A.J. Lees – Mentored by a Madman (Notting Hill Editions)
There have been some cracking books this year, but for the sheer unexpectedness of it I’d have to say that Mentored by a Madman is the one I’ve recommended the most.
It was at the European Beat Studies Network conference in Manchester’s Welcome Inn – a place dizzy with incense and laughing yoga – where I first met Professor Lees. He wore a pristine suit and spoke with a careful, measured and attentive voice. His eyes were very still. In the midst of the paranoid scholars and itchy artists he seemed unnervingly calm, standing out but very much at home. Oliver Harris, one of the world’s greatest living experts on Burroughs, introduced him as a colleague of the late Olivier Sacks, a renowned neurosurgeon and an ‘unexpected disciple of another man who made a habit of wearing suits in company like this’.
The book, which I picked up that day on the strength of Lees’ talk, is a memoir which – like all great memoirs – relegates the protagonist to a secondary character. Lees is shaped by early run-ins with Beat culture, the Dickensian stringency of elite medical schools, the humanity of the Parkinson’s sufferers he treated with L-Dopa and, alongside all of it, the ‘madman’ of the title: William S. Burroughs.
Burroughs crosses the text like a Buddhist Lama, appearing with unexpected insights from him texts in incongruous situations and proving – like all we Burroughs-lovers have always known – that what appears on first reading as mania or obscenity can become, in time, priceless and humanistic insights that span time.
Of particular interest is Lees’ own adventurous spirit when it comes to the limits of standard clinical procedure. A good physician, he believes, should be willing to try the medicines he or she prescribes in order to truly understand their effect upon the subjectively experienced organism.
How else, other than sharing their urges, could Lees have discovered the psychosomatic and potentially addictive qualities of his treatments which had been deemed safe under lab conditions?
Lees praises botany as another lost art of the physician. Some of the millions spent synthesising trademarkable drugs in labs could surely be spared to search the rainforests where evolution has very likely already provided cures in abundance. The Yage Letters are an influence here.
Lees points out that Burroughs was the first Western explorer to realise that yage was a product of two vines, not one; a secret which official medicine would take another half-century to uncover. Exotic botany and self-medication eventually combine towards the close of the text as Lees’ describes to us one hell of a retirement party.
The key message of the work, and one Lees’ appears to have embodied throughout his successful career, are the benefits of what academics now call ‘interdisciplinarity’ but are much better described as having varied interests.
Burroughs, though he dropped out of medical school after one semester, continued to hold a broadly scientific outlook. The knowledge he gained from a lifetime’s autodidactic medical reading allowed him to become a worthy proponent of the apomorphine cure for opiate addiction.
It was Lees’ openness to literary and aesthetic insights which introduced him, through Burroughs, to this same apomorphine. The dopamine-regulating qualities that Burroughs praised for reducing opiate need proved a great breakthrough when utilised alongside L-Dopa in the treatment of Parkinsons. Lees credits Burroughs with these insights, but it is clear to us who the truly great physician here is.
Most importantly, Mentored by a Madman is well written, compulsively readable, compact and balances sentiment and humour perfectly. It’s chock full of great anecdotes and carries a life-affirming message, especially but not exclusively for those interested either in Burroughs or the neurosciences. Buy that shit!
– Joe Darlington
Roy Bayfield – Desire Paths – Real Walks to Nonreal Places (Triarchy)
Around Christmas 2016, after a few days offline, Roy Bayfield discovered that he was existing inside a review.
The Reviewer had realised what the game was. He was not unwilling to play along, but knowing too much, he was also unable to completely immerse.
The witness protection program was full. After 2008, the funds had dried up. Opting for an exemplifying tone and strategy was now the only way out.
Like sneaking into the office and posting the story without a byline, hoping the news desk would publish the devious, lying thing anyway.
The Reviewer had no idea if it had been noticed or written elsewhere, but it seemed blindingly obvious to him that Roy is really ‘Roi’, as in King – with a nod to Ubu – and the Field of Bay means an abundance of laurels to be gathered ‘out there’.
