The Burgess Reviews Reviews No.2

Anthony Burgess – The Ink Trade, Selected Journalism 1961-1993 (Carcanet, edited by Will Carr, 2018)

A good review can bear a little preamble. It can tell some home truths, and sustain a little storytelling of its own.

The role of the reviewer, as m’colleague Steve Hanson made clear in the first of these Burgessian reflections, is primarily to entertain the reader. The charming delineation of a work’s positives and the witty rebuke of its negatives provoke a particular pleasure; the exercise of the critical faculty in the cultivation of taste, as Addison might put it.

But there is an additional pleasure to be gained from what this volume’s editor, Will Carr, has grouped under the heading “journalism”, and that is the joy of intelligence unbound by rigour. The strictures of academic writing and review strike out a large portion of what really makes literature enjoyable: the anecdotes, the sensations, and the unsupportable opinions. The review has no such strictures.

Burgess was a great yarn spinner, and never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The Ink Trade offers us a collection of anecdotes that are so funny, insightful or memorable that a reader will enjoy them in spite of their very likely apocryphal nature.

The young Samuel Beckett, Burgess would have us believe, walked around Paris in shoes so tiny that they damaged his feet; all to impress his hero, James Joyce. Joyce was apparently so proud of his small feet that he regularly boasted about them.

This is the same Beckett who preferred the sports pages to poetry and who, in Burgess’ mind, not only became a naturalized Frenchman but was always, in fact, a Frenchman. A child of the Huguenots, Burgess tells us, who only happened to be born in Ireland, and whose Protestantism dragged him back to his true homeland as soon as he had graduated from the (also Protestant) Trinity College.

We learn too of Shakespeare meeting Cervantes. If the King’s Men travelled to Valladolid as part of the peace delegation of 1605, and the writer of the Quixote had also been at court then, by pure coincidence, the two great founders of modern literature would have met.

They would, of course, have spoken in Arabic; Cervantes learning it as a slave and Shakespeare picking it up on a trip to Tangier with the Earl of Southampton. Perhaps they theorized about a great author who would write of this meeting in centuries to come? It is just as likely.

To defend Burgess against the charge of bullshitmongery, he is usually very clear, when slipping into the anecdotal mode, to make the reader aware of this. His tone of address brings the reader in, puts a linguistical arm around them and assures them that this part of the review is just between ourselves; a bit of after dinner gossip that the bores at the university would rather us not share.

The success of Burgess’ journalistic voice is its ability to move between the informal and the insightful with very little friction. Reading the collection, you will encounter narratology, insights into character, musical theory, phonetics and a wealth of psychological, historical and cultural knowledge which reinforces his personal reveries and reflections.

This is perhaps why I can disagree with Burgess’ opinions a solid third of the time while also thoroughly enjoying the way in which he expresses them.

In the essay “The Academic Critic and the Living Writer”, published in 1986, Burgess reflects upon academics as being the true allies of creative writers, where critics, reviewers, journalists – whatever you want to call them – are mercenary jackals, only out for blood. To share an anecdote of my own, I was once informed that Burgess regularly attended symposia about his own works, and enthusiastically took notes as academics interpreted his novels. They, he conceded, knew better how to analyse the work; he only knew how to create it.

In the modern era, however, I feel the tables have turned. Literary criticism as it appears in the journals, and as imposed by the peer-review system, favours the political dismantling of writers’ work and careers over the appreciation of its form and beauty. Our literary theory is often more slogan than aphorism.

If we are to begin appreciating authors again, it might be that a return to reading reviews (ideally those by authors, rather than aspiring politicians) will help us to rekindle the dying flame of aesthetic appreciation. There is certainly something in The Ink Trade which encourages you. Burgess’ generosity abounds from the page such that we, too, as readers, respond with generosity, even when he’s clearly talking rubbish.

Carr has achieved a heroic feat in the editing of this book. From the vast mountain of Burgess’ non-fiction writing he has curated a selection that is intensely readable, pleasantly eclectic, and balances the published and the unpublished in such a way that those who have read all of Burgess’ previous collections will enjoy this book as much as the newcomer.

After summing up the book at hand, the reviewer should then end on a pithy statement. Such would be fitting; to walk in Burgess’ shoes. Let us hope that they fit.

– Joe Darlington

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A Christian Mingle

Patricia Lockwood – Priestdaddy (Penguin, 2018)

I must begin this review with an admission of bias. I believe in the gospel of Lockwood. I have accepted her as my personal Lord and rhymester.

Reading her first collection, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black (2012), was what first allowed me to write proper poems, and to judge what good modern poetry was. Before then, my literature degree had me peering up a high mountain with Milton waving down from the top. Those poems span me around and showed me how the rest of the world is poetry too.

Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (2014) was when Lockwood really arrived. It was the breakthrough album, complete with a hit single, “Rape Joke”, which went viral in the summer of 2017. I became a minor Patricia Lockwood lending library that summer, trying to gain converts by butting into every conversation and waving pamphlets.

Thanks to amazon-related bungling I missed the opportunity to review Lockwood’s 2017 memoir, Priestdaddy, before its release. Now that a new paperback edition has just been released by Penguin I finally have my chance to pass off a glowing review as objective reportage. (Perhaps I’ve already blown my cover…)

Priestdaddy is a memoir dealing with Lockwood’s eccentric family, her love of language, and her relationship with the Catholic Church. Her father, she tells us, watched The Exorcist one too many times while on a submarine patrol in the Navy, fell down some stairs and saw God. First becoming a Lutheran minister, he would marry and have five children before converting to Catholicism. For those curious, that’s how you end up having a Father for a father.

The way Lockwood describes her father is in keeping with her poetic style. She exaggerates for comic effect, emphasising his guitar noodling and penchant for clotheslessness to a cartoonish extent, only for her then to surprise the reader with touching moments of parental care and his dedication to the priesthood. Waking at 3am to help people in trouble, supporting his family through their various trials, having the Last Rights Kit hanging by the door, always ready; you get the sense of her father being a good man, albeit one who is an enemy to trousers.

