Gabbin’ ‘Bout Gabo

Silvana Paternostro – Solitude and Company (Seven Stories Press, 2019)

I realise I’ve misunderstood magical realism. What it is. What its purpose is.

I heard about it at university. I was taught the term first and was shown the work later. A dangerous approach. Only in this way could I end up grouping the modern fairy tales of Angela Carter with the metaphysical allegories of Borges and the surrealism of Lorca.

But that term, that overused term, arrived with Gabriel García Márquez and his One Hundred Years of Solitude. A novel I only got around to reading last week, in preparation for reading Silvana Paternostro’s new oral history this week.

I can confirm the novel is a masterpiece. Its delivery, however, bears little relation to those other magical realist works. Instead, it is pure Faulkner. Its interest is in character and in journalistic levels of authenticity. There is magic, yes, but its subtlety is more subtle than I could imagine any writer simply plucking from imagination.

My suspicions were confirmed by Paternostro’s book. There is nothing magical about One Hundred Year of Solitude, according to García Márquez’s friends and family. Rather, it is an accurate depiction of life in Columbia, told in the manner of the Columbians themselves.

We all know what makes for good storytelling in conversation. Exaggeration, the strange, the unusual, the barely believable. One Hundred Years is a depiction of a world in which every rum-soaked barroom story and heated-up piece of workplace gossip is true. True in the hardest documentary mode.

We learn from Paternostro’s book that García Márquez lived a life embedded in the oral culture of his times. As an old friend put it; “where the old oral traditions are dying, Gabo comes along and writes them down and turns them into literature”.

A story is recounted, by way of example, about a fight between Doña Tranquilina’s two lovers, the Colonel and Medardo. The Colonel stopped Medardo on his way to the market and announced: “I have to kill you Medardo!” Medardo tried to run but was shot dead. As he lay dying, he made a speech about “the bullet of honour”.

The story was recounted by a young girl to Patricia Castaño. It was spoken with such drama, she said, “it was as if she were narrating Euripedes”. The girl had been told the story by her grandfather who had heard it as a boy. The murder took place in 1907, Castaño heard the story from the girl in 1993. The story was still alive.

So it was with Colonel Aureliano Buendia, whose seventeen sons and thirty-two unsuccessful revolutions were inspired by García Márquez’ real-life great uncle. The story of Remedios the Beauty, who was so beautiful that God lifted her up to heaven while she put out the laundry, is also a lift from a neighbourhood tale. A local girl ran off with her lover, and divine ascension was the preferred alibi.

So the amazing imagination of García Márquez is not that at all. It is memory, and the hard-won ability to write. With our ideas of magical realism thoroughly corrected, Paternostro moves on to the story of Gabo himself; the boy from small town Aracataca who ends up winning the Nobel Prize.

As with García Márquez’ own stories, there is charm and macquismo in the speakers Paternostro interviews, scores are settled and there are plenty of exaggerations. Many accounts contradict each other. All of it adds up to a perfect summary of a writer whose very essence was the whims of oral storytelling, its uncertainties, its heroes and villains.

His love for the dictator Fidel Castro was, after all, only a continuation of his obsession with violent men. One that began with his great-uncle, the model for Colonel Aureliano, and found its satisfaction in the criminals and dropouts he befriended in his twenties and thirties.

His meetings with Pope John Paul II and Bill Clinton (with whom he shared his love of Faulkner) are acts of adoration. Characters carefully drawn. He finds the truth in the details of their meetings; a button dropped and picked up, for example. He would have said the same, we feel, were he to meet a local market trader or one of his beloved vallenato players.

More than anything, what shines through is his commitment to the work. Every day there was writing. When he realised, in his early twenties, that he was not good enough to write his Hundred Years, he took up journalism, and he wrote and he wrote. He had more than paid his dues by the time success came.

Then, when it came, it wiped out everything else. He was no longer Gabito, but García Márquez the Genius. The man who single-handedly took Latin American literature from obscurity to the international limelight. There were many other great writers who followed after him, but Gabo was the first. The King.

And crowns are heavy on shy men’s heads.

The book wraps up with a general slating of the magical realists that came after García Márquez. Unfair, perhaps, but necessary. For a young Columbian, writing after Gabo must itself be a supernatural tale; his ghost always reading over your shoulder, claiming your words as his own.

Paternostro has managed a perfect marriage of form, content and subject matter here, and Edith Grossman’s translation loses none of the fun of the original. More than a biographical study, this book puts you in conversation with the great man’s friends and colleagues. A vital addition to any magical library.

Joe Darlington

A friend in need, or a deadly pest?

Caroline England – Betray Her (Piatkus, 2020)

Just how much do you tell your best friend?

Everything? Or nothing?

Betray Her is Caroline England’s third novel, although she also writes under the name Caro Land. It is an exploration of friendship, if you can call Jo and Kate friends. Having known each other since school, they don’t seem to be able to break free of their friendship, which hangs like a millstone around their necks.

Jo is a city-girl, the city in question being Manchester, while Kate has gone for more of a rural idyll. Jo is an independent professional woman. Kate stays at home with her child and bakes. Jo is newly bereaved, while Kate is decidedly coupled. Jo is childless. Kate is the personification of the Earth Mother. The two women have nothing in common, except their past.

Caroline England writes with assurance about women’s relationships – their intertwined feelings of support and competitiveness, their awkward relationships with their friends’ partners, and with their reluctance to call time on a relationship that no longer works. She beautifully conveys the strains and nuances of friendships that have lasted decades.

