Tempestuous connections

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.

Steve Hanson

Treason and plot!

Stefan Szczelkun Plotlands of Shepperton (Routine Art co.)

From 1966 Stefan Szczelkun studied architecture at Portsmouth. Born to migrant parents, he grew up working class and began to explore that identity, particularly in relation to his chosen subject of architecture.

Szczelkun was a member of the Scratch Orchestra and saw self-build plot houses in the northeast of England when on tour. He has been fascinated ever since, in fact he saw the improvised structures as a parallel to the Scratch Orchestra’s music. In 1971 he built Scratch Cottage, an improvised building as an extension of the Scratch Orchestra’s practice.

His interest in what is usually called ‘vernacular architecture’, a phrase that seems loaded with a patronising sense of describing amateurs – in a country where terrible ‘professional’ building work and architecture is completely normal – is refreshingly political (and I guess on an anarchist spectrum).

Stefan describes how people gathered in the early twentieth century at a site along the Thames at a time when camping was not at all respectable. The owner of the site eventually sold the plots off. In the 1920s, then, the first families stayed there all year round, in buildings they had made, rather than just converging there in summertime. Szczelkun describes how many of them would be seeking an escape from the horrors of WW1.

The cover of Plotlands of Shepperton gives little away, it could be a very straightforward documentary publication. It does has an important documentary aspect, but inside, the book is much more enigmatic. It takes the form of photographs of plots and vernacular houses with footnotes, although the footnote may or may not refer to the photograph.

Victor Burgin et al worked on creating a more open relationship between images and their texts in the 1970s and 1980s, but this is a little different even to that. For instance, one picture of a corrugated iron roof chalet bears the following caption:

C19 Municipalisation had provided us with the wonders of civil engineering (clean water, sewage, energy etc) in exchange for a mindset of dependency. The local authorities provided housing, parks, dustbin collections and local schools in exchange for a passive acceptance that the provision of these basic human needs was organised and managed by the class on high in order to make their own personal fortunes. Along with this was a passive acceptance of their patriarchal values, their literary culture and their media representations of all that was ‘news’.

This particular caption is not taken at random, it underlines the importance of not accepting the dominant culture in everything from the image-text relationships in this book right through to the permanent dwellings they describe.

The form the whole book takes, then, exemplifies the author’s social questions, by demonstrating how one might work differently on the book about the houses (on which people also worked differently).

Another pair of pages shows an Egyptian-style domed house, along with a caption and/or footnote exploring (essentially) Said’s Orientalism and Szczelkun’s adolescent reading of The Arabian Nights. This dimension of the book is particularly rich. It takes the text beyond the usual architectural monologue about history, form, function and use.

It also shows that the author is critical, unlike some of the unconditionally celebratory texts on modern buildings (something which is a recent and retrospective phenomena).

At one point, Szczelkun describes going to Eel Pie Island, Twickenham, to see the Rolling Stones play. I’m strongly reminded of postcards I have collected of this area. Charles Dickens described the The Eel Pie Island Hotel as a ‘place to dance to the music of the locomotive band.’ In the 1920s it hosted popular tea dances. ‘The island’ has always been associated with transgression, hosting a jazz club from 1956. George Melly described its atmosphere of hedonism, then the emerging beat boom of white UK musicians arrived, taking material from black blues music, particularly the Chicago style, The Yardbirds, Who and Rolling Stones among them.

Those groups and their audiences were taking that culture and projecting it beyond itself, opening up a new era – and one which we are still in – in which representations themselves are dominant.

In a sense, the history of the hotel is that of the counterculture, it continued to host music right into early psychedelia and underground rock. It closed in 1967, but re-opened in 1969, as Colonel Barefoot’s Rock Garden, hosting Black Sabbath and the Edgar Broughton Band, attracting idealists trying to create utopian communal life.

Szczelkun’s book opens up that cultural horizon, in this area of London, even further, revealing the plotlands as spaces of relatively autonomous existence. Eel Pie Island Hotel, like Twickenham studios, like Pinewood, was a dream factory, a place where the imaginary could emerge through the symbolic and radiate through entire eras. The Plotlands somehow reveal themselves as spaces of dreaming life in this book, partly because of the form the book takes.

