Until shame came to drive a wedge between us

Édouard Louis – The End of Eddy (Vintage, 2018)

There is a lot gained from a strong opening line, and Édouard Louis certainly gave me what I look for in The End of Eddy (2014): “From my childhood I have no happy memories.” Sometimes enduring pain can only be expressed simply, and the book continues in this curt style. Louis deals with brutality casually and without indulgence, offering many of these concise sentiments: “You never get used to insults.” The book is full of calm observations of his crippling childhood fears and punishable treatment. I would in fact go as far as to call Eddy a masterpiece of observation, written with dignity and control, anti-hysterical, a hard past laid out neatly and assuredly. It is a telling of shame unburdened by self-pity or flowery prose. His presentation of memory, its wanderings and coming-back-agains, is beautiful and veracious in its simplicity. The book is thoughtfully punctuated in an extremely literal sense of the word; Louis writes with a cognitive pace.

Louis’ reflections on the pressure he felt growing up are pertinent to our culture’s current dialogue on masculinity, and it seems that this has played a large part in Eddy’s critical acclaim. It is indeed a brutal unveiling of “masculinity” and its misconceptions, a contemplation of what it means to be a man often disgusted in its musings but never obtusely so. The italicised and often rambling dialogue of his family and surrounding persons is drastically opposed in nature to his own controlled, concise and elegant prose – theirs so desperate and exaggerated, and so often delivering perverse statements of “manliness”.

We are presented with an articulation of the threat perceived in difference – the working class fear of the unknown. Louis communicates the idea that we are complicit in our own mistreatment, or, at least, that low status seems to be accompanied by this complicity. The book portrays the isolation of poverty – both forced and chosen, and the distancing of the working class both suffered and perpetuated. The characters that surround Eddy are complicit in the perpetuation of their own poverty in all senses: financial, moral and sentimental. Louis writes “There is a will that exists, a desperate, continual, constantly renewed effort to place some people on a level below you, not to be on the lowest rung of the social ladder” and captures a kind of communal distance – the seemingly inescapable fate of the working class. However despite this overwhelming representation of isolation, this beautiful portrait of himself is actually built up through his detailed meditations on those around him. Louis highlights our condition as a social species, that we must tell the stories of others in order to tell your own, making the distancing all the more apparent and cruel. Thoughtfulness in the very absence of thought.

The main disappointment that I have felt with regards to Eddy is Louis’ refusal to claim it as his own story. If I wanted to be facile, I could say that this generic fear stems from the fear instilled within Louis as a child. Genre shame caused by the unadulterated fear told in the book. There is very little more shameful than being forced to lap up freshly spat gobs of someone else’s phlegm from your sleeve. I believe that this book would be more courageously, appropriately and importantly named as non-fiction. Are we still living in the shadow of the James Frey scandal? Are you happy Oprah?

Louis writes “here I am simply trying to imagine, to reconstitute what must have been my cousin’s state of mind at that moment”, evoking the autobiographical contract. But why include comments such as this to then brand the work a novel? It is important for this book to be read in terms of our dire need to readdress our understanding of genre. It makes no sense to offer these excusatory comments in fiction – as we currently define it. Do we still feel that the novel is the only respectable form? Are memoirs an embarrassing relic of the past?

Literary journalism in the modern climate seems to trump subject matter over writing style and achievement, however Louis does deserve commendation – if not to the dramatic extent it has been awarded – for his prose. It is also surprising that most reviewers of this book have gone away in wonder at Louis’ success in spite of his desperate beginnings; experience shows us that it is from the depths that most heroes rise. Adversity surely brings us strength. The question is not one of whether we can rise, but of how well we can rise from our falls. Louis has put his troubles to good use.

Overall, here is a refreshing voice and an invigorating handling of suffering, evocative without laud or gaud, but it is disappointing that this courage couldn’t traverse in generic terms.

– Blair James



Tim Atkins – On Fathers < On Daughtyrs (Boiler House Press, 2017)

There’s no shortage of fathers in poetry; men in black with Meinkampf looks, fucking you up, maybe even, if you’re lucky, working a horse-plough with shoulders globed. But where are the father-poets?

Tim Atkins’ latest book, On Fathers < On Daughtyrs, offers us a glimpse into the father-poet world. It’s a hurried one. A stream of images, funny and tiring, build in one direction only to veer off in another. In a pacey 120 pages Atkins immerses us in a flow of dad consciousness.

“This is my song of Thing 1 and Thing 2” he writes. His daughters, naughty and curious, puncture the text with their own Dadaesque voices – “Daddy, do planes go to the toilet?” – while our narrator scrambles through a landscape of everyday responsibility, barely keeping up, his “wrists covered with monster munch dust”.

The poetry is fragmented, experimental. It offers brief glimpses and flashes of recognizable scenes before snatching them away. It can be frustrating at times, but the results are memorable. As soon as I reached the final page I began to turn the pages back, picking through the scenery in reverse. It reads almost as effectively.

By fracturing the panorama of dad-places, Atkins welcomes us too into the flux of dad-time. To be a father of daughters is to be always looking ahead. How should I raise them? Where will they end up? And with this come the social questions. What world that they will inherit? Protest is a recurring image in the text: “protesting – inside or outside the fence”, “slogans on cardboard signs”, “on the picket line again”, “on the picket line again”, “on the picket line again”…

…but then, of a sudden, our dream of the future is punctured by a “green banana hurled at the wall”. We’re back in the mucky present, with “snot [on] the ceiling”. These most momentary of moments (“amazed in the middle of cows” is my favourite line) challenge us to think of remembering even as we are alive in the present. Perhaps these moments will stay with us forever? Perhaps we’d only like them too.

