Ode to Sussex

Shirley Collins – All in the Downs: Reflections on Life, Landscape and Song (Strange Attractor Press, 2018)

The 2017 documentary the Ballad of Shirley Collins followed the cult English folk singer as she recorded Lodestar, her first album in nearly four decades. Filmed largely around her home in Lewes in East Sussex, and the surrounding area, the film told the remarkable and poignant story of how Collins lost her voice – leading from her withdrawing both from performance and recording for many years – and unexpectedly found it again.

All in the Downs acts as a thoughtful companion piece to the film, with Collins drawing out her experiences in greater depth, writing from her own, opinionated perspective. It follows a previous volume of autobiography, America Over the Water, published in 2004, which told the story of Collins’ travels across United States with the musicologist (and her then partner) Alan Lomax. All in the Downs, by contrast, remains closer to home to focus on Collins’ career in her own right, and the way in which it was informed by her early years in the working-class seaside town of Hastings, East Sussex and later in her retreat from the town and city back to a rediscovery of the rolling countryside of the Sussex downs.

All in the Downs shares with the film a strong sense of loss and absence; it begins with a chapter on the breakdown of Collins’ second marriage, as a major contributory factor in the loss of her voice, before detailing her relationship with her father, who returned from the Second World War only to leave again, and the premature death of her sister and artistic collaborator, Dolly.

As well as sharing her personal and professional memories, All in the Downs offers a rich glimpse into the shared experiences of mid-twentieth century Britain, from the freedom of a semi-rural childhood, to post-war culture and politics, to the sometimes difficult personalities of the British folk scene, to work and motherhood. Looking back, Collins can’t help but reflect, sometimes caustically, on how places, lifestyles and entertainment have changed (not to mention what passes as ‘folk music’ these days!).

Above all, All in the Downs is an ode to the south eastern English landscape, showing what we can learn and pass on about the places around us by paying attention to working people’s voices. It’s written with the passion and in-depth expertise of someone who has dedicated her life and career to understanding, interpreting and transmitting traditional song, the words of which run through the book entwined with her own.

– Natalie Bradbury

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Beyond the ‘Basildon Man’

Radical ESSEX (Focal Point Gallery, 2018)

If the tone of Radical ESSEX is at times defensive, it’s because it has reason to be. The book is upfront about popular perceptions of Essex, from its reputation as a county characterised by its purported brashness, to the right-wing, Tory-voting ‘Basildon Man’ invented by the newspaper industry in the 1980s as a supposed archetype of a shift in working-class political allegiances.

Radical ESSEX sets about showing us a different side to the county, and introducing us to alternative figures from its history. Published by Focal Point Gallery in Southend, and resulting from an exhibition and programme of events of the same name, Radical ESSEX brings together essays on various aspects of the county’s landscape, architecture and culture. There’s a strong emphasis on not just telling alternative stories about Essex, but highlighting the ways in which the county, which is within easy reach of London yet retains a sense of cultural and geographical isolation, has provided the space for the development of radically new social, political and architectural experiments. These include both planned communities, driven by ideological, political and moral motivations, as explored in a fascinating chapter on communitarianism by Ken Worpole, as well as more ad hoc settlements such as the plot lands, initially developed as DIY country escapes yet ultimately and illicitly settled more permanently, which are visited by Gillian Darley.

Radical ESSEX rises to the provocation, set out by writer Tim Burrows early on in the book, that ‘to infer anything intellectual from the county has at times seemed like a radical act’. A real highlight, therefore, is the chapter on the University of Essex, one of a 1960s generation of ‘new’ universities, and the way it embraced the new not just architecturally, but in the types of subjects that were taught and its approaches to teaching them, which ultimately aimed to generate students capable of thinking for themselves. As the chapter notes, this quickly resulted in a reputation for radicalism and free thinking – students set up their own ‘Free University’, and played an active part in political and social protests.

In general, the place of modernity in shaping Essex comes across strongly in Radical ESSEX – from the marsh-draining techniques, borrowed from the Dutch, that enabled the land to be reclaimed from the sea, to the bold modernism of planned towns and estates such as Silver End, Bataville and Frinton Park. However, modernism is also emblematic of the tensions encapsulated within the county. Although it’s home to some of the earliest and most innovative built expressions of modernism in the UK, which rightly take their place in the book, Essex is also a county of suburban sprawl, and an early adopter of the increasingly prevalent out-of-town, shed-type genre of architecture. In his chapter, architect Charles Holland makes the case that architectural modernism both began and ended in Essex: the county ultimately rejected modernism with the influential Essex Design Guide of 1973, which promoted a return to vernacular architecture and traditional building materials.

Essex has also been shaped by movement, particularly as expressed in successive waves of migration. No story of Essex would be complete without a discussion of the Essex new towns, built to house former East Enders post-WWII, and we’re also reminded of the arrival of the Windrush at Tilbury docks and the large numbers of international students attracted to study at the University of Essex. It continues today as young people are driven from the capital as London’s living costs become increasingly prohibitive for those looking to set up home or raise a family.

