Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way

Miranda Doyle – A Book of Untruths: A Memoir (Faber & Faber 2017)

Miranda Doyle’s ‘A Book of Untruths’ is subtitled ‘A Memoir’. In many ways, it shares key characteristics with this familiar genre – it begins in childhood and progresses through school and early adulthood (Doyle’s accounts of her miserable schooldays, by themselves, make a valuable contribution to a body of work on the privations of boarding school; one of the most notable comparisons it invites for me is Roald Dahl’s classic memoir ‘Boy’).

It explores fractious family relationships and issues such as adoption, infidelity, illness, grief and divorce, alongside bigger issues of gender, power, identity and class. It questions the role of institutions such as the church, schools and marriage in our lives, and the place of social mores and prejudices in perpetuating their more negative elements.

It takes skill to craft something new and relevant out of familiar and universal experiences such as these, but Doyle’s memoir had me hooked from start to finish.

Her family – like all families – is dysfunctional in its own unique way, but Doyle’s words place us there, in her memories and experiences. Powerful emotional responses to fear, indignity and injustice resonate through the pages, still as strongly felt as decades ago when they occurred. Richly observed period details of 1960s and 1970s Britain, together with family photographs, further serve to bring Doyle’s words to life.

Where ‘A Book of Untruths’ diverges from the conventional memoir is in recurrent sections analysing what it means to tell our life story, incorporating aspects of psychology, science, social research and history, which punctuate and illuminate the main narrative.

Doyle raises questions about what it means to tell the truth about ourselves, our past, and our relationships with those in it – truths which, we are reminded, often depend on who is doing the telling, and who is listening. In writing her perspective on these events, it seems like Doyle is seeking to understand the motivations of those people who surround and influence us from an early age, those relationships and experiences that shape us and turn us into who we are, and how our thoughts and actions live on through others’ perceptions and memoires of us once we are gone.

Of course, the book isn’t just a memoir of Doyle; it tells the stories of her parents and her siblings, too (or Doyle’s version of them) – how could it not?

One of the aspects of the book that both gave me a jolt, and resonated with me the most, was Doyle’s matter-of-fact, unflinching descriptions of sexual assault, the positions of influence held by the men who perpetrated them, and the situations in which they came to take place.

I read ‘A Book of Untruths’ some months ago, yet in these times, when the population is only just beginning to wake up to the prevalence of harassment and abuse as part of women’s everyday lives, Doyle’s experiences, and the ways in which she has told, contextualised and reacted to them, have often returned to my thoughts.

‘A Book of Untruths’ shows that there is scope yet for the rediscovery and development of an old form, the memoir. For those whose interest is piqued as much as mine was, there is also a dedicated website (www.bookofuntruths.com) to further explore the series of ‘lies’ around which the book is structured.

– Natalie Bradbury


Shake it Like a…

Peter Buse – The Camera Does the Rest, How Polaroid Changed Photography (University of Chicago Press)

‘Every photographic print is a material object, but a Polaroid is somehow more so’. Such is the rationale for Peter Buse’s latest book; a study in the cultural history of Polaroids.

Even the term, ‘Polaroids’, distinguishes the products of this iconic company from other images (whether on film or digital). One wouldn’t refer to a cherished Fuji, or a secret stash of intimate Kodaks. Polaroids are something different.

At the heart of Buse’s study is the quintessential Polaroid, or lack of one. Rather, each generation experiences the very concept of the Polaroid anew. The first Polaroid film, released in the 1940s, introduced the world to automatically developing images and for a short while represented a luxury item. As Polaroid developed new technologies this luxury image was retained for its initial releases.

Land cameras found their way into the hands of movie stars, U.S. Presidents and, most influentially, Ansel Adams.

The world’s first inexpensive ‘instant camera’, the Polaroid Swinger, appeared in the 1960s. As the process produced no negative from which to make copies, and made darkroom skills redundant, the world of professional photography was immediately sceptical. Instead the Polaroid marketing department emphasised the fun of photography, targeting young women in particular as a market alienated by the technophile photographic elite.

