What’s the big idea?

McKenzie Wark – Capital Is Dead, is this something worse? (Verso, 2020)

McKenzie Wark’s book is in a lineage. I’m going to call it a tradition now, because there’s enough of it already and 2020 is going to push it into the past for a while. It’s in the tradition of the accelerationist manifesto, its diasporas and controversies.

Paul Mason is the scarecrow in the middle of this field. The most visible and stuffed with straw. Mason is a bloody good journalist actually, and a very useful totem figure for the British Labour Left. But when he strays into risky philosophical-theoretical territory, he is likely to get himself pecked up.

Actually, reading Mason feels like a recent incident: A colleague of mine sat down at lunch, while talking assuredly about big ideas. He parked his coffee. I was all ears. Then he pulled open his shrinkwrapped baguette with some force. The sandwich flew high into canteen air – backwards, over his shoulder – leaving him contemplating the edible qualities of a cellophane wrapper (he might say ‘edibility’).

The shrieking grew louder over the far side of the room. The sound of chairs and tables being pushed back. Reading this stuff sometimes feels that way too. To coin a phrase that might be wartime code, when reading McKenzie Wark’s book ‘the sandwich flies through the air many times.’

Some of it is just a bit OTT. For instance, at one point, Wark describes neoliberalism as alt-fascism. Wark declares that privacy is a bourgeois indulgence. I’ll be round your place in half an hour to rummage through your stuff McKenzie. I don’t take it seriously, which shouldn’t be a problem. But finding that on page one makes me take the rest of the book with a pinch, which might be a problem. Perhaps it’s not my problem. Perhaps it’s Verso and Wark’s. A socialist might say it’s the movement’s problem. An anarchist of a certain stripe might claim indifference. I think it’s a book, with some writing in it.

And again, there have been a lot of books with writing in them recently, about roughly the same thing. A lot of them came out in Britain in the period between the Corbyn-Momentum headrush and now, the early 2020 sugar crash. The deadening December 2019 election result can still be felt, and it is horrible, right enough. But there is even a literature review of the reviews of this kind of book which can be done now. For instance, Owen Hatherley covered Paul Mason’s and Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s books on ‘postcapitalism’ very well in LRB, in June 2016.

I think that the subject of postcapitalism has two psychic modes.

Mode 1: the scary realisation that many of us in the West were living like Nero back there and nobody flogged us for moaning about it all the time; ‘after Capitalism’ meaning there is worse to come also kind-of means ‘ah shit, look…’

Mode 2: the giddy otherside to the skin-picking anxiety seems to be bobhatted Momentum tote-bag carrying evangelists pulling old ladies to one side to preach the virtues of asteroid-mining.

Before the egg mayo and cress hits the atrium windows once again – a segmented impact scenario, with a good deal of fallout – let me suggest two other binary modes of the postcapitalscape; perhaps some people are in Capitalism and some are already after Capitalism. Those who have achieved the supposedly impossible perpetuum mobile state of doing what they like and somehow making a living – they might not recieve universal basic income, it doesn’t exist, but it must feel the same way – as opposed to those who never do what they like and struggle simply to be.

Perhaps ‘Socialism for the rich, Capitalism for the poor’ could now be translated into a new slogan. That slogan might be ‘postcapital for the privileged, in it for the masses.’ I am absolutely certain that ‘sustainable’ now simply means, to hijack Orwell, that ‘everyone is sustainable, but some are far less sustainable than others.’ Of course, the savvy will complain that those floating in some sort of buoyant state and those drowning all do so in Capital, and they will be right to do so. I’m just shoving a hard finger into some soft ribs.

I agree with them, but McKenzie Wark doesn’t. The groundwork of the book seems very good. Capitalism has essences and appearances. But even in Wark’s own arguments the appearance has shifted, but the essence remains. Then stubbornly Wark will insist that the essence has in fact changed, to the extent that Capitalism has gone.

