An Englishman’s home is his castle

Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova – Prefabs: A Social and Cultural History (Historic England, 2018)

Up and down the country, in between areas of traditional brick housing and shiny new builds, it’s still possible to see the odd row of small, single-story rectangular cottages made of concrete and corrugated metal. Whilst they often look unassuming and sometimes shabby, these dwellings are remarkable survivors from the years following the First and Second World Wars, when there was a pressing need to provide housing quickly, cheaply and on a mass-scale. One solution, as a new book by Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova shows, was prefabrication.

Prefabrication, either of entire buildings or of particular components, has a long history, being applied to everything from the construction of the Crystal Palace, to ready-to-assemble houses which were exported to residents setting up home in the colonies, to dormitory housing for factory workers. Over time, materials changed with technological advancements, from timber to corrugated iron to steel and concrete, as did designs. Prefabs situates British prefabs in this historical context, as well as within a wider international survey of approaches to prefabrication, driven by varying circumstances and ideologies.

When prefabrication really came into its own in the UK was immediately after the Second World War, when hundreds of thousands of new homes were needed to house a boom in newlyweds, as well as those who had been bombed. Prefabrication was regarded as a quick and temporary solution to this need, at a time when both materials and labour were in short supply. Factories which had previously produced aircraft as part of the war effort were repurposed to create components for housing. Rubble from bombed houses were used for foundations. Furthermore, construction didn’t require skilled labour – sometimes prisoners of war were put to work erecting prefabs.

Although they were meant only as a temporary solution, these houses often vastly exceeded residents’ former living conditions, offering a self-contained (if small), detached house with front and back garden at a time when many families, especially in the inner cities, were still crammed into rooms in houses shared with several others.

As the book shows, these houses not only offered a roof over residents’ heads, but changed their ways of living. In many ways, prefabs were at the forefront of modernity, incorporating then-innovative features such as built-in furniture and storage space, indoor bathrooms, electric appliances, and labour-saving devices such as refrigerators. They also offered self-sufficiency, with space to grow food; the book describes a Women’s Voluntary Service scheme which distributed plants and seeds to the prefabs from gardens in country areas. This goes some way to explaining their popularity, and the fact that some continue to be lived in today, extending their predicted life-span by more than half a century.

Of course, prefabs weren’t without their problems. They suffered from issues such as damp, and it was sometimes difficult to regulate the temperature inside; early designs, demonstrated at experimental show homes on prominent central London sites such as the land behind the Tate Gallery, were improved and refined as their faults became apparent.

The book goes on to show how elements of prefabrication, such as cast concrete and the use of mass-produced, machine-made elements, were applied later in the post-war reconstruction effort to housing intended to be more permanent. By the 1960s, the low-rise bungalow of the immediate post-war years was replaced with the high-rise block of flats as the preferred choice for meeting the need for mass housing; many of these proved less popular and durable than the apparently temporary prefabs, and turned out to have design flaws with far more serious consequences.

Prefabs brings these homes to life, incorporating testimonies from past and present residents as well as illustrations of their construction and their changing place in the housing market as the areas around them have been redeveloped; controversially in the past couple of years Catford’s Excalibur Estate, one of the last major areas of prefab housing, has been largely cleared by the council to be replaced with high-density (and higher-cost) housing in the name of regeneration, despite the objections of residents.

The authors even suggest that prefabs might have a role to play today, in addressing issues such as the shortage of affordable housing and homelessness. Updated with new materials and methods of construction, prefabs benefit from being portable, cost-effective and eco-friendly, and can be easily slotted into the existing city fabric – attributes that made them attractive to planners and councils more than seventy years ago.

Natalie Bradbury

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Not the Same Old Old

Gaius Valerius Catullus – The Book of Catullus (Carcanet, trans., Simon Smith)
Sextus Propertius – Poems (Carcanet, trans., Patrick Worsnip)

This Catullus translation, by Simon Smith, is incredible. It moves the material right out of the romanticised eroticism of the Roman love poets and into the real, colourful but dirty world of the Romans.

Catullus bangs on about who he’s fucking, animal, vegetable, mineral. It is very direct and the translation amplifies that directness by making it scan for our own time.

Here we have a world where for some the post- of gender was never a question, as long as they could get up it like a rat in a lead Roman bath house pipe.

But the raw sex is often a metaphor for swindling, monetarily, or in terms of reputation:

Oh Memmius, you really fucked me over,
buggered me completely and without concern.
So, the pair of you are stuck, as I see it,
long suffering a similar giant prick,
shafted.

Propertius rubbed up against Octavian – later Caesar Augustus – for rejecting marriage in verse. Ovid would be exiled by Augustus later.

Augustus switched to the old ‘family values’ rhetoric to try to make Rome respectable again. Propertius celebrated Cleopatra, where Augustus wanted that episode to be as over as Anthony: The Tories are much older than the Tories, you know.

A band I admire greatly, Bablicon, recorded a track called ‘Augustus Syphilis’, it plays in my head now.

I have no idea why I feel the need to leave that incidental thought in this review, but I do. And there it is. You could translate it as ‘AIDS to Family Values’.

The Catullus in this translation comes on as just as punk as that:

Nob of Knobs fucks. Fucking nob of knobs? That’s for sure
  the saying goes: If the roof fits, pot it.

Congratulations are due to Simon Smith. But despite surface similarities and a shared epoch, Catullus and Propertius are like oil and vinegar. The former accessible, the latter completely hidden under multiple masks.

Propertius provided a surface that has a very strange relationship with the self of the poet, and the audience – in any time – and rhetoric. It is now viewed as an almost ironic postmodern discourse, but that’s far too facile a reading.

Most people will know the name of Propertius via Ezra Pound’s ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’, after which come a thousand thoroughly overcooked debates.

I’m not going to get into whether Pound’s translation is sloppy or modernist genius again, but this volume of Propertius shows how appropriate it was for Pound to pick Propertius, and not, say, Catullus.