The release of the SX-70 consolidated the company’s reputation for making party cameras. The SX-70 introduced the automated roller, pushing the photograph out directly towards the photographed. Rather than the private pursuit of the photographer, Buse argues, Polaroid’s cameras after the SX-70 turned photography into a social activity, a special event, something that’s fun to do, something to break the ice; a common practice being to give the photo to the sitter rather than have the taker keep them for themselves.

Contra-Sontag, Buse argues the memorial value of these photographs is a secondary characteristic. Polaroids were hardly Barthes’ memento mori, they were Instagram before the internet. The mythology of the Polaroid supports this interpretation and, according to Buse, the mythology is indeed largely mythical.

Other than the asymmetrical white borders (the bottom border being larger to house the ‘bubble’ of chemicals necessary for instant developing) the rest of Polaroid’s supposedly unique qualities were either untrue or shared with their competitors.

‘The film quality was terrible but more loveable as a result’, is a common presumption, ‘the image was wet and needed to be shaken dry or stuck under an armpit, that the colours of the film were highly saturated, and of course, that the images soon faded away’. In fact, a scientific comparison found Polaroids to be of comparable image quality with competing non-instant film, and they had similar levels of saturation.

Salesmen were so frustrated by the fading myth that they’d cellotape a Polaroid onto a window directly facing the sun and stick a Kodak photo next to it. Within a week this would allow their clients to compare the fading themselves, with Kodak always fading faster.

The myth of fading can be attributed to the Polaroid’s reputation for fun, ie/ a lack of seriousness and a lack of permanence. As much as this reputation was fostered by the company there was also a simultaneous effort to win over the world of high art.

Ansel Adams was part of this movement; acting as a consultant to the company from 1961. His work in Polaroid appeared regularly in avant garde magazines like Aperture along with essays on the pedagogical potential of instant film. Polaroid cameras might be used for fun, these essays argued, but they were far from being mere toys.

Dr David Land, the famed inventor behind Polaroid, shared these aspirations, albeit with a populist’s focus on showmanship. Buse returns to the enigmatic Land on a number of occasions, most compellingly when discussing his annual general meeting appearances. Buse gives the impression of Land as a proto-Steve Jobs, lecturing his engineers, sales teams and investors alike on colour theory and Bergsonian philosophy between product releases.

‘In 1971’ Buse describes, ‘Land stood on stage and pulled a closed SX-70 prototype camera out of his suitcoat and showed it to the audience without explaining what it was except to suggest that [it] would be disclosed at some future date’.

By the 1980s the Polaroid AGM came complete with circus animals, live musicians and, in 1986, a building-sized replica of the Spectra System camera: The Camera Does the Rest is filled with fascinating insights like these. It provides a thorough overview of Polaroid’s history without the wearying detail which might come of a comprehensive study. It contains vital theoretical insights not only about photography but about the history of technology, memory and nostalgia. It is compelling written, an entertaining read and a case study in how to do cultural studies properly.

As a reader from the post-Polaroid generation I was particularly interested in the section regarding contemporary hipsterdom’s relationship with Polaroid. The Impossible Project, who now manufacture Polaroid-eque film for sale online, are often considered to be pandering to nostalgia or else harbouring an obtuse attachment to obsolete technology.

Especially perplexing are those too young to have purchased film from Polaroid, who ceased production in 2008, and yet purchase replica film today at around $3 a photo. Polaroid’s materiality, Buse argues, has come to signify materiality itself. And materiality, in an era of the all-pervasive digital, is now a valuable commodity.

Misguided or not, the book makes one thing is clear; these neo-Polaroids are simply the next iteration of a form which has traversed the artistic, the popular and occasionally the seedy on its journey to becoming iconic.

– Joe Darlington

The Lost City of Punk

John Doe with Tom DeSavia and Friends – Under the Big Black Sun, a Personal History of L.A. Punk (Da Capo Press 2016)

This is a wonderful multi-authored book not just about what turned out to be a key time in this music scene but with much wider resonance about invention, community and eventual dispersion and recuperation.

The recounting here, which can touch any music fan, is concerted by John Doe of X who pointedly dismisses some stereotypes, starting with three chords.

