London (and everywhere else)

Owen HatherleyRed Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London (Repeater, 2020)

Red Metropolis, the most recent book by the admirably prodigious and prolific writer Owen Hatherley, makes the case that, for all its wealth and concentration of power, London has often been left wing. Telling the story of London’s local government administrations, he focuses on two experiments in radical municipal socialism: the London County Council (LCC) under Herbert Morrison in the 1930s, and the Greater London Council (GLC) under Ken Livingstone in the 1980s.

In spite of looking back at past actions and political figures such as these, it’s a book that is, at its core, rooted in the present moment. Red Metropolis began life during the first nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, a time when Hatherley was shielding due to his health and was, like millions across the country, confined to home for months on end. This was a period that was both terrifying and yet, for many, strangely optimistic: the reactions of Britain’s ruling class, from assuming responsibility for housing the homeless on a large scale, to introducing income support, to the nationalisation of transport, to the imposition of wide-ranging curtailments to personal freedom, were improbably remote from the usual policies of the Conservative Party. For a brief moment, it seemed there was an opportunity to imagine an alternative future, and that after lockdown business might not go back to normal. 

Originally conceived of as an essay for New Left Review, and subsequently expanded to book-length, Red Metropolis reads like a piece of journalistic reportage or a long-form opinion piece – and above all as a document and record of London at a particular moment in time – as much as a work of historical research or academic scholarship.

While at times I felt the book is a little lacking in depth and analysis (and some sections, dare I say it, would benefit from the input of a good editor), the book is propelled by Hatherley’s own personal politics and activism, as a member of London’s Labour left. It draws in particular on his experiences in the run up to the 2019 general election, in which the Conservatives (outside London) gained an unexpectedly large majority.

The 2019 election thus sets up one of the central themes of the book: the gulf between London and the rest of Britain, politically and economically, as a capital city which possesses power out of all proportion with the rest of the country it governs. 

This power, Hatherley argues, has historically emanated from three centres. Two of these are long-recognised: the seat of government at Westminster, and the economic powerhouse of the City of London. To these, Hatherley adds a third site, symbolising welfare state socialism: the Southbank complex, conceived in the post-war context as a new cultural centre for London.

As you would expect from a writer who made his name writing popular and accessible, yet critical, books about architecture, the book makes much of the built manifestations of welfare state socialism that characterised twentieth century London, beginning with the large-scale council housing programmes of the LCC, and other amenities such as schools and transport. While this is an important part of the story of London, and integral to understanding its physical environment and infrastructure, there has been considerable scholarship on and media interest in this area in recent years, and it feels like Hatherley has little new to add here; Red Metropolis readily acknowledges the work done by other writers, from John Boughton (Municipal Dreams) to Anna Minton, and reads as a companion piece to their writing. What’s more illuminating is the way in which he links the political convictions and needs of those of those in power to changing attitudes towards housing over time: from the demolition of existing housing stock and replacement by large-scale council housing schemes, to the displacement of the working-classes to New Towns beyond the London boundaries, to the retrofit of existing (often Georgian) houses, to the emergence of co-operative housing developments, such as the high-security Coin Street development in central London, to the introduction of so-called ‘affordable’ housing in private developments via Section 106 more recently.

It’s understandable that housing takes up such a large part of the book: access to affordable, decent homes continues to be one of the biggest issues for people living in London, and there’s little that exemplifies London’s social, political and economic inequalities better than the Grenfell Tower disaster. However, while the book makes some attempt at discussing other aspects of life in the capital, such as transport, migration to the city (both from within the UK and abroad) and cultural provision, and adds a little on education and the media, I’d have liked the role of the labour market, and changing experiences of work and employment, to have been foregrounded too. The availability of jobs (and earning potential) is, after all, one of the major differentials between London and the rest of the country, and one of the key magnets pulling both businesses and labour into the capital and away from the regions.