The supporting cast overall is strong. You grow to love her paranoiac mother with pro-life coathangers in her dresser (“The Midwest, contrary to popular opinion, does not lack a sense of irony. It might have too much of one”). Jason, her husband, plays the role of baffled outsider well, although there’s not a huge amount of their story in the book. Lockwood is much happier telling the story of how she lost her virginity to a swimming pool than she is in dealing with her own romances. One could be forgiven for thinking she only married him because he wrote the line “the milk bottles burst like scared chickens” in a poem once. Though it is a good line.

The memoirs travel loosely between the present of their writing and memories. It feels digressive in a personal way, like a long conversation between friends. If there is arrangement, it is through symbol. Swimming, submarines, cheap wine, asses; a shifting, personal iconography develops to parallel that of the immovable Church.

Which brings us to language. Lockwood’s poetry depends on the capacity of simile to outstretch metaphor. The terrifying beast that Christine Brooke-Rose always capitalised, “The Copula”, should technically only compare and not replace. A metaphor says something is something else, while Lockwood usually only says that it is like. Her genius is in the excesses to which she can then take her imagery thanks to them only being likenesses.

Describing the moment of religious calling when a man knows he is destined for the Church, Lockwood writes, “I think of that Buster Keaton stunt where the wall collapses and he finds himself standing in the open window of the upper room, not merely unharmed but chosen. After that, you must live the rest of your life differently, carrying that open window around with you always”. I find that image captivating. The thing that being chosen is like seems so much more real than the thing itself; not just more apt, or easier to understand, but more palpable.

Maybe these images are lapsed-Catholic in origin? Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism showed itself in his emphatic symbols; big, heavy red rocks and hollow men that are hollow men. He declares his images. Booms them with Gospel certainty. Lockwood, by contrast, has let The Copula into her heart. The wine isn’t blood, but if you want to really understand it, then it is. Poetry is the magical process by which things are compared with other things with such passionate intensity that, for the reader, they actually transform.

The most exciting moment of the book for me came with Lockwood’s description of linguistic synaesthesia, the “plasma” spilling out of words. We are told that “’sunshine’ had a washed look, with the sweep of a rag in the middle of it. The world ‘violinist’ was a fig cut in half. ‘String quartet’ was a cat’s cradle held between two hands”. I don’t really understand this bit, but that’s only because “sunshine” is so obviously a low buzz, “violinist” the sound of a knife and “string quartet” is like a bag full of nuts and bolts shaking around. Or I guess I do understand it. Too well.

More than anything, Priestdaddy is a touching read. It is a hymn to American kookiness and a rejoinder to Tolstoy’s claim that all families have to be happy in the same way. I hope that it does well, but not so well that Lockwood gives up poetry for prose. She is a unique voice.

– Joe Darlington 

And why wouldn’t I show him how like butter I was?

André Aciman – Call Me By Your Name (Atlantic Books)

With all of the press surrounding the new film adaptation directed by Luca Guadagnino, I thought I should revisit André Aciman’s beautiful book Call Me By Your Name. Several months have passed since I set out to write this review, and I think this adjournment is a testament to that beauty of Aciman’s work. I often find it difficult to write about things that I love.

The film, of course, is beautiful in its own respect. It is very visual, where the book is entirely insular. However, despite existing from and within inside the protagonist’s head, the novel itself achieves such impressive visual stimulation. It is no wonder that Guadagnino made the decision to focus on the outside rather than the inside. As reader, we are privy to all the things that in the film are left unsaid. They are left unsaid because they are in fact unsaid – they are thought and felt. And for me, the incessant and passionate divulge of Elio’s thoughts and feelings is wonderful.

This work presents the devastating infiltration of passion and desire with such poignancy and veracity. Love; the way it rushes in and out; like waves. I could be sat in the Italian sun. There is romance in every word. Aciman conveys the energy and dedication of infatuation in a way that I have never come across before. The wholeheartedness and wholemindedness of love. He creates such familiarity with the feeling that one would do anything for the object of their longing, “from ice to sunshine”.

The desperate wondering that we might have all experienced is so genuinely translated. We feel the violence of Elio’s obsession with Oliver: “Fire like fear, like panic, like one more minute of this and I’ll die if he doesn’t knock at my door”. We feel the impossible pace of feeling, so wonderfully expressed.

This portrayal of a young love offers so much as an examination of the essence of humanness. How everything changes in the light of love. There is a delightful voice created throughout, with abundant poetic offerings on every page – “that foot in the water – I could have kissed every toe on it”.

We follow Elio through the different stages of obsession, the indignation, and the denial. He tells us “I didn’t even care for him or his shoulders or the white of his arms. The bottom of his feet, the flat of his palms…” and it is perfect. We don’t believe him and he doesn’t believe himself. We see the wonderful uncertainty of adolescence, of self discovery. “I want to know your body, I want to know how you feel, I want to know you, and through you, me”. There is a beautiful, almost pederastic, resistance between the two. The life and death absoluteness of it all, the “mournful silence” and the “I don’t know how I’d have survived another day like this.”

While writing, now that I am finally writing, I realise I am still yet to say anything worthwhile. I am tempted to simply make a list of quotes from the book. Aciman is a wonderful writer, and his words resonate with me. Son of Nabokov. Dream machine. The book is just so beautiful. Just read it, please. A review couldn’t touch it.

– Blair James 

The Burgess Reviews Reviews No.1

Anthony Burgess – The Ink Trade, Selected Journalism 1961-1993 (Carcanet, edited by Will Carr)

This book pulls some previously uncollected as well as unpublished Burgess reviews into one volume.

Orwell once described the reviewer as ‘pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.’ So here I am, tipping a half of something smooth and costly – in the eternal sense – down the sewer right in front of you – a review of a book of reviews.

In fact, Manchester Review of Books – being Manchester Review of Books – might give you a few pints of it and send you home tipsy. Several of our reviewers are covering this, Burgess is important to us, and to the city.

When I was an undergraduate a housemate had a dictionary with a quote from a review on the inside of the dust jacket: ‘This is a fine dictionary’ it said, and it was signed Anthony Burgess.

