks to her cello, a Montagnana.

Allegra meets a friend and gets drunk. They end up at the flat of a guy called Johnnie, with a man called John. Wealthy guys. City guys. They get stoned. She wakes up and some porn is on the TV. The numb, amoral boredom of it all is being communicated.

It returns later, the porn scene, as Allegra repeats a fantasy to a guy she contacted via a dating site. The point being made is that she has no fantasies of her own. Whether she did or not before is a moot point.

Moments like this are powerful in this novel. They seem to connect the malaise of the main character with the last six months, and the preceding time to 2016, in which all our fantasies dried out. Withered in the intense heat of the dream-drought.

Initially, Allegra’s inner monologue has that ironic tone which was extremely annoying in the 1990s, all smart answers. But it works in a different register here, as the language of a people now on a kind of social parole. The smart answers are sometimes in a slightly film noir-ish register, and that register already contains tragedy, even if only tragedy-lite.

But the references are those of regular readers of How To Spend It magazine. It has become a sort of subcultural lingo, a green colour is that of a ‘Verdaccio underpainting’. It makes me remember the way very posh people say Glasto, which could make me actually heave, rather than just say I might heave.

But here that whole register has become a kind of antiquated tongue which is still being used – and that is very interesting. Lots of literary critics talk about that, Raymond Williams, when discussing structures of feeling. Benjamin, too, was interested in the recently outmoded for what it illuminated.

Specifically, the cadaver stink can be traced to the ‘lit’ of the 1990s. Dead twenty years, but the corpse is big, its shadow long. So long that maybe we cannot see we are still in it. I wrote some fiction a while back and realised I was still in the shade.

Here, Allegra’s waspish tongue is the death rattle of 90’s ‘lit’. Her inner monologue illuminates her sickness and the drained lagoon we have all ended up in. An airless and socially unwell enclave is still a ghetto, even with money.

Allegra goes to the ladies pond at Hampstead and en route says ‘hi’ to her neighbour Helena Bonham-Carter. There’s a dead python at the swimming pond, full of maggots, half rotted. A deacying phallus. Her distant husband is called Albion, but he is in Amsterdam working as an art expert. And she can never quite call her husband her husband.

It’s a great big metaphor. ‘Britain’ is in Europe, but back in England the newspapers are full of toxic words about the EU, which the country, the precariously named United Kingdom, is leaving. It’s a swollen symbol.

This novel has to whack the big nails into the largest timbers to make its construction, because the sense of the old architecture is going. In five years it may not be obvious what this period was about at all. That is what the novel is about, underneath its story, so the reconstruction with the old wood is actually not just the best thing, but the only thing to do. Turner’s Deluge is referred to. Very obvious, but very relevant and economic. Good craft.

The repeat references to Rossetti are about Allegra’s looks, but they also point to a nostalgic and unrealistic art movement. The Pre-Raphaelites peddled an over-aestheticised, reconstructed past. Now, everyone seems to be living in their own nostalgia fantasy bubble, because there is nowhere else to be. Some are nasty racist reconstructions, others more benign, but the reference is well made.

The main character is called Allegra and of course ‘allegro’ is a musical term meaning brisk and lively – in a healthy sort of way. But she is going to pieces. By page seventy-two she is thinking about how her corpse will be dressed. And then there are the Johns.

Albion rapes her after a consensual beating and she is too inhibited to say no any louder than a whisper for fear of the people in the neighbouring hotel room overhearing. And those people were arguing earlier. Talk about ‘metaphor’.

The signifiers are moved around very well like this, like pawns in the opening moves of Chess. Then occasionally a big piece is moved.

Allegra goes to Greece and is chaperoned by a woman called Eurydice with Medusa icons on her wrap-round shades. They drive into a protest. The police are holding everything up. She gets out, Allegra, and browses a stall selling Nazi tat. ‘Feierliches Stück’ comes on the stereo, a piece of music from Wagner’s Lohengrin, in which the Duchy of Brabant is sliding back into its pagan past, due to the machinations of devious, lurking powers from that past. I see Farage in medieval garb.

The Greek section is fascinating to read just as the leaders of Golden Dawn are sent down for thirteen years. The trouble is that the situation in Lohengrin is solved by a heroic knight sent by god. I don’t see any on the horizon, or a God.