One of the most interesting elements of the book is the fundamental difficulty of defining ‘London’ as an entity, due to the way in which the city has grown over time, swallowing up sometimes far-flung towns, villages and suburbs in neighbouring Essex, Kent and Surrey (and in one case – Middlesex – even an entire county). Hatherley lays bare the political decisions which have influenced which areas are included within its boundaries, and those towns that are excluded from its metropolitan area, as well as the factors influencing cycles of population and depopulation. 

At times I was a little unclear on who the intended audience for Red Metropolis is. As Hatherley points out, London is a young city, and I felt that it was a generation of young, idealistic and already politically engaged readers and activists to whom he is appealing (born in 1982, Hatherley is at the upper end of the millennial generation and, to prove it, drops in the word ‘bougie’ – possibly the first time I’ve ever seen it used in print). This is a generation, observes Hatherley, who never fully experienced the welfare state before its erosion by four decades of neoliberalism. Its appeal, for those too young to remember the GLC, let alone the LCC, he suggests, lays in the fact they never had the opportunity to grow bored of it.

An interesting tension in Red Metropolis, therefore, is between the sometimes bureaucratic and top-down social democratic state of the interwar and immediate post-war periods, and the New Left which replaced it, and which is characterised by Hatherley as representing a more local, grassroots and co-operatively/communal-minded version of the left.

Ultimately, Red Metropolis made me want to go away and read more (particularly about shifts in local and regional government and metropolitan boundaries since the 1980s) – and to spend more time exploring London once travel becomes possible again. I’m also keen to see what comes next. Will the move to home-working catalysed by the pandemic prompt a shift of business away from London? Will Londoners once again leave en masse for more affordable and spacious homes outside the capital, if the necessity for long commutes is reduced? Will London lose its world status in the light of Brexit? Red Metropolis is a record of London in 2020, and how we got to this point politically. To his credit Hatherley ends with some suggestions for the future (chief among them calling an end to London’s rapacious expansion into a megacity, and rebalancing power away from London to give other areas of the country more autonomy). I’m looking forward to reading his take on the state of the city in a decade, five years’ time, or even a year from now.

Natalie Bradbury

Explorations in The Lost City of Meaning

AJ Lees – The Brazil That Never Was (Notting Hill Editions)

Percy Fawcett was a British Geographer, explorer and inspiration for Indiana Jones. Andrew Lees is a Neurology Professor who was fascinated by books about Fawcett when young. The Brazil That Never Was wraps these two things up in a narrative which is immediately engaging and stealthily ambitious. That’s the easy bit.

Lees’ book appears to operate on four main levels:

1. the present, the shorter timespan of the writer writing the book; 2. The longer lifespan of the author and his family history, and; 3. The sprawling, scattered remnants of the myths of Percy Fawcett. This part happens to take in 20th century modernity and the emergence of science out of belief.

Much of the time we travel with the author in the present, albeit down the river of his past, as we inch forwards, and then we drift, into an incommensurable ocean and out of sense, via the hunt for Fawcett’s Brazil.

This fourth level, I think, explores language and meaning. There is also an implied foray into the structure of myth, particularly, I think, the Grail quest. What it meant to Fawcett to search for the Lost City of Z runs parallel to what it means for Lees to search for Fawcett and to write this book.

Sections of The Brazil That Never Was try to describe the edges of experience, the edges of language, the edges of sense. Lees did not invent Fawcett’s search for the Lost City of Z, but in the book the last letter of the alphabet becomes the last stage before we step out of meaning, into an empty space where there are no more letters.

M becomes a cipher for a strange female spirit inhabiting Fawcett’s son Brian. At other times she is codenamed XY. The middle of the alphabet and its extremes appear to refer to the middle of meaning – the comfort zone – and its edgelands. Both those phenomenological places are constantly being shuttled between in this book.