The evidence need go no further than the act of reading Wark’s book. It is ordered via just-in-time processes on behalf of a company that turns profit and loss and creates surplus from labour processes. Wark’s attempt to suggest a kind-of Darwinian shift in human production is at least in part a gambit towards creating novelty in a corner of a saturated marketplace. The idea of Capitalism’s end is undermined in Wark’s idea of how Capitalism is ending. That self-undermining is then underscored by the mode of delivery of that argument.

The pulling back of a curtain to reveal a bigger monster than the one we thought we faced is part of that big sell. It is melodramatic and the melodrama ends with an offer of how to understand the new monster and what to do about it. Wark produces innovation in a corner of the marketplace – leftwing theory – and then embeds this in a future curve during which this innovation can be mined. Wark’s game then is at least partially, perhaps fully, Capitalist. We will not negate Capital – except through our own self-destruction – nature will now negate it, and us.

However I do agree with Wark that flinging chunks of ancient nineteenth century theoretical stuff into the Western breach will not fill it. What we are facing here needs new, not the ashen old Marxist or ‘progressive’ scripts. And I consider myself a kind of Marxist. Wark argues that we move from high theory to low theory. I like the concept of a profane, riffing, open ‘theory’. But in Wark’s hands it seems to mean that the rejection of grand theory says we can find transgressive microhistories. This just makes it a reversal to the posts- and to the Foucauldian. I think the recent reversal to a time before pomo and postructuralism is just bruised mourning, but I also think that retrenching into fragments of postmodernity is futile.

But there is a limit to how far theoretical innovation itself is useful. Because people with homes suddenly full of filthy water are not going to start saying ‘oh well that’s OK because I always wanted the line between nature and the man-made to blur.’ McKenzie Wark can say whatever McKenzie Wark likes precisely because McKenzie Wark doesn’t sleep in a doorway on the high street. When Wark describes the hacker class, Wark is suddenly describing McKenzie Wark.

Wark claims that negation has happened and that tech is an essence, not an appearance. Heidegger thought technology would never unconceal itself. Its essence was forever inscrutable. Yet Wark jumps in and claims it exactly just so. Hardt and Negri thought new media meant revolution was a moment away. I agree with Hardt and Negri more than Wark, and I don’t believe them at all.

Wark takes the opening of Marx’s Capital as a collection of things and says it is now information about things. In the commodities exchange in Manchester, information about things became lifted off the things themselves. Engels saw this and wrote about it in his own time. Those things included bales of raw cotton produced by abused, wageless black slaves forcibly taken from their homes in Africa. It all became abstracted in indexes. Wark understands that production has shifted to bad states with punitive regimes, yet still insists on the larger part of the book’s argument. That larger argument hangs in strips. It never knits. The shift from object to spectacle to web 2.0 is surely a shift to immersion. There are already accounts of the way information shifted, for which look to Friedrich Kittler and Leo Findeisen, particularly Findeisen’s essay ‘Some Code To Die For’.

But this book isn’t to be rejected. The key part of its argument runs that what at first was put in place to ‘assist capital to defeat Labour in the overdeveloped world was also a defeat for capital’. This is the crux. I think about this through the demand that Feudalism adapt and survive in the early nineteenth century, and that old capital also had to do something similar at other times. In terms of Wark’s territory, this begins in the late 1970s. Each period has particular shapes. The ruffles on the dress of history may only be ruffles, but the cloth falls in an unrepeatable way each time. Infocapital has its own peculiar effect. The ‘vector enters the flesh and commands it, and not just as meat, but also as information…’ Here, Wark hits on a rich seam of very real understanding and communicates it beautifully. I think the conclusion is on page 48, that ‘the vectoral infrastructure throws all of the world into the engine of commodification, meanwhile modifying the commodity form itself.’

This gets right to the heart of what Wark is trying to say. On page 69 Wark states that ‘the socialisation of knowledge’ is ’embedded into the form of technology as general intellect.’ These are excellent insights and strong contributions to contemporary theory, but the end of Capitalism it is not. The question of the title ‘Capital is dead, is this something worse?’ already has its parallel, metonymical reply: ‘Capital is always dying away and coming back with sharper fangs.’ It may be a vampire, a zombie – all metaphors, yes – it is probably both and it has not been superceded by a new monster. It is definitely vectoral, it has finally penetrated our minds and bodies, but it has not stopped being Capitalism. The ‘vectoralist class still sits atop a pyramid of exploited labour’ writes Wark on page 115. There you go. Capitalism.