The ‘I’ in Propertius is already completely unstable, it only takes a little push for it to crumble and slide down the hill. Pound was not just freely daubing the substance of an old masterpiece, he targeted that substance – honed in on it – and amplified it.

I would recommend getting both these books and reading them simultaneously. Together they provide a great lesson in different modes of poetical discourse, different approaches to translation, and a rich meditation on what it is to be – or not to be – contemporary.

But I have long held the opinion that today’s polite littérateurs are so inappropriate in their mode of discourse that they could be considered mentally unstable.

In these two poets – and in Smith’s translation – we might find two opposing rhetorical strategies via which we might begin all over again, in 2018. I believe it is possible to fuse them together proceed.

– Steve Hanson

Some Old Modern (part one)

William Carlos Williams – Collected Poems Volume 1: 1909-1939 (Carcanet)

William C. Williams. It’s a name to ponder. There’s a Sociologist called Mike Michael. Either he was named Michael Michael, or he changed it by deed poll.

Both explanations seem equally strange, but in a time when the lid of naming has blown off to the skies, just mentioning this feels old-fashioned.

It is the name of a poet though, William Carlos Williams, it is already formal, W-C-Ws.

Mirrored, singular in the first instance, plural in the second. This is appropriate, as Williams worked steadily up to 1939, at which point he broke through into a different version of the same poet.

There are two Williams’ existing at either side of the break, although this book gives the lie to that story somewhat, a story that clusters around the publication of Paterson after the war.

The key dimension of this book then is not the content – although the importance of that content for poetry cannot be understated – but the linear development of Williams’ craft.

If even mentioning the double Williams feels old-fashioned, prepare yourself for his very first published poems. Here is a taste:

O, prayers in the dark!
O, incense to Poseidon!
Calm in Atlantis.

Hmm. But Williams’ trajectory goes upwards quite steadily. Unlike, say Ginsberg, who admired Williams greatly, the development seems gradual for much of the climb.

Ginsberg’s Collected Poems tick over for a short while, then explode into time and space.

These poems move across thirty years of intensive testing and experiment, the development of craft, to a form that will displace Poseidon’s fishy vapour forever.

At the end of this phase the ground is then cleared for Ginsberg – whom he mentored – and other American poets to follow.

When the grand romantic themes are gone, imagism falls into place: Words deployed as a painter might. His second book was published in London, with assistance from Ezra Pound.

Across the many pages (579+) the evidence for Williams’ questing, testing, consolidating and rejecting intelligence is laid out and proven. Carcanet put the poems and books back in order of publication for this volume, rejecting Williams’ own revised 1951 collected early poems, in order to place the emphasis on his development as an artist.

It might be tempting to play down this volume, focusing on the Williams that comes after the break, like Coltrane after Love Supreme. But there is a very rich seam of poetry in this period, although I do gravitate to the latter stages of this volume.

The Descent of Winter, 1928, is worth the price of the volume alone. It is still unexploded, a powerful seam of poetic energy and form. It switches between prose and verse, the critical, poetic and fiction voices mesh.

The numbering alone is genius. A simultaneously short and vast masterpiece, like modernity itself, a painterly work full of dazzling grey light. It is under-explored and exemplary.

A section switches, like a rail, to ‘freight cars in the air’. In the air?! Those heavy things? But modernity was experienced on many levels, below your feet, above your head, and as light, a giddy gas high.

It calls in all the other work pushing at the edges from the decade before it, Cendrars, with his Profound Today from just five years before it, teeth replaced with the clacking typewriter, the roads and rails leave the ground and head into space.

I have no idea if Williams’ read Cendrars’ Profound Today, a Williams scholar might know, but they are in the same zone, and of Zone by Apollinaire, and those who know those pieces will know that is high praise.

Williams’ Introduction to The Descent of Winter comes in the middle. Like a cubist painting, it takes all the angles and recombines them in a kind of Rorschach blot.

Then at the end he proclaims that ‘There are no sagas now – only animals, engines: There’s that.’ Note the lack of trees.

This section seems like a final rejection of the conjuring of the gods in his first published work too, and that should give hope to all budding poets, although in its time it might be seen as a harbinger of the horror to come.

Read, look and learn. This is an essential book for anyone who is serious about poetry.

– Steve Hanson

Like a Wasp in a Jam Jar

John Sutherland – The Good Brexiteer’s Guide To English Lit (Reaktion, 2018)

Sutherland explains that Brexit is marked by its lack of depth. It has no thinkers. So he tries to put the syllabus back into Brexit with what he claims is a single undergraduate year’s worth of reading list and guidance relating to the current ‘geist‘.

Sutherland starts with the Danegold as a kind of Viking tribute or taxation, and Malory’s Death of Arthur, which contains a curt fuck-you to Papal (i.e ‘Johnny Foreigner’) tax collectors.

Then he moves on to Norman taxation and the Wakefield Mystery Plays as two fingers up to the corrupt squires. This rotten gentry is reincarnated in modern day cads such as the sadly still Sir Philip Green. The Brexiteer supposedly rises up against these awful, rotten ‘elites’ with a confused inconsistency and possibly a pinch of bleak antisemitism.

There’s something a bit 1066 and All That about Sutherland’s book, but it is infinitely funnier and richer. It is very accessible, but he demonstrates – without ever having to say it directly – that our cultural landscape is certifiably nuttier than a container ship full of Snickers. And now, with extra nuts.

Sutherland raids even the tiny details. He explores ‘Jack’ as a name loaded with Englishness. The giant is killed by Jack, the giant that ‘smells the blood of an Englishman’ and this fairy tale re-appears in King Lear, as Edgar recites it, pretending to be Poor Mad Tom. Then there’s Jack-be-nimble, the Jolly Jack Tar, Jack the Ripper, et al. Although Sutherland doesn’t explain why Jack is short for John, which makes absolutely no sense at all.

