Sous les pavés la vide

Fred Vermorel – Dead Fashion Girl: A Situationist Detective Story (Strange Attractor Press, 2019)

Reading Fred Vermorel’s latest book under lockdown has made me hyper-aware of what anxious, nationalistic, and divisive times we are living through. But the period Vermorel is describing is that of mid-1950s, predating Suez, the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and the Profumo affair, which, according to common wisdom, successively disturbed a long-running Tory snooze, causing Britain, eventually, to wake up. Since 2016 we seem to have nodded off again, and now it may be that we are experiencing a nightmare. Ah well, as Guy Debord, co-founder of the Situationist International, put it: “the spectacle is the guardian of sleep.” From our current groggy perspective, then, it’s important to follow this book’s investigation into the unsolved murder in 1954 of 21-year old Jean Townsend, in South Ruislip, in the same neighbourhood the eight-year-old Fred Vermorel also lived.

Just after the book’s opening, Fred describes cycling over to look at the murder scene, which was surrounded by screens and sacking, on waste ground. Throughout what follows, screening is developed as a powerful metaphor, describing being prevented from seeing what’s there, or of wanting to see and to pry – instincts that prove equally at home in the obsessively private worlds of suburbia, where Jean lived and died, as they were in the upmarket and fast-moving London fashion world where she worked. Vermorel, writer of “anti-biographies” of Vivienne Westwood and Kate Moss, among others, is keen to get under the surface of the ‘50s fashion industry, exposing ugly truths.

Sharply attired, Jean was strangled with her own chiffon scarf while walking home from South Ruislip tube station, on the night of September 14th. It would have been very dark, because in those days the street lights didn’t stay on all night. Her body was discovered the following morning. The police found no evidence of sexual assault. But her underwear had been removed and placed nearby. Nobody has ever been charged with her murder.

The police files on Jean’s death are embargoed till 2031, because they contain “sensitive information that would substantially distress or endanger a living person or his or her descendants.” Vermorel follows several lines of enquiry into the reasons for this. Was the murderer a US serviceman from a nearby airbase, who may have been flown back to the States to escape prosecution? Or was he someone, perhaps a famous someone, whom Jean already knew? Whoever it was, people said she would have fought back, if she’d sensed she was being attacked. But there were no signs of a struggle.

So, what makes this a situationist detective story? Well, for the early Situationists, the modern city – London in this case – was itself a detective story. Unitary urbanism and psychogeography were games you could play to make it come apart and reassemble, rather like a detective untangling a knot of theories or following a lead. And Vermorel, a veteran of the Paris uprisings of 1968, certainly follows leads, and does a lot of untangling. Moreover, for this 1950s moment, the book maps out London’s very own “Society of the Spectacle”, by becoming what Debord would describe as “A social relation among people, mediated by images.” And this book is full of images from the period, including newspaper front pages, postcards, family snaps, wedding shots, the covers of pulp novels, and clothing designs. So many layers, screens, masks.

A former student at Ealing Art School, Jean worked at Berman’s Theatrical Costumiers, near Leicester Square. She’d started as a seamstress and later became personal assistant to a designer, Michael Whittaker, aka “Mr Fashion,” the man who ended up creating the catsuit worn by the late Honor Blackman’s character, Cathy Gale, in the Avengers TV series, from 1962 to 1964. Whittaker is just one of many personalities in the investigation who had, however, a secret, dark side. He hosted regular orgies and turned out the occasional S&M-themed pornographic drawing featuring men in Nazi-styled military uniforms and gasmasks, involved in acts of bondage and submission. At times Vermorel goes where you didn’t know you were going to end up going, and maybe didn’t want to. Secret places. But Fred has to do a lot of digging to find out about Whittaker. This, he says, is because Whittaker “doesn’t fit the enthusiasms and fetishes informing google algorithms,” unlike (in an amusing footnote) “the pointless fashion darling Isabella Blow” who gets 2,000 words on Wikipeadia.

Two doors away from Berman’s on Irving Street, was another secret place, a private club called The Londoner, where Jean spent her final evening, before catching the last Central Line train back to South Ruislip. At the Londoner, Jean had been celebrating with friends. She’d joined a “pyramid club,” a craze of the time involving invitations, donations, and parties where you rubbed shoulders with complete strangers. Her winning pyramid party would have taken place next day. At the time, her death was nicknamed the Pyramid Club Murder in some of the tabloids.