Her depiction of women’s relationships with men is not quite so assured. Kate’s husband, Tom Heath, is just a little too Heathcliff-ian, with his scowling anger and needlessly repressed emotions, while Jo’s gay friend is not much more than a cheerleader. “You go, girl”, he might as well shout.

However, this is not a book about men or for men, so who cares?

England has pitched her novels firmly within the area of Chick Lit, but has added large dollops of mystery and suspense too. She describes them as “domestic psychological thrillers”, differentiating them from her Caro Land novels which are courtroom based dramas, drawing on her time as a lawyer.

This novel is set solidly in the domestic, and this makes the odd swerve into psychological thriller disconcerting. It only occasionally strains credulity, however.

There are undertones of darkness from the first page of Betray Her. The two girls, both outsiders, for different reasons, first meet at boarding school and their friendship is formed more out of need than affection. A defensive alliance against school bullies.

But their friendship endures past school, which means that they know the worst of each other – every embarrassing childhood accident, every mean-spirited thought, every spiteful act. You have to stay friends with someone like that, don’t you?

Especially if one is them is dangerous.

The question for the reader is, of course, which one?

Hazell Ward

“…some volcanic eruption deep down”

William Davies – This is Not Normal – The Collapse of Liberal Britain (Verso)

The times move too fast. Write it down and the paper is likely to be snatched from your hand, whipped away by turbulent historical forces.

At the start of 2020 ordinary, everyday globalism – of the sort many urban dwellers enjoyed – was suddenly halted. Airports closed and whole economies were put on hold.

It might be tempting to make some cute slogan out of this switch-around. That up to January 2020 freedom was global, but disaster was local. Then after January 2020, freedom was local and disaster was global. Many intellectuals, for instance Bauman and Beck, argued that a successful new middle class sailed the skies globally across the late 90s and early noughties, and that poverty was anchored to the earth.

But test these binaries, pull and push them and they will repeatedly turn inside-out. Bauman actually advised us a decade ago (2010) to see that the sailor’s tale, the exotic life in remote places and the peasant’s story, the annual, predictable, cyclical life had collapsed into one another.

It is less than comforting, but still anchoringly familiar, to know that other eras had times like these. Even if they were not anywhere near so dangerous. Robert Blake, in his biography of Benjamin Disraeli, explained how ‘the radicals’ of the early 1830s were not like Cobden and Bright:

‘On the contrary, they were an erratic, frivolous, colourful and picturesque collection of independent MPs with no coherent political philosophy and counting as adherents a large quota of cranks and eccentrics of every kind. The general election of 1832, like the elections of 1906 and 1945, was one of those great political upheavals, which resemble some volcanic eruption deep down below the bed of the sea and bring floating to the surface all manner of strange marine life seldom seen by the ordinary observer. If the Parliament of 1882-4 could contain such characters as [William] Molesworth who had fought a duel with his Cambridge tutor, John Gully, the prize-fighter and bookmaker, or a dandy like Bulwer [Edward Bulwer-Lytton], there seemed some chance that Disraeli might get in, for all his oddities.’

It was a very different thing, but after 2015 we had the popularity of Farage, a sick Janus of two sides: The public face of fags and pints and the private man of the hedge fund elites.

2016-2020 has been disconcerting. Particularly for someone who has taught Raymond Williams’ idea of culture as a whole way of life. When I was lecturing Cultural Studies at Hereford College of Arts – five years before the period this book covers – I could actually take students to the bus stop by the Cathedral where ‘Culture is Ordinary’, Williams’ classic 1958 essay, begins.

But I have often thought about the way the left sometimes takes up that essay. It can be far too sentimental: Culture is Ordinary doesn’t just mean the longer lineages of family and labour politics, or the year-zero thrust of the New Left and CND after World War 2. Culture is Ordinary means the hell of 2020, too.

I think Will Davies understands this. He also understands that we reach cliff edges of cultural time, over which we must all go. Some things make the jump, others don’t. Liberalism – in our time – is shattered by the fall. ‘Liberalism’, if it is anything at all, Davies explains, ‘exists now as an ethical persuasion or cultural identity’ and this runs parallel to the whole rejection of politics per se over ‘culture’.

For someone who has taught this stuff, the times are depressing. They are depressing because the right is using the idea of ‘culture’ in such a disingenuous way, but also because many of the neo-left of 2016-17 have rejected liberalism and the wider uptake of culture as a whole way of life too.

Davies is undertaking conjunctural analysis here, a Gramscian practice developed by Stuart Hall. Raymond Williams, then, a great friend of Hall’s, is an appropriate figure to return to. Those lecture notes, across which Williams mapped the relation of the state to industry, then to politics and to demographic swathes, to the monarchy… this was also conjunctural analysis.

Davies is doing the same thing in this book, working it out for himself in real time, across a series of essays (the book is a collection, but it is also much more than that).

In ‘Culture is Ordinary’ Williams mentions the Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral. This is a medieval copy of an older Anglo-Roman map, showing the world as a strange but curiously recognisable series of slabs dotted with weird beasts. In 1958 when Williams wrote the essay, the Mappa would be stuffed in a corner of Hereford Cathedral, not yet in its slick visitor centre. Our old world is likely to look as confusing to those born in 2018 as the Mappa Mundi did in 1958 to its casual viewers, with little contextual information to guide them.

Davies book, then, is a kind of Mappa Mundi of the present. Big historical cliff edges loom up out of the ground. Raymond Williams re-thought the old Marxian infrastructure-superstructure relationship in his time, and Davies does this too (without leading us into a swamp of German philosophical terms). In Raymond Williams’ time the war had shaken the old empire to pieces, but new technologically-driven times were coming. Speed and mediation were, even in Williams’ day, on the agenda.