Yes, Sutherland takes you to the place where this thing that gets called ‘our culture’ seems either a bit mad, quite whiffy, or both. ‘English Literature’ always sounded a bit jingoistic already to me and when you learn that a lot of good Welsh stuff got nicked by the English – Sutherland doesn’t go into this, but he could have – you realise that it essentially is.

Brexit isn’t directly linked to specific bodies of literature, it is true, but it is linked to what I call ‘the tropescape’ – when talking to myself in my own head – a thin fleshy membrane that appears to connect any subject to its deeper structures. The tropescape is always there, and Nigel Farage knows how to call it forth with a single signifier, a photograph of himself in the papers wearing a Battle of Hastings tie, or a union jack hat.

John Crace coins ‘The Maybot’, Prime Minister Theresa May as a faulty droid, and it sticks. Here is the tropescape in action. On the other side of the political argument, May is characterised as steely Boudicca, defender of her people under attack from foreign influence. The tropescape is the mythical landscape at the other side of reality, accessed through the shibboleth of connotations in objects with meaning.

Sutherland explains the bizarre restoration of Boudicca in the nineteenth century, re-loaded with all kinds of meanings, and the obvious link now is the ‘repelling of foreign parasites’. In Boudicca’s times this meant the literally rapacious Roman Empire. Now, it is the terrible European Union with its savage imposition of slightly weaker vaccum cleaners.

What the EU has done to the European south goes way beyond electrical appliance regulation of course, but this never appears in the Brexiteer critique, as that would mean a leftist defence of border policing and refugee crises. However, Sutherland’s skill is to take the subject some distance into comedy, but not all the way, and to structure the results as a guide book. This is much more effective rhetoric than the blunt line I deployed at the start of this paragraph.

Sutherland claims to be scoring an own goal as a remain voter, giving the ‘Good Brexiteer’ a guide to literary heroes, but his secret mission is always near the surface, even if it only appears as a single periscope eye, occasionally winking.

These figures are given to the ‘Good Brexiteer’ as plain awful, or just stuffy. Here, have Larkin. Jane Austen is presented as English to the core: ‘Miss Austen was bottled up in England like a wasp in a jam jar’, he says. The odd historical Remainer is parachuted in, for instance Dickens is included as an anti-Brexiteer Francophile.

‘Get your damn clammy hands off Dickens’ he seems to be saying, and I’m right behind you John. Although Dickens did support, along with Carlyle and Ruskin, the Governor of Jamaica Edward Eyre, over the Morant Bay Rebellion. Eyre had slaves flogged and killed. But this just seems to prove Sutherland’s broad argument all the more, most British literature before post-colonial inclusiveness carries the whiff of amorality along with it, only to greater or lesser degrees.

Nigel Farage’s favourite book is The Thirty-Nine Steps and Sutherland skewers this book along with Rider Haggard’s awful racial superiority. Sutherland reminds us what a thoroughly loathsome Powellite Farage is. He describes him as genuinely witty, but also shines a light on his awful, grimy nationalism. That he does this and keeps us laughing and learning all the way through is beyond the merely commendable. The hidden agenda is human, measured and executed with humility and great humour.

But this is not just a throwaway holiday read: I think what bleeds out from under the later sections of the book – Rider Haggard, Buchan – is the Empire and its crisis in WWI. Here is Paul Gilroy’s ‘post-colonial melancholia’. This is the unconscious hangover of the Brexiteer and this is why fictions such as Haggard’s and Buchan’s could easily wrap around these mournful figures.

But what is interesting to me about this is that there is a double movement involved now, as people seem to simultaneously retrench into the island and bemoan the loss of expansionism and triumphalism in one.

There are far too many examples to cover here, Sutherland moves through the history of Eng. Lit. up to Martin Amis’s London Fields. He covers Dracula as the Vampiric Romanian at a time when tens of thousands of Romanian workers labour in London. The joy of this book is in exploring it and I don’t want to ruin that.

What Sutherland’s secret critique also seems to say is ‘look, even I can do your cultural rhetoric for you’, the stuff the Brexiteers don’t have the imagination for.

So he sets it up for them like a little toy train set, only to derail the whole thing with satire right in front of their eyes. It’s a kind of very long ‘duh!’ only using words such as ‘supranational’ and ‘galliambic’.

Maybe we shouldn’t be laughing. But Kafka once said something along the lines of ‘in the office always smile, it is the only good work done there’. I have shifted this advice away from the office and onto Brexit (how would Kafka have voted?)

To quote another so-called ‘literary’ figure Sutherland might have included in the Brexit canon, Steven Patrick Morrissey, ‘I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible’: Sutherland has moved the subject on into humour; Brexit will still provide aftershock after aftershock, but I’m hanging out with the joker in the pack, it’s much more fun there.

– Steve Hanson

 

Words in White

James Harpur – The White Silhouette (Carcanet, 2018)

In the beginning was the Word; presumably a totality, and indivisible. Somewhere along the way it grew plural, and there’s been trouble ever since.

To the poets we have left the job of guiding us back to the One Big Word, although they have only its shattered remnants, the plural mess of verbiage, to work with. These little wordy things that point at objects and ideas can, if properly arranged, also point us beyond the material. It’s the job of all poetry, but spiritual poetry in particular.

James Harpur’s new collection, The White Silhouette, is a triumph of spiritual word-wielding. It is a mix of shorter, stand-alone pieces and two longer thematically-grouped suites: one about iconoclasm, one responding to the Book of Kells. All of them feature a delicacy of expression suited to the description of sensations ineffable;

Each poem is a coloured flare

A distress signal, an outflowing

Of myself, a camouflaged prayer

Dispatched towards the Cloud of Unknowing

The reference to the classic work of Middle English mysticism is particularly suitable. Just as the author of the Cloud was deeply skeptical of the blabrying fleshly tonge and its ability to talk of God, so Harpur seems to doubt humanity’s capacity for expressing things divine.