On Fathers < On Daughtyrs is not so much a poem as a reading experience. I, for one, would struggle to locate a structure in it. But as a form to express fatherhood, Atkins has created something evocative, provoking, and at times deeply poignant. The book won’t reveal everything on your first time navigating it. It’s a good read while commuting, but you might enjoy it more on the return journey.

An exciting and challenging work on an underexplored theme. May it father many more like it.

– Joe Darlington

Tear Gas

Anna Feigenbaum – Tear Gas (Verso, 2017)

Late last year, I paid my first visit to Argentina, to write about the contemporary art scene in Buenos Aires. On Thursday December 14th, sizeable demonstrations were about to take place in the city centre, protesting against President Macri’s pensions reforms, which threaten to impoverish the elderly by raising the pensionable age and change the way payments are calculated. Congress was due to vote on the legislation that day, but early morning TV news reports showed several Congress members being physically prevented from entering the building.

One Congresswoman was filmed being pepper-sprayed in the face at point blank range by a police officer. The entire area around the building was surrounded by a steel wall, behind which hundreds of armed police officers in riot gear waited to greet demonstrators. I joined a large group of trade unionists and students from the National University of the Arts and we quickly found ourselves wandering through a grey mist that I mistook, initially, for smoke. In a matter of seconds, I couldn’t breathe, my eyes were streaming, and the insides of my mouth and throat were burning. It was my first experience of tear gas.

For many of us, tear gas lurks deep in folk memory. Historic episodes such as the Paris “evenements” of May, 1968, police attacks on demonstrators at the Democratic Party Congress in Detroit also in 1968, and, closer to home, the Battle of the Bogside, in Derry, in August, 1969, all continue to provide powerful evidence and dramatic images of the use of this drifting, airborne weapon.

But tear gas continues to be the crowd control method of choice for police and military forces worldwide. Recent events testifying to this include those that unfolded in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park, in 2013, (where peaceful protesters exposed to tear gas included the famous “woman in red”, Ceydar Sungar, photographed being held down and gassed by police), and in Ferguson, Missouri, where protests and riots followed the shooting dead of Michael Brown by white police officers, in 2014. The reasons why tear gas continues to be used, and used brutally, are skilfully explored by Anna Feigenbaum in her new book.

Tear gas isn’t really a gas. It’s composed of solid matter, floating around in aerosol form, the exact mix varying with the branding of the product. Tear gas is closely related, then, to pepper spray, CS gas, Mace, and other scintillatingly-worded labels, whose contents may at some point be launched, sprayed, fired at or dropped on you or me.

Emerging from the wide ranging and horrific experiments in weaponry during World War One, where it was first used by the French and German armies to “dislodge” troops from enemy trenches, tear gas can be rightfully associated with those other, infamous, poisonous chemical weapons, like chlorine and mustard gas, all of which emerged at the same time. As Feigenbaum notes, the use of gas was justified at first as a scientific and “rational” way of achieving military advantage on the battlefield.

After all, it was much less messy than blowing humans to pieces. The eventual use of tear gas on civilians could therefore be seen in similar terms: it was easier to use and less violent than clubbing people over the head, or firing live ammunition at crowds, plus it did not kill or injure anyone – or so it was claimed. So, despite the fact that the use of all gas, including tear gas, was banned by international legislation after the end of World War One, tear gas escaped, literally, because, suddenly, the evolving peacetime weapons industry could justify, legally, its use in a non-military capacity.

But tear gas is not harmless, and it is not totally reliable, as Feigenbaum explains in detail. It was learned from its earliest use that tear gas is most effective in confined spaces – as Bogside residents learned in 1969, when it was fired by police directly into flats, causing widespread illness, including vomiting, diarrhea and nausea, in an incident the sheer size of which gave rise to an official medical investigation, published as the Himsworth Report.

Furthermore, the projectiles that release the gas can also be used as offensive weapons that can prove useful to the forces launching them. Hundreds of injuries were caused this way during the Occupy Gezi protests, for instance. And inhaling tear gas, as I know from what happened to me in Buenos Aires, induces a sense of confusion: you lose track of where you are, and what is happening around you.

The gas, which is designed to affect the respiratory organs, can also damage those of the elderly, or the very young, or people already suffering from lung disease, or chronic conditions like asthma. And last but not least, tear gas can kill. In Bahrain, in 2011, as Feigenbaum notes, referring to a report from Physicians For Human Rights, there were 34 reported deaths relating to tear gas during pro-democracy demonstrations. Tear gas is, therefore, not simply a way of controlling crowds; it has become, as Feigenbaum puts it, “an object designed to torment people, to break their spirits, to cause physical and psychological damage.”

Feigenbaum’s narrative moves between histories of its use, and its manufacture and marketing. Tear gas clouds have spread worldwide, therefore, not just because the gas evolved during periods of massive unrest such as the beginning of the end of British India in the 1920s and 30s, or the campaigns for Civil Rights in the USA during the 1960s, but also because police and military forces purchased it, insisting it was “safe,” and chemical manufacturers profited from publicising it as such.

Nor does the UK escape the worrying direction the use of tear gas takes us, from streets, squares and parks and into domestic space, to its use as a “chemical straightjacket” on the mentally ill. The case of one asylum seeker, Ibrahima Sey, who was suffering from a form of mental illness, and who died in 1996 after being sprayed in the face with CS gas, by police, after being arrested, is particularly disturbing. Yet, at the time, the use of CS gas by UK police forces was persistently defended by Home Secretaries like Michael Howard, who argued that it helped to defend police officers from the potentially violent behaviour of those they were trying to arrest.