Stylistically, the book seems to owe something to Patrick Keiller and his Robinson trilogy. I sense it in the deadpan delivery of certain sections, and the way fact and fiction is being played with. We’re never quite sure whether we’re being given a real bit of the Fawcett myth, or an invented bit. The point Lees is probably making is that it in the end it doesn’t really matter. Lees is also exploring what meaning is, what kind of stuff it is, and how that breaks down and decays.

The early films of Peter Greenaway are in here somewhere, particularly the characters Gang Lion and Tulse Luper, although the distanciated, pure postmodernism of those films has crumbled. Those films showed us reality as facade. Here, those facades are seen again as a broken, old reality.

There is of course a lineage here, Iain Sinclair, Alan Moore and W.G. Sebald.

But Lees does what so many writers coming after Iain Sinclair don’t, which is to write with clarity and still create something huge and imaginative. I see so many books which seem to think that literary fog must be pumped in before the work can start. Lees proves the opposite. That he does so in such a short space is skill indeed. And the writing is often exquisite.

Lees’ book manages to encompass the narrative of the 20th and early 21st century west, to entwine a personal and very impersonal set of stories. In short, to do something ambitous and in places quite emotional at the same time.

Leeds, Saint Helens and Liverpool in the 1950s and 60s are rendered beautifully. The step-off point of Liverpool seems particularly apt. Lees describes its psychedelic incarnation of the late 60s and then we are in Brazil. The line between the exotic and the mundane is rubbed out. Again, the making fuzzy of the sensible and what lies outside its ken, the ‘normal’ and not, the sacred and profane, seem to be a concern.

For a long time we are with Fawcett, plus the cast of early natural scientists, Alfred Russell Wallace and the period of great exploration which yielded Darwinism. This is a big part of the story, but Lees seems equally interested in the otherside to the science and rationalism narrative. The further you go into the science, the more it looks like a strange belief system – this is stated quite plainly at one point:

‘For the Victorians and Edwardians, Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution meant that blind Christian faith was no longer acceptable, but its demise had created a spiritual void that could not be filled by capialist greed or rational thought. Modernity was bedevilled by the loss of the sacrosanct; the music of religion had been stifled by the adoration of reason and yet, ironically, at the same time, science had made the paranormal and the occult more credible.’

But this is proper Darwinism because it lacks logical sense. Ultimately, humanism as an overarching or underpinning concept is being eroded by Lees. It’s a posthuman, philosophical tract dressed as a very creative novel, finally covered with the scuffed dust jacket of a rip-roaring adventure novel from the 1920s. How brilliant.

Everything falls apart towards the end. The search for Fawcett is nothing more or less than a search for meaning, just like the old Grail Quest, under which lies libido and the other drives. But seen outside of a narrow human context it’s a waste of time, nothing is left but tales of weird psychic phenomena and occultism.

A note at the end of the book, a speculation on the location of the ruins of Camelot under St Helens, makes me remember the ruins of the Roman Amphitheatre at Caerleon. Until Victorian excavation it was thought to be the site of Arthur’s round table. Knights debating, fairness, chivalry. Turns out it was for bear-baiting and combat to the death.

Arthur Machen – who appears in Lees’ book – wrote fiction up in Caerleon based on the Roman ruin, and that fiction was later hoovered up by HP Lovecraft. Machen’s Great God Pan is based in part on a Roman prayer statue at Caerleon. It was probably dedicated to Nemesis or one of the other gods called on for good fortune when backing a winner at the amphitheatre.

It is likely that the statue Machen saw originally stood in an alcove in the amphitheatre to allow gambling sports fans to make an offering. If this is the case, then 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 eh?

Lovecraft’s Cthulhu might be based on a fetish for ordinary Romans betting on some savage entertainment. You can track things back a long way, but at a certain point they always disappear into non-sense. The Grail Quest was always the search for meaning, and this book is definitely about that.

In fact long sections of the book work through precisely the kind of interrogation I have just given you. The place where myth and fiction break into speculation, half-truth, rumour, and often the resulting tangle is quite absurd.