His narrative poem in response to the Book of Kells is obsessed with interpretation. The speaker travels to the place of its writing, to museums and finally to the British Library, all in hope of a divine encounter. Instead he finds the “bifurcated Kells / exhibited like musty lung / beneath glass – for glazed eyes”. A thing lacking immediacy. An object he must seek out, even as it sits before him.

We see the monks who first illuminated the Kells; their “vision opened by prayer”, expressing God in “each circle, arc and interlace”. The monks seem capable of clearer vision, of a simpler, perhaps more direct relationship to language. “Imagination is nothing but the recollection of the holy,” we are told. The aphorism puncturing ambiguous imagery like a sharp shock.

The same can be said of place names. Monaco, its “apartment blocks surg[ing] seaward / in a permanent standing ovation,” is a solid place to which the speaker of the Kells cycle can return. The masterpiece that opens the collection, “The Journey East”, is a pilgrimage through such solid place names. The landscape transformed by metaphor as the towns within are fixed in place.

The rhythm of Harpur’s lines are so masterfully controlled, one is borne along on his voice; calm, careful, and always drifting. Within this voice are variations. The Kells poems are suitably ornate. The poems about iconoclasm are suitably austere. The whole is tied together by a grace and humility that invites the reader to contemplate the space between words. Holy or not, these are poems for the spirit.

– Joe Darlington

Medicine for the Masses

John Bargh – Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do (Touchstone Books)

I was dying to read this book: Before You Know It authored by Experimental Psychologist, John Bargh. However, I was cautious when the opening line read as follows:

“In college, I majored in psychology and minored in Led Zeppelin. Or maybe it was the other way around”…

Thankfully, I persevered, and although the Led Zep references did reoccur occasionally (making me kind of gag each time), it really did pay off. The project is a huge success. Bargh has done a wonderful job of pulling together such a wealth of research – a lot of which he performed — in such a narratologically pleasing, accessible, and insightful manner. He is likable, if at times he comes across sounding like a cringe-inducing dad. The book is deeply engaging in that it is so relatable and Bargh writes in a kind of welcoming, conversational while thoroughly informed tone. He cites countless experiments without sounding blandly reportive.

I must admit that my opinion isn’t exactly bias-free. I wrote a thesis regarding the application of neuroscientific theory to literature criticism and so I have been reading any and every book on neuroscience that I can get my hands on. Bargh’s ideology is right up my street – he even uses the same analogy for readdressing the way that we think that I used in my dissertation.

Bargh says, “learning to see what is hidden, we acquire a new set of eyes. Or maybe just a new pair of prescription glasses we hadn’t realised we’d needed.” My own work reads: “If our vision is blurry or our eyes strain we put on glasses so that we can see differently – better. If they don’t work we get a new prescription. If our vision changes we adapt the lenses. We don’t walk around with the same blurred views. Open up those windows. It’s about opening the closed mind.” This idea of developing fresh eyes really resonates with me, and I think it is one that could help a lot of people broaden their minds.

If Bargh’s literary capacity is sometimes swamped by the conceptual weight of what he is saying, this does not negate the validity of the concepts themselves. Like most social scientists he has a tendency to repeat himself until a point is at risk of losing its appeal. The concepts are sometimes lost in trailing sentence structures and unconvincing metaphors – for example, he describes a dream he had about an alligator turning over to reveal its soft underbelly as an analogy for turning his thinking upside-down. He talks about that alligator a lot. Forget the damn alligator.

For a book that so successfully conveys the subjective nature of the unconscious, it seems strange that it does not occur to Bargh that his alligator may only hold significance to him. It muddies the point and comes across as a candied technique to engage the reader. But, essentially, he is proving his own theories as he writes. Bargh’s recognition of the subjectivity of significance is well-evidence elsewhere.

I cannot help but apply Bargh’s research and proposed conclusions to my own life and my own subconscious reactions. I imagine that this is the point. Bargh explains that metaphors are rooted in neuro-physical responses — such as “cold-shoulder” and “warm person,” meaning that we actually feel the physical sensation which leads us to describe things in terms of temperature. I have come to suspect that the reason my temperature seems to swing from high to low at the drop of a hat has something to do with my emotional dysregulation.

What Bargh offers is medicine for the masses. One of my favourite parts of the book was the study revealing the ways in which fear motivates a lot of our important decisions and behaviours. Bargh says that “Under threat or fear people are less risk-taking and they resist change” and he shows us that we must not be afraid of change. He demonstrates how our memory “can be fooled by recent experience, but also by the fact that we pay selective attention to some things and not to others.” And perhaps most importantly, the book begs us to question our assumptions, to question in general. Bargh’s suggestions for lines of enquiry include:

“On any given day, how much of what we say, feel, and do is under our conscious control? More important, how much is not? And most crucial of all: if we understood how our unconscious worked – if we knew why we do what we do – could we finally, fundamentally know ourselves? Could insights into our hidden drivers unlock different ways of thinking, feeling, and acting? What might this mean for our lives?”

And one of my own:

Is it because I am depressed that I don’t like salad?

Bargh urges us to see that new ideas will only surface if we are amenable to them – that if you want to achieve something you must open up your mind to the possibility of doing so. I think that this ideology needs to be taught to people at an early age so that they can achieve a better level of control over their lives. The world might be a much better place if people were better educated about the processes of their own brains.

– Blair James

 

Of Freedom, Fornication and Flatulence

Anthony Burgess, Andrew Biswell and Germaine Greer – Obscenity and the Arts (Pariah Press, 2018)

Malta in 1968 should have been a haven for Anthony Burgess. More Catholic than the Pope (Malta, like Burgess, resented Pope John XIII’s modernising reforms), a tax haven (British ex-pats were taxed only 6 pence in the pound), and filled with the kind of vibrant, sunsoaked culture he had longed for back in stodgy old Britain. If Burgess designed heaven, it would look like Malta.

One can imagine his chagrin upon arrival as he was caught up in a minor fracas over vehicle registration and a major fracas over forty-seven books from his private library. Seized by the censor for obscenities as diverse as sex, drugs, blasphemy, homosexuality and feminism, the books were sent away to be burned as Burgess, a lifelong enemy of censorship, trembled with rage.