There is a shaping relation, rather than a divorce, between the unspectacular areas around these sites, the sites themselves, and their function.

The psychogeography of Shepperton seems to repeat this idea of the symbolic broadcasting of culture beyond itself again and again. This continues at the film studios at Twickenham, and is a process J.G. Ballard was interested in. Szczelkun actually includes a picture of Ballard’s Shepperton home in the latter stages of the book. Drowned World and Unlimited Dream Company are in the bibliography.

There’s a richness to this book that makes it ideal to wander through, but also a pointedness in its politics that makes it crucial to carry forward. The more muted feeling I get comes from the fact that these spaces are either now stupefyingly expensive or were cleared and their inhabitants moved to new towns, as they were in ‘The Haven’, Essex.

The housing crisis on this island is in no way solved. We have only just seen the dropping of the ‘mutant algorithm’ (planning version) and in most places capital dominates as though it is a state of nature. In Manchester, the game is particularly disgusting.

The dominant representation is now that of the estate agent. Images of millenials with impossible teeth in glass and steel landlord-fattening pens, their faces entranced in Mac laptops screens. A vision of the world that is supposed to be the most desirable of all, but one which makes me want to leave it for good.

This book is enough to crack that image and show us that at one point – but maybe no longer – a different world might have been possible.

Perhaps it’s time to let this book broadcast its own representations beyond itself, so they become physical spaces in the world again, in a different, accessible way. And so then perhaps it’s time to leave the gunpowder aside, but return to treason, and plot.

Steve Hanson

2020 End of Years No.6

TOP 5

1) The Compromise by Sergei Dovlatov trans Anne Frydman (1983)

2) 3) 4) Dogtown (1991), Soultown (1996), Ghosttown (2007) by Mercedes Lambert

5) Pocket Money by Gordon Burn (1987)

THE BOOKS

1) ‘The Compromise’ by Sergei Dovlatov trans Anne Frydman (1983)

‘’A MAN CONDEMNED TO HAPPINESS’…Maybe we’ll use it as a headline!’ Turonok, editor of Sovetskaja Estonija (Soviet Estonia), suggests delightedly to Russian journalist, Sergei Dovlatov. It is 1975, the anniversary of Tallin’s liberation. The city’s four hundred thousandth citizen is conveniently due to be born. Dovlatov must pen the rousing write-up, but first find a suitable baby.

This fifth ‘Compromise’, like the other 11, opens with a concise, Soviet-patriotic article written by Dovlatov for a Soviet Estonian newspaper. The ‘true’ story behind the state-sanctioned one is revealed beneath, plainly exposing deceptions, and drink.

In Dovlatov’s hands, absurd media assignments and rules (countries are written in exemplary order. Turonok nags, ‘Hungary goes third! There was an uprising!’), posing superiors, trying interviewees, make dark, sharp comedy. ‘Compromises’ of those stuck in this stifling environment are described with understanding. Loosened pages fell out my copy- hopefully from past, deserved, frantic re-readings…

Unable to get published in the USSR, Dovlatov emigrated to America in 1979. He has posthumously been celebrated in Russia, captured in a statue on Rubenstein Street, St Petersburg. Unveiled on 2016’s ‘Dovlatov Memorial Day’, after years of arguments on the choicest spot- he would have made a terrific tale of it.

2) 3) 4) ‘Dogtown’ (1991), ‘Soultown’ (1996), ‘Ghosttown’ (2007) by Mercedes Lambert

The reader of the distinctive ‘Whitney Logan’ mysteries would likely try to investigate their author, Mercedes Lambert. The name yields scant useful Google results, bar a dated-looking, palm tree fringed website which bears this pseudonym and her real name, Douglas Ann Munson. Under the ‘Press’ section, six newspaper clippings provide evidence on Munson’s too-short life.

Dogtown begins the ‘-town’ series. Logan, an idealistic Law graduate, estranged from ‘Town and Country’ reading parents, sets up practice in a decrepit office on LA’s Hollywood Boulevard. A well-dressed and fine-smelling woman puts her on the case of her missing Salvadorian maid; a story that soon stinks. Logan’s compelling, series-enduring partnership with shrewd Lupe Ramos, a Chicana who works the Boulevard, begins.