We thought it was hilarious, it seemed to be evidence of completely fickle hackwork for what might have been called, in the early 60s, ‘payola’. But this book stands that group of cheeky undergrads absolutely corrected.

Burgess was a notorious reviewer, make no mistake. At times the practice took a large percentage of his time and work. But this is not hackwork.

The introduction here does discuss whether or not Burgess took this form of critical writing seriously. He once claimed he was stopping, then didn’t. He was sacked for reviewing his own book in the Yorkshire Post, or rather a pseudonymous Enderby title.

That review kicks off this collection, and I actually believe Burgess when he says he thought the editor was in on the joke – it’s much more than self-deprecating as a review.

He actually urges his readers to avoid the book more than to buy it, although perhaps in a way which recommends its cruder aspects to certain readers.

Burgess’s reviewing was promiscuous. He took on assignments for Country Life that led to an understanding of all kinds of things he wouldn’t otherwise seek out, stable management, embroidery.

But Burgess explains this as the stuff of novelists, the detail, the authenticity fuel. He also covered Levi-Strauss for Country Life, get that – because nobody else wanted to – leading to a serious interest in his work and to the novel M/F.

The review here titled The Corruption of the Exotic is offered as evidence that Burgess was interested in Levi-Strauss before that Country Life article, although you have to peer in and squint to really see it.

Burgess’s assignments were in some ways his second university, although he gloats about being one gig away from a completely free city of food, theatre, cinema, and I guess the unspoken Burgess essential ingredient, booze.

The review of Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano is great, it makes me want to read all the other Lowry (I haven’t, only UTV). The Lowry review also contains one of Burgess’s many final sign-off lines: The single sentence diamonds.

Here it is ‘industry and longevity are no substitute for genius’ and a few reviews later ‘only the very bad writer is always absolutely sure of the value of what he is doing.’

So true.

But the Lowry review is chilling at this point in history – in 2018 – as Burgess cracks the relationship between the doomed ex-pat of the novel, dissipated and bent on death, the nihilist and ‘the choice that Europe, in the thirties, had already made.’

The war in Spain, Germany, and the colonial entropy. Orwell seems to hang over this point and Orwell emerges again during Burgess’s take on Why I Write, although this piece contains no nod to Orwell whatsoever.

It is a lesser fragment, clearly the start of something larger that was never finished. But at the end of the day, Burgess is always excellent as Burgess.

It actually doesn’t really matter if you’re interested in the book under review or not. He always has a pithy digression and cultural supplement to pop in your mouth. He has a juicy bit of gossip and a rootle around down the armchair for some historical artefacts.

It doesn’t really matter where you are in this book either, you can open it and ‘just start’. You could just buy this book as an introduction to great culture, full stop.

It could easily serve as intelligent holiday reading, and I don’t mean that as a slur, although doubtless AB would have taken it as one.

Or, alternately, ‘this is a fine dictionary’.

Suspect Language

Evelyn Schlag – All Under One Roof, translated by Karen Leeder (Carcanet, 2018)

A pig in a poke.

Some sayings have lost their original reference points. They are carried in our speech like dead bodies, lifted along by the living words that crowd around them, their feet dragging on the floor.

Now imagine a translator. They are tasked with changing words and phrases for their closest foreign relation. How do they react when they find one of these corpses being carried along? Or perhaps, not corpses, but living dead. Phrases no longer signifying but still working, moving, and evoking responses from others…

I put it to you that once infected with poetry, all language takes on this zombielike appearance. It seems at once itself and other, but soon that otherness takes it over, consumes its original meaning. The rose that is sick ceases to be a rose at all. Words have become suspect.

I offer these observations as a result of reading Karen Leeder’s new translation of Evelyn Schlag’s poetry. The poems are in some ways difficult, but by the same measure they are deeply engaging. Especially if, like me, you enjoy ambiguity and enigma. The poems are set in the concrete world, but their language turns our minds away from it.

Interior lighting in a globogod. Tongulator

to the first floor. Not looking no one in the

eye. Sinking faces long since swilled way. Not

in the market for friends. Nameless plankton the

lot of them shopperplankton drifting. The season’s

innocent colours have arrived like never before.

Neologisms and a disregard for punctuation are typical of Schlag’s writing. She sometimes lets sentences drift too long, sometimes – as in the shopperplankton lines above – she joins a series of unfinished subclauses to make new, short units of sentencelike meaning. This effect, described by Leeder in her introduction, has been carried over into English. Our loose English grammar can incorporate such devices, however, and so I find myself overcompensating in my grammatical expectations. I’m trying to be German about it all.

The question, I suppose, is whether you can translate a broken grammar. If so, can you translate it so that it reads in the same way? I don’t expect that you can. I suspect that there’s something else here going on.

So too with Schlag’s imagery. We are promised the concrete, shown the fantastic, and left to decide our own level of literality:

                  Sufi and Versailles. Gateway to fresh-squeezed apple juice.

                  Police direct the traffic somewhat with a scarf and cigarette.

                  At night little sledges career across the roofs.

I find the words compelling, the poetry addictive. But I am filled with suspicions. Am I bringing too much of myself to the images? Have I replaced reading with presuming? Is “direct the traffic somewhat” an inelegant translation of elegant German, or inelegant German translated elegantly?

Maybe this is why I avoid poetry in translation.

Yet it is Evelyn Schlag’s poetic style itself that exploits language’s haunted qualities. Its ultimate inability to differentiate physical objects from metaphors, or metaphorical objects from physical presences.

                  In the Euro tunnel on the great west track

                  the glasses tremble on the table. I think of bats

                  and their tiny spit. For sticking speech marks

                                    back when they’ve fallen off

                  quotations. It’s fine it’s fine. The little witches…

For language clear and uncluttered, Schlag’s poetry still asks you to double back often, to re-read and then perhaps to read on with the sense still partially unfixed. You must read it with a clear head, the better to appreciate the poetic fuzz that covers its words.

Sometimes the best pigs are purchased in pokes. One must trust that what’s in the bag is really there, and that it is what it says it is. Poetic language, especially in translation, is a suspicious thing; shifting and circumspect. Schlag’s poetry is captivating for its very embrace of the unfixed and the slippery. Leeder’s translation does tremendous work carrying this through to English.