But under scrutiny, the exclusive Londoner venue reveals far murkier secrets – from its thoroughly dodgy manager, George Baron, to its clientele, a mixture of underworld heavies like Dennis Stafford (whose career inspired the 1971 film, Get Carter), showbiz glitterati including Shirley Bassey, Johnny Ray and Diana Dors, and (of course) toffs and royalty, like the Duchess of Argyll, Lord Boothby, Princess Margaret and Prince Philip. The atmosphere was free of the social constraints of class and rigid heterosexuality. But behind the scenes, some people, like Baron, were frequently out of control and brutal, as his ex-wife Liz testifies.

This book is not the first unofficial attempt to solve the murder of Jean Townsend. Vermorel tracks down another ex-neighbour of Jean’s, Reg Hargreaves, who tried and failed to re-open the file on Jean’s murder, in 2007. Surprisingly the court proceedings revealed that eight out of nine of the forensic items retained after the murder have since disappeared and a significant number of witness statements also went AWOL. Police incompetence seems to have combined with a cover-up, making it impossible to discover what the cops originally recovered. But Reg has his own suspect, adding yet another weird twist to the list: an Anglo-Italian “Count” called Frank Carlodalatri, who fled the country in late 1954. As with all the other suspects, there’s frightening information here, but guilt is impossible to prove. When Vermorel states his own conclusion as to the identity of Jean’s killer, or, possibly, killers, he avoids conspiracy theories, stating that it was “like most crimes: random, sordid, and absurd – accidental. With no glamour or high-flown conspiracy, nor any particular meaning.”

In the book’s final chapters, a “wildcard methodology” throws a number of wider cultural contexts into the air to see how they land. Vermorel compares these to Freudian “screen memories” – hmm, those screens again – pondering moral panics of the time surrounding imported horror comics, sex manuals, and flick knives. Then there’s the forgotten importance of Brits disappearing for pastures new, like Australia, counterbalancing the emphasis many (white) Brits now prefer to make on immigration. Vermorel even finds meaning in the way people walked in the 50s, and the clothes they wore, revealed in street photographs, details cropped and enlarged.

Other images feature the author himself, as a child, with his mum. On the occasion of a “surprise picnic,” mother and son smile into “Auntie” Iris’s camera, on a patch of, wait for it, wasteland. More multiple meanings are disentangled from that setting, as wild and overgrown as it could be creepy and dangerous. But the wasteland in question was the same patch Jean Townsend’s body was found, about a hundred yards away, a few months later. It’s haunting.

– Bob Dickinson 



The Naseeb Reviews. Part. 2

Book of Naseeb – Khaled Hakim (Penned in the Margins, 2020) 

Early 2015, I attended a conference with Mark Rainey in Durham. It was on Gillian Rose, a celebration.

I had been burned out of my house by a DIY fuse box – by feckless estate agents, actually – and after a short period of drinking to deal with it, I was newly sober. The conference room was divided in half by simple human clustering: theology people; social science and philosophy people. At times the atmosphere was charged. Argumentative, accusatory. The Bible was discussed. Andrew Shanks spoke eloquently on the Book of Amos.

I started telling Mark that we should start again with the Old Testament. He probably thought I was talking out of a state of shock and if he did he would have been right. But that moment, no justice for the fire I was in – Grenfell some way off – and austerity casualties everywhere, times seemed ripe even then for the accuser on the temple steps, letting fly with prophecy.

A key function of prophecy was social. Using its generic language form, you could go and tell the priesthood their shit stank. ‘We need that now’ I said to Mark. He nodded, but I never knew what he thought.

When I got back – I was written off work with PTSD – I started to look at the King James bible. The Bible often sets up a proposition, then the answer comes over the other side of a semi-colon. And all those semi-colons. Hundreds. Litter. What if I took them all out?

I got a text version. I took them out using the find/change function. And suddenly it was a different thing. I slashed Proverbs to ribbons and then reversed Ecclesiastes back into its ruined space. I carried on like this for months in my first lockdown, a trauma lockdown.

Eventually I had created a book I called A Book of the Broken Middle. Fold Press put a small number out early in 2017, with an ISBN: put in a British Library order if you’re interested. A new version, called A Shaken Bible, with a Preface by Canon Emeritus Andrew Shanks, is due out with Boiler House Press.

I had a contract with Repeater, but we went our separate ways when I ‘slanged up’ the text. Now I am halfway through Book of Naseeb by Khaled Hakim and I wish A Shaken Bible were out. Because of the slang, of course, the street talk, and the old time religion. That mix, we are both on that mix.

But reading Book of Naseeb, it also strikes me forcefully that there are connections underneath which are much bigger than its alarming and brilliant surface.

There was a fork in the road of Abrahamic faiths hundreds of years ago. This book dowses for metal right over that buried crossroad. The angels listed glossary form at the start of Naseeb are the same ones the Golden Dawn conjured in protecting rituals before divination, WB Yeats included. Their names might be slightly different, but as this book, and my Shaken Bible show, the details matter little.

