From London to the Sea

Estuary – Rachel Lichtenstein (Hamish Hamilton)

Part travelogue and part-homecoming, Rachel Lichtenstein’s Estuary is a journey out from London along the Thames to the sea. Estuary traces the great river through the capital’s marshy hinterlands and out through the counties of Kent and Essex, from metropolis to open sea via fishing village and seaside resort.

This journey is both metaphorical and literal. Lichtenstein is returning to her roots, in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, where her family home is visible from the river. She takes to the water, on trips that are sometimes fraught with danger, portraying the river as a space of loss and unpredictability as well as a resource, drawn upon and put to use by those living alongside it.

However Lichtenstein’s own biography is only hinted at: instead, she focuses on the lives of those who use the water for living, working and recreation, from fishermen and fishwives’ choirs to boat racers and artists responding creatively to the river, as well as community groups campaigning for the ecological and environmental significance of sites alongside the Themes.

The book aims to create a ‘collective memory map’ of experiences, lives and perspectives, showing the importance of the Thames to work, livelihoods, trade, industry, culture and community. Interviews and shared encounters are interwoven with histories of the river and their physical and cultural traces, from shipwrecks to sunken wartime bombs to the cruise terminals where passengers from the Empire Windrush first encountered their new country, to the brief intervention into the airwaves of pirate radio, to Canvey Island band Dr Feelgood, whose ‘Thames Delta’ sound was inextricably linked to the estuarine vistas of their immediate environment.

A highlight of the book is the time she spends visiting the Maunsell Sea Forts, huge concrete towers originally built for defence, which stand tall above the estuary on stilts. Acknowledging a tradition of Great British eccentricity and obstinacy, she pays a visit to the kingdom of Sealand, a remote outpost constituting one family’s private and vigorously defended castle. Lichtenstein looks to the future of the river, too, considering the ways in which the Thames might be transformed once again by the creation of the Thames super port.

It’s difficult to write about the Thames without discussing landscape and the river’s relation to sea, sky and earth, and the way in which it has shaped and been shaped by the places and activities around it. Joseph Conrad is quoted liberally throughout, yet the book itself is written in a brisk, business-like, workmanlike style, sometimes reading like a factual report on the findings of a research project.

That the river is a working thoroughfare is well-conveyed, but the book leaves little room for passion, poetry or politics, preferring instead to take a matter-of-fact, documentary approach. However, what does come across strongly in Estuary is a sense of change, a notion that this book presents only a snapshot of the river at one moment in time, that it is a place to be appreciated, respected and revisited

– Natalie Bradbury

Putting Humans Back In Their Place

Roger Cardinal – The Landscape Vision of Paul Nash (Reaktion)

Paul Nash has long been presented as a 20th century modernist who updated the English landscape tradition. He gives us the coast at Dymchurch, but also the Flanders landscapes of the First World War and the aerial battles of the Second World War. Here then, is all the progress of machine modernity and its horrors in one.

But in Nash’s hands, the ‘great’ dogfights of The Battle of Britain look like moths around a lamp, as a summer evening wanes. Nature, in Nash’s work, is neither terrible nor benign, it is coldly ambivalent. Nash’s contribution to history – and to the history of representation – has been to reduce the great efforts of ‘mankind’ to their proper scale in the wider universe. His contribution to history, then, has been to level it, and therefore his own efforts, to blips in space-time.

Roger Cardinal is an international expert on Art Brut and is highly knowledgeable on surrealism and modernism. This book presents some of the work that made Nash’s name, but it takes you into another space, by presenting lesser known works and the later oils. Here, we can rediscover Nash anew, as his popular image fades a little through over-exposure.

We know a lot about the paintings, but the photographs have been less prolifically explored until recently. This book covers both. The photos are often thought of as source material, tools for studies, for instance the Kodak pocket camera images of wrecked aircraft at a dump in Oxford, that found their place in Nash’s rightly famous painting Totes Meer.

But many of the photographs are poetic and strange in their own right, enigmatic and mysterious. They emerge from the British surrealism of figures such as Humphrey Spender. But some of them, architectural figures glimpsed over hedges, strange anthropomorphic shapes in the landscape, odd spaces, have an eerie quality.