As these translated poems show, there are no frictionless borders in language. We must come to love our friction.

– Joe Darlington

To read or not to read

Alejandro Zambra – Not To Read (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

This is my first exposure to the Chilean writer and critic Alejandro Zambra who – as translator Megan McDowell explains – would much rather talk about Nicanor Parra than Garcia Marquez, and based on this introduction I am hoping to be able to read a hell of a lot more of him.

This is a great introduction, too, with its short sections. But each mini essay has a depth and purpose other writers would struggle to fit into a chapter. That Zambra does this with a breezy and sometimes cheeky style is kind of miraculous.

I see parallels with Nicanor Parra, when Parra writes that it’s really all the same if god exists or not, Zambra seems to have the same mix of gravity and levity.

‘Against Poets’ presents a picture of the archetypal bard starting out and then reaching mid-life, ‘they didn’t decide to become poets just so they could be forty years old’ he writes, with irreverence, but at the end concludes that these people are the saviours of the world. Again, gravity and levity fuse.

Via this short, humorous piece we get a sense of the longer tradition of poetry, as something to settle into, a thing of temporality that started before you and will go on after you. I sense this book – already far more well known outside Britain – has the same function. As Megan McDowell explains ‘we write to multiply ourselves’, in a search for a collective spirit.

The text is crystal clear and fresh, a thing of joy. The titles invite you in with their everydayness, ‘Other People’s Mail’ for instance and ‘In Praise of the Photocopy’. In the latter piece Zambra mentions Barthes and there’s a sense of Barthes refreshed in the style and brevity of these short essayistic pieces, Mythologies particularly.

The piece that bears the title of the collection is wonderful. Zambra takes pleasure in all the books he will never read, all the things he won’t have to read.

This assumption, sort-of lurking under the surface of academic life, ‘if only we could read everything’ is exposed for what it is, impossible and not actually desirable. I am coming out and saying that I will never read Giddens’ two volumes on historical materialism, since I got as far as the bit that completely rubbishes surplus value from out of nowhere.

I am now enjoying the fact that I will never read them. It glows in me like a secret.

But Zambra goes on to expose the reviewers who don’t finish books they review. I can tell you this smugly because I got that far and so can prove I have been there by writing it into this review. Which of course tells you nothing about my reviewing practice…

This is a book for writers and readers and I suspect that Fitzcarraldo is a publisher for writers and readers.

Long may Fitzcrraldo continue, I cannot find a single flaw in what they do, from the choice of text to publish and the design, right down to the way the paper smells.

This is one of their best titles. A thing to be thrust into rucksacks, battered and then treasured for generations.

New Old Sincerity, Real Depth

Sally Barrett – A Life’s Work (Red Ceilings Press)

Apparently sincerity is back. The icy ironic sheen of postmodernity is thawing. A group of academics are feverishly putting titles to this – little flags planted on this spring landscape with their names on them – the titles include ‘the New Depthiness’ and ‘Metamodernism’.

Tim Vermeulen describes how he envisions what he calls the ‘New Depthiness’ by saying ‘I am thinking of a snorkeler intuiting depth, imagining it — perceiving it without encountering it.’ He bases this on a viewing of Season 3 of Girls in which ‘just because I feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there’, a Radiohead song lyric, was suddenly inverted for him into ‘just because it isn’t real doesn’t mean I don’t feel it.’

Via this remote control epiphany Vermeulen launched a new movement within arm’s reach of the roasted peanuts. Adam Kelly of the University of York has called it ‘the New Sincerity’ via David Foster Wallace trying to break out of the alienated postmodern condition into a kind of authentic being.

That these ‘paradigms’ emerge from reading Foster Wallace, watching Season 3 of Girls or listening to Radiohead hasn’t stopped the more excitable academics from taking Metamodernism on as if it were a solid object.

Academic papers are already being produced and passing muster: For instance, ‘Metamodernism as we perceive it’ by Dali Kadagishvili (2013) begins ‘Metamodernism is a new moment in philosophy, art, literature, fashion, photography, economics, politics and other spheres of human activities…’

Lauren Gardner (2016) then launches ‘Metamodernism’ as a ‘A New Philosophical Approach to Counseling’ and Michel Clasquin-Johnson depressingly aims us (2017) ‘Towards a metamodern academic study of religion and a more religiously informed metamodernism’.

Rasa Vasinauskaitė (2015) claims that the paradigm alters ‘cultural contexts, concepts of the perception of the world and its reality’ that the paradigm ‘of postmodernism is being changed by the theories of post-postmodernism, metamodernism, or new realism…’

Personally I think they are all struggling. Ordinary people have been sincere forever. Yes, that sincerity is cracked with contradiction, and always has been – long before postmodernity was announced – but ordinary people have been sincere forever.

Sincerity is not an objective place, it is a subjective one, a place of feeling. Black music – modern R&B for instance – has always been sincere. It’s why Flight of the Conchords find it so funny, because it jars with the default world of irony. Therefore in the north of England black music and the white working class came together in northern soul. It was partly about feeling in a brutalised place.

Richard and Sally Barrett are both northern and I admire their writing so much because they unpretentiously tell us how they feel to an extent that might make some squirm. Indeed, on the back blurb here, Sarah Faith worries that Sally Barrett’s sheer honesty might destabilise her, make her more vulnerable. I think the opposite is the case.

In these poems, in this collection by Sally Barrett, everyday anxieties are mined, those voices in the head are translated to the page so faithfully that they almost become universal. They are not universal anxieties, but the way simple worries tend to inflate must be recognisable to anyone who is fully human:

I WISH RICHARD WOULD GO TO THE OPTICIANS
What if his eyes get worse and then
He can’t see to read and kills himself
He once told me if he was blind
He would top himself
I hope he doesn’t

These poems stay in your head and expand as the days roll on, they illuminate the whole landscape we live in, how the crappy flats we inhabit and the rubbish food we eat are all part of the impossibility of full lives and untroubled relationships. How the past eats us. They are direct and real and they investigate what it is to exist in a compromised and troubling place without any recourse to Derrida.