In the seventeenth century localised and individual spellings were ordinary. In my book I even spell ‘their’ two ways. ‘Thier’ and ‘their’. They are not typos. My people, on the Lancs-Yorks border spoke like that, the older ones. And it was coming out of Methodism and Bible talk. There is a flash forward to slang in this. I knew that then, Khaled sees it. I can see that he sees it.

This book, Book of Naseeb, also gives me a connecting fork. It is the other part of the lost wishbone. Because I went to Sunday School and was confirmed, lapsing immediately and everafter, I thought the King James was fair game. But obviously I grew up with the Rushdie affair on the TV and we were not far from Bradford. So I wasn’t going to go there.

But I knew this could be done and that someone should. Khaled has done it. He understands some may find it ‘outrageous’ to ‘yoke the degraded language of criminals and gangs with the divine speech and rhythms of Allah.’

To many Muslims ‘the confluence of Islamic world with the language and subject of The Book of Naseeb would be offensive.’

Naseeb appears to come through customs unscathed due to his protecting angels, along with the recording angels and Khaled remarks that Muslims should ‘also be aware that the Recording Angels must detail every obscenity in Naseeb’s gift of life.’

‘I am at an intersection’ Khaled explains, ‘between modernist narrative (that at its extreme can be read in any direction) and the linear story.’ Yeats and what comes after, then, isn’t a tenuous connection.

But this is not merely the sacred slapped into electrified form by some cuss words. This is a piece of literature and its threads vanish into the hardback spine and back through to antiquity via modernism. I experienced figures when reading this book that simply aren’t in it, and yet are: Newton as the last occultist and first and perhaps only modern man (because a giant enough to have all the others inside him). The Old Testament Prophets, but in an expanded Pantheon which reaches right into the Muslim world (it isn’t new, it’s just that the keepers of tradition keep it hidden).

The text feels spidery, but it is a taut, well-constructed web, made of the strongest silk. Every cipher counts, there’s a baby called Jonah, a double life. The baby doesn’t know right from wrong yet. Khaled knows how to make a whole lineage of myth come alive with a single sign. The circuits glow poppy blue behind the words. The line ‘an exploding horizon of wings’ comes to me via Doré’s etchings, or it triggers them in me, maybe there is no difference. But it seems to come out of a space I was in in the late 1990s, when I sent weekends in Bethnal Green going to drum’n’bass nights.

But the slang, actually, is a surface. The deep mythological dimension remains: The shadow of the whale so large it passes unnoticed; the glimpses of Mujahideen in poppy fields; there are single line details in this book which contain histories.

There is something in all the things in this book that are part of what I was trying to do. There is something in the fact that we are both trying to do it – Khaled and I – in this part of our epoch. I can’t say anymore about it at the moment, but I feel like a deep well has been uncovered.

What was I saying? A key function of prophecy was social. It still is.

Here is profess-eye. It feels incredibly necessary because it is.

– Steve Hanson

The Naseeb Reviews. Pt. 1

Khaled Hakim – The Book of Naseeb (Penned in the Margins, 2020).

The Book of Naseeb is a strange book. Just the kind we like here at the MRB. It manages to be both the exact type of book that I (Joe) like to read, while also being eerily similar to my co-editor (Steve)’s forthcoming Shaken Bible.

With that in mind, we figured that a double-review was in order. My humble offering follows here, with a readerly eye to language and effects, while Steve’s more writerly review follows after, complete with personal reflections and some thoughts to technique.

So, what is The Book of Naseeb?

It tells the tale of lowlife chancer Naseeb; a man whose only redeeming quality is a vague desire to buy prosthetic limbs for Afghan kids. He plans to fund this by selling smuggled Afghan smack.

Naseeb talks like a hoodrat and thinks like a hoodrat, but he is followed by a host of angels. The grand assembly of celestial hosts that each Muslim is accompanied by throughout their lives are here charting his actions and intentions, keeping him from danger, and watching over his kid – “da pickney” – and his long-suffering Leesha.

The first-half of the novel incorporates Quranic language alongside a phonetically-rendered recreation of slanged speech. A typical passage reads:

                  A pinch of skag cooks on the foil until it runs. Da slave chasing da penging metal wiv a straw-

                  -a hit of tundra winter in his lungs!

                  Left his bones to bleche somwhere, his trubles in a bin bag.

                  And his Protecters dissipate in da penging air.

                  His fone buzzing sumwhere.

                  And a pure white buraq stands with furled wings in th toilet.

As you can appreciate, reading in this style takes a little getting used to.

There is a lot to be said for making language more difficult, however. Especially around the subject of the sacred.