There’s a kind of Gang Lion and Tulse Luper feel to the images. As though some secretive psychogeographic project ran under the official war work and activities in the art scene of the time.

Cardinal’s narrative is intellectual but helpful, it seems to anticipate the reader’s questions. It wears its erudition lightly enough to introduce some of the more complicated aspects of Nash’s work and its place in history to everyone. At the same time, it opens Nash out and gives us a much richer picture, very much in the spirit of the painter himself.

Paul Nash is still searingly relevant. In an era where the ‘anthropocene’ is fashionable intellectual currency, Cardinal points us back to an artist who would have found absolutely nothing novel in that idea.

This is an excellent study, the images are beautifully reproduced, and the book serves several purposes at once. It is introductory, expansive and critical without ever being patronising or agonistic. This is often the mark of good scholarship: Those who really know their stuff don’t need to strut it.

The Poetry After Auschwitz

Jennifer M. Hoyer – The Space of Words, Exile and Diaspora in the Works of Nelly Sachs (Camden House)

Theodor Adorno famously stated that to ‘write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. Adorno later revised this statement, in his last work, Negative Dialectics.

But he didn’t renege, he made it even more damning. He said that ‘it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems’, but it is ‘not wrong to raise the less cultural question’ of ‘whether after Auschwitz you can go on living…’

In some ways, Nelly Sachs proved Adorno wrong. She did both. She carried on living as she took in the knowledge of the camps, and she wrote poetry.

But she did not really write poetry directly about Auschwitz, she wrote poetry that is fused with the raw, livid, negative energy of the incommensurable horror of the camps. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966.

However, the point Adorno was making with his quotation was and is correct, even though it is more often misconstrued than it is correctly deployed. Adorno really meant Wagner, Mahler and all that was ‘poetic’ but rotten in Germany, that then became rotten in Hollywood: The cultural inflations of ‘beauty’, emerging from the rural idyll, that are then inscribed as ‘natural’, before this ‘nature’ is re-inscribed, finally, as a measure for who lives or dies.

Adorno was right, all that was rotten in Hollywood continued in an unbroken line. For Adorno, World War Two didn’t really end. It continued right through into the wars in Indochina, Vietnam and Cambodia… Now Donald Trump is in power.

Jennifer Hoyer explains that Sachs’ poetry is best not viewed as a set of open signifiers, emerging from an event, but as spaces opened by the words themselves. Gaston Bachelard is given as an example, that his poetics of space are also the space of poetry in Sachs’ work. It is not merely imagistic, it opens up a zone in the mind that is perhaps closer to occult practice than it is to poetry. Write and rite are one.

Hoyer includes a chapter on Sachs’ explorations of the Merlin myth. She piles version on version until they become a kind of occult map, until all the stray fragments have been aligned and transfigured, in some enormous mystical-linguistic Tetris game.

Hoyer’s chapter on ‘space after the abyss’, the space after Auschwitz, where simply ‘going on’ is a question, rather than a given, explores the redemptive dimensions of Sachs’ work too. But this is negative theology, it does not inhabit some fake positivistic philosophy of rescue.

Hoyer cites Rudolf Hartung in 1947, describing how the poetry after the war was ‘untimely’. Hartung returns to Adorno’s concerns about whether making poetry could be moral at all, in yet another time of the greatest material need.

Hartung had Gottfried Benn’s poetry of supposed aesthetic timelessness in his sights. In any case, it fails. What is meant to make Benn’s work ‘timeless’ puts it in orbit around a collapsing star.

Sachs’ work directly mirrors this gravitational implosion. She crushes the protons and electrons of ordinary language to form charged, neutron constellations, in colours we have never seen before. Tiny, but impossibly dense, many of the later poems are the afterimages of the collapse of the monstrous swell of Benn and others, and their cultural elevation of nihilism to art.

Benn’s work, often influenced by his time as a physician dissecting corpses, views humanity as simply pathos and disease.

Sachs, although she describes the present as a ‘wound ripped open’, sees the torn curtain of bloody flesh as proof of the inevitability of life, not death:

His pen, his scalpel cut. The writer of the Zohar surgically drew blood, pulsing, from the unseen circulation of the stars, gathered in a cup… the words, the homesick sparks. The grave split open, the alphabet arose, each letter was an angel, each a crystal shard, each held refracted droplets dating from creation. These sang. And there, within, glowed ruby, jacinth, lapis lazuli so many scattered seedlings not yet stone.