Roy Bayfield. It is a banal but ingenious name, as it reaches right back through and to the Grail Quest. Without mentioning a single Templar, it manages to gather them all into a swollen lineage of questing. The Bay is also the place where all the ships arrive.
All those naughty Crusaders, re-appearing in legions on the Daily Express masthead. Sleeper Cells from the twelfth century staring at the same headlines about migrants and Strictly and Clarkson day after day after day.
‘Bayfield’ tries to make them recede in the text, in order, oddly, to try to desperately raise them with impunity.
But the Grail Quest was always the search for meaning, and this book is definitely about that, under the franchising term of ‘Mythogeography’.
There are many contiguous lines and corresponding points in this book for The Reviewer. André Stitt, who he hung out with, Long Mynd, where caught short, he once had to strain at his stool plein air. Caerleon, where Arthur Machen lived.
Machen’s Great God Pan is based in part on a Roman prayer statue in the museum at Caerleon. It was probably dedicated to Nemesis or one of the other gods called on for good fortune when backing a winner, or rather damning an opponent to hell.
You see, what was thought to be Arthur’s Round Table, at Caerleon, when excavated, turned out to be a Roman amphitheatre. It is likely that the statue Machen saw stood in an alcove in the amphitheatre to allow gambling sports fans to make an offering.
H.P. Lovecraft partly based the Cthulhu myth on Machen’s Pan. This means – if we follow the curve of influence on its oxbow mythological course – that Cthulhu is a kind of good luck keyring for blokes out for a flutter.
Not so scared now, are you?
However, if one takes ‘Arthur’s Round Table’ as the myth of chivalry, as a text of benevolent, patriarchal fairness, which actually concealed a site for sick, bloody, amoral entertainments, the real significatory lode can be accessed again.
Can you see how by slicing right through the surface with a sterile scalpel one really gets to the assembling organs? How merely remaining on the surface doesn’t quite ‘cut it’.
This is not why The Reviewer warns against the occult. Nor does The Reviewer warn against it because it is supposedly dangerous, frightening or dark.
Black Sabbath, Hammer Horror, The Omen films and inverted crucifixes. One should worry about the lightweight comedy and melodrama all of that might bring, emerging, as all those cultures do, across their longer historical curves, from Music Hall, Vaudeville and back into the bardic traditions.
This isn’t to deny light entertainment its place in our scrying practices. This book, in opening, cites Heraclitus next to a song called I Am The Walker by the 1960s mod pop band The Creation. ‘I am the walker’, they sing, but Bayfield omits the following half of the rhyming couplet, which is a declaration that he – the singer, presumably – is also ‘the telephone talker’.
Surely then, after affirming a kind of peripatetic mythologising, the text folds immediately back into what Raymond Williams called ‘mobile privatisation’.
Now, the two have folded into each other, as people walk in public with their earpieces, seemingly schizophrenic, talking to a distant body, attached, one hopes, to a brain.
The kind of schizoid norm R.D. Laing diagnosed is here. As he diagnosed it, The Creation described their music as ‘red with purple flashes’. But this book is grey-green with claret text.
No, the reason The Reviewer warns so strongly against the occult is because via it, as The Metaphysician – as he has demonstrated here – he has you all by The Laurels.
Signing off. Votre Roi, et Ami.
– Roy Bayfield
Boris Pasternak – Doctor Zhivago (Vintage)
A great thing has happened, many of the educated young are left-wing again. Not only that, they are unafraid of the word ‘communist’.
This comes with dangers though. I sense that in the rush to embrace a c-word even more offensive to the polite middle classes than the original, some old lessons have been forgotten. Or rather, some material has been edited out of the script, as always.
It is timely then, that Vintage have just re-issued a slew of Russian classics, including The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman and Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. They are beautifully designed, sumptuously sleeved and reasonably-priced.
Doctor Zhivago is of course better known for its film version. But it is well worth rewinding and reading the original. Here, the romantic aesthetics and soundscapes were yet to be imposed on the narrative. The book was banned in the Soviet Union and the film could not be shot there, so it was made in Spain, in 1965, where Francoism was only just beginning to thaw.