The Anglican Church, for example, often shies away from the King James Bible in favour of more “modern” and “accessible” translations. It is a misconception to think that people simply spoke that way back then. As if religion should be easy now… as if it was easy back then.

The words of Shakespeare or Milton would have sounded as contrived to their contemporaries’ ears as they do to our own. The difference is that a seventeenth century audience could appreciate the grandeur of an unnatural and baroque language. Milton’s angels, after all, spoke in perfect metre; for a human to aspire to this is a great, if inevitably strange, thing to do.

It took generations for readers to start appreciating Milton. Let’s hope it doesn’t take that long for Khaled Hakim.

Hakim’s contrived language does what Milton sought to do, after all, and what the translators of the King James Version also had in mind. It takes the small, the mundane, the petty, and sets it against a staggering backdrop. There is majesty and grandeur in the style, made moreso by the recognisability of the content.

Just as the Gospels describe the incarnation of Almighty God as an apprentice boy making tables and chairs, so Hakim would show us forty thousand angels dragging the gates of Hell to Birmingham in pursuit of a Ford Sierra.

Naseeb, referred to Quranically as “yor slave” or “da creetur” throughout, is accompanied by angels, written about in Allah’s Preserved Tablet, and is beset along his way by djinn in every petrol station, djinn at every airport, djinn in the shape of little old ladies.

It is exciting, and well worth overcoming the initial barrier of difficulty for. I personally found it easier to sound the words out in a (no doubt very inaccurate) impersonation of a London-Pakistani accent. I do the same with Irvine Welsh. Unlike Trainspotting, however, The Book of Naseeb is compulsive reading.

I read it in two sittings. My jaw was sore with silent mumbling, but I was sore impressed.

The novel transitions mid-way through into a more standard narrative. Our hero, yor slave, finds himself lost in a desert that may be Afghanistan but may also be barzakh. The word literally refers to a barrier but, in practice, it is a personal Hell.

The language becomes clear here, perhaps to compensate for the more complex allegory. Naseeb is beset by many strange and quasi-symbolic encounters along his path. As a result of its linguistic clarity, the second half of the book rolls on at a meteoric pace, barrelling in directions unknown.

As you can no doubt tell from our reviews, we at the MRB much preferred the first half. It is unlike anything I have read (except perhaps Steve’s book, although there are major differences). It demonstrates what is possible, narratively, within an experimental form, while also earning considerable bravery points for one-upping The Satanic Verses in taboo-pushing innovation.

Yor creechur ranks this much-peng, blud! …that means good, right?

– Joe Darlington

Review Travelling-Time A

Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone – This is How You Lose the Time War (Jo Fletcher Books, 2019)

A stylish little adventure. A perfect lazy afternoon read. Highly recommended.

Thankfully, it ends just how we think it will. Because the best thing about time travel narratives is that, as we know right from the start, they will always come right in the end.

Such a forbidden love can only blossom for so long, however, and soon Red and Blue’s respective agencies are closing in. Now we’re double-crossing and triple-crossing all across time.

It will come as no surprise to learn that, as in Ovid, physical transformations produce psychic transformations. Rivalry begets alliance, hate begets love.

All this change keeps things fresh. It has a classical sensibility to it, reminiscent of Ovid. We come to think of the characters as Gods.

Such unity is appreciated, especially when we realise that the time travellers are capable of transformations too. A Victorian gentlewoman one minute and an advisor to Genghis Khan the next. It’s a thrill just trying to keep up.

The prose is stylish, punchy, even poetic. It helps to tie together what could otherwise become disparate. There is an impressive unity of voice between the two writers. On a narrative level, it brings our time travellers closer together too.

You can imagine Amal sitting down to her emails and opening up a fresh chapter from Max. After a moment to process the adventure, she writes an in-character letter, commenting on what she’s read, before setting out to write an even more shocking, even more surprising chapter in response.

Some stories are made for two authors. The back and forth of Red and Blue, outwitting, ambushing, undermining, predicting and pre-empting each other, is witty and surprising in a way that a single-authored piece could never be.

After the next chapter, they’ll write back.

Each chapter gives us another historical scene. After completing their mission, the character finds a letter from their nemesis. They’ve once again been anticipated. They are infuriated, but nevertheless impressed.

The war has been going on for decades (whatever that means in a time war). We enter it just as one agent decides to leave a taunting message for the other. This provokes retaliation, but it also opens a dialogue. And so our narrative begins.

Time is broken into numbered strands and the time agents hop across them. It’s a game of cat and mouse, Red makes one move only to find Blue has already anticipated her, and vice versa.

This is How You Lose the Time War is a time-travel story. Two agents, Red and Blue, travel through time influencing events, planting seeds, sometimes killing, in the hope that this will place their forces in a better position to win their war in the future.