I have remained an admirer of X since I bought their second LP, Wild Gift, partly sold to me by its cover. I later bought the first, Los Angeles, which includes the track ‘The World’s a Mess It’s In My Kiss’, with Ray Manzarek of The Doors on keyboard.

Thanks to this book – and Discogs – I now have a copy of The Plugz and The Minutemen albums.

From the Foreword by Billie Joe Armstrong and onwards we get the awareness that something special was taking place, that some of the songs ‘don’t have expiration dates. And that’s at a time when the entire decade of the eighties WAS a giant expiration date.’

The contributions tell us about the diversity of the music groups, solidarities forming and distressing desperation, including what music was on offer whether live or on the radio.

For the people here one thing that happens is finding out, via an independent record shop, where popular American music came from and making their use of it.

This could produce homage: X did a version of ‘Dancing With Tears in my Eyes’ but also, as The Knitters, ‘Rock Island Line’.

It was also a renewal, an example for me being the music of Los Lobos. There was no dress code and I was very impressed to see Exene fronting X at the Town and Country Club in London wearing a demure Chanel-like suit (or maybe it was one).

Several contributors mourn the seeming take-over of the scene’s diversity and venues by a hard-core music and aggressive male audiences. The last two pieces in the book have a particularly valedictory tone. Kristine McKenna:

‘So many members of this community are dead now […] Time is a brutal, devouring force, and until it’s begun to do its handiwork, it’s impossible to comprehend how very beautiful it is to be young, how privileged and innocent it is.’

This straightaway reminded me of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Poet Laureate address in 2001 (City Lights) talking about his adopted San Francisco’s diversity and its poetry scene, here quoting Daniel Zoll in the Guardian:

‘Now it’s become almost impossible for a lot of the people who have made this such a world-class city […] from the fishers and pasta makers and blue-collar workers to the jazz musicians to the beat poets to the hippies to the punks and so many others – to exist here anymore. And when you’ve lost that part of the city, you’ve lost San Francisco.’

But to return to Kristine McKenna, ‘The music continues to mean something to those who need it, and those who need it will continue to find it.’

– Robert Galeta

Fragments of a Map

Ann Quin – The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments (And Other Stories)

Experimental writing is often considered self-indulgent. I am not sure if this is the case. There is, however, something of the writer’s self which always seems to come through experimental writing in a way that it doesn’t in a bestseller.

The new collection of Ann Quin’s stories and fragments, The Unmapped Country, display the writer’s work at its most direct and its most obscure. The range befits this lesser known but truly important writer whose life and work remain enigmatic. Ann Quin’s writing career began in the early sixties and was tragically cut short by her death in 1973.

She was part of a circle of innovative writers published by John Calder which included Carol and Alan Burns, Eva Tucker and Giles Gordon, and in her early career was known to read alongside B.S. Johnson.

In the later sixties she used her royalties and grants to travel the world associating with American post-Beat writers and the pop art movement which she had first encountered working as a secretary at the Royal College of Art.

Her biographical trajectory is traced in her novel’s settings; from the grim Brighton of Berg (1964), to the middle class holiday home of Three (1966), through Greek dictatorship in Passages (1969) to her final comic book cut-up American odyssey Tripticks (1972).

This collection, sourced from archives, old magazines, as well as the authors’ friends and collaborators, contains work from every era. It opens with a Berg-style meeting of surrealism and social realism in ‘Leaving School – XI’ and ‘Nude and Seascape’. The latter of which is either hilarious or horrifying. I fell immediately in love with it.

‘A Double Room’ adds to the grottiness with a tale of an illicit weekend jaunt to Brighton which turns immediately stale. One feels in these stories the Brighton of Quin’s childhood. Characters trapped in the allotted pleasures of austerity Britain.

Her style and imagination is captivating, elevating, even when fixated on nastiness; it suggests rather than states how writing could lift her out of these surroundings.

We then have a few choice fragments. A satirical voice in the form of ‘B.B.’ written personally, it seems, for pop artist Billy Apple. A cut-up about soldiery, ‘Living in the Present’, co-created with poet Robert Sward. Sadly not a prime example of the genre (it’s the only part of the book that feels notably dated) it is nevertheless fascinating to see the kinds of experiments Quin was undertaking.