Munson’s own background as a dependency lawyer in the Los Angeles County Court informs the series. Most striking is her conjuring of the disaster-prone, traffic-jammed city. Its subcultures, tensions, the battered Old Hollywood remnants. Koreatown, reeling from the 1992 LA riots, is intently, atmospherically explored in 1996’s Soultown.

The clippings indicate a rising star, but follow-up Ghosttown would be repeatedly rejected by her publisher. Centred on the murder of a Native American woman, its brilliant, ambiguous ‘supernatural’ ending was considered too aberrant. So was the increasingly jaded, Southern Comfort-swigging Logan, though it seems an accurate development. Munson’s disgust at the abuses encountered in her own court work is evident.

Despondent, Munson quit her job, stopped the revisions. She would become homeless and die from cancer aged 55. Ghost-Town was later resurrected by friend, Lucas Crown, and published to deserved plaudits, ‘ahead of its time’ lamentations. The series ends- or remains-with the valley’s lights ‘pulsing in frozen gasps.’

5) Pocket Money by Gordon Burn (1987)

Steve is going for the pink ball – and for those of you who are watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green.”

-‘Whispering’ Ted Lowe, Pot Black

‘Pot Black’, the BBC2 snooker tournament show, launched in 1969 to cheaply flaunt colour transmission.

Snooker’s subsequent popularisation was confirmed by 1985’s TV-ratings-topping Steve Davis v Dennis Taylor World Championship final. Burn captures the game’s contenders and clashes with a typically acute eye in this outstanding account of the heady ’86 ‘honeymoon’ season.

Barry Hearn, the ‘People’s Promoter’ has welcomed Taylor into his slick Matchroom operation, grooming him alongside Davis (indeed, with sponsor Goya’s international fragrance ‘Matchroom). Unmarketable, scandal-stalked players like Alex Higgins, offer unpredictable competition on and off the table. That year, the Higgins-led ‘Four Away’ cover of ‘The Wanderer’ made a defiant alternative to ‘Snooker Loopy’ by The Matchroom Mob with Chas & Dave.

Burn rigorously traces the boom’s shockwaves, leaves portents. The old guard of the WPBSA (World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association) recoiling. Matchroom’s tendrils reaching Hong Kong and China.

‘Pot Black’ was pulled in ‘86. But snooker suited a studio setting and ‘Pot Black’ returned as the more rambunctious, quiz-y ‘Big Break’. The BBC1 snooker gameshow presented by John Virgo and Jim Davidson aired between 1991-2002.

Cue for another 2020 highlight – ‘Big Break Remake’ by Swedish Magazines. This stunning snooker-single slyly pondered a bargain BBC bid for lost viewers, following a spate of vintage light entertainment resurrections (‘Family Fortunes’, ‘Supermarket Sweep’, ‘Are you being served?’).

Time has not been kind to the Big Break set. There’s asbestos in the roof and a hornet’s nest in the wall.

Abby Kearney

Capital Grains

Nicholas Royle – London Gothic (Confingo, 2020)

There is something unsettling about London. Anyone who has visited can tell you. A change comes over those that move there. They begin to talk strangely, and have bizarre priorities.

Nicholas Royle’s London Gothic is a book in pursuit of this strangeness. Through fifteen short stories, Royle skims us over the surface of a depthless London. A city of hipsters, lit mags, mythical murderers and art galleries filled with pop memorabilia. Everyone talks in references.

But something is lurking in the dark; a terrible emptiness, gaps in the universe, growing ever larger beneath the capital.

Royle is a master of the uncanny. His stories abound with half-glimpsed horrors, strange doubles, phantom sounds and messages from the dead.

Even stranger, the characters of one story will often haunt later tales, giving the book an uncanny continuity. Like a second book, a novel perhaps, is hiding beneath the individual tales, breaking through in glimpses.

There is a good range of stories here. In “empty boxes” a character goes in search of old cinemas, hoping to capture something of their essence before they are knocked down, or turned into nightclubs. A disused railway line is the subject for a filmmaker in “Train, Night”. Abandoned things return.