– Joe Darlington

City of fragments

Fawzi Karim – Incomprehensible Lesson (Carcanet, 2019)

I will not pretend in this review to know much of anything about Iraqi poetry or the Arabic language. Karim, who was compelled to leave Iraq due to the dangerous ideological conflicts of the 1960s, and ended up in London via Lebanon, was a well-regarded artist and music critic as well as a poet. I’ll start this review with an excerpt from Fawzi Karim’s obituary, written by his translator Anthony Howell [1]:

Fawzi would often complain that Arabic poetry suffered from a desire to spell out a message, but in his poetry, meaning is what emerges from the language, rather than a preordained attempt at communication.

I’d like to take up Howell on that point. One of the most arresting poems in this book is called ‘The Forgotten City’, and goes like this:

Late afternoon. The houses shaded.

No, it’s pencil strokes of rain.

The birds have flown, their nests abandoned.


Echoes of footfalls … leaves in a whirl …

Once a scorcher burnt the wrist of this metropolis.

Now it has cooled to a bracelet of silver

Worn just once, an age ago, by some forgetful girl.

I notice that this poem avoids entirely the rhetorical invocation of great lost cities as might be expected from the theme. Rather the city is built up from precise, detailed fragments connected by association – the pencil strokes, the burn and the bracelet.

In another poem, ‘The Crack’, a mysterious female figure (‘She appeared to me naked, / Kohl on her eyes, / Lips made red by a pomegranate’s peel, / Palm pollen powdered on her cheeks,’) staggers down the pavement and smashes the poem’s narrator ‘like a pitcher’. The woman herself becomes pieces of a mirror (‘I stared into these, and at my shattered visage, / Trying to grasp the whole from the splinter.’)

And things continue to fall apart. In ‘Black Ink’, ‘Ink from my books, shelf upon shelf of them, / Pours down the curtains. / Every book is an overturned inkwell.’

I found these waves of fragmentation and dissolution compelling. This, I must stress, is very far from a book of misery – many of the broken parts assembled on the page are cheerful and pleasant. There are some amiable wanders around London, and warm childhood memories:

At the hour of sunset, autumn clouds

                  are scattered sheep drifting towards the distance.

The six stalks of our feet dangle over the lip

                  of the clay oven.

We hang around like that, eat warm bread,

                  while counting the sheep of the days we have left:

Happy days that remain before we’re packed off to school.

I found myself wondering about this author’s lived experience of exile, which in his case was very much the real deal, and the resultant fragmentary consciousness related in the poetry, in connection with the fragmentary practice of, well, most of the canonical high modernist poets.

In contemporary debates about poetry there is a faction who maintain that those high modernists represent a dead end, with their heaps of difficult wreckage; that the lineage of T.S. Eliot through C.H. Sisson and Geoffrey Hill are engaged in an exclusive game that shuts out the reader, that it doesn’t really represent lived experience.

Well, here we have an interesting counter. I wouldn’t want to speak for people who have had to undertake such shattering moves, but plainly the condition applies to many lives (ask a taxi driver, ask a dentist, ask a barber, poet, etc), and the poems of Fawzi Karim stand as evidence that there is in fact a real lived experience which fragmentary poetry recognises on paper and in language. Though I don’t think I shall do much more than suggest that – one suspects Iraqi poets can do without being ‘recruited’.

I’d recommend the book.

I’ve also been following up other Iraqi expatriate writers. I found a way in through an old event page for the Poetry Café’s Iraqi Poetry Night [2] – an event which, as the website says, has passed, but nonetheless the page is still there. The Poetry Translation Centre also hosts a selection of Iraqi poems in translation [3].

– Christophe Riesco 





Velvet Puddles

Lydia Unsworth – Yield (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2020)

In trying to explain how language could be syntactically accurate while semantically meaningless, Noam Chomsky used the phrase “colourless green ideas sleep furiously” as an example. The sentence, however, neither proves his point nor disproves it.

Language, often frustratingly, is the least literal of substances. Even a sentence like Chomsky’s contains oodles of evocative noise. It is alive with texture. Its very meaninglessness on a literal level seems to awaken in us a kind of poetic, synaesthetic response.

Lydia Unsworth’s new collection, Yield, is of the furious green sleepers school of poetics. It consists of thirty poems, mostly prose-poems, each of which operates like a kaleidoscope of language and imagery.

It is never without referent, but in long lines the referent can sometimes be supplanted by the vehicle of the metaphor. Our speaker and her friends, for example, “prepare to land like duffel bags of instant grief drooped from altitude: ample, one meter apart”.

Are we to focus on the image of bags landing? Perhaps heavy ones, dense and drooping? Or are we more interested in the instantaneousness of their grief, and its ampleness?