But I do think all of this is ‘critical’ as in critical theory. I think the author has done something quite brutal and clever here. She is a victim, Allegra, eating disorders and self-harm create the elite musician, but the elite musician has been created by a predatory bully.

There’s a moment when Allegra’s old tutor praises his new protégé as lacking feeling, where he used to praise Allegra for possessing it. This man is a cipher for #metoo, he is the cause of her self-abuse. But he is also a road sign along the back lane we’re all now in, and some people call it ‘populism’. It’s a detail that does work at both a story and historical level.

This novel also makes me want the social class it describes removed permanently. This is not to say that I want to do away with people, in some grim totalitarian putsch, but that I want a society in which we have become immune to the celebrity and status disease, as well as the more topical one.

I wish this novel would be able to permanently kill the register it is in – at least in the first half – as well as the need for it to exist. The whiplash tongue of Allegra remains evidence of the kill setting of the financial victors. The jealousy at the younger and equally beautiful asian musician, the self-harm, they are produced in the circuits of a sick system. Post-capitalist schizophrenia breaking in, but at the privileged end.

At the same time, there must be a correlation between those who quip about having as many new labias as husbands and the communities which have had to invent a new feral way of getting by for each movement of capital which closed down whatever economy used to rudely serve it, in whichever historical era.

Their egos are planet-sized, even when suffering. Allegra’s pure hatred of ordinariness overlaps with fascism. She contemplates a Swedish couple and ponders the country’s Nazi past, then in the next sequential thought remembers how she enjoyed the applause at a concert in Sweden.

I am reminded of the end of ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ by Kenneth Rexroth many times when reading this novel.

But it all shifts on page one hundred and thirty four. Allegra goes to volunteer at a refugee centre in Athens and considers her self-obsessed nature. All her ironic jokes are lost on the volunteers there. This is the thing about postmodernism, the poor have been sincere for hundreds of years. Ironic double takes have no use where the very floor is uncertain.

But you can only ever go there if you can never come out again, you can never go there as a tourist.

Later, at a dinner party, an elite arts crowd make ‘Earnest but always positive appraisals of the art’ and ‘Earnest and always negative critiques of the political ideologies that financed the aesthetic ideologies that critiqued them.’

This appropriately tautological, stoned-sounding passage diagnoses the opposite pole: The place where postmodernism is an empty space in which meaning has to be generated, like oxygen pumped into an oxygen tent.

Allegra becomes ‘an echo’ here, in these pointless conversations. Nobody is really listening to anyone else, some social is happening, at that frequency Orwell measured; upper middle class noise pitched as high as bat screech.

Only insiders can detect it, and yet Allegra still pictures ‘the sharp edge of a bronze paperweight tearing into what should have been a nose’ on the face of her dinner table neighbour. She files this woman in her phone as ‘shithead’s wife’.

The inhabitants of the enclaves depicted in this novel may be feeling a bit peaky right now, but they are not dying, their power is redoubling. The higher managerial classes within the platform giants are rising. They will take the Georgian houses that are supposedly so fragile they cannot be used for fear of cracking them.

At one point, Britain is described as an amputated or phantom limb. The author couldn’t have known when writing that line how acutely close to the collar it would be as the book came out.

The point is not Britain as antique, but Britain as an antiquity that some people live like Lords in, while others clean the toilets. In this there has been barely any change for hundreds of years.

The book is incredibly well done. Clinical and subtle, but also pulsing with a raciness and heat, which means people will read it. If what we are losing down the cracks as the EU and Britain splits apart is the bunch of people portrayed in this novel then fine. What’s disturbing about the book for me is not that it shows that the populists have arrived, but that it has the potential to briefly turn me into the worst sort of commie there is.

Yet in other ways, we are one: Susan Finlay understands that the contemporary world is a toxic ruin hiding in the light as a utopia. I’m possibly coming at it from the opposite side, in terms of social class, but the feeling is the same. The author keeps it quite poker-faced throughout though, which is great craft.

Everyone knows that it is all fucked and something very different needs to happen at all levels of human existence. The horror lies in the secret knowledge that it won’t, and the even surer, more deeply buried knowledge regarding how it won’t.

As far as I know nobody else is writing this kind of literature at the moment. It suspends you over the real void of Britain, and at the same time manages to do it through a whacking great novel that could and might be adapted for TV.

Horrifyingly brilliant work.

Steve Hanson