The agents of chaos in our historical period, Davies claims, are 1) credit derivatives and 2) digital platforms. This is a very insightful pairing. Credit derivatives monetise debt relations and they led to the 2008 crash.

Digital platforms have sped up and riven meaning itself apart. Crucially, these ‘platforms have achieved a public status that is closer to telecom companies than to publishers’, as they ‘hold minimal responsibility for how their technology is used’. The two things, digitally alienated social relations, and monetised relations – monetised within a culture for whom profit is the default logic – have led to the new spirit of the age.

Davies splits his analysis into phases: Phase 1; start of the referendum to the 2017 general election, and Phase 2; from there to March 2019 and then on into the general election, the unlawful prorogation and out into 2020 and ‘early COVID’.

What is being described here is a rapid shift to populism and populism is also a rapid shift to the right. It is in fact a popular right-wing coup which mirrors a larger far right shift globally. A book I thought a great deal about while reading this one is Stuart Hall’s on Thatcherism, which contains his crucial essay ‘The Great Moving Right Show’. Much of my writing on Manchester, for instance for Open Democracy, describes the city as a ‘radical right city’. What Davies is describing, under everything, is the emergence of a neo-radical right country in a neo-radical right world.

Davies writes of the invention of double ledger book keeping – the birth of ‘the fact’ – robust atoms of meaning which can of course become a different fabric altogether when recombined with other elements. He challenges the idea that the Leave campaign was shockingly ‘anti-truth’, but badly misaligned to facts. These details really mark Davies’ scholarship out as exceptional, as does the way his arguments are rooted in deeper historical and philosophical readings.

His understanding of the political shifts within and across one year, two years, are strong, never naive. We could look at this in decade chunks. 1998, the explosion of mass online life, then ten years and the banking collapse hits. Yet nobody has started to roll any of it back, or to really attempt to mitigate its disastrous effects. We have a longer view of industrialism now, so perhaps we should. But if we know anything about these longer curves, it is that they don’t just halt because we know they have pernicious effects. Davies understands this too and he warns against retrospective historicising.

He describes the Lehman Brothers crash as the putting out of a fire. In contrast to this, he describes the day after Brexit as a kind of phoney war. We waited. But surely COVID-19 has scattered the atoms of facts to the wind and ended the phoney culture war in one evil move. The culture war is now on, precisely because we have no double historical ledger of the future which can tell us what it could have been like if we stayed in the EU, any more than we can tell what it might have been like if SARS-CoV-2 had never mutated into a strain that can thrive in humans as well as bats.

But what marks Davies’ politics out is that he refuses to leave it there. Brexit was like buying a house that was known to be subsiding. The insurance underwriter won’t touch you, the emergency services have little sympathy, but you hated them anyway. What we need are political cairns, heaps of stones that can mark the way in the thick ideological fog of the present. This book is a solid map of them, so buy a copy. Not just because it is useful, but because nobody else is doing it this well and that work must be funded.

‘June 2016 might provide the full-stop at the end of a paragraph that began with September 2008’ Davies writes. This seems clear to many of us now, but to future generations it won’t. At the same time, this solid structure is overlaid with much more nuanced philosophical, historical and economic insight, explaining how all this terrible architecture was thrown up. Things do not begin, he explains, ‘in the same dramatic fashion with which they end.’

In November 2016 I wrote in Open Democracy that the new liberal consensus was over, ‘so let’s grasp and reshape the tradition before the centre right do.’ How far things have fallen since then. I seem to have wanted ‘a new liberal tradition that allows and engages with agonism, meaning that to speak is to fight, not just to reach agreement.’

In America, I wrote, ‘the older liberalism meant daring to discard traditional orthodoxy in order to try new democratic forms’ but in England liberalism seemed always to tend towards the thinly conservative. ‘It easy to criticise without offering a new way forward’ I wrote:

‘One place we might start again is Robert Unger’s post-necessary philosophy. This must be a starting point only, but that project is appropriate for beginning again in a fractured centre. Unger definitely dares to discard traditional orthodoxy in order to try new democratic forms. Unger argues that “the best hope” for the radical project that “leftists share with liberals” must come through “a series of revolutionary reforms in the organisation of governments and economies and in the character of our personal relations.“‘

I never really followed that article up, now I don’t need to, this book does the job far better than I ever could have. The double spread of pages 44-45 skewers confused ideas to be found on both left and right. Loose notions regarding the relationship of capitalism to the state and technocracy. The Brexiteer febrile fantasy that a Victorian capitalism will work without slavery is left in tatters. The more naive leftist bluster about the EU, neoliberalism and nationalism are recalibrated. Davies holds a post in Political Economy and these pages alone show you why. The book explores the history of liberalism – Burke et al – and the ways in which the conditions for its current debunking came about.

The players of populism are still global, but are supported in the locally-rooted, Dudley North and Leigh, to use ‘red wall’ examples. A Gramscian education can help the locally limited to understand the wider context of their own lives and how those lives are produced, and they are produced. This book is a rung on a ladder to understanding how those lives might proceed in our time.

Will Davies has explained that what ‘Britain sorely needs is not self-love, or self-hatred, but self-knowledge.’ This is the kind of call for critical enlightenment reason which is entirely missing from most discourses, on both the left and right. At the same time, Davies states ‘the attempt to constrain how future generations allocate acclaim deserves to fail’ and it is to the younger generations I look for hope.