Wark’s ‘Hacker Class’ is still interesting and useful too. Wark states that it ‘turns out that politics is much less about the relation between the friend and the enemy, and much more crucially about relations among nonfriends and nonenemies.’ This an American perspective on class, but I do believe we had our first American election in Britain in 2019. Not only was it Trumpian in important ways, but the old class perspectives are shaken. The Tories’ ‘Dave from Bolton’ is of course a bullshit advertisement, but there is enough that is real about him. (And also damn you Dave, what the hell do you think you are doing?!).

The post-EU open borders island has a mixed demographic of incomers who think more like Americans. The old British struggles of labour versus capital make less sense to them. The orthodox British left will no doubt strongly object, in a further refusal of basic reality. Others may scream ‘xenophobe’. Do what you like, I think a UK of vast cultural difference is great, but I don’t have to like a multitudinous politics and the multitude doesn’t have to like mine. Wark is good on this. The idea of a diverse workforce says ‘of course the algorithm is in theory very tolerant about who it exploits.’ The idea of the ‘California ideology’ in Wark’s book is very useful too, but it doesn’t take arcane theory to see everyone in the West has been affected by that.

But there are problems even here. The ‘class location blues chapter’ views everything through the lens of the laptopped New Yorker. This is the risk with the Hacker Class. If you are one of those people, it will be very tempting to see the vast assemblage through the lens of the connected. It’s one thing saying that all of capital is now vectors if you are in this world of flows yourself. If you work in a Chinese flip-flop factory, you would probably be better off reading mid-nineteenth century Marx. Wark goes hard on Marxists for not giving us a proper materialist reading, then weaves unsteadily between a critique of materialism and ideologies. Wark claims to be cleaving to a hardcore materialism, at the same time as thinking privacy is a bloated idea.

I prefer Benjamin Noys on all of this. He can do the philosophy properly. He doesn’t make ludicrous claims or write things that sound like a self-help manual. But what makes him very good is probably what makes less people know about him. In fact, I reckon Wark would be a better writer unshackled from the theoretical framework of Marxism entirely. When this work is good it is brilliant, but that tallies with more open, speculative thinking, rather than work trying to align or disalign itself with ‘the tradition’.

It fizzles out with the détourning Wark of old, ‘workings of the world untie’ and becoming acommunist. And yet and yet. Among all this dusting the ash off J.D. Bernal and others there is a flash of exactly what we need. A new Scientific Enlightenment completely aware of our precarious position in the universe:

‘Scarcity predates Capital and endures beyond it. The project to overcome it can (and must) be freely chosen but can never close the gap between the human and the nonhuman worlds. At best it might result in an inhuman apparatus less worse, less damaging, than the last.’

Wark cites Drew Milne’s poetry collection In Darkest Capital. In, not out, McKenzie, see? Milne is the essential antidote to the accelerationism of the Nick Land that ended up producing ‘Dark Enlightenment’. It is the slowest overthrow. Darkest Capital has the sense of ‘In Darkest Africa’ to it, and here is Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation, that capitalism begins with a defibrillator jolt of genocide and an injection of the raw materials that would have been available to the dead. Milne refers to Aristotle’s notion of ‘entelechy’, a sort-of self-organising motive force.

So I think behind all of this is Enlightenment. Nobody seems to be tackling Enlightenment. I send you to Noys, and via Noys back to Dialectic of Enlightenment by Adorno & Horkheimer. Extinction Rebellion are Enlightenment, but they need the negation of Adorno & Horkheimer. When Greta Thunberg says listen to climate scientists and use your freedom to do something, she is as Enlightenment as Voltaire’s knee breeches. And I salute those knee breeches, and I salute Greta Thunberg. But we can’t have Enlightenment like Steven Pinker thinks it. What Wark essentially describes is a sinister fold inwards of instrumentalised Enlightenment thought, but never says that.