The meat of the collection is found in ‘Tripticks’, the story published in Ambit which would later expand to novel length, as well as ‘Ghostworm’. Both display the hypnotic Quin prose style unleashed on her favourite subjects of sex, brutality and globetrotting adventures.

Each rewards repeat reading as imagery jostles for space with the cracked, fixated voices of her protagonists. Fans of the novels will be glad of these treasures, as well as the less psychedelic ‘Eyes that Watch Behind the Wind’, which depicts a trip across Mexico with all its troubles, death and stirring encounters.

The penultimate piece, ‘The Unmapped Country’, is the final and unfinished novel of the Quin quintet. Quin fans like myself will know it from 1975’s Beyond the Words anthology of experimental writing but here it appears restored and in full.

For this particular reader, the piece remains a bit of a disappointment. Had Quin lived I can’t help that feel she would have dramatically revised and edited it. It remains, nevertheless, a moving story of incarceration and mental illness. It is tempting to draw links here to Quin the writer who herself was institutionalised around this time. But the biographical Quin and the characters she creates have always subtly repelled each other as much as they attract. Reading this as pure autobiography would be lazy.

It is on this point that I come to the second voice in the collection, that of the editor Jennifer Hodgson. Alongside her heroic efforts bringing all of these previously lost and discarded pieces together she contributes an introduction that is sympathetic, insightful and precise.

For Quin fans this introduction also represents something important in terms of biographical framing. The ugly myth of Quin – the lazy interpretation typified in Buckeye’s Re: Quin (2013) – is one of a tragic rock and roll martyr; Sylvia Plath on LSD.

Hodgson’s introduction, by contrast, tells of a varied life in which Quin’s non-traditional relationships aren’t reduced to daddy issues, her experiments with drugs aren’t a cry for help, and her travels across the world aren’t signifiers of a decadent and depraved collapse.

Even Quin’s death ‘swimming out to sea near Brighton’s Palace Pier’ (30) isn’t speculated upon; subtly breaking from the typical presumption of suicide. This is only a short introduction but, as someone who has previously attempted to write about Quin-the-person and failed, Hodgson’s approach impressed upon me the importance of biographical objectivity.

If anyone is going to write a biography of Ann Quin then it should be Jennifer Hodgson. And Other Stories have done a great job with this book.

Every shelf with four Quin books on it will, I don’t doubt, have five on it come January. More than this, the book’s scope recommends itself to new readers as well. As an overview of this important British writer The Unmapped Country is to be admired.

The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments will be available from And Other Stories in January 2018.

Stones and Hard Places

Various – Cosmic Shift, Russian Contemporary Art Writing (Zed)

This is the first anthology of Russian contemporary art writing to be published outside Russia. It includes Barte de Baere, Anton Vidokle, Bogdan Mamonov, Pavel Pepperstein, Dmitri Prigov and Masha Sumnina. However, the book was perhaps unsurprisingly begun via a chance meeting at Goldsmiths College, London.

This book, on its way through its approaches to art, also explores the communism of old and the communism to come. It does so in relation to representational questions. It does so in relation to the arts of the former Soviets, with some leeway (for instance Boris Groys is included, a German who grew up in Russia).

My review, then, will suggest what use this book might have to Manchester artists, because many of the ideas in this book – ideas that are common currency to those who lived through the hard grip of communism and its eventual dropping of them into a void – are much needed by the modernistas, neo-radicals and posturers in the city. Many of them cluster around the urban art scene.

This book both is and isn’t about the ‘Various Times’ of the European mid-century. It raises the spectres of Poland, Germany, in the late 1930s and 1940s, without meaning to.

But this book is also about an emerging period of New Things and I want to suggest to you that those older Various Times are being lost in that, at the same time as they resurface in new forms: The idea that Jacobin magazine is straightforwardly the alt-left opposite to the alt-right of Vice magazine: The Good against The Bad. The White Hats out to outgun The Black Hats; be wary.