It masquerades as a peaceful way of controlling civilians behaving badly, but as Feigenbaum argues, tear gas threatens our democratic rights. “By poisoning the air,” she writes, “Tear gas makes speaking out, together, in public, impossible.” Its use, in fact, has become increasingly militarised, as evidenced throughout Feigenbaum’s book, from her description of its use on Civil Rights marchers and innocent African-American civilians in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, where tear gas becomes a “punitive device”, used during “proto SWAT-style attacks on civilian homes,” onwards.

In Buenos Aires last December, it was obvious to all of us that tear gas was being used to soften demonstrators up immediately before further violence was unleashed in the form of water cannon and shotgun fire. Meanwhile, the business deals behind the selling and buying of tear gas are as murky as the gas itself.

But, if my limited experience of it is anything to go by, tear gas can’t stifle the will to resist. In fact, it only increases it.

– Bob Dickinson 

Small man, big politics

Marcus Rediker – The Fearless Benjamin Lay (Verso)

This is a great addition to literature addressing radicalism in the 17th and 18th centuries: Peter Linebaugh et al; The London Hanged; Many Headed Hydra and Albion’s Fatal Tree, for instance, much of it also published by Verso.

Marcus Rediker is part of this group of writers with his new book The Fearless Benjamin Lay, a man originally from Essex who was one of the first to demand a total, unconditional end to the slavery of Africans globally.

He went to one Quaker meeting in America, a gathering of friends, with a hollowed out book containing a balloon of animal skin with red fruit juice in it. At the climax of his speech he stabbed the book to release the fake blood. He wrote a tract against slavery which was published by Benjamin Franklin in 1738.

He told the printer to take the pages and publish them in any order. It did not matter which part of his dissent came first. Benjamin Lay tried to speak in new concepts that were not immediately sensible. Lay was tiny, described as ‘a dwarf’, but his courage was gigantic.

The Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was established in 1787. There is, therefore, a very long pause between the savage and strange moment of tearing done by Benjamin Lay and the moment where slavery as a universal evil can be seen.

The first open public meeting on abolitionism, according to Andrew Shanks, was ‘in the Collegiate Church of Manchester, which was later to become Manchester Cathedral.’ The campaigner ‘Thomas Clarkson was riding back to London from Liverpool’, where he had been interviewing the crews of slave trade ships. He had been ‘collecting true horror stories from them’. In Liverpool, he was physically attacked.

In Manchester Clarkson ‘was asked to speak on the subject of abolitionism. He was by no means an experienced public speaker. But he’d studied theology […] The church was packed. And in the congregation he counted some 40 or 50 Africans. At that moment a whole new species of political campaigning was born.’

What this detail shows is that it was not in any way obvious to Quakers who preached universal love and vegetarianism that African slaves should be freed. They had done well from maritime trading that was inextricably tied up with slaving and indeed many were slave owners.

Benjamin Lay was not welcomed by many Quakers and it took years for the cause of abolitionism to become ‘common sense’. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries dissenter Christian sects were many and the practice of exile was widespread.

Quakers, Methodists and other groups sailed to be free to practice in the new world, a world ironically lit up by the French Revolution’s ‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite‘ and, in many cases, slave ownership.

So what? If the things Lay said were not sensible in their time, it is not because he was a madman drooling at the fringes of reason, it is because he was expanding the boundaries of that reason. Here are the best dimensions of the Abrahamic faiths: Their sheer openness to radical absolutes. But the Abrahamic faiths are so often much less than this.

This book is a great addition to both a theological and leftwing library. It it detailed and engagingly written, it will appeal to scholars of the era as well as to the interested reader.

– Steve Hanson

Footprints in the Snow

Han Kang – The White Book (Portobello Books, 2017)

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Nonsense! Books are physical objects. Things to be experienced. That a writer should leave a book’s design to chance, or worse, a half-conscious set of inherited expectations, strikes me as carelessness.

That isn’t to say that every writer should be considering presentation from the moment of conception, but when a book comes along to which this level of thought has been put, one can’t help but take a moment to appreciate it.

Han Kang’s The White Book is the novel to which I’m alluding. It is a novel about a woman reflecting on life’s poignant moments and its presentation – stark white with short paragraphs like footprints through snow – invites a mood of reflection before one has even read the first page. We are addressed by the narrator, who begins her story by listing white things: ‘swaddling bands, newborn gown, salt, snow, ice…’.

We find she has moved from Korea to a ‘town with white walls’ in the Mediterranean. From here she imagines her mother who, lost in a snowstorm deep in their rural homeland, gave birth to a stillborn child.

Her mother told her the baby was as white as a ricecake. From here the colour white enters, and then recurs, recurs, recurs, at times clever, at times surprising, at times heartbreaking, until the close of the book. As the book moves forward in short, self-contained sections it is tempting to compare it to poetry. The use of the poetic moment, deep but without obvious metaphor, is most closely associated with haiku (particularly Basho).

But this is nevertheless a rigidly structured novel. Each step forward in the narrative is subtly announced beforehand, a catalogue of white imagery interlaces disparate sections, tying together moments across time. The recurrence itself is accounted for, becoming a metaphor for memories whose emotion fades more with each remembering. The translation by Deborah Smith is itself a thing of subtle beauty.

Some Korean words appear, couched naturally in context, as do some translated phrases – ‘laughing whitely’, for example – which draw attention to themselves as curiosities of language to be commented on. The unjustified text and short sentences complement the sense of the writing as a fragile thing. Small marks stamped black on a white page, the whiteness threatening to swallow it all up.

White is not a colour, it is an absence of colour, and The White Book is made, in a similar paradox, of words defined by their silences. The sparing black on the tundra of white pages, the scattering of moments which rely on white images to connect them together; all of it seems to suggest our continued desire for language to communicate in the face of its impossibility.

The use of traditional imagery reinforces this; snow, the sea, birdsong, all carefully deployed to invoke the poetic while avoiding cliché. Trying to say something about the unsayable, again.