To cap it all, his own novel Tremor of Intent would be seized by the censor under its French title, Un Agent Qui Vous Veut du Bien, and burned for its depravity, while the same book was thoroughly commended under its Dutch title Martyrenes Blod, or, “Martyr’s Blood”.

Filled with liberal zeal, Burgess began a letter writing campaign, was interviewed for the local Maltese papers and delivered with a public lecture under the juicy title “Obscenity and the Arts”. It is this lecture which is the centrepiece of Pariah Press’s new book.

Improvised in a typically Burgessian manner, the lecture itself feels like a series of polished witticisms strung together around a central theme. It lacks the unity of his written essays, but is perhaps more energetic, and more direct in its assertions as a result. His trusty thesaurus is left on the shelf.

A biographical introduction from Andrew Biswell accompanies the essay and does an excellent job not only of situating the lecture but also the importance of Malta and battles over censorship in the life of Burgess overall. This is accompanied by some nicely reproduced photographs and two interviews with Burgess taken from Maltese papers.

The second part of the book is a response to Burgess by the renowned feminist scholar Germaine Greer. As much a passionate advocate of free speech as Burgess, Greer takes the author to task for the manner of his defence. The result is a fascinating demonstration of how two writers can agree upon a position in deeply conflicting ways.

Burgess’s love of free speech is rooted in a respect for free will. By an idiosyncratic welding of Catholic doctrine onto English liberalism, Burgess decrees that to ban a book is to limit the free choice of evil, and that it is the divine possibility of choosing good that distinguishes Catholic spirituality from brute materialism. A Catholic government that bans books denies free will, and so cannot be said to be Catholic at all.

The Maltese government would certainly have disagreed with Burgess’ theologising. Such arguments are, after all, much more the line of John Stuart Mill than the Gospel According to John. This is perhaps why Burgess sets aside theory and argues by example; why not ban the bloodthirsty Shakespeare, or the purgative Swift, or the carnal Rabelais? For their obscenity has value, and moral value at that.

Burgess draws a line between the improving arts, which challenge and provoke, and pornography which has a purely mechanical function. Neither, Burgess argues, should be banned, for it is up to the individual to distinguish the one from the other: something a semi-literate clerk in the censorship office is certainly not qualified to do for us.

Here enters Greer. Greer’s arguments, to the modern reader, are equally idiosyncratic, if slightly more sympathetic than Burgess’s. She argues the counterculturalist’s case for obscenity as in-itself valuable (as Burgess swanned around Malta, she points out, the editors of Oz magazine were facing prison time for publishing cartoons) and that, done properly, obscene material can act as a kind of aversion therapy.

It is when Greer takes Burgess to task for condemning the practice of shitting on someone’s doorstep (perfectly acceptable in some countries, we are told), that Greer’s argument shows its limits. Sixties-type permissiveness, we are reminded, often enjoys its own contrarian provocations to the point of destroying its own arguments. Better to blow minds than change them.

Greer’s feminism acts as a counterbalance to this tendency in her writing, however. Condemning porn’s ready availability, she demonstrates its exploitative practices through her own outrageous treatment by her male co-editors at Suck magazine. What matters, she argues, is not the freedom to indulge obscenity, but cultivating the self-awareness necessary not to be depraved by it.

The real meat of Obscenity and the Arts is this tension between voices in agreement. Government censorship, as Biswell points out, is now largely a thing of the past. The argument for free speech has been won, largely through the negative critique of government ineptitude.

Positive critique, however, seems to have slipped by the wayside in recent years. The default position of many young people at university today is a form of soft neo-Puritanism that sees no benefit to hearing out other opinions and tolerates free speech purely because they are against the return of bans. It doesn’t help that the case for free speech is so often taken up by right wing blowhards that it has become synonymous with them in a highly regrettable manner.

This book is not a comment on these contemporary issues, but in its arguments (and Adam Griffith’s artistic responses, also included) there is a certain timeless provocation. In the face of public shaming, both the obscene and the anti-social must be defended.

I highly recommend this book. It is a beautiful object and compulsively readable. It also fits perfectly inside your jacket pocket, guaranteeing that you won’t be able put it down.

Joe Darlington

Flapping Gums

Rachel Cusk – Kudos (Faber and Faber, 2018)

There is a hypnotic appeal to direct speech. Those quotation marks lean out and grab you by the collars, shaking you to attention. When a character speaks directly, it is like they speak directly to us.

Rachel Cusk’s gambit in her latest trilogy is that direct speech is all you need. Having read only the third book, Kudos, I find the results to be arresting, if not entirely conclusive. By constructing an entire novel out of direct speech, Cusk seems to have superseded the novel form altogether.

There is no narrative to Kudos as such, at least not in terms of plot. A writer flies to a writer’s conference and is spoken to by an assortment of characters. The businessman she sits next to on the plane tells a dramatic story about putting down his dog. A journalist tells a gossipy story about her sister. One writer praises another for preferring real life to extravagant plots.

The stories are held together only by the central protagonist who remains almost silent throughout; if she speaks conveyed to the reader indirectly rather than produced verbatim. As a result, Kudos reads more like a disguised short story collection than a novel, or perhaps like an RPG where a silent protagonist runs between NPCs, clicking on them to activate more dialogue.

It can be frustrating. Boring even. A reminder that life is mostly inane chatter.

But it is in the totality of Cusk’s vision that Kudos offers its hidden charms. Each of the voices presents a subtle variation of the world. Cusk’s neat, clipped prose rarely slides into the literary, remaining convincingly real throughout. Her presentation of character’s speech is like reportage, while the content of that speech is familiar, intimate, and occasionally stirring.