This said, I thought a great deal about the longer lineages of British leftwing thinkers while reading this book. Davies’ place in that line already seems secure to me. In particular, I remembered a passage of E.P. Thompson’s, thoughts about history in 1980, during a moment experiencing powercuts:

‘…it is never safe to assume that any of our history is altogether dead. It is more often lying there, as a form of stored cultural energy. The instant daily energy of the contingent dazzles us with its brightness. What passes on the daily screen is so distracting, the presence of the status quo is so palpable, that it is difficult to believe that any other form of energy exists. But this instant energy must be reproduced every moment as it is consumed; it can never be held in store. Let the power be cut off for a while, then we become aware of other and older reserves of energy glowing all around us, just as, when the street lights are dowsed, we become aware of the stars.’

In the same way – and Davies explicitly states the aim – this book presses pause on the dazzling contingent brightness of the present, and allows the reflections of the evening to gather and turn towards a new day.

Steve Hanson

Mobile Poetry

Jazmine Linklater – Figure a Motion (Guillemot Press, 2020)

Ekphrasis, poetry about visual art, is an unusual form, especially when one has no access to the original artwork. Is it a description of a vacant object? A reconstruction? Or is it something new entirely? Something risen from the world of objects but no longer of them?

In Jazmine Linklater’s new collection, Figure a Motion, we are presented with just such an enigma. Inspired by the Castlefield Gallery’s showcase of works by Ruth Barker and Hannah Leighton-Boyce, two artists who focus primarily on objets d’art, Linklater’s poems hang uncertainly on the peripheries of presence and absence.

Linklater is one of the organisers of “No Matter”; Manchester’s newest experimental poetry night. Her style here cries out to be read aloud. Passages recur, repeat, spin around in the air before us.

Even before we think of visual arts, then, we are on the boundary between printed and spoken word.

“Trip plose stip tup pulse pulse powers,” is a line that requires the active participation of the tongue. Reading it silently in one’s head is impossible.

The same with;

                  She brought the liquid flesh light.

                  Maneuvered, I tarnish plates’ sparkable

                  Unreanimate and the laughing.

Although not, in the second case, due to consonantal complexity as much as the bright weight of images, overpiling and suffocating us on first reading. Physical breath is needed to give these words air, to carry them up and aloft, the better to be appreciated.

To return to art then, it is perhaps best to think of Figure a Motion as an elaborate linguistic mobile. It’s words are fractals of an overall pattern that can only be properly seen when it’s hanging; when it looks like it’s floating.

The original artworks are the spokes and these words are hard and glimmering pieces hanging off them. The breath of air blowing through them is the element that brings them to life.

Joe Darlington

Wax and Gold

Chris Beckett and Alemu Tebeje (eds) – Songs We Learn from Trees: An Anthology of Ethiopian Amharic Poetry (Carcanet, 2020)

It’s rare for a guided tour to give a true sense of place. Often, it’s just the marketing blurb you read in the guidebook, repackaged and with added pointing. Songs We Learn from Trees is something even rarer; a tour of Amharic poetry that feels both comprehensive and deep. A journey into culture.

Edited by Chris Beckett and Alemu Tebeje, the collection provides a concise but critical introduction, followed by a treasury of folk poems, a selection from the twentieth-century and an anthology of contemporary poets and their works.

As an addendum, we also have works from diaspora poets, including Manchester’s own Lemn Sissay. There is something of everything, and the range of voices and subjects is truly varied.

Amharic poetry is ripe with tradition. The warlike machismo of African folk poems mix with the fecund symbolism of Abrahamic religion. Ethiopia is, after all, home to some of the earliest Christian and Jewish communities outside of the Middle East, and its prowess in war kept colonisers out throughout the nineteenth century.

A less noble history of internal persecutions gave birth to the technique of “wax and gold”; writing that works on two levels. A poem seemingly about one thing, the “wax”, is peeled back by the listener to reveal the true golden meaning underneath.

Sometimes the wax and gold is quite direct.

The Lion has died and the Buffalo has fled,

So we vote for the Elephant to trample us instead.

The Lion (Haile Selasse) and the Buffalo (the Derg regime that supplanted him) were replaced by the Elephant (the EPRDF government) in 1990.

At other times, the wax is thick and the gold hard to distinguish. Then we enter a realm familiar to haiku-readers, where cherry-blossoms – or in this case alder trees – carry special meanings for the country’s rulers.

Mengistu Lemma, a twentieth-century poet, offers a comparison between traditional Ethiopian dress – “trousers, kuta, shirt” –  that have no pockets, and the new Western styles that are riddled with them: “chest and breast pockets, hip pockets, back pockets”. What are these pockets for, he wonders?

Many pockets lead to many questions

And all of them are empty

Of an answer…

Perhaps better to be “the basic Habesha”, who, without pockets, is at one with the land. Yet, starving and poor as the Habesha is, we are left wondering if this vision is truly a happy one.

There are poems of anger as well as of reflection, and most joyful of all are the poems of wry observation.

Everybody knows that God made man first, Meron Getnet tells us in “Prototype”;

He sketched you first,

before He dreamed me into being

As the finished product.

Alemu Tabeje offers another short fable of an aging man with “salt and pepper” hair. He adds a young wife to his older one. The younger pulls out his grey hairs, hoping to make him look young, while the older pulls out his remaining dark ones, to make him look old. Soon he is bald, and attractive to neither.

I’m starting to agree with the old rumour that Aesop was from Ethiopia.

State of the nation poems abound as well, or, more rightly, state of the continent. Poems like Fekade Azeze’s “Africa Calling” are scathing satires of African strife; “do not call for a consultation to create jobs and develop business […] let Africa develop with bombs and guns!”