There are things to be read in this, for sure. David Lean’s film returns us to ‘the human story’ under the Bolshevik ideology, the ‘universal’ of love that is so often co-opted as a story to deflate revolutionary requirements. We should definitely be wary of these things, but not just because they limit action, for this is the same romantic bloom that obscured the fascist sympathies of Wallis Simpson and Prince Edward.
Doctor Zhivago contains other things to be wary of. Things that are perhaps being missed by some of the New Left people I meet. In a scene in the middle of the novel, among seeders and threshers, an old lady pulls the switch to shunt trains. In between this, she knits to supplement her meagre wages with other activities, something known to most people in those times, and now these. The lines of telegraph poles stretch off in all directions…
A conversation begins between the Doctor and Samdevyatov. Samdevyatov objects to the assertion that a ‘Marxist has to be a mush-minded driveller’, arguing that Marxism is a hard science with an objective view.
The Doctor is pensive. ‘Marxism has too little control of itself to be a science’ he replies. ‘I don’t know of a movement more isolated within itself and further from the facts than Marxism.’ These remarks are treated by Samdevyatov as ‘the whimsicalities of a witty eccentric’. He chuckles and does not bother to reply. The silence in his mouth contains millions of unmarked graves.
These things are not highlighted here to ask for a turn away from Marxism. They are pinpointed to ask for a version of it in the spirit of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, and actually, a dialectics which properly understands how Hegel really figures in all of this.
The theoretically-inclined might get Henri Lefebvre’s little book Dialectical Materialism, republished by Minnesota University Press in 2009.
But the less theoretically minded could do much worse than return to this grand, stylish novel, and others in the series, Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman particularly.
John Barker – Dirty Secret No.8 (Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart)
This strange publication, Dirty Secret, by John Barker, seems to have no website. It arrived in the post yesterday unbidden, eight editions of it, from No.1 to the very latest.
It is a collage of quotations which build into something far larger, even stranger and more sinister. This comes out of a larger project on fabric and colonialism. Dirty Secret appears to be a container for the excess emissions, a political patchwork of overdrive. The latest issue, No.8, apparently exists in the very specific time corridor of October 15, 2016 to Jan 15, 2017.
This one is titled ‘Bitter Abstraction’, which is taken from a quote by Henri Lefebvre. It tells us that Malevich’s tomb has been erased to build luxury apartments. That sort of thing.
Monkeys, arseholes. Training dolphins to swim with machine guns. All of these things leer out of Barker’s explorations of the twentieth century mushroom cloud, which is currently morphing into the twenty-first.
The format is ingenious. Although after all, what are published papers but collages of quotes? This publication simply lays out the citations and images to create something real, but open.
I always forget that this sort of thing can get money in Europe. There it is, at the back. A full roll call of sponsorship logos, from Baden-Baden and Kunst everywhere else.
The dirty secret for us in the UK is that we don’t and now won’t.
JD Taylor – Island Story (Repeater)
It’s strange how ideas of distance change with context. I consider a train journey of three hours or more to be gruelling, a long slog – to travel from Manchester to, say, Plymouth, would be an exceptional undertaking, only to be done in the rarest of circumstances. Say that to an American, though, and they’ll marvel at how compact Britain is, how close together and well-connected its towns and cities are.
In the UK, however, this distance is reinforced by other boundaries, many of them going beyond the geographical to encompass the socioeconomic and political, the cultural and the imaginary – as well as the distance from London, whether physical or perceived. As a born, bred and educated resident of the South East – more specifically, the southern reaches of the capital – JD Taylor’s mission to explore ‘The Island’ by bike, documented in his recent book Island Story, comes across as both admirable and necessary, yet also sometimes naïve.
To start with, the obvious. Taylor’s journey ticks many of the boxes of the conventional heroic male travelogue: he’s a lonesome traveller, setting out on a slightly misguided trip on a wonky bike which he appears to barely know how to ride – let alone maintain, something in which he gradually becomes self-sufficient. He camps clandestinely underneath the stars, at the sides of roads, in fields and in woods, relatively free to pitch up wherever he chooses. Elsewhere, he relies on the kindness of friends, strangers and acquaintances, not just to offer a bed for the night, and perhaps a meal, but to share conversation and an insight into everyday lived perspectives.