Early on we see Lees tracking Fawcett down through literature, in paperbacks, in libraries. Rider Haggard’s ‘lost world’ genre was horribly colonial, but actually there is a sense here of how that past produced the horrors of 2020. If Fawcett is Indiana Jones, this book provides fuel for the bonfire under that swollen Hollywood quotation.

Lees’ life moves from the Pennines to Saint Helens to Liverpool to Leeds. Online life is another cliff edge. It is rendered as large as the geographicl moves. Lees immerses himself in Fawcett via the internet. Fawcettology gets more and more bloated here, not clearer.

As Lees hits the internet, the Fawcett material takes him pretty close to the Nazi fetish for the occult, the secret white brotherhood, Blavatsky, theosophical societies, it’s dodgy stuff.

What’s interesting about Indiana Jones is that he is a scientist and myth-sceptic, you will note that Fawcett, the model for Jones, according to many accounts, was basically an occultist. Alan Moore wrote of entering the Ripper myths, Ripperology, and finding an endless labyrinth, so does Lees:

‘I was beginning to regret hunting down my dreams’ he states, ‘Fawcett was now nothing more than a figure for what had gone missing.’ Conrad, then, is at the core of this work. As is Borges. The book calls on these core modernist literatures at the same time as it avoids being a pomo ‘take’, it is far too strange, and its implied conclusions about humans and meaning are much bigger than that.

Lees eventually goes to the Amazon himself, but it’s all ruin, 21st-century pollution, decay and chaos. Still, he appears to have some sort of epiphany and returns talking about how he had been at the very edge of things. He refers to ‘journeys to the end of the night’, and of course Céline was a doctor too.

There are all kinds of references to pick up on here, for those who like doing so (and I do). For instance, I wonder if the chapter title of ‘Militant Geography’ refers to Geography Militant by Felix Driver (I happen to own Doreen Massey’s old copy of that). It is certainly relevant. You can philosophise in this book very well, but it plays as a great novel too. There are passages to linger in, like a hot bath, in order to think about all of our lives. This is first rate literary fiction which often achieves the status of poetry:

‘The half-tone town with its over-shuffled memories was bathed in golden particles. The people drifting through those plain streets were blurred with uncertain voices. There was something in the air and, for a few moments, I became a better Andrew Lees, a no-nonsense libertine who lived for the weekend, appreciated the importance of humour and loved the sound of breaking glass. The sweet sadness of that wonderful afternoon was forcing me to go in search of a part of myself that lingered in the fragments of another life.’

Another Notting Hill Edition in cloth bound hardback for very good reason. I hope this book is around for a very long time, it deserves to be.

Steve Hanson

All Killer, No Filler

Ian Seed, The Underground Cabaret (Shearsman, 2020)

What do you call a short story with a perfect structure? Answer: a prose poem.

At least, that’s what Ian Seed’s latest collection suggests. The fourth and final instalment in a series that began with 2014’s Makers of Empty Dreams and continued with Identity Papers (2016) and New York Hotel (2018).

The Underground Cabaret takes our unfortunate and hapless protagonist to Italy. Here, in the land of Fellini, he is persecuted by small children, fails to enchant a host of women, and is consistently misunderstood and ignored.

Every opportunity slips by him. Every scene provides new potential for embarrassment.

Could there be a more perfect protagonist than this? Relatable one moment, pathetic the next; but always persistent, always optimistic. Never beaten.

The book contains ninety-six moments in the life of our protagonist. Each is detached from the others, containing only a continuity of character and tone. Our hero has a long-suffering wife, who is sometimes present, sometimes not. He is often in Italy but, occasionally, will crop up in Paris or London.

There is a dream logic to many of the stories. He goes to answer the door and finds a beautiful, highly-esteemed society woman there. Suddenly he remembers that his flat is a pigsty. Now he has to keep her from getting in.

He takes the poet Jeremy Over to Shakespeare & Co in Paris. He shows him around the famous bookshop, describing it in detail. Suddenly, he remembers with horror; Jeremy Over already knows the shop and has read there before. Then he realises that he too has read there, and it went horribly, and that, really, the shop ought to be a source of embarrassment to him as it reminds him of that fateful night.