We are wandering on, leaving footprints in snow, as more and more snow seems to fall. It’s difficult to review a book like this other than to admire its power and the wholeness of its vision.

The White Book represents a significant achievement in the area of book-as-experience. Everyone who picks up this book will get something out of it, but people who read a lot of novels will, I think, adore it. There is nothing careless about this book. It commands the whole attention. It is a book which realises that reading too is an art form.

– Joe Darlington

Terse Wisdom

Wiley – Eskiboy (Heinemann/Penguin)

This book looks like a biography. A big, Christmas or birthday present biography. It is solid, it has the name of a star written across the front of its glossy dust jacket in Helvetica bold and a striking, masculine portrait. It could be the ghost written biography of a footballer.

It couldn’t be further from one. The first thing Wiley says is that he hates biographies.

The writing is terse. Matter-of-fact statements which belie a great deal of depth and understanding. You can hear him speaking, like you can hear Miles speaking in his autobiography, but Wiley is rooted, and there is warmth.

This book has two poles. At one pole it is straightforward, ‘keeping it real’, or whatever label you want to put on that from the culture. At the other pole, the book structure works like a prism. We see key figures in the story of Wiley’s life move from Kent to London and back, but we see them do this through different eyes. Producers, family, friends, crew members. Wiley himself is at least three different people, Richard Cowie, Kylea, Wiley…

Hackney, Shoreditch, Canary Wharf, Tower Hamlets and Bow. Rinse FM and other pirates, mandem, Roll Deep Crew, Dizzee Rascal. These are all faces of the prism. But it is the story that could be about anyone that is the most honestly told and vital:

‘In my generation no-one knows what they’re doing. Our parents parents were different – they came from the West Indies to England to work. They just had to be on point.’

In some ways, then, this is everyone’s story, the big story Zygmunt Bauman writes about: The hell of choice. But this is also just the story of some. Estate kids. Black kids. Those with the odds stacked high against them. Wiley cites crack cocaine in the 80s as a big breaker of communities: ‘All kinds of fuckeries’, he says, and he doesn’t need to say more than that. Four words. See how much he shifts by not messing around with it.

Wiley’s mum’s brother was murdered in an argument and they all moved to Kent. In Kent, they experienced racism. His sister came home from school having been called a ‘Paki’ by an Indian boy. We somehow get all the geographical relations of white flight and the strange disorientation of moving from city to country, London to Kent, in just a couple of pages.

The book covers early days early on, and recent times later on, but aside from this generalism it is essentially non-linear. There are interludes in interview form. As though this bloke Richard Cowie has asked people he knows about this character Wiley, becoming a journalist in his own life.

There are poetical interludes. As Linton Kwesi Johnson says, this is where poetry is in Britain, UK hip hop, grime, dubstep. This is also where the prophetic tradition that the first wave of incomers brought with them has gone. It was always a partly colonial prophetic tradition. Is it a coincidence that Roots Manuva – Rodney Smith – was brought up by a poor tailor and preacher? No. There is a tangible line across generations:

‘The hardships and struggles at that time were the usual struggles: money, the streets. Even then, not really being safe. People hustling. There were still people trying to lean on you for whatever reason.’

It could be Curtis Mayfield, it could be Eldridge Cleaver or Bobby Seale, it has their directness and hard won wisdom. Like them, Wiley understands the old ways of channelling different impulses:

‘Back then, I realised quickly that a loss is sometimes just a loss. If you’re caught up in any violence or drama, you think that if you take a loss, you have to go out and get a win. That’s the way the world is. But sometimes you have to let it go. Use the energy you have for revenge and channel it into something you enjoy doing. That energy can be cold like ice, and people can get hurt. You just say, “No I am not having it”, and people go to jail, or people get killed. Or the energy can be hot, and you can succeed. That energy can take you all the way to the top. Don’t move backwards, move forwards. Get on with life. Literally I found a way to use the energy I had productively.’

But as you can see this isn’t some indulgent journey of self-creation, not for the people from those estates. This is survive and thrive or die. The usual routes out are here for black youth: football; music; it’s the same story that goes back to the thirties, to America, boxing and other activities, or selling drugs. School is explained as a stark binary, exams, university, or ‘other’, and there’s a heaviness about taking the path to ‘other’:

‘Every boy when he goes into the world has to find his own path. People show you stuff, both good and bad, and you need to decide what to do and what not to do. I was very lucky not to go to prison. I knew what drugs were before I got into the game. There is a lot of money in drugs. Anyone who goes into it will find it hard to come out, because of the money. That’s why people end up in prison. The risks go up as the money goes up. But drugs are not good, and that’s it. Don’t take drugs. Trust me.’

These are things that people who haven’t lived it only know – if we’re really honest – because they happen to have watched The Wire:

‘Streets are crazy. No matter how bad you are, you can’t avoid it. There are no rules. There is no ring, no boxing gloves. It’s more dangerous than anything. You can get shot, stabbed, hit with a hammer. Anything. Not just London, either. Anywhere.’

There is a moment, where the future could be drugs, and he surges into music. You can’t do both, he says. He talks of his dad, a stable presence, of good parenting, being surrounded by great music. The roots in jazz are chatted through – and punk actually – through to Smiley Culture and Tippa Irie, through to Jungle in 1995 and 1996 and he’s waking up.

Wiley minutes the realisation – a delicious moment – that with Jungle their accents were now allowed, ‘a London someting rasta’, and on it goes, Bashment, Grime, Dubstep:

‘When it started Grime was a young black man’s punk rock’ Wiley explains. ‘The grime nationality is rude boy, now. And anyone can be a rude boy, you get me. It’s not just for black kids any more. It’s for everyone: black kids, white kids, Indian kids, Turkish kids, Moroccan kids. It’s a release.’