While, more reflective, Yohannes Admassu’s “Let Me Question You” presents us with a voyager journeying through the land of the dead. The questions he asks are resonant. “Have you free speech among the dead?” he’ll ask, or do the dead ever get disappeared, or worse, by their leaders? This poem is wax and gold at its eerie best.

The poems in this collection are excellent, and timeless. They leave you with a feeling for tradition and a new angle from which to approach the written word. I have no doubt that a work like this will inform and inspire new works in response, not just from poets of African descent, but from any who are interested in the word. Not just a primer, then, but a cultural provocation.

For anyone interested in poetry from beyond the Anglophone tradition, this collection is a must-buy.

Joe Darlington

Polish Holiday

Tomasz Jedrowski – Swimming in the Dark (Bloomsbury, 2020)

Wioletta Greg – Swallowing Mercury (Portobello Books, 2017)

I was recently on holiday with my fiancée. She is Polish and we were travelling Poland, as we do every year. At her mother’s, she showed me her childhood photo albums. The pictures were in black and white.

“Were you born in 1895?” I asked, facetiously.

“No. It was communism. We didn’t have colour film.”

When people tell stories about the evils of communism they tend to focus on the gulags, the famines, the disappearances, the displacements, the wars. Poland suffered terribly in the 1940s and 1950s but got off relatively lightly afterwards. As a result, there’s not much literature about it.

I wanted to know more about this black and white world that existed concurrent to my own childhood. A time when my parents, in their hubris, were using disposable cameras.

Tomasz Jedrowski’s Swimming in the Dark is about this time, as is Wioletta Greg’s Swallowing Mercury.

Jedrowski’s book is written and published in English. It tells the story of a young gay man living through the late 1960s and early 1970s in Poland. He meets the love of his life at a “Back to the Land” camp and aspires to an academic career.

His lover, Janusz, joins the Party and is wooed by the daughter of a big wig. Our narrator struggles to reconcile his desire for Janusz with his disgust at the Party’s corruption and, as we know from flash-forwards, the tale ends with him fleeing the country.

The book has been called a Polish Brokeback Mountain. This would be an apt summary, if one didn’t doubt the possibility of the book actually appearing in Poland.

The current Law & Justice party has learned from corporate America that one can avoid all sorts of awkward questions as long as one shouts enough about LGBT issues. Where corporate America is “pro”, PiS is currently “anti”. This means high praise for Jedrowski in The Guardian but a muted response from Poland itself.

It also makes Swimming the Dark very difficult to discuss without bringing politics into it. The novel, after all, has its flaws. It is very breathily written, with lots of beating hearts, cold sweats and heads spinning. There are also mixed metaphors like “the city was a ghost filled with comatose trees” that make you lament the absence of a copy editor.

All this pot-boiling certainly does get the heart racing though. It’s pacey and uncomplicated, written for the outsider, and so an excellent holiday read.

Greg’s novel is the antithesis of Jedrowski’s. It appeared in Polish in 2014 as Guguły, and has only recently been translated into English by Eliza Marciniak. Marciniak has kept the book’s genuine Polish flavour, and has worked wonders turning Greg’s poetic prose into a rosy-cheeked and nostalgic English.

Swallowing Mercury is also a coming-of-age story that straddles the end of communism. Where Swimming in the Dark is explicit in its depictions of marchers, Solidarność, and government crackdowns, however, Greg’s novel is remarkably light of touch. Historical events are so far in the background that a non-political reader might not ever notice them.

Wiola, the novel’s protagonist, grows up in the rural South. She is brought into the world wrapped in a red ribbon, to ward off ghosts, and is raised by her animal-stuffing father and forever-queuing mother. She is, as the Polish would say, a wieśniak (a country bumpkin).

In short, epiphanic snapshots, we see her going in school, taking part in religious festivals and village traditions and, later, as the system collapses around her, we see a teenaged Wiola huffing glue and running away to Warsaw.

My favourite moment sees her winning a national painting competition for schools. The theme is “Threats Around Your Farm” and so she paints the beetles that her grandad catches in a Coca-Cola bottle. The Party commends her for depicting, “highly symbolically”, the damaging potential of the imperialist pest.

The next year she submits a cityscape; the theme being “Moscow Through Your Eyes”. She spills ink on the painting by accident, however, and it prompts a visit from the Party. “Who has told you to do this?” they ask, insisting that the ink is a symbolic tidal wave, crashing down on the Soviet seat of power.

This is the most dramatic moment in the book when it comes to the Party. The rest of the time they are ever-present, but always in the background. It is a truer depiction of everyday life under communism than can be found in Jedrowski’s book, but its understatement often leads one to wonder if one is missing a wider point.

Swallowing Mercury is a highly socio-political novel, but it is written for those already in-the-know. Swimming in the Dark is, by comparison, a primer.

I would recommend both novels. They made excellent companion pieces, but some readers may enjoy one and not the other. Both illuminate a time and place not often talked about. For millennial readers in particular they offer valuable insights into an alternative nineties; one that happened in a place only two hours flight away, but might as well have been on another planet entirely.

– Joe Darlington

Notes from the underground

Joe Banks – Hawkwind, Days Of The Underground, Radical Escapism In The Age of Paranoia (Strange Attractor Press)

Firstly, and most straightforwardly, this book is a magical thing of wonder. If you can get the limited edition with the extra book of interviews, you are in for a real treat. However, the special edition seems to have gone out of print completely the instant it came out.