As you can see, Sachs’ post-war poetry also tried to pull what was left of the Jewish traditions through the eye of a needle.

Through the present moment that had been reduced to a grim corridor, and out into the light of another diaspora. It doesn’t just will the future into being, it returns like an avenging angel from that future.

This is the difference between poetry and the occult, or mysticism. As Hoyer puts it, Sachs’ texts ‘are often written in the present tense and destabilize the boundaries between then and now…’

Hoyer’s book also reconnects Sachs’ early work to the later work. Most studies focus on the holocaust poetry, but Hoyer’s places Sachs’ work in a broader picture. The themes that run through what are often seen as two distinct and separate bodies of work are painstakingly traced. Hard, wearying, detailed academic toil has clearly gone into producing this book.

The result is more than admirable, and fascinating. There is too little space to even begin with the details, but through them the richness of Sachs’ work is clear. It has a nuclear half-life of one thousand years.

Hoyer also aligns Sachs’ project to the stateless Jews after WW2. Sachs’ work makes ‘a state’ for the stateless. In the spaces of words she opens up, in the ash and smoke, after WW2. But bleakly, those without a state now are the Palestinians.

Adorno was not wrong, but Sachs’ work is open enough to weep and wail for all.

Adorno’s comments on poetry after the camps concerned ‘reification’, that the abstract is made concrete in a bad order. Well before Foucault, he described the world as a kind of open prison.

But Sachs the mystic might see the prison as Adorno’s own, ‘so many scattered seedlings, not yet stone.’

Postscript

Andrew Shanks has re-translated a lot of Sachs’ poems. The Penguin Modern European Poets edition presented very muted translations. Shanks’ versions are wide-eyed and alive. You can find them here: http://www.nellysachs-translations.org.uk/

Holding On To A Dear Life

Various – A Jar of Wild Flowers, Essays in Celebration of John Berger (Zed Books)

It’s tempting to think that we no longer have figures like Goethe, Rosa Luxemburg, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt or Adorno. But John Berger was their equivalent, as was Zygmunt Bauman, who also died recently. Berger may not have made work that sounded or looked like any of those people, but why would he?

His work is influenced by them all to a greater or lesser extent, but he rarely came on like a card-carrying German Idealist philosopher. It is there though, pulsing up from the past.

But now we no longer have John Berger.

Manchester Review of Books covered Tom Overton’s book on Berger, Landscapes, some time ago. This book though, arriving for Berger’s 90th, not long before he passed away, is a collection of tributes.

Berger’s life spans much of the 20th and some of the 21st century, emerging after the second world war, alongside the British New Left. But he carried on, becoming, if anything, more radical the older he got.

I remember reading an essay on Bruegel the Elder and ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymus Bosch. Berger compared the social world in the paintings to our own, implausibly, I thought, at first, until he explained that the lack of a centre, of a focal point, was a description of hell. He compared them to a CNN news bulletin.

It was utterly brilliant: So simple, so counterintuitive; yet so completely correct.

I also remember reading Hold Everything Dear when it came out and getting a sense that he had jettisoned many of the pointless courtly dances of writing. In it, he states, at one point, bluntly, that yes, he is still a Marxist. At the same time, the book is filled with poetry.

Zed Books are a co-op and this seems very appropriate, part of the tribute of the edition. Berger’s leftism never departed from him, it seemed to get stauncher, in inverse proportion to his generosity of spirit.

In London, Berger hung out with exiles who knew a lot about art, but cared nothing for art markets, and in fact were completely scornful of them. Berger was highly critical of the art market all his life, a tradition carried on nicely by Julian Stallabrass, who puts out books with empty squares where the accompanying picture should be, because the copyright is locked down by capitalist cartels.

The titles of the pieces in this collection are just single words, grouped under a themed heading. For instance a section called The Colours of the Cosmos has titles which run ‘Graphite’, ‘Hay’, ‘Fire’, ‘Milk’, ‘Blood’, ‘Forest’, ‘Toast’ and ‘Oil’.