That there is an expensive AHRC investigation into Metamodernism and the ‘New Sincerity’ for two years is hilarious when these two are working right under their noses.

I am not being anti-intellectual – and I take the core of Derrida’s work seriously too – I am just pointing out bad intellectual endeavour. All you have to do is leave the theoretical slum, just get out more. You might want to buy this book too.

Candles and Cabbage

Martina Evans – Now We Can Talk Openly About Men (Carcanet, 2018) 

Martina Evans’ latest poetry collection takes the form of two dramatic monologues. Set in Mallow, County Cork, 1919 and Dublin, 1924, they mark the two foundational conflicts of the Irish Republic: the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. They also tell a tale of women’s experiences across two turbulent generations.

Both speakers are sceptical of political causes. The first, Kitty Donavan, is made so by necessity. Her dressmaking business is being shunned by the locals for taking business from the British Army. Her daughter too is in love with the young, one-armed socialist, Captain Galway. Kitty is cursed with migraines and relies on the doctor’s laudanum “tonics”. The opiates alternately cushion her from the violence and, caught between doses, emphasise her need.

Kitty’s work provides a language for her suppressed anxieties. Working, her “scissors swim like a dolphin with relief”. They trace “the crown & the letters of Royal Red”, all the while listening to the young rebel Eileen Murphy talk of the future Irish State. No more Royal Red, she says, the post boxes and the uniforms will all soon by green.

I’d imagined something magnificent like

A pure Peacock hue until she showed me

The colour on a bachelor’s gate

On the road to Quartertown. Pure disgusting.

A horrible dark green like an old leaf

Of cabbage you’d see a snail on top of.

Evans’ verse is tightly packed with images, but loose enough in its metre to read naturally. One can take the book at a running pace and enjoy a story with deep emotional beats, or slow the pace and reflect on the careful choice of wording. It’s not a symbolic poem, but its images – a peacock hue, a bachelor’s gate – are not chosen by accident.

Violence is always around the corner in Kitty’s Mallow. Soldiers shot in the guts, the Tans beating innocents on the street corner. As it builds to a terrible climax, Kitty barricades herself in. It is Eileen Murphy, the young rebel, who escapes the first poem. Her sewing skills, taught by kitty, make her the fastest sock darner in the IRA.

The second voice, Miss Babe Cronin’s, is more direct than Kitty’s. She is less evasive about her evasion. A stenographer; Babe’s language is clean, but she can’t help but listen. The “open tap of propaganda” from Eileen Murphy’s mouth, “nice looking in spite of the man’s black cap”, eventually turns her head. She starts running packages for the pretty young rebel girl.

Once again Evans’ turns an arresting image to great descriptive purpose:

…A fair haired girl with

Plaits down to her waist handed it over

But when she smiled at me, weren’t her two

Front teeth missing? In that church with the girl

Dressed all in white among the white candles,

It was an awful shock to see her gums.

As if the door of hell opened, I knew

Full well it was a firearm…

The bitter ironies of the civil war carry through the second poem, contrasting the Independence conflict in the first. The armies of the Irish Free State hold British guns, while the rebels speak Gaelic and carry the crucifix. Both sides are buried in their respective traditions. Both carry dogma.

For the women caught between the sides there are the old certainties of men and men’s folly. Men bring danger and adventure, fire and fear. This is perhaps why Evans picked the counterintuitive title; “Now We Can Talk Openly About Men”. The cover, pink and rather twee, seems to have been designed based upon this title alone. I can’t help but feel there are more appropriate colours out there – perhaps dark green and pure disgusting?

Overall, it’s a gripping read. The poetry is both pacey and touching by turns. The personal voices carry you along with them. Reading, you are inside the conflict, scurrying between brief moments of reflection. I will be surprised if awards aren’t won for what Evans has achieved here. A smart concept brilliantly realised.

– Joe Darlington

The sad passions

Vic Seidler – Making Sense of Brexit (Polity)

Everyone should read this book.

Seidler writes of the moment during the referendum campaign when it became clear that ‘people across the country had just stopped listening’. It comes up some pages later, where ‘stopped listening’ is italicised again.

It stuck in my head all the way through the book and so I will repeat it for you in this review: People ‘had stopped listening’. The repeated instances seemed important, as though historical amnesia might have affected everyone and only via repetition might we wake.

This book has the tone of the late great Zygmunt Bauman, without necessarily following his themes or style directly. This ‘tone’ seems to run parallel to the book’s ability to see into the dimensions of the subject that have always been there, but have been almost literally unspeakable. This is a key strength of Bauman’s writing – as it is here – and the book is dedicated to his memory.

Bauman’s memory. If the people have fallen into amnesia we have Bauman’s memory. We need Bauman’s memory more than ever. Seidler clearly remembers Bauman.

Seidler’s perspective of the situation of ‘Brexit’ as a western one and not just a local British political squabble is strong: Brexit is interwoven with the election of Trump – a close won thing, as was Vote Leave – and these are not facile comparisons.

The xenophobia of the Leave campaign is mirrored in Hungary and Orbán, in Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and the German AfD, the ‘alternative for Germany’, subtitled “there is no alternative”.

What is happening here is happening in and to the west as a whole. This is the wider terrifying dimension of the subject. It is bleak and mad and all the warnings from history are there in plain sight and yet still it seems to be happening. It feels like the slow motion horrors that occur when dreaming.

You are powerless to stop them, you can only watch as your own body is slowly puppeted through the madness.

Similarly, the logical flaws and gaps here – for instance in the alternative for which there is no alternative – are not anomalies to be smoothed over, but the places to begin to research the subject.

What we are seeing is the final disintegration of the post-WW2 settlement. This cannot be in doubt: Corbyn is as sceptical about NATO as Trump. Seidler returns to Trump’s ‘mistake’, when he proclaimed the enemy in ‘radical Islamic terrorism’, not ‘radical Islamist terrorism’. Again, these slips, ‘parapraxes’ as Freud named them, are not the places to change the subject, but the place where the subject starts.