On one level, this book does everything those who arrive at it with expectations will want: Rinse and the pirates; clashes and dissing Kano; Dizzee.

But it has many other layers, it does such a lot more, and it never breaks with its straightforward style while doing it. It combines the most economical talk with a non-linear, prismatic structure.

It isn’t Ulysses, but it doesn’t have the clichéd symphonic rise and triumphant end section of the usual biographies. Towards the end, we find Wiley in a panic as a motorcyclist looks as though he’s going to shoot him, a vignette that shows fame doesn’t bring serenity. But we also find him creating in real time, every day, spitting into his iPhone, hundreds of recordings, sketchbooks becoming bigger things.

This book is a snapshot of the early twenty-first century. It tells you what it is to live precariously. Everyone lives precariously now, but some, as Orwell might have said, more so than others. It is about not being risk averse, although in a context where you either make yourself buoyant or you drown. It moves from poverty to excess. It is the story of a journey through everyday multiculture, generational cliffs and British class. But it is also about London black history, the river and the routes back to the Indies, to the Caribbean.

Everyone should read this – and it arrives right at the moment we need it most – just when the island appears to be turning inwards and moving backwards, this book shows you how to turn your heart outwards and move forwards.

– Steve Hanson

Cold Comfort

Fleur Jaeggy (translated by Gini Alhadeff) – I Am the Brother of XX and Other Stories (W.W. Norton & Company, 2017)

In an interview conducted for TANK Magazine, interviewer Claudia Steinberg questions the Swiss author Fleur Jeaggy on the choice of narrative technique for her biographical work, ‘Three Possible Lives.’ Jaeggy responds, ‘I would prefer to tell you that I own a Hermes typewriter.’ She follows this with a brief description of the typewriter.

When Steinberg muses on ‘silence’ as a theme in Jaeggy’s writing, Jaeggy offers in return an account of her friendship with a swan, a friendship made a number of years ago.

The swan, which she named Erich, was a resident of a pond in Berlin. Jaeggy had been staying in an apartment near to the pond.  ‘A good friend,’ she remembers of Erich, before she describes strolling, with Erich waddling beside her, around the pond water.

The interview concludes with Jaeggy remarking, ‘We have talked very much. I hope there will be far fewer words in the magazine. Promise to mention Erich, and then say close to nothing.’

The interview, a rare thing for Jaeggy, was conducted on the occasion of publication of ‘I Am the Brother of XX.’ This is her latest collection of short stories, translated from Italian by Gini Alhadeff.

Throughout the interview, Jaeggy resists Steinberg’s efforts to elicit explanations of her peculiar prose. She swerves questions pertaining to craft, literary influences and formative childhood experiences. Above the interview text on the TANK Magazine website is a black and white photograph of Jaeggy. She has neatly bobbed hair and a thin smile.

I first encountered Jaeggy’s work on the website of literary magazine, The Paris Review. Her short story ‘Agnes,’ was published there last spring. Like many of the stories included in the collection, ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ of which it is a part, ‘Agnes’ is concerned largely with death and madness.

The narrator of the story, a jilted lover, details the fallout of an infatuation. Of the stories I read that lunchtime at work, sat listlessly before my computer, it is ‘Agnes’ that I remember very clearly. I was struck by Jaeggy’s written style. Her sentences are so terse and sharp it is like they have been spat out.

The story has a strange structure. The narrator breaks off abruptly from one train of thought before beginning on another, apparently disconnected, thread. Past events are depicted in brief, bizarre flashes. Characters appear unintroduced, except by name, and are quickly discarded. It has a disorientating effect. It is a superb piece.

The stories included in ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ are also expertly, and peculiarly, composed. It is a collection of almost unremitting bleakness, both in setting and plot. The stories are situated in isolated places; a decrepit castle, a snowed under village, a mountain-top boarding school surrounded by boulders, a massive, suspended bird cage. 

Death looms large. Whether one takes place, has taken place, or a character is pre-occupied by the thought it.

The depressed, heavily sedated narrator of the title story, ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ recalls, ‘once when I was eight years old my grandmother asked me, ‘what will you do when you grow up?’ And I answered, I want to die.’

Characters are described as having ‘cold’ and ‘dead’, ‘blank’ and ’empty’ eyes, a, sometimes laboured, intimation as to their inner states. Relationships are antagonistic. Denouements are brutal. Jaeggy recounts the fates of her characters very coolly.

Flowers have been placed on the coffin… a flowery meadow on our mothers’ skull,’ remarks one character observing his mother’s funeral. 

In the aforementioned interview for TANK magazine, Jaeggy remarks that she dislikes ‘effusion.’ Her descriptions and observations, indeed, are very precise. 

The narrator of the story, ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ recalls of his stylish, disaffected-seeming sister, ‘She was saying she liked solitude. Meanwhile she was going out every night, coming back late, her mascara smudged.’

In one of the collection’s best stories, ‘The Black Veil,’ the narrator chances upon an old photograph of her mother. The photograph shows her, now deceased, mother at an audience with the Pope. She has a ‘desperate, depressed’ look in her eyes. For the daughter, the idea that her elegant, composed mother might have been ‘desperate’, is as startling as punch in the face. Jaeggy conveys this brilliantly.

Jaeggy writes reverently of her famed writer friends Ingrid Bachman, Oliver Sacks and Josef Brodsky. She writes warmly of animals. In the story, ‘Encounter in the Bronx,’ the narrator, dining out with two companions, describes feeling a sense of kinship with a kind eyed fish gliding about the restaurant aquarium. It is the kind of easy friendship that might have existed between Jaeggy and swan.

Such moments of relief are brief, however.

How unfortunate, the narrator reflects, that at any moment the fish will be fetched, killed and made into a meal.