In both of these cases it’s the sudden “remembering” of things that appears dreamlike. Seed perfectly captures that uncanny capacity of dreams to ret-con scenes while you are living them, changing key details as you go.

He incorporates other dream elements too; the urgent need to get somewhere, strangers who act like old friends, the irrational fear of benign things.

And yet the overall effect is not one of a dream diary. The incidents are grounded and the characters are material, embodied. We are certain that this is happening in the real world.

As a collection, The Underground Cabaret is more precise, more tightly structured than even its predecessors (which were themselves masterpieces of concision). It is compellingly readable, funny and at times filled with an eerie menace; all of which should appeal to the general reader.

If there were any justice, it would be a bestseller.

Joe Darlington

Well Hard and Hardly Well

Paul Dobraszczyk and Sarah Butler (eds), Manchester: Something Rich and Strange (Manchester University Press, 2020)

Okay, you know the story. Industrial revolution, workshop of the world, post-industrial decline, Madchester, The Smiths and football.

This book has some of that. There’s no escaping it; it’s true after all. But it also offers something different. Manchester: Something Rich and Strange is simultaneously one of those books you’d find on Waterstones’ local history table and the inversion of that.

As book of local history it makes a fascinating read. A collection of sixty short essays by twenty-three writers, brought together under the masterful curatorship of Paul Dobraszczyk and Sarah Butler. Every nook and cranny of Manchester is explored.

High points include Martin Dodge’s history of the Arndale Centre; the carbuncle that manages to be both terribly squalid and somehow endearing at the same time. He covers everything from its name (the “Arn” from Arnold Hagenbach and the “Dale” from Sam Chippindale; its two co-founders), to its infamous public-toilet style cladding to, of course, the IRA bomb of 1996.

Further from the beaten track, Tim Edensor’s piece “Stone” explores the little-appreciated material geography of the city. Manchester’s buildings are made from stone from many different quarries, not like Edinburgh or York with their matching colour-schemes. The varieties of stone make the city’s walls a “kaleidoscope of colours”, as Edensor puts it. Something I’ve honestly never noticed.

Natalie Bradbury’s potted history of printing describes the former importance of Manchester’s Printworks in the production of the nation’s newspapers. The medieval origins of Cheetham’s, the Cathedral and the Shambles are unpacked by Clare Hartwell; a fascinating view into both the pre-industrial city and the heritage concerns of the post-industrial one.

The book is a collaborative effort and there are many recognisable names here. MRB co-editor Steve Hanson offers both insights and warnings; reminding us that Manchester is a city of facades, where what we’re meant to be seeing is often more important than what we actually see.

Legendary Mancunian walkers Morag Rose and Nick Dunn offer us views of the city that are anything but pedestrian. Dunn, author of Dark Matters, a book about walking at night, explores the city’s nightlife, its shadows and its hidden corners. Rose, founder of the Loiterer’s Resistance Movement, shows us its blockages, its inaccessibilities, and hints at the rotting things lying beneath its waters.

And then there’s the pictures. They are beautifully shot, if occasionally depressing in their choice of subject matter. The images alone have the makings of a great coffee table book, albeit a disconcerting one.

It was somewhere towards the end of the book where I found myself feeling a little bleak. No individual writer produced this effect. It was the overall result of many writers writing about buildings, places, and history, all from external angles, often out on walks alone, or staring through a camera. Perhaps it’s just the way these things are done, but it felt like a lonely book; a book for outsiders.

Thankfully, we have contributions from Qaisra Shahraz and Peter Kalu at the end which lift the collective spirits.

It’s only at the end, in a section called “Home”, that the speakers finally move indoors. Tight-knit communities, whether in the Mosque or the laundrette, are rare in Manchester these days, and its only in these places where we seem to find a little hope for the city, a little shelter.

