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.

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