Therefore Hatherley was right to say, back in 2016, just before all this literature became a curve, that much of it describes an absence. Capital is not Dead. It thrives. But there are glimmers of another book here and I want McKenzie Wark to write it.

– Steve Hanson

Exploding plastic inestimable

For The Good Times – David Keenan (Faber & Faber)

Bear with me. Someone where I live put two recycling containers out in the kitchen, rather than the usual one. One for raw food, the other for cooked. From now on, raw food went in the compost bin in the garden and the cooked in the bin.

Since then there have been questions over eggshells, the seemingly cooked, and hippy tea leaves. These are cooked as far as I’m concerned, but according to some, they are to be placed in the Eden of Decomposition and Beautiful Regrowth, rather than in the Landfill Hell of Rot and Eternal Death.

Under it all was Levi-Straussian deep structure. It was amusing that the original advocate of this two-bin system was French. The unconscious was fully up and running throughout this period, on both sides of the conversation, those for and against.

David Keenan, if he had lived here, might have written it up. Keenan can seemingly time travel and wander into a locale before doing there what my head did to the double bin recycling system: Keenan is a bloody good structuralist, and you need to be one to be a great novelist. He is.

For The Good Times opens in the 1981 of the Belfast hunger strike. H-Block, the end of the 1970s. But the first proof that Keenan is a great structuralist – and therefore novelist – arrives with Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. You heard right. Or rather, with the arrival of the Comocipher and the Sinatrasign.

Keenan writes for Wire magazine and this novel is often filtered through popular culture. Weird discussions about U2 and the fact that Hawkwind are completely anti-establishment bubble up, with a man called The Dark Destroller.

But this isn’t a busman’s holiday being taken on Faber time. It is essentially an act of translation. Because how could you go back and explain the roots of the split in Christian religion across the British Isles, and the shift from Fenian struggles to the IRA, and still have any words left ‘to do a novel’? The results would fail to pull you through anyway.

The pop-cultural is the universal language which the old world lingo is being translated into. It is as much an act of translation were it converted from French to English. The credits should read ‘all rights reserved, David Keenan, 2019. Tranlated by David Keenan.’

The Comocipher – and the mostly absent Sinatrasign – become tap dancing signifiers which morse the moral underworld back to us. Como is the wholesome recycling container, Sinatra the horrible waste dinner hole:

‘And fuck Frank Sinatra he was a dissolute cunt. But Como never cursed, never smoked nor drank. Plus he was always faithful to his wife.’

That Como never cursed comes straight after profanity. The Sacred and the Profane, a core that maps outwards again onto Protestant and Catholic, English and Irish, Monarchist and Republican, Enemy and Friend.

At its core this book is about the impossibility of containing the Sacred and Profane on separate plots. It comes up again and again in For The Good Times. The impossibility of containing Protestant and Catholic on separate plots – which was less impossible than mixing them, to be fair – and the impossibility of keeping the Sinner away from the Saint, even when they were in the same body.

Two young IRA go to hit up a bad debter and he’s a double of one of them. Things go weird. The binaries are always being eroded. The young IRA boys’ mams all love the queen, as the queen’s soldiers raze their neighbourhoods. The irrational is right at the surface, but the human subject is submerged in itself and so doesn’t see this. The wholesome is always slipping, you have to grab on to it before it slides into hell, redeem it, and yourself… the unconscious is always an agent: There is always ‘sin’ in Sinatra, but Como sounds a little like coma. Barney comes back badly beaten and the treatment triggers all kinds of scrambled jokes with truths in them.

The ‘troubles’ were the unconscious in Britain, a full war and the rest of the country acting like there was no war, just a bit of bother. I remember the Belfast displaced at the University of Wolverhampton. Drinkers and headcases. I remember my friend Tony’s stories about what they did more. He was properly plugged in. They were a spyhole into the secret country. Like when I go to the supposedly healthy big compost bin out back and actually look as I tip the stuff in this time. Giant green luminous slugs and crawling with worms, crawling with worms. The slugs and worms are us, not the Fenians. Writhing through we know not what blindly.