There’s something straightforward and poetic about this, as there was about Berger’s work, and Jean Mohr’s, who also contributes the moving foreword to this collection.

But the universal and particular are one here too. Toast, blood, fire, oil. The cosmos and your immediate surroundings are part of the same vast continuum. But the search for god, or in this case, the god particle at CERN, is pointless, if the mortal lives of all cannot be lived blessedly.

For Berger, as Amarjit Chandan puts it, and beautifully, the ‘existential angst’ is ‘further expanded with the extent of multiplied horizons’.

Put more practically though, this way of titling pieces avoids the usual contents page in a collection, where each author’s long title, well-crafted in isolation, immediately drowns in all the others. This is refreshing.

Editor Yasmin Gunaratnam mentions that Berger met Orwell while working for New Statesman and that some of his style of argument is passed on from Orwell. This simple fact strikes me hard. Just that plain fact, that they met, and the continuum back into the past, into Orwell’s time, or rather Eric Blair’s time, in the Imperial police in India, on the road with ‘vagrants’.

Suddenly I cannot stop thinking about the simultaneous closeness and distance of history. But it is ordinary, too, as Hans Jürgen Balmes shows, in his section ‘Graphite’. He remembers Berger lighting a candle during a powercut and then reading. Suddenly I’m in some place with friends, on a break. Anywhere. The pencil line, fragile, shaking, easy to erase, is history.

Rema Hammami then writes about John Berger’s text messages. The facile notion that somehow newer forms of inscription are profane or less serious, although it is faster or more quotidian, is completely exploded by this section. The SMS message is a fugitive pencil line too.

A very interesting dimension of Berger’s life that is becoming much clearer in this moment of national breakdown is his decision to move to a rural, remote town in France and live there. There are parallels with Henri Lefebvre here, the great urbanist who in fact began in the landscape and life of the French peasant. But Berger also seems to mirror that other very British exile, Robert Graves. Part of the establishment, but pacifist, avant garde and totally dissenting. They left the island and stayed away. Never has this made more sense than now.

You can never escape, of course, in France there is Le Pen, but you can remove yourself to the edges in order to look back in again, awry.

Nick Thorpe and Iain Chambers turn the book towards migration. A Seventh Man is now a book about all migrant journeys. Decades old, it is as contemporary as the breaking news and as universally intense as Homer. Rochelle Simmons’ section explores Berger’s use of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic to open up the politics of race. Simmons unflinchingly points out the ‘limitations’ of Berger’s ‘propaganda by deed’ – in this case donating his Booker Prize money to the Black Panthers – at the same time as celebrating it. Yahia Yakhlef’s final chapter ‘Courage’ makes clear Berger’s commitment.

Gunaratnam writes about Berger’s comments on the photographer Chris Killip’s work, in Thatcher’s Britain, describing it as a series of views of a -20 degree winter where people simply insulate themselves in any way they can to get through.

The same horror is with us again. Out on to the streets you go, and if you are lucky, with a tent or sleeping bag. She describes Howard Becker’s comments on Berger and Mohr’s work, how it gives you what I call in my head ‘truthness’.

There’s a richness to this collection. It unfolds, yields, gives. Nikos Papastergiadis contributes a wonderful section on landscapes, art and creation and how it connects with the human social world. The essay by Gavin Francis on A Fortunate Man is wonderful. It’s one of Berger and Mohr’s most moving books, and, perhaps not surprisingly, one that I rarely see for sale in book shops.

Who will replace the likes of Berger, Bauman and those taken far too soon, such as Gillian Rose? There is much to hold dear here for the art school. There is a generational cliff edge as those of Berger’s generation and the one after pass into retirement. The arts have been coloured pink for a long time, but it is not a natural state of affairs. It can and will change, and now we see how quantifiable outcomes and instrumentalised rationales affect all but the most resistant arts institutions.

However, what’s truly great about this anthology is that it is almost completely multi-purpose. It is of relevance to everyone in the humanities as well as the arts, and to the general reader interested in the new century and the one that has passed and how they connect: This is an electrically passionate collection.