In “L0ND0N” (the “0”s are zeros), an editor receives a novel all about mysterious holes in the fabric of the city. The further we journey into the book, the more the unnamed darkness reveals itself.

The stories are mostly realist in form, concentrating on the objects of everyday life, the many place names of resonance to Londoners and the kinds of middlebrow references popular among the London smart set.

The story “Constraints” stands out for me particularly. It is constructed of all the text seen by the author as he walks between the former home of Giles Gordon and the former home of B.S. Johnson (two experimental novelists I myself have written about).

The melange of street signs, graffiti, adverts and shop names are hostile and hectoring. These are the angry surfaces we face every day.

“Constraints” perhaps carries, in abstracted form, the key to unlocking the whole of the collection. These signs, all seemingly benign, perhaps even helpful, carry beneath them a hidden anger, a hatred of dissent, of those that don’t conform, fit in, buy now and GIVE WAY.

The horrors beneath the polite surface are the true meaning of the surface itself, slipping out. This is the London Gothic.

For lovers of the short story form, this is a recommended read. The prose is clean and kept moving with plenty of dialogue. The horrors are subtle, but, perhaps for that reason, haunt you long after reading.

Joe Darlington

2020 End of Years No.5

This is not my Top 5 for Manchester Review of Books, which looks something like:

1. Tonino Guerra – Equilibrium (Moist)

2. The Huey P. Newton Reader (Seven Stories)

3. Will Davies This Is Not Normal (Verso)

4. Ansgar Allen – Wretch (Schism Press)

5. all the Adorno and Kracauer reissuing from Polity, in a big pile.

You can read about all those on this website. Well, apart from quite a few of the Adorno and Kracauer reissues, which are so big I haven’t got to the reviews yet (sorry).

But year end round-ups at MRB tend to be about the other reading.

2020 has been all upheaval and intensity for me, involving a house move, living for a time without basic amenities and lots of juggling. Then latterly there has been temp work to keep going with this other, MRB work (which doesn’t pay Joe or I a wage). Blissful lockdown reading, it was not.

Sometimes the only thing I can practically do outside my ‘essential activities’, which also includes various domestic tasks, emergencies and moments of complete exhaustion, is to read poetry. But this year, it has been sci-fi.

There was this massive Barnardo’s near where I used to live. Probably still is. I found a big pile of science fiction in there, in January, in fact it kept getting fed through. I would cherry pick a lot then leave it a week, go back and there would be some more.

Books in there are four for £1. I hoovered up things I had looked at when a teenager in WHSmiths but never had the money to buy. There’s a load of it left to go through, and some of it was started and taken straight out to book swaps in summer. Michael Moorcock’s Elric stuff for a start.

So, in between the above, I have binged on Man Who Fell To Earth – good to finally get the story after watching the film many times – Aldiss’s Hothouse, Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, a bunch of John Wyndhams I hadn’t read, Arthur C. Clarke, Vonneguts I missed and New Worlds anthologies.

Steve Hanson

2020 End of Years No.4

  1. The Big Midweek, Steve Hanley & Olivia Piekarski.
  2. Postcapitalist Desire, Mark Fisher, edited by Matt Colquhoun.
  3. The New Me, Halle Butler.
  4. Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze & Guattari.
  5. Suite for Barbara Loden, Nathalie Leger.

My book of the year, in the sense of the book I’ve enjoyed most over the past 12 months, is The Big Midweek by Steve Hanley and Olivia Piekarski. It’s a book which came out a while ago, but which I never bothered with for some reason despite being a longstanding and quite devoted fan of the group The Fall. Anyway, it’s great and, for me, edges just ahead of other books by former members Brix and Simon Wolstencroft, both of which I also read and really enjoyed this year, due to being solely focussed on life inside the group. Top revelation for me, was the meeting Hanley attended, convened by Mark E Smith around the time of the Cerebral Caustic album, which saw Smith lay out his plans to open a Tapas restaurant in Altrincham. I mean, really, how phenomenal would a Fall tapas place have been.

My second book of the year is Postcapitalist Desire which is the final, unfinished set of lectures that Mark Fisher was giving at Goldsmiths at the time of his death. Here, Fisher is working out his ideas of Acid Communism: considering the later recuperation of the libidinal energy of the 60s and early 70s counter-culture and trying to figure out how it might be possible to reclaim some of those lost futures. I thought this book – brilliantly edited by Matt Colquhoun – delivered a lot and is an important and valuable work: it was a run through of a lot of contemporary or contemporary-ish theory, a great summary of Fisher’s thought up to the time of its writing and an indicator of the direction his thought might continue to move in, it was also a great record of just what a terrifically compelling and engaging teacher Fisher seemed to have been. Besides all this I took from it a whole reading-list I’m still currently working my way through and the clearest explanation yet of some concepts of Lukacs’ that I’ve always found particularly tricky and struggled to get my head around…

Next up is a novel – I read a lot of novels this year after quite a while of reading not many at all: The New Me by US author Halle Butler. It’s about a depressed woman who works in an office, and as a frequently depressed bloke who works in an office I found I could relate very easily. This is a bleak, bitter book but also very, very funny, or at least I found it funny. I think I read it in about a day or a day and a half, it didn’t take me very long anyway. And I mention that just to give an indication of how much I liked it: I couldn’t put it down. Rather, I suppose I could put it down, it’s more that I just didn’t want to. So impressed was I by The New Me that sometime after I’d read it I bought what I think was Butler’s debut novel Jillian. This was also good but suffered a bit in comparison to The New Me. Jillian is about a depressed woman who is thinking about buying a dog.

Fourth place I’m going to give to Anti-Oedipus which I spent May and June slowly wading through with varying levels of comprehension. It feels like a bit of stretch to say I actually enjoyed reading this, maybe it’s more accurate to say I enjoyed thinking of myself as someone who was reading Anti-Oedipus, whichever though…I’m undoubtedly proud of the fact that I’ve read it and it’s certainly had some effect on me as a couple of weeks ago I started reading A Thousand Plateaus, which I probably could say I am enjoying and, as well, I feel I’ve got a much firmer grasp on this than I had on the earlier book. Plus, Deleuze and Guattari are funny, right? There’s quite a lot making me laugh in A Thousand Plateaus anyway.

And my final choice is something of an unclassifiable book Suite For Barbara Loden by Nathalie Leger. The author is commissioned to write an entry for a film encyclopaedia on Barbara Loden’s film Wanda but she finds what’s supposed to be a short piece quickly morphing into something much, much bigger. This book is autobiography, it’s biography, it’s about gender, it’s film writing, it’s writing about place…It’s an incredibly rich work and, as is everything else on this list, highly recommended. And despite this brilliant book-length recommendation for the film I somehow still haven’t seen Wanda. I must do, and soon.

Richard Barrett

2020 End of Years No.3

  1. British Summer Time Begins by Ysenda Maxtone Graham
  2. Songs We Learn from Trees edited by Chris Beckett and Alemu Tebeje
  3. Alienist VIII
  4. The Beauty and The Terror by Catherine Fletcher
  5. Outré by D Harlan Wilson

I was tempted to make some kind of State of the Nation comment here, but I figure we’ll hear plenty of those. Instead, I’m going to keep it concise and give a one sentence summary of each of my choices. If any sound like your kind of thing, I highly recommend checking them out.

British Summer Time Begins: an oral history of glorious summer holidays complete with sunshine, skinned knees, and sandy jam sandwiches.

Songs We Learn from Trees: an introduction to Amharic poetry with its technique of wax and gold that every contemporary poet ought to read.

Alienist VIII: everyone responded to the pandemic but nobody nailed it quite like the Alienist.

The Beauty and The Terror: a new history of the Italian renaissance where the smell of gunpowder hangs in the cherub-strewn air.

Outré: a mindbending novel of Hollywood hyperaggression and a whale that falls from the sky.

A list that veers wildly between nostalgia and chaos, then.

Apt? Perhaps.

Looks like I made a State of the Nation comment after all.

Joe Darlington

2020 End of Years No.2

  1. Laura Tisdall, A Progressive Education? How childhood changed in mid-twentieth-century English and Welsh Schools (Manchester University Press, 2020). A hugely impressive, critical and deeply researched work of scholarship using archival sources and interviews with teachers to challenge many of the perceived narratives about changing experiences in twentieth-century classrooms, asking how widespread so-called progressive education really was.
  2. Lisa Tickner, London’s New Scene: Art and Culture in the 1960s (Yale/Paul Mellon Centre, 2020). You could be forgiven for wondering if we really needed another book about ‘Swinging London’, but I learnt a lot from London’s New Scene: I enjoyed finding out about the role of small commercial gallerists and felt the book was particularly strong on the growing links between contemporary art and mass culture during this period, the popularisation of art as a lifestyle/entertainment commodity via television and the colour supplements, and as a brand to be exported as part of British identity abroad.
  3. Lynn Pearson, England’s Co-operative Movement: An Architectural History (Liverpool University Press/Historic England, 2020). In ordinary times, one of my favourite past-times is travelling to different towns and cities around the country looking at buildings; spotting an old or historic Co-operative premises has often been a highlight. Even so, there were many buildings which were new to me in this book, which surveys the history and development of co-operative architecture, from shops and department stores to bakeries, warehouses, laundries and even mobile shops. In addition, a wealth of archival material (much of it sourced from eBay) offers a rare glimpse at those premises which have been demolished or changed beyond all recognition (or in some cases never made it beyond plans and drawings!).
  4. Alice Maude-Roxby and Stefanie Seibold (eds.), Resist: Be Modern (Again) (Cornerhouse Publications, 2020). A beautifully designed and illustrated catalogue from an exhibition at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton in summer 2019, bringing together contemporary artists with lesser-known female artists from the 1920s and 1930s, to explore their networks of friendship, influence and inspiration through gender, politics and sexuality. A welcome consolation prize for those of us who are kicking themselves for missing the exhibition in person.
  5. Owen Hatherley, Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London (Repeater, 2020). A popular and accessible history of London’s left-wing administrations, from the London County Council to the Greater London County Council, which attempts to understand Labour’s 2019 election defeat by exploring the ways in which the social, economic and politics differences between London and the rest of the country have emerged and deepened over time. Framed by the emergency policies enacted by the Conservative government due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it also looks to the London of the future, recommending a halt to its expansion as a megacity and the rebalancing of power towards the regions. While focused on London, its discussion of regional politics and power made it a particularly interesting read as a long-term resident of the north (and specifically Greater Manchester, a region with supposedly devolved political power).

After writing my contributions to the book three years ago (I fear that some of them are out of date now, and it would be particularly interesting to revisit the chapter on Statues in the light of this year’s Black Lives Matter protests), it was also good to finally see the publication of Manchester: Something Rich and Strange (Manchester University Press, 2020), edited by Paul Dobraszczyk and Sarah Butler. While not entirely avoiding the cliches it seeks to avoid (honestly, I am so sick of hearing about rain – there is really no need to bring it up again!), Manchester: Something Rich and Strange gathers an impressive range of contributors to shine a light on some lesser-explored areas of the city. Aiming explicitly to broaden its remit beyond the city centre, one of the most refreshing elements of the book it that it isn’t the usual tourist guide or local history book, and isn’t afraid to be critical. The approach to defining the city – when we discuss Manchester, are we referring to the city of Manchester or to a wider area encompassing the geographical county of Greater Manchester? – is thoughtful, although the presence of outlying towns with their own history and identity was a little lacking and sometimes these places felt unfairly subsumed into a greater whole.

Many of the books I read in 2020 align to my research interests in some way. I finished my PhD, about Pictures for Schools, a scheme to get original works of art into post-war schools, nearly three years ago, and I’ve been working in an unrelated field outside of academia ever since. Despite this, I’ve never stopped reading around the subject, partly because of my ambitions to develop my thesis into a book, a project I’ve long put off because it feels too distant and overwhelming.

For much of the first half of 2020 I was too emotionally exhausted from my day job in arts administration – the pandemic necessitated changes to its nature, intensity and location – to write, or even to think. Instead, in my spare time I read and read and read and read. I’ve never bought so many books in my life as in 2020 (I’ve long preferred to borrow books rather than buy, and sorely missed the services of libraries this year). This was partly due to the sheer boredom of lockdown and the inability to travel and physically explore places beyond the limits of my everyday environment. Added to this was fatigue from looking at screens day in day out, which made it difficult (initially at least) to engage with the deluge of arts content which suddenly became available online.

For all the space they take up (something I was acutely aware of when I moved house at the end of summer 2020), I realised more than ever that the beauty of physical books is that they are portable and lend themselves to outdoor enjoyment. The first national lockdown was made more bearable by sunny weather, which continued on-off for much of the summer, making it possible to escape outside – I read books outside in the garden, in the backyard, in various parks and between outdoor swimming sessions (beginning with EP Thompson’s physically and intellectually weighty, yet illuminating, Making of the English Working Class, which I tackled in chunks during early lockdown laying on the back lawn or sitting under a parasol, having long been waiting for the right moment).

While initially I felt great guilt about my lack of productivity, it soon became clear that all this reading was opening up pathways and connections in my brain – I began to understand my own writing and position better, and where it sat in relation to existing scholarship. Having spent most of 2020 reading, I now feel a renewed and much-needed enthusiasm for my own work – and, at last, a real desire to get back to my own research and writing.

Natalie Bradbury

2020 End of Years No.1

  1. Romance or the End by Elaine Kahn
  2. Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata
  3. Pandemic Dreams by Deirdre Barrett
  4. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
  5. The Ego and the Id by Sigmund Freud

My reading this year has been varied, a combination of poetry, non-fiction, academic textbooks (for a professional qualification I am studying for) and fiction, and I have enjoyed spending time with books in this pandemic, where there seems to have been more hours for such an activity (unsurprisingly).

Number 1. Is a poetry book published in 2020 that I loved and, is fair to say, has influenced my own writing. There is lots of space in between words, (the text had room to breathe) and was also exceedingly funny and insightful. I went on to buy more of Elaine Kahn’s work and though was not quite so impressed by Women in Public (2015) she has certainly left her mark upon me.

Number 2. Is a novel by an author I had not come across until this year. I like Japanese literature so was pleased that this lived up to hopes, with an almost Daphne Du Maurier-esque focus on relationships and the eerie. I also enjoy Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto, but have my doubts about the former after a scathing review on Twitter which criticised the way he portrays women. I do not know my own mind, clearly. This author took his own life in the early 1970’s and I was surprised to learn was a Nobel prize winner. Why I was surprised I’m not sure, as I have not committed all Nobel prize winners to memory.

Number 3. Was suggested to me after I posted on Facebook about dreaming of coronavirus and what it could have meant. I read it in an evening on kindle while waiting for the husband in a cinema bar, during a spell of not so locked lockdown (he then went home without me as my battery had died, and he did not look for me properly, but never mind!). It was an interesting read, and, if nothing else, gave me a sense of solidarity with all those other workers having anxiety dreams related to covid-19. I also tried some techniques out suggested in the book for steering lucid dreaming, which worked a few times, but I never got into the habit of it so have lost the knack, which is not to say I will not revisit the approach.

Number 4. Was a very well written novel that I really enjoyed reading and kept good pace from start to finish. The ending was not disappointing (in terms of thought out plot and writing craft) and I will definitely be reading more of this author. However, I have been a little distracted by Jeanette Winterson and a reread of ‘Oranges are not the Only fruit’, initial read being circa 1999. I did not really remember it and found it hilarious this time round. I also grasped that every sentence counts in Winterson’s writing because if I drifted off, I had to reread chunks as I had lost the thread. This was not the case with Number 4. This was an easier read but this is also good if you are me and prone to a wandering mind.

Number 5. I read this for a University assignment, and, it can be argued, might not have been wholly relevant to the subject but was valuable nonetheless. What struck me from this work is that Freudian theory is just that: a theory, which has seeped into popular consciousness and become almost fact. This primary text opened my eyes to the thinking behind id’s and ego’s and enabled me to have a critical view of Freud’s argument, realising that so much of what we now take for granted was just someone’s idea.

2020 has been a good year for me in reading books. Little does she know it, but my Auntie resurged my appetite for novels by sending me one by Tim Winton that I read, doggedly to the end, so as not to hurt her feelings by leaving it half way through. Currently, thanks to a free bookshop in Sale, I am reading ‘The Joke’ by Milan Kundera. This I am also finding funny so far, so perhaps very aptly named (Lol).

Sally Barrett