This is a hard city after all, made of hard surfaces and populated by hard people.

Something Rich and Strange is an extremely valuable addition to the panoply of books already out there with the title Manchester. It is a book like the city; bold, brash, and gobby, moving from morbid self-pity to delirious triumph in mere moments. A guided tour where they pull up the floorboards and let you see what lies beneath.

Joe Darlington

Plath in Paris

Dave Haslam, My Second Home (Confingo, 2020)

Who exactly is Sylvia Plath? She’s a writer I’ve always veered away from, but I’m not sure why.

Her poems are captivating. Brutal, jagged, and modernist without being dry. Her novel, The Bell Jar, sparkles with a fragility matched only by Jean Rhys, or Salinger on his good days.

And yet, to me, she’s always felt like someone else’s property. I have always the sneaking suspicion that somebody, somewhere, is sharpening a knife in her defence. A knife freshly blunted, perhaps, against the much-carved stone of her grave.

In choosing Plath as his subject, Dave Haslam is walking on hallowed ground. And yet, in his new book, My Second Home, he engages with the life of this cult icon with a touch as light as it is masterful.

A convincing portrait is drawn of Plath and her life, but no claim is made to have “captured” her; surely the objective of most biographical writing.

Instead, we are promised a book about Plath’s relationship with Paris. A city that filled her with elation, but also fear and sadness. She was in love with an image of Paris, its surfaces, its shining lights. She knew of its dark corners too, but she chose to ignore them or, more rightly, repress them.

By holding these Parisian moments to the light, Haslam reflects facets of Plath’s wider life. We hear of her early years, the suicide attempts, the search for a dangerous love that culminates in her marriage with Ted Hughes.

All of it comes through quickly, concisely and very naturally as part of Haslam’s Parisian story.

What comes through most clearly is Haslam’s enthusiasm for the young writer. He captures her personality without judgement, showing her as both a moon-eyed, bubble gum chewing American tourist and the girl capable of reaching unprecedented psychological insights in her writing.

It is because of her very ordinariness, her naivety, that she could write like that. The writers that surround her, serious men and women in plaid, come across as pompous old dinosaurs by comparison.

My Second Home is part of Haslam’s Art Decades series. Pocket editions put out by Manchester-based small press Confingo. This book is, in this writer’s opinion, the best one yet, and a good initiation into this highly collectible little series.

Joe Darlington

Home, it’s where I want to be

Nell Osborne – On Dog Perverts (independent)

Questions concerning the idea of home have been much on my mind lately. Yesterday, for example, I spent a lot of time listening to a track by a New York duo Black Marble, now relocated to LA I believe, called In Manchester. The song is a beautiful, dreamy hymn to the city where I live delivered by musicians who live somewhere quite unlike Manchester (check the song out, it’s great, there’s a tip for you). For the duration of my listening it felt like I was inhabiting their fantasy of what Manchester is like, a fantasy that I feel my actual lived experience of the city, however, somewhat disproves: Manchester just isn’t a beautiful, dreamy place. 

Sure, the song was a lovely place to be for as long as I was in it but then I started wondering how their ideas about Manchester, and the ideas of people like them, have shaped my own and to what extent the idea of home I have when I think of Manchester is my own idea or a composite I’ve spent my life, up to this point, constructing. Added to all this there’s the fact that me and my partner are currently in the middle of moving home ourselves, well, we’re either in the middle of or coming towards the end of this incredibly protracted process, it’s hard to tell where exactly we are at times, all sense of linear progression towards the fixed end of a new place to live having been lost some months back. 

So with all this in mind when I picked up Nell Osborne’s new pamphlet On Dog Perverts and read the opening piece reflecting upon repeated watches of the film Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey and some of the associated meanings of ‘coming home’ I think this pamphlet has reached me at exactly the right time, and then moments later, or maybe all this is going to prove just too close to home, and, yes, I do realise I used the word ‘home’ there . . . 