Whether it’s the athletic writer who looks down on his shabby, unfit peers with disgust, or the preachy Remainer bemoaning the poor, deluded, terraced-housed-dwelling Leave voters; each speaker passes judgement, each has their ingroups and outgroups. The act of telling stories marks out social place. Each speaker seeks to bring the protagonist over to their standpoint. Their stories place her in their shoes and, in return, they expect her to confirm them in their point of view.

Cusk’s mosaic of voices, inspired by reality or not, appeal to the sociological gaze of the modern literary reader. The search for power structures, social markers and authentic voices finds succour here. The first-person narrator achieves such a level of self-erasure as to become a walking recorder. How life really is is reduced to a contest of stories, a panoply of competing voices.

Which raises again the question of whether Kudos is, in fact, a novel or – perhaps a better question – whether its rejection of certain fictional elements (plot, structure, action, description, objectives, motivation, arcs) results in an advancement of the medium?

Having read only Kudos, I am not convinced. Perhaps a reading of the entire trilogy will change my mind. Cusk has mastered the art of reproducing natural speech on the page; something which is exceptionally difficult and performed beautifully here. Particular stories also verge on the symbolic, adding depth to these one-sided conversations.

Nevertheless, I find myself longing for action and allegory; for a character who makes decisions and passes the judgement that Cusk’s protagonist refuses to. The struggle of the individual to exist meaningfully in the world is the essence of great literature and is notably absent here.

I thoroughly enjoyed Cusk’s daring experiment. I highly recommend it to writers looking to enhance their dialogue, or readers who enjoy close observation. I, for one, will definitely be purchasing Cusk’s next work, although I will be hoping for more story, and fewer stories, next time around.

Joe Darlington

Geography Psychos

Merlin Coverley – Psychogeography (Oldcastle Books) 

Here is the new updated version of Merlin Coverley’s Psychogeography.

I started the Materialist Psychogeographical Affiliation with Mark Rainey and hung around the fringes of the MAP group and received post from the LPA and many other groups in the 1990s. I then spoke at TRIP, MMU Manchester in 2008. I also registered a PhD on British Psychogeography groups in the 1990s at Goldsmiths and had Chris Jenks down to supervise.

I went to a few events and then was horrified enough to drop the subject. Pas de regrets, Mr Debord.

I was cited on the last page of the first edition of this book, interviewing Patrick Keiller about how Psychogeography now boiled down to the Time Out Book of London Walks (which is still in the bibliography here as recommended reading).

The new conclusion is much less acid, which is not to my taste. In fact the aggrieved might suggest this review is sour grapes on my part for being left out of the new edition – apart from the surviving reference – but my take on Psychogeography remains largely unchanged, something which is evidenced by my 2007 article ‘Mind The Gap, Psychogeography as an Expanded Tradition’, for Street Signs, the Centre For Urban and Community Research journal.

Coverley’s book in any edition has never been a history and it still isn’t. What it does is run a timeline through seemingly arbitrary figures such as Defoe – included because Patrick Keiller makes intertextual use of Defoe’s work – into increasingly less arbitrary figures such as Alfred Watkins, and then on into surrealism and the Situationists – where the subject really starts – then out into what I have called ‘psychogeography as an expanded tradition’.

But ‘psychogeography as an expanded tradition’ is actually what Coverley gives us – even though he isn’t explicit enough about this. The Telegraph blurb on the cover which says the book ‘examines, explains and whets the appetite’ is actually a good description of the book’s strengths.

The more positive note Coverley ends on in this edition, which essentially places Nick Papadimitriou at the head of that tradition, is a good one too. If there is decent published work being done it is by him and a few others.

However, I cannot say the same for the figure he lumps in with Papadimitriou, Will Self. Self is that quintessentially English figure, the scoffing, jeering, privileged intellectual who also manages to be anti-intellectual at the same time, witness his trolling and then baiting Zizek like a common badger. Self, surely, is the perfect replacement for all those slimy Victorian flaneurs, and not to be celebrated at all.

I suspect Chris Jenks, as VC of Brunel, had a hand in Will Self’s appointment to teach there. Jenks also doffed his cap to Her Royal Highness and awarded himself some stupefying pay rises while he was at it: Radical.

Will Self’s column ‘Psychogeography’ was about specific things that happen in specific places. In the less successful versions ‘site specific’ becomes a mere fetish of the ontological strangeness of place. It therefore opens itself to class or ethnic tourism because ‘strange’ is rarely your own living room. If even less successful it simply opens itself wide to vacuous indulgence and stays there.

Coverley brings in Self’s walking and his struggle against addiction as a replacement for the romantic tropes he can no longer use: The Sorrows of Young Self. We’ve been through far too much of this kind of nonsense to be tolerating it now.

The anti-intellectual intellectual. How very England, 2018. He is the self-loathing that England seems to have become en masse. A sort of nasal sneer on legs. A kind of virus with shoes, if the death drive were able to be a virus. Anti-thinking – unless it’s done by him – and anti-European: How very English.

But both Papadimitriou and Self have history as addicts and I guess Coverley places them in ‘the lineage’ because of this, running back one assumes to De Quincey. But Coverley misses the recent research on De Quincey as a biological racist. Is that in this book? No.

The literary dimension of this book – Coverley is a bookseller – means that ‘The Canon’ is in the background, unspoken, all the way through. Harold Bloom, Leavis, that lot, all of them.

Coverley’s climax of Papadimitriou and Self then tends to collapse somewhat under all this. It’s the usual applause of the addict if the addict is supposed an intellectual rather than an estate junkie on the rob.

If it’s in cool clothes and the LRB then it’s oh so very wonderful darling, as much as the scum down the road are the direct opposite. It also puts some extra metaphysical nonsense into the act of walking, walking high, walking with access to occult knowledge, all of it sets up and lifts aloft a priesthood and we’ve definitely been through far too much of that nonsense.

Jeff Nuttall once moaned to me that some of his colleagues in the People Show with their ‘posh Sunday paper cred’ wanted to remain ostentatiously free to do whatever they pleased and Psychogeography definitely attracts that kind of pseudo-anarchist narcissism.