Viewed one way, Trump’s climate change denial is simply a badge declaring his belief in it. The terrifying future that opens up here is all of what we are witnessing now, plus higher sea levels. World peace will not suddenly descend like a dove bearing an olive branch.

Theresa May is seeking to reach out to the US-UK ‘special relationship’ in an era when Trump is trying to turn America even further inwards. Seidler marks these longer historical changes well, between Kennedy and the US’s ambitions to police the global scene after WW2 and Trump’s quixotic ambivalence.

Old certainties are being reached for and empty air grasped. Seidler really conveys the sense of this without trying to be a prophet, or hammer out a correct line: This is a real strength.

Britain’s isolation could be felt acutely when the Russian attacks on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury were being reported. Suddenly, as we exit the EU, here was a different prospect entirely, even with the Litvinenko poisoning behind us.

Turning to America is a desperate and hollow prospect right now and Seidler marks this well. He goes back to Bauman on how people look for ‘magic’ in leadership – the example in Britain of course now being Corbyn – but because of this almost spiritual expectation they will inevitably be disappointed.

The book effortlessly deals with the immediate moment of crisis and the longer historical curves leading up to it.

A peculiar view has arisen over the last two decades that Labour and Conservative are all the same. As one far right attendee to a Higher Education project I am involved with pointed out, for him Labour and Tories are both leftwing, but UKIP aren’t rightwing enough.

The spatial geographical political metaphors have been scrambled. The compass you used to use works as it always did in some places, but in others only intermittently.

Two decades of mainstream political chicanery have led to this scrambling of any sense of a political true north. We have both Boris and Blair to thank for their blatant lies and as I write the attempt to stop a dictator murdering his people with chemical weapons is being made more difficult by Blair’s legacy of deviousness, and it is often being argued against by the same left who say Britain should have been in Spain in the 1930s.

But what Seidler brings to the subject that many commentators don’t is a view of maps and compasses as they might be seen by refugees from these genocides.

So, not only does this book contain the perspective that what is happening to ‘us’ in Britain is happening in the west more widely, but that this is also completely connected to the conflicts in the middle east. Seidler gives us a holistic view, but it’s a holism of uprooting, a map to a total landscape of deracination.

Seidler cites poet George Szirtes’ thoughts and feelings on encountering Brexit, from the point of view of a man who remembers arriving in Britain as a refugee, when a boy. Seidler’s own parents arrived from Vienna, a Jewish family attempting to escape the rise of Nazism.

But Seidler and Szirtes both show us that escape is never full. The escapees are psychologically riven internally, as those who died were riven apart outside the sanctuary they now inhabit. We have the poetry of Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs and now Szirtes to explain how that feels. Sachs is going to be published in a new translation by Andrew Shanks soon and we will cover that here. Its arrival at this point is beyond timely.

Szirtes’ last collection seemed almost psychically attuned to what was to come. As I wrote for Manchester Review of Books, his ‘poems now leer out of the pages with increased significance.’ The title piece of his last collection is about a globalised world that now feels like it is shrinking.

Szirtes’ poem ‘Bartok’ describes how eastern European folk music became transcribed, with all of its atonality for the concert hall, so that those audiences could hear music that ‘screeched and snapped like bullets freshly fired.’ The preceding poem describes the old men of this even older landscape, respectably concealing trenches with corpses in them. The plucked strings and bleary ravaged landscape of Bartok’s String Quartet No.4 then rises to the surface.

My point was that after Brexit, after Trump, this is not just a great collection of poetry – it is – but an essential book of any sort for our newly darkened times, it is an actual map and I fear that we are all going to need it. In Seidler’s book there is a volume to place right next to it on the shelf, whatever genre-clash that creates.

The bitter and resentful xenophobe is also internally split, although to directly equate them would be a horrible insult to those fleeing genocide. But this is the landscape of the human estranged from her or himself per se.

As his argument progresses, Seidler works his way into Brexit in relation to some of his previous themes. Seidler’s work on masculinity seems much less well known than it should be. He was involved with the journal Achilles’ Heel, suggesting that man’s weakness and vulnerability be emphasised and that from this perspective we should join feminism in re-approaching ourselves. Both the xenophobe and incomer should work along those lines, with one another, in an act of mutual recognition and transformation. It seems unlikely, but I don’t think it is impossible.

As we can see, and as I pointed out in my first book, there is nothing particularly national about the new nationalism now being labelled the ‘alt-right’: It is a global anti-globalist phenomena. The contradictions are the places to begin again. The dialectic only begins to move from these cracks in the seamless surfaces.

Almost everyone went to the polls knowing what they were voting for at the same time as nobody went knowing.

Seidler sees the swing to Corbyn, but worries over its investment in sexual and ethnic multiplicity. Seidler asks us to question the legacies of post-structuralism. I can see why, but from my perspective what advances were made under the inappropriate heading of post-structuralism are being jettisoned completely by the new young left.

Their return to a supposed solidity of knowledge that never really existed is as likely to work long-term as the magical leader is likely to satisfy. Postmodernism is also being rejected and one sees why. But there are larger dangers lurking here. There is a big difference between rejecting shallow postmodernity and its irony and embracing the new or what I call in my head neosolid. A ‘common sense’ left will inevitably, unconsciously, enshrine badnesses.

Therefore the changes we are seeing in discourses are across the left and the right. The left are also rejecting the identity politics of the previous epoch, sometimes with real insight and criticality, but in many instances the gleeful torching is little different from that of the right.

Seidler cites Daniel Barenboim’s comments at the Proms before conducting Elgar’s second symphony, that Elgar was really a pan-European composer. For those who know, yes he was, but to many he is a trope of Englishness. An English countryside modelled on Herefordshire as the idyll to be protected from the foreign attacker.

The English countryside as ethnocentric identity, as blood and folk, it is encoded in that sound. The tropescape is always present, it is the dark matter that glues the daytime together. Cultural documents like this are sewed into ideologies through their use in popular film and TV, or in the use of music that sounds very much like it. This is why postmodernism as a diagnosis of the quality of information in our times is not fully dead.