I have spoken of the managing out of postmodernism from the university elsewhere. What we are seeing is the rise of a culture which is wilfully trying to close the gap between signifier and signified. What Jodi Dean has described, via Zizek, as the capitulation to new forms of submission. Look at the article on ‘The 1917 Peasant Revolutions’ in Jacobin by Sarah Badcock and Be Aware. If facts can be presented selectively enough to become lie, then that article is a damn lie.

What we aren’t seeing in the text is a sense that the artists of the former citizens of the Tito regime brought to bear on their work, artists such as Mladen Stilinović, that, as the title of the wonderful retrospective show at Nottingham Contemporary, curated by Lina Dzuverovic explained: ‘Monuments Are Not To Ne Trusted’. Stilinović is an exemplar here, distrustful of both capitalism and communism, he existed within both as a kind of permanent dissident and his work is better for it.

More recently Engels has returned again in the statue the artist Phil Collins brought back from the Ukraine, which was ‘unveiled’ on the 16th of July, 2017. This statue was the centrepiece of the closing event of the 2017 Manchester International Festival, an event called Ceremony, a title that ties the Soviet-era statue to the Manchester band Joy Division and the general revival of the post-punk and modernist aesthetic in Britain.

Engels’ return to the surface of Manchester, now he has been ‘uncovered’, whether uncovered at the back of a factory in the Ukraine, by archeologists, or in the written textual surface of his explorations in and around Angel Meadow, invariably means a set of investments in fragments of material from the past. All archeological sites are characterised by the projections of their present moments into that past.

The statue of Engels lay unwanted because it had become a toxic symbol. All iconography associated with the former Soviets was taken down, a final dictat enshrined in legislation: In 2015 Soviet monuments became illegal. The Holodomor and the moving of ethnic Russians into satellite states, including the Ukraine are not simply ‘of the past’; they are of recent times. The Putin regime have entered the Ukraine aggressively yet again.

While these tragic occurrences are not necessarily tied to the socialism of Marx-Engels, the Engels statue, in the Ukraine, became a site of projection for all the geographical terrors of Russian military managerialism. This is why it was given away by the town of Mala Pereshchepina to Manchester. How very strange then that a YBA should then have it driven to Manchester. How odd that an artist associated with the invented new hyper-capitalist art market of Charles Saatchi in the 1990s, as the older art markets atrophied, should dabble with this particular object and its constellations of significatory dust.

All over social media, the idea that Engels had been ‘brought home’ could be seen, that the statue is ‘coming back’. It is an idea absolutely cracked with contradiction. How bizarre that in Manchester, of all places, the statue is being seen as something ‘solid’, that what had definitely melted into air appears to have become concrete again. The Joy Division, who are invoked in the name of the Phil Collins artwork Ceremony – the name is taken from one of their song titles – were seen as proto-postmodern, in that they took their name from an SS brothel, its signifier rising above the signified.

The moment of the Manchester Modernist Society (MMS) is tangled up in all of this too: MMS is characterised by rescuing the reputations of modernist buildings from the categories of, for instance, ‘slum’ in favour of celebrations of minimal or brutalist aesthetics.

At the unveiling of the Engels statue there was a banner workshop. Some of the slogans displayed there included ‘communism is coming home’ and ‘when they write our history they will say this is where it started’. This thin trope, that Manchester is a ‘revolutionary city’ can be seen in many discourses about it.

From the great book edited by Peck and Ward, City of Revolution to the brochure of the 2017 Manchester Literature Festival and even thinner cultural references in the world of pop. But Manchester’s ‘revolution’, if it can even be called that, Industrialism, was a failed radicalism. Because in Manchester there was a bourgeois revolution instead of a political one. This may not be a point to mourn, as in France the very real political revolution turned into The Terror and yet another form of Nationalist Imperialism.

The later ‘revolution’ in Manchester we might point to includes Manchester City Council who out of sheer desperation began to seek money from all kinds of non-governmental sources. This essentially became the model for the neoliberal form of governance and statecraft in the 1990s, including the re-calibration of the Labour Party as New Labour under the leadership of Tony Blair.

Many of Manchester’s cultural players were formed in this period, including many of the Manchester International Festival insiders. George Osborne, former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, greatly admires Sir Howard Bernstein, an icon of neoliberal city governance.