If Psychogeography is anything now it is where the art and geography schools meet in universities and in particular art scenes. The list of psychogeographic film in this book reveals a particular taste fetish as much as it shows a collection of aesthetics or particular epistemologies.

Pyschogeography is taught in universities as solidly as romantic literature was, although its largely practical nature has meant that it has replaced cricket as the thing to do on Wednesday afternoon. It has become the new extracurricular activity.

‘Psychogeography?’ we did some of that at university. I put it to you that cricket is far less jingoistic an activity than Psychogeography.

Here comes someone now, to tell me ‘psychogeography as an expanded tradition’ really is an open, hybrid, totally inclusive rainbow. Unless, of course, you are negative about that inclusive rainbow, at which point he will exclude you.

In my experience this kind of supposedly avuncular micro-trolling actually constitutes a hard core of the subject. Via one particular figure who has monopolised the discourse the MPA now exist in corners of the world, in art gallery discussions, in MA theses, typecast as miserable puritans when he never went to a single one of their events, cocktail drifting included. In fact, only Mark Rainey and I ever went to one.

The thing that the middle classes do is make borders between themselves and their neighbours. In the hipster, new cultural capital is being generated constantly by a particular haircut, a certain piercing, an even tinier bicycle. These are, after all, the real borders that matter to Psychogeographers: ‘I’m a Neo-Metageographer‘.

In contemporary British universities there is a direct but inverse relationship between the testimonies to radicalism and the radicalism that can be found there. The louder the boast the deeper the lack of radicalism in the university in which it is being declared. The university now is a place completely intolerant of any real radicalism. No wonder that any discussion of the subject – including the one that will come after this review – tend towards one-upping lippiness.

This is before we even start on ‘Prevent’ duty towards Islamic radicalism being rolled out in universities at the same time as this nauseating middle class posturing about ‘being radical’ happens (and is then written up and submitted for RKE funding).

The most interesting recent article on Psychogeography was Andrea Gibbons’ ‘Salvaging Situationism: Race and Space’, which was concerned with the Algerian section and the dropping of Psychogeography by the Situationists thereafter. The Algerians couldn’t like drift, man, they were under curfew and surveillance.

Anthony Hayes’ and others have given shitty responses to Gibbons’ article as the sad armchair orthodox party-line toers of a party that barely existed in its own time. Hayes has that neo-Debordian tone of sheer male pomposity and arrogance that characterises the very worst of the Psychogeography tradition. The S.I. may have railed against France in Algeria but they dropped the Derive and ran off in their nice but scuffed brogues. Is a robust discussion of any of that in this new edition? No.

The urge to mystify and therefore exclusivise quite simple practices is at the root of the contemporary expanded tradition of psychogeography. I walk around and think about stuff. I walk about and get ideas from the landscape. I take a notebook and camera and write things down then make work later. Good journalists and writers have been doing this forever. Walking in a circle is useless. Walking in a ghetto is not, a rich ghetto, a poor ghetto.

The attempt to make intellectual and cultural capital out of this mirrors the way the market more widely hoovers everything into commodity form. Here the end result is offered to the university, which after the Consumer Rights Act was applied to it a few years ago is now one more branch of British consumer industry like any other. And therein can be found most of the supposed spectacle-busting radicals and pretend anarchists.

But none of this is particularly amazing to me. The absolutely amazing thing about this new edition is that it inhabits a bubble which appears to have wombed its author away from the last ten years of politics in Britain completely.

Alastair Bonnett wrote a paper for Theory, Culture & Society in 2009, on identifiable strains of nostalgia within ‘radical’ political groups. Among his examples are the Situationists and British Psychogeography groups. Earlier, in 2006, Bonnett described the:

‘…idea of nostalgia as a removable stain upon the bright clothes of proper politics, something that anyone who is not a fearful conservative can and should have nothing to do with. Yet, as we have seen, the most outrageous revolutionary politics of the last century contained clear nostalgic tendencies. Nostalgia isn’t a disease, nor is it a virtue. One can turn away from it, but it remains nevertheless.’ In this, I think, it is possible to detect the strains of romantic nostalgia emerging from beneath the surface of Bonnett’s paper. He wishes to ‘…show that a newly confident politics of nostalgia can be glimpsed within this milieu: at the counter-cultural margins of society radicalism is (once again) becoming tied to a popular politics of loss.’

A popular politics of loss is strongly detectable within leftwing discourses, and Bonnett places them there, but for ‘radicalism’ the UK far right organisations the English Defence League and British National Party now give the most strikingly retrograde view.

The Situationist International, or 1990s British Psychogeography groups, none of them are Britain First or the EDL. But what all those organisations share is their use of a radical collage loaded with signs, which then become fragmented and re-ordered within an entirely new regime of meaning. Politics and aesthetics have always been a deadly mix. Crucial to this process of symbolic and social collaging is the simple fact that a popular politics of loss was being urged for by Bonnett, right at the moment when popular politics was lost, a haunted, staggering, zombie figure.

Popular politics is now back, it is what Bonnett wanted, and it is fascist. I’ve been saying this since the articles came out, but nobody dare publish the point, or they have been far too ignorant.

But this hard right romantic populism isn’t new either, it has just come to the fore. In 2010 The British National Party attempted to exploit fears regarding a possible undermining of ‘community’ via a leaflet with Winston Churchill on the front cover, his face merging with a union jack flag. The expression on Churchill’s face in the portrait the BNP used seemed to express a mixture of gravity and pride. The BNP were mobilising Churchill as a signifier of Britain under attack during World War II.

Not only does the BNP leaflet attempt to connotationally re-map the ‘attack’ of World War II on to processes of immigration, but it also attempts to re-vitalise the kinds of nostalgia which might look back to the ‘blitz spirit’ as a positively imagined form of community, in the face of its presumed lack in the present.