The language emits a haze of imagery. We find ourselves lost in it, breathing it deep, experiencing impossibly overlapping visions.

It makes me think of Freud’s theory of condensation: dream objects can mean more than one thing at the same time, and those two or more things can contradict quite happily.

Sometimes the images themselves draw out this condensation, tease us onto its verges and then overstep and keep going, letting us fall once more into uncertainty. Take the phrase, “clouds sweep like a stealth of cleaners”. I have two distinct visions in my mind here. I cannot be certain, however, whether you will carry either of these in your own minds after reading.

Sweeping brooms. Cloudy cleaners.

The objects of Unsworth’s poems are deeply textural. We are treated to sheets and velvet, cheeks and chins. Things ruffle and leak and puddle. Our speaker can be lost or angry or confused or delicate, but we are always reaching out and touching the scene, keeping it at arm’s length, seeing it all like shadows on a particularly crunchy wall.

My favourite parts were the pure Carrollian images: “people without elephants are telling people with too many elephants what to do with their elephants”. But even here there is the hint of a political critique. An ironical misunderstanding at the RSPCA, maybe?

But these are not silly poems. Far from it. Their enjoyment is not a whimsical enjoyment. Unsworth’s work is far more surrealist and unsettling. Its darkness and mystery abides with us.

The collection is a test and a triumph; a joy and a challenge. Well worth tracking down today.

– Joe Darlington

Short interview with Khaled Hakim

We invited Khaled Nurul Hakim, author of The Book of Naseeb (Penned in the Margins) to respond to two perceived binaries: 

1. Sacred and Profane

2. Past and Future

In my Muslim upbringing books were not allowed to be on the floor: if your foot accidentally touched one you would kiss the book – any book. And without ritual cleanliness you were not allowed to touch a sacred book – one which might include verses of the Quran in Arabic; this purification allowed the angelic realm to enter. All this as the homeopathic influence of the Quran – seal of books – the reverence for script by the people of the Book.

How outrageous then to yoke the degraded language of criminals and gangs with the divine speech and rhythms of Allah. Muslims might casually swear and curse in their ordinary lives of course, but a book must bear the burden of elevated status. Every grapheme of the Quran is perfect and unchanged since Creation. And here my book with its angel scribes mires itself to speak and write in an utterly aberrant way. To many Muslims the confluence of Islamic world with the language and subject of The Book of Naseeb would be offensive; while they would also be aware that the Recording Angels must detail every obscenity in Naseeb’s gift of life.

Fluid time has been a constant siren call in my writing, often leading me to wreck a story. I am at an intersection between modernist narrative (that at its extreme can be read in any direction) and the linear story. The Islamic metaphor of the ‘Preserved Tablet‘ – a mythic lexicon that holds all time and events – begs the question of how can individuals be held morally responsible when everything is foretold. That medieval conundrum plays out in Naseeb, which began as a justification of God to man, and may have ended as a justification of man to God.

The whole framework of Islamic angels who record actions already inscribed was a later addition to the story. If I’d had the idea at the outset then I know I would have made the narrative shuttle back and forth along the illusion of past and future; and probably it would have been a pig’s ear. Buried in this Islamic iconography are hints at a quantum world where events are in multiple states. In the Preserved Tablet, Naseeb also chooses not to smuggle the heroin; and he abandons the idea of selling it; and he doesn’t find the heroin when he loses it; and he succeeds in his deal and finds the fate he wanted.

– Khaled Hakim 13 May 2020

Mama! we’re all Blue Labour now!

Leo Panitch and Colin Leys – The Project of the Labour New Left – From Benn to Corbyn (Verso, 2020)

We have been through an exciting time.

From the buzzing enthusiasm surrounding the re-emergence of the British Labour Party as a leftwing entity to the hedging and manifestos and the coining of terms such as postcapitalism. Although some of the more oxygen-starved pronouncements will need to be forgotten, that period of speculation will hopefully power a new generation of young lefties.

The most recent book on the subject, Panitch and Leys’ book on the New Labour Left, seems to mark an end point in this regard. I was sent the galley proofs of the book before it came out. In this unfinished version, the central chapters about the Labour Party were in place, but the Preface and Afterword were filled up with Lorem ipsum.

The subtitle of ‘From Benn to Corbyn’ suggests that the whole breadth of left of centre Labour is Bennite. It isn’t. Before 2015 Bennism was a strand. Even after 2015, many of the new young Corbynistas cannot have known they were entering a Bennite sliver of Labour now become zeitgeist.

Bennism isn’t all of it and Benn was not the homely grandfather figure without dissenters he is portrayed as. More importantly, many of those dissenters are not nutcases (see for instance Bob From Brockley’s long-running blog).

