Kae Tempest – On Connection (Faber)
This could be a full stop on the 2020 UK culture wars. Tempest’s shift to Kae (from Kate) and to they/them pronouns are as relevant as the content of this book:
‘We have grown far from ourselves. The charades we are expected to perform have become real and swallowed us into the act.’
But this book is far deeper and more universal than the culture war themes of 2020, because as Kae explains, simply ‘calling for togetherness risks minimising the necessity of people fighting for basic rights and freedoms.’
‘There are’, they say, ‘good reasons for the canyons that have opened up between us.’
From here on, I believed in this book. Tempest begins with the basics of food, health, housing and safety, before opening up an extended essay on connection, by which they mean the connection of music, poetry and theatre to reach ‘that other place where commonality begins.’
The structure of the book is that of a Kae Tempest gig. Chapter headings are: set-up; sound check; doors; support act; preparation; going out there; feeling it happen. Each section opens with a William Blake quote.
But connection can also be found in cooking, or fighting. The moment of being in the present is not patronisingly painted as a place of lotus-position bliss. Here and now can be ‘agitated or calm’, ‘joyous or painful’.
Tempest describes how they’ve delivered live dates they assumed would never connect, but did. This is the key point of the book really, to do as Kae Tempest has quite formally, and to use an older phrase, get over ourselves.
Tempest explores the ‘twin existenses of who we hope to be and who we actually are’. There’s an analyst’s couch here. The space between self-image and self-deception is explored, but in plain language, and in this book that is never a problem: Despite being about self-reflection, the book never becomes a facile self-help guide. On the contrary, the accessibility and the depth of feeling, the ease of reading and the range of exploration, make this quite an extraordinary work. Its accessibility, actually, makes it perfect to give to others. As an object, it lends itself well to connection too.
Tempest combats ‘numbness’, an inevitable outcome, they say, ‘to the onslaught of the age’. Tempest asks us to locate the universal ‘you’ lost in performance routines at work, which can be too up-close to the detail, or too detached. To find again the self that doesn’t just perform the prescribed political alignments, or feign satisfaction during the usual consumer rites.
Tempest compares our lives in the default consumer landscapes to that of a toxic emotional relationship, ‘I know I don’t want it’ but ‘I don’t know how to get out’.
Some might say that the message here is not new, but Tempest has mined a layer of awareness entirely lacking in the Californian counterparts. ‘This’ they state, after discussing overcoming the fakeness of life is ‘as ever’, ‘my privilege talking.’
There are, in a quote that would do C. Wright Mills proud, ‘entire weather systems’ behind someone’s chances of success. I don’t believe that Tempest could write like this – or include that line in this book – without a full exposure to London black and working class culture.
Tempest writes later that her own troubles in youth – with drugs and booze and dropping out – were mitigated in the safe spaces of middle class life. Were she black or from a different class or postcode, the same could have resulted in prison or even death.
This individual reflection then pans out to reveal the whole of our western human situation. And in Tempest’s ability to do this lies a large part of their strength as a thinker and writer.
The Marxist left have been shockingly disparaging – and in many cases aggressive – to those perceived as identity politics radicals. But Tempest’s book is built on structural inequality at every level, personal, city, state, world:
‘To be able to not think about how the winners in this game came by the vast stores of mineral wealth is to profit from that wealth. The long list of ransacked nations, installed directors, insurgencies financed by corporate interests, jailed bodies, ruined land. Death, disease and pipelines. To be able to ignore the inequality in your own city is to prosper from that inequality. The criminalisation of black bodies by an institutionally racist state. The rising use of food banks. The family still living in temporary accommodation years after the horror of Grenfell.’
That’s Marxist. Tempest roots all this in the Enlightenment, a period here described as one of bloodlust and war, ‘the industrialisation of inequality’, rather than a benign rational order. My reading, but this also seems to place it in the Nietzsche camp and therefore the post-structural. Tempest rarely states the philosophies under the surface directly, but what’s important is that you can damn sure tell they’re present.
The influences are more fully unveiled in the sections on Jung. The ‘spirit of the depths’ and the ‘spirit of the times’ are out of balance. What I like about the Jung in this book is summarised by the line that poetry ‘speaks to the psychic facts which are hidden.’ As the book reaches the end it becomes clear that connection means outwards, with other people, and internally, too, with another layer of the self.
In this, and towards the end of the book, Tempest does seem to border on buddhist belief. But the whole thing is so direct and down-to-earth. There’s a wonderful section on great poets not caring about judging the work of others, whereas weaker writers are tormented with bitter jealousy over it.
So true, properly innovative writers stand firmly inside what they do, including their uncertainties – and the times they are-a-seething. Tempest quotes Jung, ‘the spirit of this time is ungodly’. Here is the junction between identity politics and Marxism, the place where those people, who desperately need to connect, could, just maybe, find common ground. The ‘system needs your numbness’ or more properly it needs you to submit to a pleasured self in order to ignore the structural production of that self.
That system is far from successful, precisely because it is far from total. We walk by those who are not in its shelter every day in cities. Tempest describes street homelessness in America, saying the ‘way we have chosen to live on this planet is sinister and strange’. There is also, then, much power in understatement here.
This said, Tempest is quite fixed on connection as the sole goal. Where I perhaps differ is when Tempest describes reading poetry to diverse figures. The CEO of a global bank on a mountain range and bikers in America, with a feeling that something is about to change. I agree that what connects us can be more powerful than what divides, and I have had that feeling so many times, and then nothing changes. In fact the world just seems to get worse, the homelessness is far more obvious now than it was in my youth.
But however sceptical we might be about the power of art to change things, the books’ strength lies in the monologue of an individual who has struggled with self and returned with hard-won truths. There are great lines here in that regard:
‘If you need approval to bolster your conviction, it is not conviction, it’s an affectation. And it will melt away under the faintest scrutiny.’
‘I was born fallible and I’ll die fallible, just like everyone else, no matter how much goes wrong or right in my life.’
Oddly, this does seem to put Tempest, at 35 years old – and in a metaphor they will likely hate – a few rungs up the wisdom ladder over all of us.