The strange hanging strips in the novel seem to contain David Bowie’s duet with Bing Crosby in 1977, as the Maze Prison horrors intensified. Bowie guilt-trip catapulted back into the world of wholesome schmaltz after years of sin. ‘Schmaltz’ is also poultry fat, it is grease. In Poland and the Ukraine, stock fats are ‘smalec’. Back to food again, the raw and cooked.

You can access that level of depth via this novel. You can take it as a thrilling, riffing ride through the darkest side of bleak Britain in the 1970s. It is both. It gives you access to either and/or both simultaneously and that makes it great art.

Another level of translation is going on which shows the greatness of the craft. Keenan knows it only takes a ‘Jayzus’ here and a ‘flappy disc’ there to tell us the speech is Irish. His use of English has just enough underlying syntax to trigger the ‘Irishness’ we already store in our heads. That’s skill. James Kelman would give you every spit of inflection. Keenan does that somehow without blistering the text with irregular spelling. I’m not stating a preference here, both are ways into the problem, and both work. It seems to thicken though, about 200 pages in. Keenan seems to bring you in gently and when you’re finished you’re talking to yourself in your head like an IRA footsoldier.

Keenan writes a sequence in which three main characters take acid and go to a Clash gig. Legend has it you can’t write sex. But the history of accounts of tripping in modern literature really does look like a landfill. Keenan pulls it off in style – and connected to the rest of the work – with barely an adjective. Which, of course, is exactly how you do it.

Other signs and ciphers, snakes, and superheroes, and the whole of the Falkland War drops in via a short, sick Simon Weston joke. That’s economy. The Europa Hotel, Belfast, is now loaded in a particular way. A character called Miracle Baby with ‘learning difficulties’ is connected. As someone who isn’t taken seriously, thought of as ‘harmless’. He gets given information. He is in the lineage of the fool who speaks the truth. It brings Lear in, and it is that savage and bloody. But there’s a sharp understanding of what the ‘occult’ is here. Someone in touch whose senses are tuned differently. It’s the occult as Colin Wilson figured it.

This is a very different book to a forthcoming novel by by Ian McGuire, The Abstainer. That novel seems fatted for a TV slaughter. Keenan’s book is part of a less compromising literary tradition. But both books have the peelers chasing a bunch of terrorists in a shattered land of sheer contradiction and hypocrisy. Holy Wars on home turf? They never went out of fashion! Both books are essential in 2020 as a far right English government takes power. English, not British, let’s get this right, at the same time as the tension in that binary wants to go up like semtex.

For The Good Times is an autograph written on a plastic bullet for a young admirer by an IRA hitman. This book is the Filthy Truth, smearing its greasy data back onto the Clean Lie of harmony across the 1990s and 2000s. A kind of brilliant dirty protest against provincialism, amnesia and straight stupidity.

– Steve Hanson

Opportunity Knocks

Sarah Cave – Persistence Valley (Knives, Forks & Spoons Press, 2020)

Up on Mars, the Curiosity Rover is still trundling along. As I write this, it has just taken a series of selfies, updating its social media feed with pictures from the surface of Mars.

The Curiosity follows in the footprints, or rather the tyre-tracks, of the more primitive Rovers that came before it. Among these were Spirit, active from 2004 to 2010, and Opportunity, active from 2004 to 2018.

Where Curiosity’s viral moment came with its arrival on Mars and the live footage it broadcast back to Earth, Opportunity is famous for its (admittedly apocryphal) last words. Before finally signing off, the story goes, it sent a last message down to its creators on Earth: “my battery is low and it’s getting dark”.

The final journey of Opportunity is the subject of Sarah Cave’s new book-length poetry cycle Persistence Valley. It is a work of poignance, creativity, and visual ingenuity. Not science-fictional so much as science-poetical, it brings a weight of meaning to a subject that should, by rights, be sublime and yet is so often lost in the dry technicalities.

The space race is over. We don’t have the satisfaction of beating other countries to things. But quietly, in the background, our horizons are expanding. Our vision as the human race is opening to the universe.

This is not enough, it seems. It’s enough for a moment of quiet reflection, yes, but to really ruminate on, to build epic sagas, myth cycles and quests on, it somehow seems too thin, too small. The more contemporary sci-fi I read, the more saddened I become at its disinterest with actual science.

Persistence Valley poses a solution to this imaginative deficit. She doesn’t so much humanize the Opportunity Rover as textualise it. It is a character, Jim, but not as we know it.

The pages of Persistence Valley are all full-colour prints. We read the journey of the Rover through a green holographic viewport. Onto the viewport float words, fragmented in a way that recalls systems operations running, but is in fact the fractured surface of contemporary post-concrete poetry.

The presentation places the poetry in an ambiguous relationship to the reader. We suspect this to be a first-person narrative, read from a viewport as it is, and yet, if this is so, Opportunity is referring to itself in the third-person throughout. Instead, we realise, this is a computer running reports for itself. We are watching, outsiders, like ground control, not being addressed directly but receiving readouts.

As the poem progresses, Cave introduces us to the servo-arms that accompany Opportunity – Mario and Luigi – technically operated from afar and so not part of its core functioning. We also establish a relationship with Spirit, only for her to tragically power down and leave Opportunity wandering on alone.

Cave is not anthropomorphizing Opportunity so much as feeling human sentiments for her. We get no sense that Opportunity feels and thinks, but we are encouraged to think of it as a her, and to feel for her. Cave recognizes the poetry that humans can find in the inanimate. Objects don’t need minds to become characters. And we care about characters.

When the book comes to its inevitable conclusion, battery draining and darkness falling, the poignancy of Opportunity’s loss, its sacrifice, is deeply felt.

Persistence Valley is a book that blends science and the new post-concrete poetics in a truly meaningful way. KF&S Press have done a wonderful job with the presentation, the extra expense of colour printing makes this book feel particularly special.

I’d highly recommend taking the opportunity to get hold of this excellent book today.

– Joe Darlington

Down with the getters-on

Various – Academics Against Networking (indie)

Teaching in art schools over the last fifteen years, I watched the social form shift. It went from the tail end of 1968, happenings and hanging out with no clear purpose, to heated ethical discussions which blur into – essentially – business networking. The art scene in Manchester is pernicious. ‘Professionalism’ and ‘radicalism’ are one and the same. People slam their positions online in the way that Ford once marketed cars.

Thankfully other people see it too and are starting to dissect it. Academics Against Networking is a collective taking the phenomenon apart – the way that supposedly disinterested intellectual pursuit and careerism have meshed – but also precarious academic labour and the state of universities generally.

The recent UCU strikes have clearly thrown them further together, a point to remember as we start the long uphill march of the next four years.

But Academics Against Networking are not crazed separatists either, they understand that we are all complicit by degrees. Their ‘zine is excellent and MROB recommend it. It includes poems and reflections on precarious labour and the seemingly intrinsic psychological sick building syndrome that beds in as soon as a place is declared a ‘university’.

– Steve Hanson

2019, 1889, back to the future

Why You Should Be a Trade Unionist – Len McCluskey (Verso)

2019, Manchester, Royal Mail Sorting Centre, Oldham Road: Sixteen Christmas temps stood against the glass walls of the reception area. It was 5.50am. The receptionist told those by the doors to move away from them. She had an intolerant, rough way with her. ‘Night shift’ll be comin aht ‘ere in a bit.’ She zeroed in on one man. He was possibly Spanish. ‘Weren’t you told not to come back today?’ she demanded. He looked blank. Nervous. ‘Yesterday. You were told not to come back here. Unless you got a text message.’ She was shouting now. The man struggled out a response, something about the letter he had telling him to be there. The woman shrugged and went back behind her reception desk. They all had letters welcoming them to the Royal Mail, and to Christmas temping, telling them they would be employed until around the 24th of December. Eventually, a manager came out of a door at the back. ‘Right’ he said, with a performed incredulity, ‘has no-one been in touch?’ Nobody replied. ‘You must have heard that the strike is off, it’s been ruled illegal, so none of you are needed’ he continued, with a Sergeant Major undertone. ‘But seeing as you are here’ he said ‘you can do a single shift of eight hours and then that is it.’ They all milled in silence. ‘Forget it’ one of them said, and walked out. As he was walking out, the manager said ‘any of you others want to leave, please do.’ As he walked across the car park he looked back, to see the others filing into the vast mail centre. He went home and phoned in a grievance with Royal Mail, as he had been allotted a payroll number. The man on the phone advised him that the manager in question must respond within 14 days. ‘What will happen if he doesn’t?’ he asked. ‘Nothing. Nothing happens, you’re on your own.’

1889, London docks 130 years ago: Dockers shuffle around a large shed waiting for the ‘call-on’, the point when men will be selected for work. They hope it will be a full day of work, but sometimes it is as little as two hours. When the bosses arrive, there will be a scrum to try to get picked. Outside, a row was brewing over ‘plus money’ paid for fast work when unloading the Lady Armstrong in the West India Dock. The East and West India Dock Company sometimes cut these rates to try to persuade ships to unload with them. Eventually, the dockers walked out. Gradually, others also walked out in protest. The situation turned by degrees into something like a general strike. The Evening News & Post reported on the 26th of August 1889, that if ‘it goes on a few days longer, all London will be on holiday.’ Seamen, firemen, lightermen, watermen, ropemakers, fish porters, bargemen, cement workers, carmen, ironworkers and factory girls all came out in support of the dockers. ‘The great machine by which five millions of people are fed and clothed will come to a dead stop, and what is to be the end of it all?’ the Evening News & Post asked. The dockers formed a strike committee, but it quickly used up its funds. Eventually, Brisbane Wharf Labourers’ Union in Australia raised £30,000 for the London, largely East End, dockers and families. This strengthened the determination of the strikers and allowed them to win. A government body was formed, known as The Mansion House Committee. It persuaded the companies to agree to nearly all of the dockers’ demands. The dockers then formed a new General Labourers’ Union. In London, nearly 20,000 joined it.

Manchester, 2019: The Royal Mail strike that the manager of the incoming 6am shift referred to was over job security, terms and conditions. It was almost unanimously backed. 97% voted in favour of action, on an almost 76% turnout. It was overruled by Mr Lord Justice Swift at High Court. Swift ruled that members voting at work equalled ‘improper interference’ with the ballot. A well-known QC was criticised, earlier this year, for claiming on Twitter that Mr Justice Swift had ‘a reputation for being very Government minded’. The subsequent appeal over his Royal Mail strike ruling was thrown out. Outside the Court of Appeal, CWU’s Tony Kearns said ‘we’ve got a 97 per cent yes vote on a 75 return. It is the clear democratic will of the employees of Royal Mail and members of the CWU to take strike action, as is their human right, and we’ve seen here today, in a matter of seconds, three appeal court judges override that democracy.’ He added ‘there is something inherently wrong with the legal system in this country’, it ‘is clearly now stacked against workers.’ Last year Royal Mail were blasted for handing new CEO Rico Back £6m to run the business from Switzerland.

October, 2019: The Labour Party warned that Boris Johnson’s revised Brexit deal undermined the future of workers’ rights. These concerns were then endorsed and expanded by many union leaders. The concept of the ‘level playing field’ in EU countries was removed as a legal requirement from the last EU withdrawal agreement Boris Johnson attempted to have passed, after his controversial suspension of Parliament, or the ‘prorogation’, which was eventually ruled illegal. Here we can see how much of our future outside the EU will be a case of ‘back to the future’. Back to the future of praying not to be allotted what Orwell called a ‘gouty old bully’ of a judge, and instead to be allotted a progressive one. ‘It’s Business As Usual’, Royal Mail’s website announces.

Manchester, 2020: After the disastrous general election of December 2020 Verso issues this book. It is excellent, clear, contemporary in its examples and historically informed. I made a point of reading it in my local leisure centre sauna. ‘Trade unions, they’re not a thing anymore, right?’ one guy asked. Another complained that the supermarket branch of Usdaw he was a member of was ‘in the pocket’ of management.