Although – or perhaps because – it’s not regarded as being conventionally picturesque, the look and feel of the book makes a feature of the county’s distinctive landscape, in which oozy, marshy creeks and inlets, which ebb and flow as the tide changes, leave behind large, shifting banks of mud. Instead of marbling, we have watery imprints, saturated in surreal colours, like an aerial or satellite view of the county gone psychedelic, aptly capturing the county’s strangeness. Catherine Hyland’s photos, which run throughout the book, on the other hand, offer a gentle, soft-edged view of the county and its architecture, old and new: remote country church and brutalist university campus alike are imbued with a hazy, pleasant familiarity, as if Essex is a county where anything is possible, and it’s always a bright early summer day.

Natalie Bradbury

The sad passions

Vic Seidler – Making Sense of Brexit (Polity)

Everyone should read this book.

Seidler writes of the moment during the referendum campaign when it became clear that ‘people across the country had just stopped listening’. It comes up some pages later, where ‘stopped listening’ is italicised again.

It stuck in my head all the way through the book and so I will repeat it for you in this review: People ‘had stopped listening’. The repeated instances seemed important, as though historical amnesia might have affected everyone and only via repetition might we wake.

This book has the tone of the late great Zygmunt Bauman, without necessarily following his themes or style directly. This ‘tone’ seems to run parallel to the book’s ability to see into the dimensions of the subject that have always been there, but have been almost literally unspeakable. This is a key strength of Bauman’s writing – as it is here – and the book is dedicated to his memory.

Bauman’s memory. If the people have fallen into amnesia we have Bauman’s memory. We need Bauman’s memory more than ever. Seidler clearly remembers Bauman.

Seidler’s perspective of the situation of ‘Brexit’ as a western one and not just a local British political squabble is strong: Brexit is interwoven with the election of Trump – a close won thing, as was Vote Leave – and these are not facile comparisons.

The xenophobia of the Leave campaign is mirrored in Hungary and Orbán, in Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and the German AfD, the ‘alternative for Germany’, subtitled “there is no alternative”.

What is happening here is happening in and to the west as a whole. This is the wider terrifying dimension of the subject. It is bleak and mad and all the warnings from history are there in plain sight and yet still it seems to be happening. It feels like the slow motion horrors that occur when dreaming.

You are powerless to stop them, you can only watch as your own body is slowly puppeted through the madness.

Similarly, the logical flaws and gaps here – for instance in the alternative for which there is no alternative – are not anomalies to be smoothed over, but the places to begin to research the subject.

What we are seeing is the final disintegration of the post-WW2 settlement. This cannot be in doubt: Corbyn is as sceptical about NATO as Trump. Seidler returns to Trump’s ‘mistake’, when he proclaimed the enemy in ‘radical Islamic terrorism’, not ‘radical Islamist terrorism’. Again, these slips, ‘parapraxes’ as Freud named them, are not the places to change the subject, but the place where the subject starts.

Viewed one way, Trump’s climate change denial is simply a badge declaring his belief in it. The terrifying future that opens up here is all of what we are witnessing now, plus higher sea levels. World peace will not suddenly descend like a dove bearing an olive branch.

Theresa May is seeking to reach out to the US-UK ‘special relationship’ in an era when Trump is trying to turn America even further inwards. Seidler marks these longer historical changes well, between Kennedy and the US’s ambitions to police the global scene after WW2 and Trump’s quixotic ambivalence.

Old certainties are being reached for and empty air grasped. Seidler really conveys the sense of this without trying to be a prophet, or hammer out a correct line: This is a real strength.

Britain’s isolation could be felt acutely when the Russian attacks on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury were being reported. Suddenly, as we exit the EU, here was a different prospect entirely, even with the Litvinenko poisoning behind us.

Turning to America is a desperate and hollow prospect right now and Seidler marks this well. He goes back to Bauman on how people look for ‘magic’ in leadership – the example in Britain of course now being Corbyn – but because of this almost spiritual expectation they will inevitably be disappointed.

The book effortlessly deals with the immediate moment of crisis and the longer historical curves leading up to it.

A peculiar view has arisen over the last two decades that Labour and Conservative are all the same. As one far right attendee to a Higher Education project I am involved with pointed out, for him Labour and Tories are both leftwing, but UKIP aren’t rightwing enough.

The spatial geographical political metaphors have been scrambled. The compass you used to use works as it always did in some places, but in others only intermittently.

Two decades of mainstream political chicanery have led to this scrambling of any sense of a political true north. We have both Boris and Blair to thank for their blatant lies and as I write the attempt to stop a dictator murdering his people with chemical weapons is being made more difficult by Blair’s legacy of deviousness, and it is often being argued against by the same left who say Britain should have been in Spain in the 1930s.