Similarly, Ode To Joy, performed by Barenboim and others after the referendum was perhaps badly picked, as Beethoven’s Ninth has become so freighted with meaning it has entirely submerged. We can now only hear the bubbles and foam as it sinks under its own weight.

Seidler’s final comments speculate on what is opening up. They are dark and dangerous times from anyone’s perspective. John Harris has rightly claimed Brexit as a kind of revolution with no future or precedent. Seidler reprises these arguments well in the book, turning them over carefully and examining them.

But I take issue with some of Harris’s coverage. He described some of the leave voters he encountered on the streets as ‘plain racist’, before separating them cleanly off from those who were concerned with migrants taking jobs and housing. Are they not also racist? I don’t try to answer this question for you, I think it needs to be discussed, although I certainly have a firm view of my own.

Perhaps only one thing is fully certain here and it is that it isn’t possible to neatly separate things. I wrote an article for Open Democracy called ‘False Consciousness, what’s not to dislike? To begin with I asked us to picture the 48% versus 52% of remain versus leave in shades of grey and simply see them as the smoke from a bonfire of rotten sentiments and dead ideas. It is of course possible to state facts, but I still think that mental exercise is worthwhile.

John Harris, although brilliant on many current questions, fears False Consciousness. It means calling out the working classes using a Marxist term. But False Consciousness is to be found at the same co-ordinates as Post-Truth and Neoliberal doublespeak. Post-Truth is Postmodern False Consciousness.

False Consciousness doesn’t mean the working classes are idiots, but it does mean that they have been systematically fed untruth by the media. Harris and many others are already saying this anyway, in one form or another.

False Consciousness is not a declaration that ‘the working classes are stupid’, it never was. There is not some place ‘over there’ where False Consciousness exists, in relation to a place over here where it does not. We are all blind to the full, macro complexity and Seidler understands this.

I also wrote an article for Open Democracy on my father’s occasional racist outbursts, at the same time as he considers himself to not be racist at all. Then there are my research participants. The engineer who works on complex global projects – a man of free movement if ever there was one – but one who claims that the ethnic other does not belong in Britain at all.

‘They don’t belong here’, he explained to me, as if to a child. I wrote about him in my first book, Small Times, Austere Times (Zero, 2014). He is partly of and not of the basic stereotype of the bad leave voter: He lives in the northwest, but he is not stupid or poor. But I am clear that he is a fascist, no other word should be used.

This said, the mix of bitternesses and resentments clouding our vision above this bonfire of the emotions cannot be neatly separated. But we still need to face the full extent of the fire that is now alight in order to try to put it out before it spreads.

We will all get burned doing this. It is going to be painful, but it needs to be done.

I co-authored a paper with Sundas Ali and Ben Gidley. Ali’s data shows a clear correlation with ‘Englishness’ – as testified to in the last census – and leave votes. There are only two serious anomalies, Hull and Luton, Hull perhaps explainable by being along the ‘Brexit coast’.

Yet at the same time, as Rakib Ehsan explains in a LSE post: ‘A number of jurisdictions with large South Asian populations delivered Leave votes’, including Luton (56.5% Leave), Hillingdon (56.4% Leave), Slough (54.3% Leave) and Bradford (54.2% Leave).

All have ‘South Asian populations of 25% and above’. Ehsan explains that it is ‘not unreasonable to think that such Leave votes could not have been delivered without a significant number of Asian voters opting for Brexit.’

A possible reason for this, Ehsan suggests, is ‘that many voters within the British South Asian diaspora don’t feel European’, as ‘Europe’ was never part of their integration process, yet the ‘pro-Commonwealth rhetoric coming from the Leave camp’, might well ‘have pulled on the heartstrings of many South Asian voters.’

Here we reach one of the major questions which it was the purpose of our paper to ask: It is possible to declare a correlation between whiteness and Englishness, due to the clear evidence that cities which voted remain and identify as British also have higher ethnic minority demographics: Does Brexit mean xenophobia?

This analysis is further underscored if we turn to a town such as Rochdale and scrutinise the Brexit vote district-by-district; Sayer (2017) points to the ethnic ‘minority wards’ that ‘bucked the Leave trend’ in Bradford, Oldham, Rochdale, and Walsall, and ‘were among the top 100 60% + Leave districts in the UK’.

‘Brexit’, Sivanandan said not long before he died, ‘means racism’. Yet the new left are bending over backwards now, attempting any kind of elaborate mental gymnastics to deny this, because it means calling the working classes racists.

Well, my family are racists and because of that I am not shy of declaring it. Many among the middle class left writing on the subject try to declare this dimension a mirage. The working classes must be noble and lionised at all costs. This is also false consciousness, with a long trail in the equally fantastical lineages of leftwing heritage: The noble workers that will rise through history? Come on. Really? And I say this as a Marxist.

But Seidler does not suffer from these delusions. He doesn’t come at it from my thorny perspective either, but he turns over the material and views it from different sides, as one might examine a crystal, through different facets.

The media has been a big problem. The right wing tabloids are seen as driving the Brexit ‘leave’ debates, before, during and after the vote.

If we look at newspapers by circulation the right certainly have the power. Newspapers with over one million units of daily circulation are The Sun – 1,666,715; Daily Mail – 1,511,357; Metro – 1,476,956; The Sun on Sunday – 1,375,539; The Mail on Sunday – 1,257,984.

The Guardian only just pips the Daily Record by circulation, although its online journalism is not paywalled and so its reach should not just be read through newspaper sales.

The print newspaper industry has been in decline for a number of years, down at least -4.3% year-on-year. Matthew Smith warns that the ‘National Readership Survey figures for 2016’ are ‘grim reading for those who worry a right-wing media bias.’

They show that ‘collective circulation of right-wing papers is leaving that of the left-wing papers for dust.’

The Mail and Sun are the most read papers in the country and the most rightwing. Jon Burnett cites purported Romanian crimewaves in the British rightwing press and other generated racist panics.

The only fully stable fact here is that racism morphs, it takes new shapes and resists being outlawed at all levels, conscious, semi-conscious and unconscious.