One of the things Osborne’s work seems to me to be doing is unpicking the idea, and ideas, of ‘home’, and the impacts upon us of those differing ideas. ‘Home’, in this work, is not about images of tired dogs dosing contentedly on hearths in front of roaring log-burners, no, this is more concerned with the social-property relations which lie behind the formation and circulation of such stereotypical images. Early on in the text we find: “When we are talking about the historic alliances between property ownership, marriage, romance, patriotism (and their monopoly upon ideas of protection, safety, security and shelter), we are always already talking about the strength of our investment in a certain orientation: to be homeward bound”. 

Which isn’t to give the impression that this pamphlet is a dry work of theory as it’s anything but, really . . . the sense of a singular vision of the world comes through strongly in a lot of the pieces here. One such being the section from which the pamphlet derives its title, I should say the first of the sections from which the pamphlet derives its title, the consideration of the hitherto unknown to me phenomenon of ‘dog perverts’ where we learn that the protagonist’s “collection of unauthorised dog photos saved as screensavers at work has not gone unnoticed by management”. 

The content of On Dog Perverts is made up, mainly of prose pieces, with a single poem coming towards the end. The prose pieces themselves varying from autobiographical, to explicitly political commentary, to film writing, each imbued with that already remarked upon singular vision of the world, so in other words, then, it’s hybrid literature that we’re dealing with here . . . Accordingly, the pamphlet seems to sidestep classification to a certain extent, it being impossible to nail down exactly what it is, that elusiveness being experienced, by me at least, as an important, exhilarating and very much political part of the work and all adding up to making the work very much my cup of tea indeed. It’s forebears in form being writers I’ve loved for ages such as Maggie Nelson and Chris Kraus.

And one of the most disarming movements of the book comes when it’s at its most directly historical-political in the section that begins “The CIAs behavioural science laboratory identified total nudity, sexual humiliation, and dogs as key strategies for the political exploitation of Arab cultural sensitivities” and we’re plunged back into the horror Abu Ghraib and the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers. It’s a section which shocks because of it’s unexpectedness within the work and succeeds in pulling this period of history right back to the forefront of the reader’s consciousness, its reterritorialisation, here, forcing you to consider those horrors with fresh eyes. 

This section of the work stands out and, as such, could perhaps be considered a pivot or centre of the text, though for some reason that i can’t quite put my finger on at the same time that this section does feel like a centre there are other things going on in these pages denying that, resisting that sense of a centre. The ultimate effect being that there’s a strange, simultaneous pushing to and pulling away from the Abu Ghraib section which is, perhaps, nothing more than just an echo of how the mind and body themselves work: we want to know about things, we want to be aware and to keep them in mind but at some point we reach the limits of what we can handle and the mind and body shut down, begin to pull away . . .  

To return to that notion of a singular vision evident in these lines however, there are times in this pamphlet when Osborne’s love for dogs seems somewhat hard to distinguish from an almost Kafka-esque fear (and yes I do realise I used the word “Kafka-esque” there . . . ) that the author might have metamorphosed into a dog themselves with visions of bra’s as collars and homes as kennels. And at other times that fear becomes hard to distinguish from a kind of willing of this metamorphosis. All of which just goes to underline how wonderfully slippery and hard to get a grasp of this short pamphlet is.  

Finally, reading On Dog Perverts again, this morning, and mulling on its picking apart of the concept of ‘home’, I was led back to Lukacs’ idea of Transcendental Homelessness which Lukacs thought was characteristic of modern literature: the unmoored subject, separated from any fixed attachment to the eternal to call home, roaming free and isolated through a universe full of other similarly unattached subjects . . . The final lines of this work of Osborne’s, I feel, situate it squarely in that modern tendency identified by Lukacs: “Imagine longing for kennel, everywhere. So s/ tupid”.  It’s in all that precedes those final lines, however, that we can find reasons to hope – if we’re so inclined to look – in the face of this sense of Homelessness.

Richard Barrett