A new generation is emerging though. They often describe themselves as communist. The Stalin memes and hammers and sickles they deploy on social media are flexible, plastic, elastic even. They are semi-ironic. Yet at the same time, the Engels statue is seen as something solid for them and irony itself is openly disavowed. For many of them, the Engels statue is a solid icon of belief in the future. Let me be clear, the reduction of spectra of meaning into one dogmatic sign is one of the processes via which totalitarianism is delivered.

What is behind these assertions is the recent revival of the Labour Party under the current leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn himself, in many ways, has become a statue like that of Engels. The two signs became interchangeable at the close of Ceremony. But there is a tension here, as some of Manchester’s cultural players associated with Manchester International Festival are solidly New Labour, as is Manchester City Council.

The idea of Engels returning lies latent in E.P. Thompson’s reading of him as a kind of Timelord. However, Derrida writes well on how Marx and Engels actually advised for their lives after their own redundancy and death: ‘Who has ever called for the transformation of his own theses?’

Derrida explains that they didn’t simply ask for their work to be updated with new knowledge, but requested that the original knowledge be treated robustly. In this, the excessive warnings about Marx and Engels predicting history, about their work as a sealed hermetic system, as excessive and ill-read as similar charges against Hegel, need to be denied again. They need to be denied for a new generation of radicals who are erroneously making them solid.

If you do nothing else read ‘Soviet communism and the paradox of alienation’ in this book, an essay by Artemy Magun:

‘Communist government should be truly dialectical’, as opposed to ‘the pseudo dialectical liberal state’ and ‘the ideocratic dogmatism of the Soviet state’, to which (Boris) ‘Groys falsely attributes a dialectic’. Such a government ‘should be dialectical in its rationality and aesthetical in its virtuosity.’ It should be ‘harsh’, but ‘plastic at the same time, constantly preparing its own downfall and rescuing itself from it.’

This is not an argument for postmodern relativism, it is not an argument that says the young radicals are too communist, but it is an argument that says the young Corbynistas are not yet properly communist. Artemy Magun’s essay is a good place to start again.

Belgrade went from a cosmopolis in 1978 to the horrors of the 1990s in no time at all. ‘It couldn’t happen here’. Yes it could. We need the eastern semi-dissident voices more than ever as the communist sympathy increases.

Long Live Ashbery

John Ashbery – Commotion of the Birds (Carcanet)

John Ashbery is dead. His last book of poems seemed to sense its arrival. The coming of the not being. The nearness to the absence of even the negative. The use of three dots… the coming space of void. Céline used this motif and far too much has been made of it. That it breaks the master-signifier-phallus, that it turns his texts into pure play like jazz, it doesn’t and it does not have that function here either.

But Ashbery, not really impressionistic, but always very open, yet always also about something, seems to be shrugging his shoulders more than he asserts and more than usual here. Sometimes this is naughty ambivalence, ‘At Puke University, I’m glad he goes in there’ he writes, but sometimes it is beautiful blank ambivalence.

‘The Old Sofa’ is a wonderful skewering of cultural rites. It is almost anthropological, but the point of view an anthropologist reaches when she decides that playing cricket and performing the Yanomami rain song are for her and for her only at this moment just flat choices. What Robert Creeeley meant when he wrote that what you did was all that there ever was. Ashbery knew for a long time that this was The Truth. At the end he glows with the radiance of this Truth, the privilege of not giving a toss.

But to leave it there would be to do him a terrible disservice. ‘Friends… die down with me…’ ‘House passed away…’ he writes, and Creeley also explained to me in interview how his friends were going, how it was like a neighbourhood fire, coming closer each day, until one day, you knew it clearly, it would be your house and your turn:

‘Hello. I have to go in a little while. Well, maybe later. If at all.’ 

Ashbery had his turn and his absence is felt. But in these poems there is a cut glass clarity, even if the meanings are more feelings. They undermine the idea of Ashbery as a ‘difficult poet’, or maybe the times just caught up. The dense circularity of the New Criticism has been distilled into another substance. Take a deep drink and take it with you.