He has a vague idea of learning more about the country of which he is a part, at the same time as seeking answers to some pretty big questions around the nature of political, cultural and class identity, Britishness and belonging. So far so Beatnik, and Taylor is adept at literary and poetic description of place.
Yet Taylor is also a philosopher and a thinker, and he challenges many of the conventional narratives of the island, going beyond the surface story to reveal the concealed and the hidden. Visiting the vast, low-rise redbrick council estates on the outskirts of cities, as well as market towns, sleepy villages and far-flung cottages, he suggests it’s the former that’s more typical of the way in which most of the islanders live: in touching distance of both city and country, but somehow removed from both of them.
In the eastern flatlands, he tries to go beyond the stories in the headlines, seeking out the often-exploited foreign vegetable pickers upon whose labour the country depends for cheap food. Taylor also disrupts certain narratives about the north-south divide: for example, he finds Plymouth more like a Yorkshire town than the gateway to Cornwall, and struggling seaside/estuary towns mean the counties of Kent and Essex fail to fit easily into the contented, comforting ‘pleasantness’ he encounters in well-heeled commuter towns in the home counties.
Kent too, he notes, seldom appears in accounts of the miners’ strikes of the 1980s, despite its collieries playing a major part. The North East, Taylor realises, is very different not just from the South East but from the North West; the South West is very different again from the concentrated wealth and commerce of the South East.
Taylor is clearly well-versed in the historical and cultural background of the island, telling its tales through key figures and moments from the past lives of places, as well as their literature and music. He brings out local particularity, difference and strangeness, from regional mutations of language to the continuation of old customs.
Yet he also highlights a lot of sameness in experience and the built landscape from place to place – the book contains a surprising number of visits to McDonalds, as well as written detours about vast, anonymous shopping centres. He captures the complexity and contradictions in the island’s history – not least in its long heritage of migration.
At times, the account becomes sheer wide-eyed wonder – Taylor’s eyes are open not just to urban experience, but to landscape, wildlife and nature – particularly in extended descriptions of Scotland and its islands. What’s significant about the book is that wherever he goes Taylor seeks out people and listens to them, to their concerns and experiences.
Many of them have understandable reasons for feeling disenfranchised and disempowered, economically, politically and culturally – they are what the mass media would term, in the acronym of the moment, ‘JAMs’, or the financially ‘just about managing’, feeling that the norms and values of their class are shifting and under threat from influences beyond their control.
The book can’t help but be critical of the political, social and economic factors that have led to and entrench poverty – one of its overriding messages, captured in a quote from film-maker Patrick Keiller, is that Britain is a rich country populated by poor people – many examples of which are encountered and relayed in Island Story.
Island Story is political without becoming polemical and philosophical without becoming inaccessible. There’s humour in it. There’s also lots of Taylor himself – not just opinion, but well-balanced aspects of autobiography, drawing on the migration across the Irish sea, intercity moves and life trajectories of his own family.
Most importantly, Taylor seeks, finds and highlights the occasional glimmer of hope and dares to suggest some collective solutions. This part of the book is sometimes challenging in its idealism. Some of the suggestions are already in place in pockets – Taylor advocates co-operatives for their model of worker ownership and democracy. Others are already being debated in certain political parties and think tanks, such as a universal basic income, collective ownership and the nationalisation of infrastructure. Other suggestions are more utopian or seem more far-fetched and are less likely to go down well with the populace, such as direct democracy and compulsory voting.
There’s a poignancy to reading Island Story. The book was written, and its journey undertaken, before the 2015 general election and when the EU referendum was merely a blot on the horizon, although in many ways its findings seem prescient and go some way towards explaining the result.
It was published and promoted (Taylor set out by bike once more for a book tour of the country in the summer of 2016) in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit result, when many were in shock yet before the cumulative upset of Donald Trump’s election as US President. Island Story is an important education, both for Taylor and for the reader. After Brexit, the media has sought to scapegoat certain sections of the population – the young/the old, the rural/the metropolitan, the northern/the southern, the working-class and the affluent.