– Abby Kearney


‘Promise to mention Erich and then say close to nothing,’ Fleur Jaeggy interview with Claudia Steinberg, Tank Magazine, The Book Issue, Summer 2017

‘Agnes’ by Fleur Jaeggy, The Paris Review, Issue 220, Spring 2017

Map Ref. 418-419

Neil Astley (ed.) – Land of Three Rivers, the poetry of north-east England (Bloodaxe, 2017)

Vin Garbutt is first up in this collection. Just that fact alone makes me love this anthology. I am a sucker for books it is possible to live one’s life in and here is another one. The surface of this collection covers the territories of the northeast. It carves it up by area, its contents are a kind of metapoem of the northeast: County Durham, Teesdale, Middlesborough, Cleveland, Farewell… 

Take a moment to leaf through. Open it randomly, as I did, to find the double page spread formed by 418 and 419. Geographical co-ordinates with a deep valley between them. 418 is a hymn to the A184 by Jake Campbell – there is poetry in the numbers alone – it was written in 2017, and 419 contains a twelfth century description of Durham in verse. A thousand years falls into the fold between the pages…

This book is a map, but don’t mention the ‘p’ word. There is no need to be so pretentious as to pull that word ‘psychogeography’ in here. It has been dragged about until it looks like a filthy rag. Throw it out and leave it there. But something must be said about the curating, editing, selection, production – call it what you will – of this book. It runs across pages, down columns, along roads, down rivers and into parallel centuries. It runs through biographies, Auden, Basil Bunting, Garbutt. Did I mention Vin Garbutt?

Tom Pickard is here. Tony Harrison is here too. Jimmy Nail is here! And Mark Knopfler, with the lyrics from ‘Tunnel of Love’, which is not just a picture of a place, but of time in that place, of a whole generation’s experiences, of a particular class, in the north.

What’s the matter with you? Have you heard the soundtrack to Local Hero? Forget your prejudices and open your heart to this book. Its contents pages crack the horrible slablike thingness of ‘the northeast’, a term that takes so much difference and richness and seals it into a cold fossil of prejudice. This book then explodes the term completely. Taking us to the Roman Empire via Hadrian’s Wall. Housesteads, Vindolanda. The Roman goddess Diana, of the hunt, of the moon, of nature, who freezes her features off in a poem by Gareth Reeves from 1984.

But this book is warm, body temperature to be exact, it is about life. There is ‘donner meat and chips’ and Jarrow, but this book never rests in the clichéd afterimage of the northeast. The cold shoots right through, to be sure, but the warmth always wins. Visitor Fred D’Aguiar’s ‘Sonnets From Whitley Bay’ wakes up, shakes up, we ‘hot up instantly like a four bar blues’, by B.B. King or Muddy Waters.

If you have any interest in this island of Britain, in its politics, its idiotic bloody class nonsense, its stupidly tolerant people, still tolerant of even worse idiocy, of the machinations of lazy fat Lotharios straight out of a Gillray, buy this book and learn to love again.

If you are going there, don’t buy a guide, buy this. If you never intend to go there, buy only this. You can’t get farther on just short of fifteen quid any other way.

– Steve Hanson

Devils and Details

Claire Potter – Round That Way (MA Bibliotheque)

The first piece here is a close reading of a YouTube performance by chavscumboss which demonstrates and understands the temperature of the work: Potter manages to convey the performed masculinity and the classed conditions of the artist’s practice just via descriptions of the backdrop and other details. It unspools like a parallel piece rather than a commentary, as though it were written live. Performance and poetry, their temporalities, are a big part of Potter’s work I sense.

Potter understands atmospheres and temperatures too, particularly at her readings. I saw her in Manchester, at one of the Other Room events. She dressed provocatively, read on her knees, reading words she had crossed out, in a kind of punishment-reward relationship with her own writing: It is clearly about power, but it achieves potency through exploring that. I wanted to shout ‘go on!’ but something had been conjured before me and the air was gob-stopper thick.

The second piece here is about a housefire, and having experienced one myself, but also a flood, in the town where Potter now lives, I saw how – television now off – people gather in the street to look, but it takes a disaster for them to do this. It takes a catastrophe that switches off the electricity for them to turn their backs on the television, come out and actually speak to each other. The plague of locusts is next. I wonder if she has an unpublished piece on that somewhere.

Again though, the details of this piece move the mountains. Potter has an acute eye and a scalpel-like ability to convey what she has seen through taut description. Sharp tongued. Unsentimental.

One part of the second piece describes – I think – Potter’s father and the Page 3 girls pinned up in the mechanics garage where he worked. I watched Potter perform this at another Manchester poetry night called Peter Barlow’s Cigarette, but interspersed with other pieces. It seems that when she reads, she picks up elements from her archives, sutures them into new pieces, improvises with composed sections. This pragmatic approach is refreshing. Not over-precious, it is work.

‘Dominique’, 19, ‘from Wapping’, leers out of the poem, just as the mechanic in his garage leers in, these girls, the stark fact that Wapping is the place where the newspapers are printed, it becomes an unfact, then a cheap lie, transmitted through sheer laziness, a lie that is somehow more brazen and more shameful than the supposed brazenness of the images, impossibly tidy, clinically hairless, smooth.

There is something about this line and the descriptions from the chavscumboss video that then connect, come full circle, expose the way class can be both detected in the details, but also how it operates through those details. Here lies the power of this work.


Reed Tucker – Slugfest (Da Capo, 2017)

Marvel and DC Comics have had a rivalry that goes back over half a decade. DC ruled the industry in the late 1950s, but in the early 1960s Marvel gave Stan Lee a break with Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four, who made their debut in 1960. DC was slow to see what was coming. At that point, Marvel operated from a tiny premises, DC from an uptown space.