When the book finally arrived in its published form, the Preface and Afterword were completed, but arguably already wiped out by Coronavirus. Now we watch Kier Starmer bluff his way through the role of Opposition Leader. Every time I see him, I see the Bard from Asterix comics, Cacafonix, tied up, gagged and hung in a tree.

This book marks the period between the Corbyn-Momentum headrush and the early 2020 sugar crash, which then turned into the hell of COVID-19. The deadening December 2019 election result could still be felt when I got the galleys. And the sugar crash was horrible, right enough.

Perhaps we are all Blue Labour now, only as in got the blues.

I am tempted to conclude that the interregnum continues, that the Preface and Afterwords are still filled up with Lorem ipsum.

But no. This book is rooted in a Pauline prophetic tradition. We saw it in ‘hail Jeremy Corbyn has not arrived and yet is here’, as he was disgracefully refused his place as Labour Leader. If defeat is too hard to stare at, just create some ‘counterintuitive’ and live in it.

We see the inverse of the he-has-arrived-yet-hasn’t in ‘capitalism is still here, but it is finished’!

Momentum’s Acid Corbynism, followed, oddly, by ‘common sense’ socialism, seemed to display similarly schizoid symptoms. If modern language humans have an essence, it is surely contradiction.

This book is still a very useful guide to the genuinely heartening new left turn of 2017-19. But this book does not describe or shape history, it was always destined to arrive having been completely cracked open by it.

It is a torn-up map mailed to you in an envelope, now we have to make new ones, or we are all in great peril.

– Steve Hanson

The social class analysis of Marcel Proust

Proust – The Guermantes Way translated by Mark Treharne (Penguin)

The Guermantes Way is an acutely observed ethnographic analysis of class oppression enthused with literary brilliance. It is not just the aristocratic class that is taken down with a thump; the first principles of being an oppressor class in its formation and maintenance are revealed.

The Guermantes Way is the third book of Proust’s magnum opus where the literary work starts to gather momentum as it builds on the work that’s been done in the previous volumes. It’s an inspired and at times supremely eloquent auto-ethnography as much as it is a novel. His descriptions of the minutiae of upper class behaviours are exhaustive as well as entertaining.

After a few hundred pages of reportage without comment, he begins to let his authorial objectivity slip and admits that he thinks that the salon scene of the Faubourg St-Germain stinks! In spite of surviving the French revolutions the upper class has very little to justify its elite claims to superiority.

“She was a great lady. Her lineage filled her soul with the frivolity of generations of life at court, with all that implies about superficiality and punctiliousness.” [1]

“Even supposing that the partiality of an old lover, a habit of flattery, the views acceptable to a given social circle, had dictated the ex-ambassador’s remarks, they were none the less proof of the extent to which the artistic judgement of society people is based on a total absence of real taste, and so arbitrary that the nearest trifle can push it into arrant nonsense, unchecked by any genuinely felt impression.” [2]

After page 400 his rising contempt become more explicit as he realises “The crass ignorance that was to be detected behind the familiarity of the Guermantes manner.” [3].

The stupidity of The Duchess’s discourse is particularly evident when she speaks of literature – even at this young age Proust is an expert.

But it is not just ignorance but a shocking cruelty that resides behind her elegant manners. He sums her up as having all the “energy and charm of a cruel little girl” who “gouged out the eyes of rabbits” [4] “What really revolted me was the genuine malice on Mme de Guermantes part…” [5]

The Duc de Guermantes is described as:

“A man of touching kindness and unspeakable inflexibility, a slave to the most petty obligations yet not to the most sacred commitments, the same aberration that typified court life under Louis XIV, which removes scruples of conscience from the domain of the affections and morality and transforms them into questions of pure form.” [6]

Their exclusivity was based purely on maintaining their own status quo.

“The family genie intervened at the last moment; deeper under the surface, at the dark entrance to the domain where the Guermantes exercised their judgement, this vigilant genie debarred them from finding this man clever or that woman charming if they were without social merit, actual or potential.” [7]

Proust professes to feel no pleasure in their company in spite of his earlier infatuation: ‘The stories I heard at the Duchesses house… left me cold’ [8]

“Thus does the heavy structure of the aristocracy, with its rare windows, admitting a scant amount of daylight, showing the same incapacity to soar, but also the same massive, blind forces as Romanesque architecture, enclose all our history within its sullen walls.” [9]

Proust is not frightened to approach this by offering his narrator up as having been the naive aspirant who had been taken in by romantic myths of class superiority. In the same way, in the first volume of this novel, he is not afraid to admit to his touching and unmanly dependence on his mother.