The hope that the xenophobic turn in England is generational and therefore will soon wane is not borne out by current analysis of newspaper circulation. But as the recent Facebook data harvesting scandal shows the battle of online media is only just beginning. Here is a far more slippery, shifting scenery.

Seidler makes the point that journalists are judged by the ‘number of hits their articles receive’, yet in some ways so are academics. The book takes me beyond Brexit into the new cultural and political landscapes that are unfolding before us, at different speeds.

What has happened to universities right across the period leading up to and across the referendum has been as disastrous as what is happening to politics, media, economics and belief. This book is not just about Brexit, it is about The New World. There is too much to cover here, this review would be longer than the book it is dedicated to, so I need to conclude.

I have only one slight criticism and it is that there’s a bit of an over-reliance on the Guardian as a source. In some ways this is understandable considering the media available in Britain, and the arguments I have just made about it, but there it is, you only have to browse the notes to see it.

I don’t think the book is particularly skewed because of it, but the Financial Times contains a lot of hard data. Capitalist swines need strong facts, not strong opinions (which is not the same thing as claiming the FT is ideology-free, far from it).

However, what Seidler brings to this work – something that is mostly absent elsewhere – is not knowing. At the end of the preface, ready to launch into his first substantive chapter, he frames his enquiry partly through it.

What is missing elsewhere is uncertainty and uncertainty – if it can ever be called such a thing in this context – is the ground the subject of ‘Brexit’ stands upon. The book explains the holes in stability as well as the holes in knowledge.

My complaint is nothing in the face of the strength of the analysis here, and in case people have simply stopped listening I’ll say it again:

Everyone should read this book.

– Steve Hanson

Homes for all?

John Boughton – Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing (Verso, 2018)

I woke up in a youth hostel in Oxford in June 2017 to the news of the Grenfell fire. I was there as an attendee at an academic conference themed ‘Architecture, Citizenship, Space: British Architecture from the 1920s to the 1970s’. The grim extent of the catastrophe unfolded as the conference went on, and its repercussions are still being felt now, nearly ten months later.

One of the attractions of the conference was that John Boughton, author of one of my favourite blogs, the meticulously researched yet accessibly written Municipal Dreams, was speaking about his work visiting, documenting and exploring the history of the country’s council estates, one of the key areas of architectural and social development in twentieth century Britain. This work took on a new dimension in the light of Grenfell, which opened in 1974; the conference was both subdued and emotionally charged. There was a general sense of shock. As well as being close to home as a research interest, it was also an area several of the London-based conference participants knew well – many had passed close-by North Kensington on the London to Oxford bus that very morning.

The Grenfell fire, perhaps inevitably, also frames Boughton’s new book, Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing, which both starts and ends by reflecting on the implications the tragedy has for the future of council housing. Although these implications still haven’t become fully clear, Municipal Dreams builds the case, culminating in Grenfell, for a return to a strong state, with both the regulatory capacity and oversight to protect us from the commercial agendas, cost-cutting and failures of neo-liberalism and private enterprise that, Boughton argues, have increasingly characterised the provision of housing for the masses through the late-twentieth and early twentieth centuries.

Municipal Dreams acts as a history of the large-scale provision of housing by local authorities in England. Boughton sets the scene after the First World War, when housing was provided for returning soldiers not just as a right and reward, but also to quell potential disloyalty and unrest. In the inter-war period, council housing proliferated, but after the Second World War military camps were squatted in protest about the lack of availability of housing. The post-war period was characterised by large-scale slum clearance and the dispersal of many former city dwellers to new towns outside of London – although often the accompanying facilities and sense of community took longer to follow. As the 1970s progressed, local authorities brought private rented homes into public ownership, and further into the closing decades of the twentieth century and early twenty-first century, public-private partnerships began to dominate the financing of public resources such as housing. Today, Boughton suggests, the state’s efforts to remove security of tenure through widespread and unpopular welfare reforms are the latest in a series of economic, social and cultural developments that contribute to the spread of precariousness and instability into all aspects of life, from employment to housing.

Those familiar with the blog will appreciate the thoroughness with which Boughton approaches each estate and development he visits, often drawing heavily on archival research. The book, too, pays brief visits to key estates, but uses these more as examples to illustrate much bigger narratives about the changing motivations behind the provision of homes, the ideologies that underpin public housing, and the political and economic developments that have changed and influenced state-led approaches to house-building over time.

One of the major shifts identified by Boughton concerns changes in public perceptions and cultural and media representations of council housing. It can be easy to forget that most council housing was aspirational, aimed at the upwardly mobile working-classes and ‘respectable’ communities; it’s only relatively recently that it’s become regarded by many as housing of last-resort and become associated with problematic behaviour – partly, as Boughton observes, because of changes in who is housed, and the responsibility of local authorities to house groups such as the homeless.

Other ideas which have been in the headlines recently, conversely, have been around for longer than we might think: Boughton identifies precedents of the so-called ‘poor doors’, for instance, designed to separate residents according to their occupancy and economic status, early in the history of social housing, along with debates about who has the ‘right’ to live in areas such as Hampstead. Boughton questions some of our assumptions about political attitudes towards council housing, too: for example, the Labour party promoted right to buy as early as the 1950s. He also offers a more nuanced view of some of the terms used in contemporary debate around changes to housing, and social housing estates. For example, he seeks to understand the motivations behind processes such as ‘social cleansing’, and challenge the broad catch-all nature of terms such as ‘regeneration’, which often ignore the roots of poverty and deep-rooted issues such as unemployment.

Ultimately, Boughton sets out two poles, between conservatism and socialism in a broad sense. In practice, this equates to a difference in opinion between those who regard the state provision of housing as a safety net, for the neediest in society, and those who regard housing as a fundamental right, access to which should be ensured by the state as part of its duty to ensure basic human needs are met for everyone.

Municipal Dreams the book is a worthwhile counterpart to Municipal Dreams the blog. Whereas the latter visits and responds to individual estates and cities in detail, the former pulls all this together to present a much bigger picture, of national and historical significance.

– Natalie Bradbury