DC could not understand who would read dialogues between Spider Man‘s alter ego Peter Parker and his grandma, and in this they dismissed Marvel as a threat, but in doing so they also missed the way in which the rites of passage of teenagers were and still are being articulated via masked heroes. In this sense, the whole teenage revolution, the cultural swelling of the baby boomers, was beyond them. Sales began to fall.

Of course, for many, this story will be read backwards, back down through the 1990s and late 1980s, via Frank Miller, through Alan Moore’s simultaneous revival and reinvention – this time via DC – of the masked hero as ordinary, flawed, and sometimes a bit kinky, which was something of a challenge to the Comics Code in America, a Mary Whitehouse-esque quango for more Christian values, which in fact the dissenters served much more effectively than The Crusaders. This story is also told well.

Reed Tucker’s book is engagingly written and focusses on the sales, adaptations and shifts in the narratives of the two superpowers of the superheroes, Marvel and DC.

However, all the way through it tipped me into considering the cultural aspects of the work of these two publishing titans, a consideration that is well beyond the brief of the book, but those aspects occasionally glow through its Kryptonite framework.

But here, my review of Reed Tucker’s rewarding book effectively ends.

When I interviewed Alan Moore in 1996 he recounted a meeting with a DC bigwig: ‘Alan you’re the worst mistake I ever made’ he said to him. Moore chuckled, explaining that people spoke their own prophecies, ventriloquised their own future. He even cited Brian Jones shortly before his death, saying ‘I can’t really see much of a future…’ Of course Alan really was the biggest mistake he ever made, changing the game for ever and being totally uncontrollable, certainly by such earthly concerns as money and power.

We suddenly felt as though we were caught in an outtake from Nic Roeg’s Performance. It is no coincidence that Alan is a kind of occult mythologer, and that some of these heroes, for instance The Mighty Thor and his nemesis the evil trickster hero Loki are from Icelandic myths and other world stories. DC seemed to miss the more fully primal functions of this derided genre in the 1980s and 1990s too.

Some examples are perhaps needed. If we take the origin myth of The Mandarin, invented under the Marvel logo, we see an oriental peasant stumbling on extra-terrestrial technology, in the form of a UFO, before taking it away. You may remember there are 10 ‘rings of power’ in Lord of the Rings. They are also present here in the form of 10 rings of energy. They include a black light ring. The Emperor Ming character in Flash Gordon closely resembles the Mandarin, and he also sports a controlling ring. So Wagner is also at play here, a subtext, as that’s where Tolkien took the rings of power from.

Break out the Adorno, you know where it leads…

The origin myth is a regular organ of both the Marvel and DC Universes, but we can track the Mandarin back even further, as a kind of cultural quotation, to Fu Manchu, and then forwards to Chairman Mao, then Warhol’s Mao, already a cartoon on one level, drained of its historical significance and then re-filled, by Warhol, with surplus-value.

Warhol blurs the idea of nation in his Mao portrait, but these Marvel cartoons are the direct opposite, being encrypted with chest-beating nationalist ideologies. In ‘Mandarin’s Revenge’ – episode 1 of the animated series – Iron Man’s alter ego, Tony Stark, is not only an industrialist, but an arms manufacturer, who has regular dealings with the Pentagon.

The Mandarin steals Western, American, cutting-edge technology ‘for himself’, or rather China, in the form of Tony Stark’s missiles for the US government. The internal monologues often take the form of patriotic, personal reflections which are all united by their form as confessional testimonials to ‘right’, Iron Man proclaims:

‘If this is to be my finish, I’ll show that nothing can shatter the faith of a man who fights for freedom…’

At one point the Mandarin appears, three times his natural size, ‘I don’t know how you did it mister, but size doesn’t impress me’, Iron Man exclaims. The Chinese are usually smaller than westerners. The multiple Mandarin is next, identical foes. This section is inherently racist, representing the Chinese as ‘looking the same’, but it goes further, they are cast as the ugly crowd, the threatening, unknown and unknowable masses, with their ‘other’ ideologies. The Mandarin’s morphing identities turn out to be a trick of mirrors, only one among many other techniques of illusion.

In the fictions of the Victorian era, ‘the Chinaman is treacherous’, something Alan Moore plays upon in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The trickster figure is also present here, as in other anti-heroes, for instance Loki and The Joker. Loki though, was traditionally a kind of ‘trickster-hero’. Again, Loki can be tracked back to Medieval Iceland, then forwards, through Victorian engravings, and on into the ‘modern’ era.

What I love is being able to read trashy comics and watch cartoons and ponder the decline of industrialism and the state of the west as China rises globally – all at the same time. We can see similar dimensions by examining The Thing. Now we have a description of the rivalries between the two main ‘temples’ in this book to add to it all, although it is only fair to say that next to nothing of what I have written here can be found in the book.

To put it bluntly, race, class and gender are not strong points. Another example. The Thing was one of The Fantastic Four. The story of The Thing’s origins have altered over the years, across different versions of the tale – like gods, really – but the first myth is a classed one. Before he became The Thing, Ben Grimm was brought up poor on Yancy Street and started out as a professional wrestler, moving into this from life as a tough Jewish street kid, running gangs. White working class American narratives ghost the story of The Thing, which is modelled on Jack Kirby’s upbringing on Delancey Street, New York. The story comes on like a kind of graphic, hyper-imaginative Studs Terkel. Grimm wins a scholarship to high school – through football of course – and meets the man who becomes Dr Doom, among others, who is a kind of evil scientist and corporate player.

There is lots to write on Dr Doom and the way he signifies, but that’s for another piece.