The Guermantes Way is all about his disappointments writ large, yes, but it’s also a critique of the negative effect that the construction of elite superiority has on everyone. And it’s an analysis of exactly how the manners and repetitive inane behaviours, such as the obsessive talk of familial genealogy, make and then break the illusion of a socially impregnable position.

For the aristocracy their power is that of their established entitlement which is essentially hereditary, rather than being earned in any way. Titles that are earned, such as those handed out by Napoleon, are seen as trite and worthless. They are always looking for ‘cousins’ to validate their raison d’être [10]. So there are obsessional discussions of the verity of their lines of inheritance which become increasingly shallow signifiers of importance.

At first Proust’s narrator examines positive reasons for the widely held beliefs in their worth. We might associate such beliefs with the end of the C19th, but if we think about the fascination we still have with TV series like ‘The Crown’ or ‘Victoria’, we can see how widely embedded they still are. Proust reports how his servant Francoise would be struck with wonder at hearing mention of a romantic princely title and would stand there in wonder “as though in front of a stained-glass window.” [11]

At first the performance of living by the best of the aristocracy is considered as possibly “the greatest exponent of performing such actions and transforming them into something exquisite.” [12]

But at best their glamour was “an exhilaration, which because it was artificial, tailed off into melancholy” [13] and thus ended in boredom, and led to nervous conditions and even suicide.

The shocking final scene is the one that brings the profuse detail of the previous five hundred pages to a dramatic conclusion. It is this scene that expresses Proust key insight into how an upper class person is diminished as a human being by their performance of superiority.

Perhaps you could get this class analysis by just reading the last ten pages.

“The Duchesse’s own sense of manners … afforded her a confused glimpse of the fact that for Swann her dinner-party might count for less than his own death.” [14]

But the impact of it, following the ‘ethnographic’ detail that has gone before, which itself is based on the depth of character formation that has taken place in the preceding two books, would be lost.

– Stefan Szczelkun


[1] p.247
[2] p.271
[3] p.413.
[4] p.502.
[5] p.514
[6] p.434/5
[7] p.449
[8] p.551
[9] p.537
[10] p.542
[11] p.32
[12] p.141
[13] p.547
[14] p.595

Fake It Till Yow Make It

Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl (Ebury Press, 2014)

Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl is a love letter to the turmoil and confusion of growing up as Midlander in the early 90s. As a Midlander myself, reading this novel was part inspired by homesickness and part inspired by my interest in British coming-of-age novels, and this book was satisfyingly an honest, unforgiving and unique venture into both.

Johanna is a seventeen-year-old wannabe music journalist who lives in a cramped council flat with her four siblings and parents. The beginning of the book is a real saturation of Midlands culture – from the overuse of the word ‘bostin’, to the goths who hang around the war memorial named the ‘Man On ‘is ‘Oss’ in Wolverhampton’s city centre, “this is our sole landmark – Wolverhampton’s equivalent to Lady Liberty”. It is both refreshing and alienating to be immersed in such a setting that has little to no representation in mainstream media, albeit Moran’s own TV series Raised By Wolves which follows in an almost identical vein to How to Build a Girl.

Johanna spats with cousins she never knew she had and explores her sexuality in an unflinching and hilarious longing for sex which never leaves her through the rest of the novel. What I truly did enjoy about this book was that Moran wasn’t afraid to show teenage sexuality in all its perverse accuracy, especially in later chapters where Johanna loses her virginity for the first time. But it is trapped in Wolverhampton where she receives the most important piece of advice in the whole novel – “yow’ve got to fake it ‘til yow make it, kidder”.

And thus, Johanna’s alter-ego ‘Dolly Wilde’ is born, or perhaps built. Although the tone of the novel shifts as Johanna begins her career writing for the magazine D&ME, travelling around the country to review, listen to and interview various music artists, it is a welcome shift as the book gets funnier and more alive.

Johanna stumbles through life as Dolly, expanding her music knowledge and kissing as many musicians as possible, and seems to make every single mistake possible along the way. It is easy to forget she is a 17-year-old girl, still ‘building’ herself and still trying to understand who she truly is.

It is sometimes heartbreaking to see the way she is taken advantage of by the men in the novel. As it draws to a very poignant and emotionally moving scene near the close of the book, Moran really hits home that adolescence unarguably is about both extreme highs and extreme lows.

How to Build a Girl brings an entire scene to life, a scene which many people didn’t know existed. But this is an obvious tribute to Moran’s upbringing. On finishing the novel, I was surprisingly hungry to read more about Johanna and her life outside the Midlands. Thankfully, the book is part of a planned trilogy and Johanna’s story continues in How to Be Famous which I have no doubt will be as wild and warming as it’s predecessor.

– Rachel Louise Atkin