Don’t Go West

David Gaffney – All The Places I Have Ever Lived (Urbane)

When Iain Sinclair started to turn from an obscure poet, film maker and parks gardener, into a new explorer of Britain, there were places that he described as essentially ‘off the map’. This meant under-explored parts of London, of Wales, as well as stories so badly served by mainstream accounts, be they from historians or journalists, that entirely alternative readings needed to be produced.

The problem now is that those places, once ‘off the map’, are now firmly delineated in a new canonical cartography. Martin Rowson drew a cartoon of the Iain Sinclair A-Z, all Dr Dee and occult curate’s eggs. This cartoon now hangs in Sinclair’s study. Sinclair’s idea of what is or isn’t a psychogeographic hot zone is now wearing a bit thin. John Harris has a better manifesto, which is ‘everywhere is interesting’, or my own version of that, which is ‘nowhere is not interesting.’

David Gaffney takes us to one of the strangest and most under-explored parts of Britain, a place that is really ‘off the map’ and that is West Cumbria. There is a David Peace-esque Red Riding Trilogy sense to this book, but it is much more magical and strange. Of course, the television series The Lakes delivered an alternative view to the pleasure cruise vision of the area. But West Cumbria is not The Lakes and be very wary of suggesting so to a West Cumbrian.

This novel is also an exploration of stigmata that operates on multiple levels: The original stigmata of Catholic orthodoxy; the stigma of being from nowheresville; the possibly universal stigma arising from the foolishness of youth; the stigma of existing at odds with the status quo on an always already conservative island. The simple stigma of being ‘thin skinned’.

The main signifier for these stigmas is the metallic blisters the main character breaks out in, Gregor Samsa-like, on the opening page. For the celebrated American Sociologist, Erving Goffman, ‘stigma management’ can mean a positive or negative social reaction. If this novel is a manifestation of stigma management as Goffman figured it, it is breaking out in joyful rashes of David Lynch and then singing to them.

But the blisters and rashes are also the burstings out of the Sellafield nuclear power plant. The horrifying everyday risk of one area of the country, mapped onto other horrifying everyday risks, along with the idea that all these risks may or may not be connected…

This novel also has shades of The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills. The caravan. The moronic punk songs. The deadpan, everyday weirdness. It has that dark northern sense of doom, coupled with sheer absurdity. That the problem of life is not, as with Gregor Samsa, the eternal struggle of a basic life form, but an existence tainted by a sheer lack of seriousness from start to finish.

The probem is not necessarily that we are ruled, but that we cannot believe in or take seriously those who rule us, and our stigmas in that sense become marks of belonging to a secret tribe who were born with this truth already installed. But there is a much darker side to this idea, that under these conditions one might flip into extreme reaction.

What is truly great about this book is its confident and economic prose. One example of this is the section where the confession booth is described as ‘talking to a man in a box who is wearing a dress.’ Gaffney only needs to describe the ritual this way to explode it, to expose all its hypocrisy of sexuality, gender and belief.

This economy and skill runs all the way through the book. Fun and psychological disturbance mingle. One laughs, then one thinks, and sometimes what has been dislodged or disturbed in the mind, in your own personal history, is not immediately clear. That is not an easy thing for a novelist to pull off. But we all grew up in a locale that was strange to us, precisely because we formed as humans there. Gaffney explores his own experiences of primal strangeness through this, but in doing so makes you think about your own.

But the thing that really seperates this out from other work is that it has the bravery to deal, if tangentially, with a series of highly traumatic real-life incidents, that of the Whitehaven shootings of 2010. Not only this, but it weaves its strange fiction into the place and events.

If as Adorno said, there can be no poetry after Auschwitz, this novel seems to be prescribing ways to deal with local transgression. Moments that arrive like a lightning strike, where the darkness all around is briefly illuminated, not just on the tiny spot where the amoral transgression hits: These should be responded to by accounting for that whole surreal landscape; a freeze frame, in that one giant moment of flashbulb shock. This is what Walter Benjamin called ‘profane illumination’.

This book is a classic in a heterodox canon of works about Britain that are as far from a Bill Bryson book as it is possible to get. It is the antidote to the default daytime television view of the country, all suburban aesthetics and neatly farmed fields. It is also an alternative type of ghost story to those Sinclair tells, one not loaded with the fetish of occult figures, but stories about real people who are ghosts and the ghosts of real people.