Interestingly, the BNP also highlighted in their leaflet what they clearly saw as an ‘irrational’ mapping of borders by the European Union: They re-presented a map of all the counties in the ‘Manche region’ of European governance, which includes Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Hants, as well as Somme, Calvados, Cotes D’Armor, etc., across the Channel.

It doesn’t matter that this new significatory whole falls apart in your hands with just a little unpicking. It may be epistemological hypochondria, but it ‘works’. That leaflet also counts as Psychogeography.

Well, that was eight years ago and look where we are now.

Alastair Bonnett made his points well and nostalgia does, I think, present us with a series of dilemmas. In the Psychogeography groups Bonnett describes, we have another form of looking-back to reinclude previous traditions, ideologies and historical material, in order to look forward. Here is another set of cultural collages fakely presented as a lineage or great tradition: Merlin Coverley’s book on Psychogeography is an ‘expanded tradition’ in that it re-includes a-historical material to create an ideological collage for the present which is declared as history.

The examples I use here all share this ‘fake collage’ approach, and they are not directly linked to the writing of history in an academic sense, to be clear, or to simplified histories taught in schools. These collages are deployed on the ground by supposedly ‘autonomous’ cultures empowering themselves with aestheticised rhetoric.

Bonnett outlines how for him nostalgia and looking forward can somehow resolve into a worthwhile creative praxis. Bonnett’s understanding of his subject is genuinely complex, he sees nostalgia as simultaneously ‘refused and deployed’ within the sprawling psyche of the subject. But nevertheless, he is interested in finding resolution within ‘radical nostalgias’.

I am much less interested in resolution, and I see much British Psychogoegraphical literature as intentionally, radically, unresolved. The search for ‘resolution’ is always also the search for ‘home’.

Bonnett goes on to examine the work of Iain Sinclair – an important literary fiction writer, influenced by occult forms of psychogeography – in relation to some of the 1990s psychogeography groups, and what he has to say here is telling in this respect:

‘These groups shared with Sinclair a quixotic, love-hate relationship with the past. Like Sinclair, they emphasized historical re-readings of the everyday landscape and exhibited an uneasy combination of deracinating modernism and folksy localism.’

Bonnett describes how Sinclair made his own books, bread and yoghurt. We hear nothing of Sinclair’s wife’s job as a schoolteacher in Hackney, or the commune they gradually bought out there. This ‘folksy’ localism, which Bonnett describes positively, still sits and moves around on the old base-and-superstructure of property ownership.

Living frugally in a nice area where things are cheap is allowed by wider forces and social contexts than just the desire to do so. Sinclair doesn’t make his own books anymore, most of the titles on my shelf were printed in Guernsey, but someone will have to ask him about the bread and yoghurt.

That was then, now we have the mass social cleansing of London.

Attempting to make laudable the politics of nostalgia and loss back then, in the face of a still relatively free market economic system, hoovering up vast tracts of capital in what David Harvey described as a ‘re-capitalisation’ was a stretch. Now it’s nauseating.

What is really happening here is that some are accumulating, and that accumulation is always tied to the dis-accumulation of others, and its attendant geographies. These arguments have an increasing relevance, particularly when aestheticised forms of localism seem to be the default defensive responses to the repeated failure of the compact of neoliberal government and consumer capital to provide anything like a stable social apparatus.

This is heavily underscored by the crash of 2008, and its still-ongoing aftermath. But of course ten years later we can see the popular politics of nostalgia Bonnett loved was heading to the alt-right, Brexit and the rise of everyday racism and a spike in racist attacks and violence all along. Bravo. Well done all. Is any of that in this book? No. Is Bonnett still referenced uncritically? Yes.

I could write a cracking book on this subject, but it would be a total waste of time, as the field is so clearly populated by the inheritors of Richard Neville’s ghastly Playpower, at the same time as those people claim to be everything but.

But of course the great smoking gun of Psychogeography and its transformation of all the world is there for everyone to see, isn’t it?

Perhaps they need to move on from Psychogeography to Psychoanalysis.

– Steve Hanson 

Ode to Sussex

Shirley Collins – All in the Downs: Reflections on Life, Landscape and Song (Strange Attractor Press, 2018)

The 2017 documentary the Ballad of Shirley Collins followed the cult English folk singer as she recorded Lodestar, her first album in nearly four decades. Filmed largely around her home in Lewes in East Sussex, and the surrounding area, the film told the remarkable and poignant story of how Collins lost her voice – leading from her withdrawing both from performance and recording for many years – and unexpectedly found it again.

All in the Downs acts as a thoughtful companion piece to the film, with Collins drawing out her experiences in greater depth, writing from her own, opinionated perspective. It follows a previous volume of autobiography, America Over the Water, published in 2004, which told the story of Collins’ travels across United States with the musicologist (and her then partner) Alan Lomax. All in the Downs, by contrast, remains closer to home to focus on Collins’ career in her own right, and the way in which it was informed by her early years in the working-class seaside town of Hastings, East Sussex and later in her retreat from the town and city back to a rediscovery of the rolling countryside of the Sussex downs.

All in the Downs shares with the film a strong sense of loss and absence; it begins with a chapter on the breakdown of Collins’ second marriage, as a major contributory factor in the loss of her voice, before detailing her relationship with her father, who returned from the Second World War only to leave again, and the premature death of her sister and artistic collaborator, Dolly.

As well as sharing her personal and professional memories, All in the Downs offers a rich glimpse into the shared experiences of mid-twentieth century Britain, from the freedom of a semi-rural childhood, to post-war culture and politics, to the sometimes difficult personalities of the British folk scene, to work and motherhood. Looking back, Collins can’t help but reflect, sometimes caustically, on how places, lifestyles and entertainment have changed (not to mention what passes as ‘folk music’ these days!).

Above all, All in the Downs is an ode to the south eastern English landscape, showing what we can learn and pass on about the places around us by paying attention to working people’s voices. It’s written with the passion and in-depth expertise of someone who has dedicated her life and career to understanding, interpreting and transmitting traditional song, the words of which run through the book entwined with her own.

– Natalie Bradbury