There’s also been much written about so-called echo chambers, the gap between the worldview of the individual, reinforced by the perspectives by which they surround themselves, and the way in which people live and think beyond their own immediate little corner of the world.
What Island Story suggests to me is that we should all be doing what Taylor is doing – seeking out the places and people beyond our own little bubble, visiting them, talking to them and trying to understand them, rather than relying on secondhand accounts and false boundaries of distance, demographics and geography.
– Natalie Bradbury
Jonathan Hoskins – Own De Beauvoir! (Open School East)
This timely book takes as its starting point De Beauvoir Town, a small area of North East London, bringing together creative fiction, archival photographs and transcribed testimonials of residents past and present to explore questions of value, ownership, authority, community, belonging and identity.
Own De Beauvoir! is the outcome of a two-year research project by Jonathan Hoskins, supported by Open School East. Based in De Beauvoir Town, Open School East is one of a number of alternative art schools forging alternative ways of learning: collectively, informally and apart from the market-driven higher education system.
Questions raised in the book – for example, the merits of local organisation versus central control, how to meet gaps in welfare and services left unfilled by the state, the motivations of those trying to challenge the status quo and provide alternative models, and who benefits from them – are relevant to many spheres of contemporary life, including education and housing.
The first half of Own De Beauvoir! is given over to fictional and somewhat cryptic diary entries by Hoskins, himself resident in De Beauvoir Town, covering a period of just over a year between 2005 and 2006. The resulting journal suggests protest, engagement, direct, guerrilla action of a non-specified nature and a fight against faceless administrators and authorities. Interspersed with these are scans of seldom-seen documents and photographs giving a sense of a prior struggle, that of the 1960s-1980s, when Hackney Council was intent on demolishing the streets and squares of rundown, and in many cases empty, Georgian houses that characterised De Beauvoir Town.
These documents conjure the area’s distinct character: common to both the diary and the archival documents is a sense of creativity, invention and making do – for example, in the pictures of a community centre developed from a former factory site, and community-run adventure playgrounds, or in the posters for self-initiated welfare and advice sessions.
As well as creating a dialogue with the present, this fictional journal – with its crossed out words and disjointed narrative – creates a sense of displacement and fragmentation. It reflects the transience, uncertainty and instability of communities (particularly in areas subject to waves of migration, undergoing gentrification, or where large numbers of people live in accommodation rented by private landlords at inflated costs), of initiatives driven by the goodwill and commitment of small groups of individuals, and of the fabric of the built environment itself as places and facilities are demolished and rebuilt.
For me, much more interesting was the second half of the book, which brings out the driving personalities and stories behind local action and change, both individual and collective, from long-term residents of De Beauvoir Town and an architect who surveyed and reimagined the houses, to community organisers, campaigners and the descendant of a large landowner. The book doesn’t just flip between the 1960s and the present, but creates layers of different eras, including the early nineteenth-century masterplanning project of Garden Squares that De Beauvoir was part of.
Reading Own De Beauvoir!, two thoughts were foremost in my mind. Firstly, that this tale of De Beauvoir Town is just one episode of a story that occurred all over London – and in other towns and cities across the country as part of the post-war programme of slum clearance and rehousing; more recently, there are clear parallels in the ‘Pathfinder’ Housing Market Renewal scheme.
Secondly, it’s easy to see a cycle here: ironically, the past few years have seen several protests in London against the demolition of the types of modernist housing that would have replaced the Georgian streets of De Beauvoir Town. As 1960s (primarily council) estates are demolished, residents have once again fought battles against gentrification and displacement.
The difference is that today land values in London are such that it is hard to imagine whole areas of the city being forgotten about by local authorities, in the way depicted in Own De Beauvoir!, where Hackney is described as an area that has been ‘left behind’; today demolition and rebuilding is often criticised for an overreliance on the private sector, a distinct lack of affordable housing, the dispersal of rooted communities and a form of ‘social cleansing’.
Depressingly, it’s no surprise to read at the end of the book that today De Beauvoir Town has the lowest density and highest value housing in Hackney: those residents that stayed put in the area, and in some cases benefited from right to buy, now seem not just forward-thinking but rather canny.
– Natalie Bradbury