Not to worry, I am told the paperback edition should be available very soon. But what to do in a review? Here at Manchester Review of Books we think about such things. Not for us the standard written discussion of the thing in all circumstances. So I am going to expand outwards, jam on the topic.

I also want to avoid simply repeating the narrative in Joe’s book – for when you buy the paperback, and you will buy the paperback – it would be a bad spoiler.

One book that really needs writing is the one which begins where this wonderful Joe Banks book leaves off. It is the place he got into Hawkwind, in the 1980s. I wasn’t far behind him, I saw them first in the late 80s. I hope Joe writes that book, not someone else.

In the 80s the underlying themes of utopia and dystopia in Hawkwind’s music started to turn into tight tensions as the band travelled through the post-Thatcher landscape.

Andrew Means of Melody Maker commented on Hawkwind’s theme of technology and utopia/dystopia in the Banks book, he speculated ‘on the band’s role as explorers of both outer and inner space during a time of apocalyptic foreboding’ that ‘while this new age of mechanical space travel suggests unlimited horizons, the situation upon Earth promises the opposite’, that ‘doomsday is all too viable’ and this actually ‘sets the background for the group’s activities.’

An examination of Hawkwind’s career demolishes the fake lines drawn around 67-68 ‘and after’ as well as 1977 as ‘year zero’. Michael Moorcock – who actually wrote a book on The Sex Pistols – comments on the erroneous periodising of the age we might call ‘progressive’ (this is in the limited edition book of interviews):

‘My own view is that “the 60s” lasted as long as a relatively progressive government was in power and ended around 1980 with the last Stiff tour. I think we need a different term for that period of relative optimism. The dystopian element in Hawkwind was of the “warning” sort and therefore hopeful of change…’

Hawkwind’s presence at the Stonehenge free festivals can also serve as a useful alternative timeline. Tolerated for some time, the festivals were then harshly clamped down on into the 1980s. The internal civil war against ‘the travellers’ ran alongside the one against the miners, the trade unions and civil liberty groups. We’re still there. That shift has reached right through to cover the supposedly respectable surface of British life in class porn TV and English populism.

When I went to see Hawkwind, as late as 1988, what is now called the ‘merch’ stall was full of ‘zines about the travellers, free festivals and police excess. I still have a ragged issue of Hawkfan in which Dave Brock bemoans travelling in his van and getting stopped and hassled in summertime. These signals from another social cosmos were revelations to me when a youngster.

Hawkwind shot right through the late 1960s to now, they could be classified as hippie / freak rock / prog rock and punk, but not in different eras, they were all of these things in all of their incarnations.

It is possible to explore these tensions in the times and their music by taking two items from Hawkwind’s back catalogue and examining them together.

We could do this with lots of tracks, but let’s first take ‘Assault and Battery’ from 1975, and then ‘Looking in the Future’ from 1982. There are only seven years between the recordings. Elements of the two tracks are almost identical, primarily their texts – their words – yet in other ways, the tracks are worlds apart. ‘Assault and Battery’ opens the 1975 album Warrior on the Edge of Time:

‘…the lives of great men all remind us that we may make our lives sublime, and so departing leave behind us, footprints in the sands of time…’

Stylistically, ‘Assault and Battery’ is a grand mellotron sweep. The lyrics are delivered in the same style. They seem to announce the revival of an appetite for a nineteenth century quest for adventure. Michael Moorcock has recounted times driving with the band, head out of a sunroof, chemically enhanced… ‘Assault and Battery’ is perhaps the iconic track of this ‘unheeding adventurism’ side of the Hawkwind trip.

In 1982 ‘Looking in the Future’ opens with exactly the same words, also sung by Dave Brock. But here they are tortuously confessed. Brock twists and pulls the lines out of himself, as though he has become half automaton in a Georg Grosz painting. He sounds as though he has been assaulted and battered and is trying to recall them. It sounds as though the human trapped in the machine is trying to free itself to recall these words from an earlier, buried existence. ‘The Damage of Life’, a contemporary Brock composition, reveals an equally exhausted worldview.

The musical backing of ‘Looking in the Future’ is heavy. During this time Hawkwind’s demographic was as much New Wave of British Heavy Metal as it was old hippies. Huw Lloyd-Langton’s guitar flourishes are gloriously baroque. He decorates the track in the full purple of a by now antique British psychedelia. There is a kind of radical nostalgia in this.

The text then diverges from that of ‘Assault and Battery’. Brock is ‘looking in the future’ but ‘living in the past’. As he repeats these lines the distinction between past, present and future seems to disappear. The track then speeds up to an explosion which yields to a cloud of angelic, technologically processed voices. Symbolically ‘Looking in the Future’ moves us into our digital, eternal present. Past, present and future become irrelevant, time is shattered. We are shattered.

In the cloud we feel fine, but pull away and feel the empty space below your feet. The floor has been sold off to pay for it all. ‘Looking in the Future’ is from the album Church of Hawkwind. That album is the culmination of a series of early 1980s RCA records. This album saw Brock and Harvey Bainbridge invest in new synth tech and drum machines and then just make music.

New Order were into all of this, who knew? I had no idea at the time. The Banks book talks to them, and to Manchester’s Michael Butterworth. A gem of a man.

The albums which led up to the moment of ‘Looking in the Future’ in 1982 were full of tension. ‘Living on a Knife Edge’ and ‘Streets of Fear’ were clearly responses to Thatcher’s Britain in the early 1980s, a Britain of surveillance and paranoia. In a parallel move, Robert Calvert made Freq in 1984, about the miner’s strike. For this album he used Kraftwerk’s techniques exactly like a folk artist uses an acoustic guitar.