With The Thing, the territorial raw power and rage of the lower classes is always either fully present or lurking, the excessive musculature is associated with manual labour, boxing and wrestling, but it is an implicitly white working class story. Various romantic interests also map class stigma back onto The Thing, he is never ‘good enough’, his lack of self worth is given tangible form in his aesthetic ugliness, reflected back at him from society every day, in screams of terror.

‘The Thing’ isn’t ambiguous as a name, it suggests the monstrous unknown, and again a fear of one from the ‘ugly crowd’. Eileen Yeo and E.P. Thompson’s 1971 re-examination of Mayhew’s writing reveals that privilege-guilt and fear of the masses were unconscious drives operating in the nineteenth century ‘philanthropist’ psyche. This is underscored by the work of Freud as the twentieth century unfolded. Disgust, and more subtle forms of class stigmatisation, can also be found in the writings of Charles Booth and Beatrice Webb.

This nineteenth century reading isn’t tenuous at all, both The Thing and The Incredible Hulk follow Jekyll and Hyde as split personalities, a latency which is forced to fully emerge in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s creation of a very Thing-like Jekyll and Hyde for their League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which was even further exaggerated in the film version.

Again, Moore treats these things no differently to gods from classical mythology, they are language, they are cultural, the gods, says Moore – or at least he said this to us in 1996 – ‘inarguably exist in the mind’, and they morph into one another and broadcast across eras, beyond the lives of their mortal creators. Moore also writes in a love interest with Mina Harker, a posh Victorian girl, which underlines the class discourse. Harker has migrated from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and is equally double sided, her vampire story standing in for repressed sexual drives.

The Jekyll and Hyde comparison also shores up the class reading, particularly the spatial–urban aspects. The classic Victorian clean and ‘respectable’ house frontage, which conceals poverty, crime and darkness, at the rear, is readable in Jekyll and Hyde, something Engels picked up in Manchester, which has been seen as a proto-Chicago School city model.

Of course, this maps back on to Jekyll and Hyde, The Hulk and The Thing, in that they are all utterly split, like the Victorian city was split, and these things may or may not be possible without Freud’s reading of the splitting of the psychic functions into different layers and compartments and Marx and Marxism’s understanding of money’s side-effect, its symptom of dividing social relations by reducing them to a cash payment:

‘Just as Hyde is the disreputable element masked by Jekyll’s respectable exterior, so too does Hyde’s home in Soho itself become the hidden site of squalid degeneracy amidst the wealth and privilege of London’s West End […] Jekyll’s house mirrors the layout of the city in which poverty existed in tandem with wealth but remained carefully concealed from view.’*

Much later, The Thing/Ben Grimm goes back to Yancy Street to build a community centre, entering into conflict with the Yancy Street gang over their graffiti writing, updating the spatial-urban reading. If these are our gods or heroes, then they are the gods of modernity, delivering the modern myths of the urban spaces the modern human subject inhabits.

Again, none of this is in the book under review. Just as Jim Carrey in The Mask wore zoot suits and thus became a metaphor for a kind of racialized, performative, urban otherness, these myths are created, in late capitalism, as ‘entertainments’, sold for profit and Tucker tells that side of the story.

The way the ideas are sometimes latent before they physically manifest is also interesting. The Thing was transformed into the shape you see via a rocket trip to the moon, before any manned space flights had taken place. His transformation occurs, like many superheroes, through one of the high magics of our age, atomic radiation. His new form is barren, like a dried out desert, the inverse of fertile, often a term associated with femininity. His skin looks like a difficult to survive on surface, teasing out the stamina required by his circumstances.

He is a nationalist trope, as most superheroes are. In earlier comics he went to spy on the Russians. In a more recent Fantastic Four film he saves motorists on a bridge from certain death and is applauded by firemen, shortly after 9/11, who are effectively applauding themselves. Its function is inevitably patriotic, operating through the masculine, heroicized and classed cultural quotation of The Thing ‘saving the day’.

Yet there is also an inversion in casting The Thing’s brute strength as a force of destruction for the good, rather than a force of provision and creation. There is a kind of unconscious giving with one hand and taking away with the other at play. The bridge and wider landscape in this scene also signify, Lewis Hine’s portraits of workers on the Empire State come to mind, yet the use of firemen re-directs us to workers as the rough-but-good technicians of disaster, which the firemen are, and The Thing is, rather than the working classes as the builders of America.

Of course there is an implied foreign enemy in all of this too, then Al-Quaeda, now Isis, but The Fanatastic Four film usefully blurs this with Dr Doom’s scientific-corporate machinations.

Some of this ghosted knowledge is intentional, as signification is made, put in by the script writers, designers, the director, the cinematographer, but some of it operates unconsciously. Fredric Jameson’s project, particularly in what he calls the ‘political unconscious’, is to unmask that where it operates. Of course, this lays him open to accusations of reading-into, rather than analysis, but I don’t think that holds. When Jameson reads, for instance, Ursula Le Guin, he maps it onto contemporary work cultures, because that’s where it’s ‘taken from’, as he sees it. It isn’t about some futurescape, it’s about now, and that’s what makes it so exciting. When he reads fear of ‘the masses’ of the third world in Le Guin, these things are sort of there and not there, at the surface of the text.

All of which is a very long winded way of saying that Reed Tucker’s book is great, but for me, the fecund life of the mind that comic books give me has to be filled in on that mindscape. I similarly suspect, through Reed Tucker’s book, that many of the subtler dimensions of these works of literature were created under the noses of the managers rather than in front of them, if not semi-consciously by the writers and artists.

Ultimately though, whatever nuanced alternatives you bring, The Thing is a hero because he has sustained an image of total masculinity for over fifty years, in nothing but a pair of powder blue underpants. It is almost as amazing to find that these delicate webs of meaning were produced by men who might otherwise have been insurance executives.

– Steve Hanson


* Coverley (2005) London Writing. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials