Charlie Gere – World’s End (Goldsmiths/MIT)
About a year ago I wrote a double review of Hartmut Rosa’s The Uncontrollability of the World and Srećko Horvat’s After The Apocalypse (both Polity).
In it, I wrote that in recent times – referring to the pandemic – my personal ghosts were right on the surface, but after reading these books, ‘my ghosts now have their own armchairs in the living room.’
Today, I feel I have joined my ghosts in the Living Room At The End of Time. Us grinning skeletons, we have all been levelled down. As I write, the Russian war in Ukraine crunches on. Sanctions are tightened, increasing the possibility of a desperate Russian lash-out. In my earlier review, I commented that Charlie Gere’s book I Hate The Lake District was haunted by ‘the possibility of new wars’, which at this point ‘means the risk of nuclear strikes, or at best standoffs.’
I am personally haunted by all of this, and have been – on and off, to a greater or lesser degree – since the early 1980s. Gere’s new book for Goldsmiths/MIT explores this idea further. In it, he explains:
‘I still feel that sense, of being in a target, even today. To a great extent I am surprised to have lived this long, to still be alive. It is as if our lives have been an endlessly deferred death sentence, or as if we have always already been deemed dead, and only given our life through some act of sovereign mercy. As I write this I think of David Bowie’s song “We are the dead” from Diamond Dogs.’
Gere quotes Jeff Nuttall’s Bomb Culture several times, who told me, not long before he died, that he was amazed not to have experienced further nuclear destruction of some sort in his time. The title of ‘World’s End’ doubles up, then, to mean the end of the world. Gere told me that this ‘is definitely a moment for literature to respond’ to the times we find ourselves in:
‘However one of the points of World’s End is that the world is always in turmoil, always changing and always fraught with risk and contingency. The difference with the Ukraine War is that it is so much closer to us in the Liberal West, unlike, say, Libya or Afghanistan. And the idea that the possibility of nuclear war ever really went away has always struck me as wilfully naïve.’
There is clearly a connection between the apocalyptic and Gere’s interest in New Media Theory. For instance, Friedrich Kittler described the optical fibre networks that would theoretically allow TV to operate after WWIII has wiped out all humans. I confirmed with Gere that this was the case:
‘I think all my work has been about nothing but the connection between media and the apocalypse, from my first book Digital Culture, through to Art, Time and Technology, Community without Community in Digital Culture, and on to Unnatural Theology, and now with this new kind of more personal writing with I Hate the Lake District and World’s End. They are all deeply concerned with the apocalypse both in the sense of destruction and revelation. One of my main points in Digital Culture was to show how all the realtime computing and networking technologies with which we are surrounded are absolutely products of the Cold War. At a deeper level there is a profound relation between media, death, the nuclear and language, most beautifully explored, I think, in Derrida’s essay “No Apocalypse: Not Now.”‘
These books are the capstones of a long and rich academic career. They are also personal, haunted by death, both personal death and the death of our wider culture.
But World’s End is also about life, specifically a life spent in and around an area, the World’s End in London. It is also about growing up in a different time. ‘I remember the curious resistance of the money slot in the phone booth as I pushed my two pence in’ Gere writes, and then reminds us that ‘when I was a child, homosexuality was still illegal and the Lord Chamberlain still censored theatre productions.’ Worlds also change slowly, incrementally, as well as apocalyptically, and sometimes for the better.
But World’s End is a prism, to be viewed from multiple angles. It is not just a cold war memoir. The book seems obsessed with the secret history of London, too. Books such as Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming and Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces are just the more obvious forerunners in this tradition. Gere has a highly alert cultural radar, to the extent that he has delivered up a book which fulfills the promises of ‘psychogeography’ without ever descending into any of its risible pretentions.
It reminds me of Fred Vermorel’s Dead Fashion Girl (Strange Attractor Press, 2019) which was reviewed here by Bob Dickinson. The Profumo affair hangs over that book, as it does over World’s End. Vermorel’s book revolves around ‘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.’ It also takes apart the 1950s and 1960s, and by doing so, it seems to explain the catastrophic decades which followed the collapse of the rhetoric of utopia, at the very end of the 1960s.
This is a highly successful exercise in what the Situationists called ‘unitary urbanism.’ Vermorel is obsessed with the fashion industry and its dark side. Gere also focuses in on the psychedelic boutiques such as Granny Takes A Trip, and their negative underside. In this, it is also a successful exercise in dialectical thinking. Its confidence in its own abilities are, I think, evident in the lack of psychogeographic posturing, and the lack of mystified methodological window dressing. There is no tenuous, bloated philosophy of walking here.
I asked Gere about this specifically. I like his take on landscape and place writing in World’s End and I Hate the Lake District. I admire that he doesn’t fetishise walking in ‘Lake District’ and says so. I like that he doesn’t mystify what he does and focuses on the cultural material of the territory he engages with. He tells me:
‘I think or at least I hope that the writing is itself a kind of reflection on the practice of its own making. I am writing a rather odd book at the moment and I toyed with calling it “Book with the Sound of its own Making”, as a reference to Robert Morris’ sculpture “Box with the sound of its own making”. I don’t think any piece of writing can avoid offering the reader an instruction or lesson about how it was made. However there is quite a lot to be said about the specific practices in those books, and how they are composed in a largely unscholarly way in a magpie-like bricolage of things that catch my eye and interest me, without any overarching thesis or desired endpoint. This messiness is a deliberate response to what I see as the unmanageable and unmasterable complexity of the world. A lot of writing to me seems to offer a false sense of mastery, that the truth of something can be contained within the book’s covers. If things were simple word would have gotten round as Derrida puts it.’
There is so much more to explore in Gere’s book, but I will sign off and simply encourage the reader to get a copy. This is the real deal. Gere actually pulls off the Prophetic here, in a full sense. His description of the collapse of a different sort of underground, of Chelsea millionaire basements in 2020, and the result looking like an image of the blitz, is genuinely chilling to read in 2022, not least because of the sudden asset freeze on Russian oligarchs who had made Chelsea their playground. The prophetic is about reconnecting the alpha with the omega until you cannot tell them apart.
Gere concludes his book simply by removing an apostrophe, taking us from World’s End to ‘worlds end‘. In this, at least, there is acceptance as well as pessimism.
I reviewed the Horvat and Rosa here: https://manchestereviewofbooks.wordpress.com/2021/04/14/messianic-millenarianism/
Gere’s previous book I Hate the Lake District was covered here: https://manchestereviewofbooks.wordpress.com/2020/06/01/apocalypso/
Bob Dickinson’s review of Vermorel can be found here: https://manchestereviewofbooks.wordpress.com/2020/05/31/sous-les-paves-le-vide/
The Kittler reference is from Gramophone, Film Typewriter.