The ‘lines between’ so earnestly fought over in the NME were irrelevant to Hawkwind and their friends and relations. Their work is a continuum. At the same time the 80s work signals the entry into a freezing political decade. ‘Choose Your Masques’ asks you to choose sides and to prepare for a long hard winter. An obscure cut ‘Now is the Winter of Our Discontent’ does this more explicitly.

‘Coded Languages’ from the album Sonic Attack is more Rotten than John Rotten. ‘A cunning phrase can burn a town’ Mike Moorcock shrieks on it. ‘Coded Languages’ is about popular discourse becoming a pernicious disease via sentimentalised propaganda. Sound familiar?

Dave Brock’s solo work would be essential to include in this theoretical book on the Hawkwind of the 1980s. Agents of Chaos from 1988 is a particularly strong record (and also seems to be completely out of print). One cut on that record – called ‘A Day’ – echoes Strawberry Fields, but there’s a strobing Moog sound inside it, like the cheeping of a digital canary, the algorithm has taken it.

‘I pay my stamps I pay my tax’ Brock sings, ‘I daren’t stop working and that’s a fact’, but ‘all I see on the TV screen are starving kids and war machines’. This protest song perhaps harks back to older numbers such as ‘We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago’, but it now sits within the circuits of a total environment, a sort of digital circus, it can no longer exist anywhere else. It seems lost in there. Empty.

Suddenly we are in a lift in one of the faceless office blocks on the album sleeve. Someone is gasping for breath. ‘Quick somebody help me, this man is dying’ a worker exclaims. The line is delivered with sarcastic, comedy ambivalence. The brutal musical attack which follows exemplifies a Bataillean desire to reduce humanity to the primordial slime from whence it came. Whether this is done by alien invaders or not isn’t clear, but it doesn’t matter. That track is called ‘Hades Deep’.

The cover image of Agents of Chaos looks like the view across Hulme Park in Manchester now that the Deansgate Square skyscrapers are complete. This is just a stroll from where I currently live. Planes, helicopters and drones fly across it. It is not in any sense science fiction. Not any more. Take away the sci-fi gloss and ‘the Agents of Chaos’ = Capital.

The album’s theme also lies under Moorcock’s novel Rituals of Infinity, in which multiple, parallel versions of earth are being destabilised by disrupter agents. This could almost be a banal description of the present. Moorcock is our version of H.G. Wells, not only for the grand sci-fi, but the London novels.

There is so much to say about this corner of popular culture. But space is limited. Joe Banks’ book is the best introduction to the work of the band available. I think the 1980s work is utterly relevant to our times.

At one point in the Banks’ book, in a reproduced clipping, Dave Brock says something like ‘it would be inevitable that people would catch up with what we were doing eventually.’

I disagree, none of us have fully caught up yet. Reading this book is the first step to doing so. Absolutely marvellous work. Watch out for the reprint and order fast!

– Steve Hanson

Cracked time

Tonino Guerra – Equilibrium (Moist)
Paolo Virno – Déjà Vu and the End of History (Verso Futures)

Antonio Guerra was an Italian poet and screenwriter who collaborated with Tarkovsky, Fellini and Antonioni. His novel Equilibrium was published in 1967. Moist just re-issued it, and a very worthy endeavour that was.

I can’t stop thinking about Blow Up throughout. Guerra worked on the script. The main character is a graphic designer. He seems ambivalent about his urban life in Milan, a life of Coca-Cola and cars, of new prosperity.

Guerra drops us into a modernity in which things and their values are shifting and loose. The main character buys a house in the country and has the keys delivered. He doesn’t even view it, he hears about it, then just buys it. He can’t even remember if the keys were posted to him or delivered by an intermediary.

This is postmodern as in ‘after the present’. It is postmodern, as the main character gradually unravels, as in ‘no longer present’, as in time out of joint as Mark Fisher explored it. This particular ‘after modern’ means that the core utopian project of modernity has been interrupted by World War II.

The main character has his present moments invaded repeatedly by the experience of the wartime prison camp he was in. It is not just a memory, the temporal line he lives in is diverted, as though time itself switches rail tracks back into that hell.

Guerra was a prisoner of war, but I wonder if the lead character is modelled in part on Ettore Sottsass Jr. who graduated in architecture in 1939, not a great year to leave university, all things considered.

Mr Sottsass was in the Italian military, and a labor camp in Yugoslavia. The way the main character designs typefaces and graphic lines, the way he talks to himself confidently in his head about aesthetics and form, all make me think of Sottsass.

Meanwhile, Paolo Virno, in his book on deja vu, asks us to consider the confusion of ‘historical culture’ and ‘consciousness’ for ‘memory’. It is, in many ways, the philosophical territory of Guerra’s 1967 novel.

Deja vu, Virno explains, is not a ‘known event of the past playing out’ once more to ‘euphoric amazement’. The phenomena of deja vu is that of a false memory, but it is instructive in terms of thinking about our consciousness of the past, present and future.

Deja vu appearing like a weird kink in time shows us that these things are human-biological-language-events rather than straight realities.

Virno works through Walter Benjamin’s theses on history, Bergson, Nietzsche and others. Deja vu is a false memory of a present that never existed and one that is co-terminous with now. Perception (sensory interpretations of the immediate) and memory (sensory impressions of previous perceptions) swell into one another. The feeling is not an epiphany, it is alienating.

This conflation of a past and a fake future invading a present moment is happening in the Guerra novel too. At one point the main character appears to think that he has experienced the blowing up of a railway bridge in WW1. His ‘been here before’ begins to roam beyond his own lifespan.

Virno works through comments by Kojève who states ‘that the exhaustion of history diagnosed by Hegel is no longer, in our epoch, some future eventuality’, but ‘a fait accompli.’

The western world after WW2, perhaps captured best by Adorno and Horkheimer, sees the future and present fall into one another and the result is existential sickness.

‘Whenever we adopt the future perfect tense of a verb’ Virno claims, ‘the future seems to be emptied out’ and ‘locked away’; ‘I will have enjoyed’, ‘I will have had many opportunities’.

The sense of this seems to seep into the main character in Guerra’s novel. His pleasure in this pleasureland, at this time of pure pleasure, 1967, is entirely futur-parfait.

As philosophy Equilibrium is rich, and Virno’s book is strong as literature.

In Virno’s book there are half-pages that could generate whole new theses. ‘The past-in-general accompanies every actuality like an aura – without, though, itself having ever been actual.’

The past is not the arrested moment of the immediate, this dies away with every unfolding nanosecond, and back in Guerra’s Equilibrium, in 1967, time continues to buckle more or less as Virno explains it.

He returns to Milan, loses his job, takes up with a woman. He becomes confused. I thought about Lindsay Anderson’s film O Lucky Man a lot reading the novel. All the women seem to be the same woman.

O Lucky Man is saturated in eternal return, the women Malcolm McDowell’s character Travis beds all seem to be the same women, at different ages, a blond and a dark haired woman. He leaves them all, questing for the Capitalist Grail, ambition, career, this is the modern Pilgrim’s Progress.

Heaven is deferred to the future, it is never in the now. A scene in which a buddhist explains being ‘in the moment’ on a car radio, just before the military arrest of Travis, seems very of Equilibrium.

In a way all of this mirrors the late 1960s in which – as The Searchers once sang – the whole world became ‘a funny farm’. But it all has a larger literary dimension. Meaning itself is beginning to collapse under its own weight. Like a symbolic sun, the whole realm of meaning has emitted all it can and will soon fall into a deep gravity well.

The main character in the Guerra novel abandons his watch and makes a sundial out of flat stones. He seems to want a less alienated form of time. But as soon as he has finished the sundial his estranged wife arrives, and for some reason they can only talk through a fence he has just made. A wristwatch flashes up later on a dead German officer who has hung himself. The watch has stopped. It has not been stolen.

Benjamin’s biblical halted time is in this, but the interpenetrability of the past, present and future is a key issue for both texts too.

The dream of a rural home came to Guerra’s character out of the lowest point of his prison camp experience.

The fact that the main character decided he would like to live in a country house by a riverbed from the hell of a prisoner of war camp bunk bed seems to mean that when he actually gets that desire it renders all other desires pointless.

If our dream from within hell can come true, then hell can walk right back into that dream. How we have all been re-learning that recently.

The novel is titled Equilibrium because there is an evil traffic between the prisoner of war camp and the post-war holiday camp the world became after the war. But it is also titled Equilibrium because there isn’t any, at least not in the sense that word came to be used after the great psychedelic swell of ’67. This is not about finding balance.

The Guerra book is no fluffy ’67 novel, a rare fleeting ambience like a bubble, it presents a moment in which human meaning per se had become atomised by its own recent history, and we still live there. If you want to theorise all of that more formally, the Virno book is its perfect companion volume.

– Steve Hanson

The Weight of an Image

Theophilus Kwek – Moving House (Carcanet, 2020)

There was one line that convinced me I needed to buy this book. It appears in the poem “What it’s Like” and describes a young revolutionary receiving an AK47: “they placed it in his hands, a baby’s weight”.

The image is so perfect. The surprising density of the weapon. The soldier’s duty to his gun. A weight of responsibility, thrust into your hands.

It was my introduction to Theophilus Kwek, and I was pleased to find it a fitting one. His poetry is, on its surface, deceptively simple. Careful syllables spell out scenes in what, presented differently, could be prose. Then, suddenly, he spins a simile. Everything, suddenly, comes together.

The collection is called Moving House, and it contains a loose theme of journeys, travel, exodus and emigration. As a Singaporean-Chinese writer now in Britain, Kwek brings a weight of personal experience to these poems. But he is not afraid of the imagination either.

Most poems come with a short epigram. These present us with a person or a situation, often a catastrophe or tragedy, to which the poem responds. The responses are often direct, but carry universal messages.

The image of the weapon, for example, is in reference to the Malayan emergency; communist guerrillas destroyed the country’s fledgling democracy only to be massacred in turn by a new dictatorship. The young man receiving his burden is immediate and sympathetic, but also historically informed.

Always and everywhere, it is young men who fight the wars. Violence is passed down to them, like a crying baby. The weight of responsibility always falls on them. Some pick it up gladly, others in fear.

Kwek often lingers in home territories, exploring the Malayan conflict and, in Britain, his encounters in London and Oxford. Yet there are more far-flung flights of imagination.

The “Notes on a Landscape” cycle, responding to the Icelandic sagas, is majestic. It does justice both to the landscape that inspired it and the ancient culture it depicts.

His six translations of Meng Haoran’s “Spring Dawn” are another highlight, demonstrating the flexibility of ideogrammatic translations. He moves from a minimalist haiku-esque rendering of the poem to a long and flowing tale, no doubt injecting plenty of artistic license along the way.

More than anything, these poems demonstrate poetic sophistication. They are restrained and cautious, but sufficiently evocative to merit much rereading.

– Joe Darlington