He has since left the supermarket and is now an Uber driver. He also complained of no-work-no-pay, putting in long hours and struggling to get by.

Review ends.

– Steve Hanson

Wholly Mountains

Mark Goodwin – Rock as Gloss (Longbarrow Press, 2019)

Rocks. Humble rocks. Every philosopher should have one on their desk. In fact, when they tire of trying to prove the existence of their desks, I find that philosophers will often reach for the humble rock and think about that instead.

Johnson kicked one to disprove idealism. Descartes tried to imagine the inside of one. Nietzsche, despite his many recurring ailments, made a habit of climbing them.

Mark Goodwin’s new poetry collection, Rock as Gloss, goes one better than all of them. In a series of four cycles, or “Compasses”, he guides us through the precarious world of rock climbing.

Through his compact imagery we feel the mix of adrenaline and silence that carries the climber upwards. Descriptions are hard, palpable, and elegantly varied in such a way that the subject never dulls, it only grows deeper. The struggle of man against nature, slippery shoes against rock are driven home in the sacred signifiers: friction, rubber, grip.

Goodwin repeats the image of fingertips on rock with such love and duty that it becomes religious. The cycle of repetition contains infinite tiny variations, enough to reward his eternal return.

There are references that will please advocates of the sport. Menlove Edwards, climber of the pre-war era, is heralded as a hero. One character even becomes Menlove in his dying moments. Coleridge is here too. Another mountaineer-poet in whose handholds Goodwin climbs.

And yet in his poetry Goodwin is not so much Romantic as Metaphysical. The romance of the climb is described, primarily in short sections of prose, but the poetry itself is stripped of heroic or nature-based poesy. It is a poetry of engagement. Goodwin faces the rock with his fingertips, hanging on for dear life. His words struggle to really grasp this, really grip it.

Goodwin favours the narrow line. When he needs more elaboration he prefers to implement concrete poetry techniques, adding complexity onto the surface of the page in order to keep his images stark and bare. He knows a hundred synonyms for rocks and their parts. They are his kit, the Gore-Tex jacket of his poetry. He rarely slips down the scree of metaphor, preferring hard surfaces throughout.

You can feel the traces of struggle in this poetry. His search for the exact word is visible on the page, like a handhold on a cliff face. Goodwin is facing the thing itself, searching it, trying to name it. A terribly difficult thing to do.

One can understand the appeal of rock climbing in Goodwin’s work. As a keen rambler, I know the joy of a hill conquered. Yet, as Goodwin points out, where we ramblers go around things, climbers go straight up them. Their confrontation is more direct. They refuse to compromise with the rock.

But where do all these physical metaphysics lead? The turning point comes in Compass 3, where Goodwin tells the story, in prose, of a climber who encounters an old sheep on a mountainside. A funny image at first, made funnier by his recollection of a nanny goat who once head-butted him off a hill. But then, as a storm brews and he crawls back shivering to a shelter, the sheep suddenly seems mystical, like a divine vision.

Christopher Lichen, our Childe Harold-like protagonist, now reappears through poem after poem, experiencing more and more epiphanies until, finally, we see him falling down on his knees and running his fingertips over every single inch of the mountain. Doing so, he becomes the mountain itself. His body dissolves and he becomes a pagan God, a spirit of place.

And so we find that Goodwin has led us along a path to enlightenment all along. He follows the steps of Nietzsche, Rumi, the Buddha, Jesus and Moses, climbing the holy mountain to bring back godly wisdom. What started with the sensation of rock on fingertip, has grown into a transcendence of mind and matter through language.

As a reading experience, Goodwin’s poetry is a delight. It is made moreso by the book’s design.

Put out by Sheffield’s Longbarrow Press, Rock as Gloss comes to us with all the dignity of a real, authentic, timeless collection: proper hardback binding, a tasteful dust jacket, and typesetting for Goodwin’s concrete poems that makes their complex arrangements into works of art. I look forward to reading more from this publisher.

Mark Goodwin’s Rock as Gloss is a thing of rare beauty. A book that every reader of contemporary poetry should grab onto.

– Joe Darlington