But what Seidler brings to the subject that many commentators don’t is a view of maps and compasses as they might be seen by refugees from these genocides.

So, not only does this book contain the perspective that what is happening to ‘us’ in Britain is happening in the west more widely, but that this is also completely connected to the conflicts in the middle east. Seidler gives us a holistic view, but it’s a holism of uprooting, a map to a total landscape of deracination.

Seidler cites poet George Szirtes’ thoughts and feelings on encountering Brexit, from the point of view of a man who remembers arriving in Britain as a refugee, when a boy. Seidler’s own parents arrived from Vienna, a Jewish family attempting to escape the rise of Nazism.

But Seidler and Szirtes both show us that escape is never full. The escapees are psychologically riven internally, as those who died were riven apart outside the sanctuary they now inhabit. We have the poetry of Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs and now Szirtes to explain how that feels. Sachs is going to be published in a new translation by Andrew Shanks soon and we will cover that here. Its arrival at this point is beyond timely.

Szirtes’ last collection seemed almost psychically attuned to what was to come. As I wrote for Manchester Review of Books, his ‘poems now leer out of the pages with increased significance.’ The title piece of his last collection is about a globalised world that now feels like it is shrinking.

Szirtes’ poem ‘Bartok’ describes how eastern European folk music became transcribed, with all of its atonality for the concert hall, so that those audiences could hear music that ‘screeched and snapped like bullets freshly fired.’ The preceding poem describes the old men of this even older landscape, respectably concealing trenches with corpses in them. The plucked strings and bleary ravaged landscape of Bartok’s String Quartet No.4 then rises to the surface.

My point was that after Brexit, after Trump, this is not just a great collection of poetry – it is – but an essential book of any sort for our newly darkened times, it is an actual map and I fear that we are all going to need it. In Seidler’s book there is a volume to place right next to it on the shelf, whatever genre-clash that creates.

The bitter and resentful xenophobe is also internally split, although to directly equate them would be a horrible insult to those fleeing genocide. But this is the landscape of the human estranged from her or himself per se.

As his argument progresses, Seidler works his way into Brexit in relation to some of his previous themes. Seidler’s work on masculinity seems much less well known than it should be. He was involved with the journal Achilles’ Heel, suggesting that man’s weakness and vulnerability be emphasised and that from this perspective we should join feminism in re-approaching ourselves. Both the xenophobe and incomer should work along those lines, with one another, in an act of mutual recognition and transformation. It seems unlikely, but I don’t think it is impossible.

As we can see, and as I pointed out in my first book, there is nothing particularly national about the new nationalism now being labelled the ‘alt-right’: It is a global anti-globalist phenomena. The contradictions are the places to begin again. The dialectic only begins to move from these cracks in the seamless surfaces.

Almost everyone went to the polls knowing what they were voting for at the same time as nobody went knowing.

Seidler sees the swing to Corbyn, but worries over its investment in sexual and ethnic multiplicity. Seidler asks us to question the legacies of post-structuralism. I can see why, but from my perspective what advances were made under the inappropriate heading of post-structuralism are being jettisoned completely by the new young left.

Their return to a supposed solidity of knowledge that never really existed is as likely to work long-term as the magical leader is likely to satisfy. Postmodernism is also being rejected and one sees why. But there are larger dangers lurking here. There is a big difference between rejecting shallow postmodernity and its irony and embracing the new or what I call in my head neosolid. A ‘common sense’ left will inevitably, unconsciously, enshrine badnesses.

Therefore the changes we are seeing in discourses are across the left and the right. The left are also rejecting the identity politics of the previous epoch, sometimes with real insight and criticality, but in many instances the gleeful torching is little different from that of the right.

Seidler cites Daniel Barenboim’s comments at the Proms before conducting Elgar’s second symphony, that Elgar was really a pan-European composer. For those who know, yes he was, but to many he is a trope of Englishness. An English countryside modelled on Herefordshire as the idyll to be protected from the foreign attacker.

The English countryside as ethnocentric identity, as blood and folk, it is encoded in that sound. The tropescape is always present, it is the dark matter that glues the daytime together. Cultural documents like this are sewed into ideologies through their use in popular film and TV, or in the use of music that sounds very much like it. This is why postmodernism as a diagnosis of the quality of information in our times is not fully dead.

Similarly, Ode To Joy, performed by Barenboim and others after the referendum was perhaps badly picked, as Beethoven’s Ninth has become so freighted with meaning it has entirely submerged. We can now only hear the bubbles and foam as it sinks under its own weight.

Seidler’s final comments speculate on what is opening up. They are dark and dangerous times from anyone’s perspective. John Harris has rightly claimed Brexit as a kind of revolution with no future or precedent. Seidler reprises these arguments well in the book, turning them over carefully and examining them.

But I take issue with some of Harris’s coverage. He described some of the leave voters he encountered on the streets as ‘plain racist’, before separating them cleanly off from those who were concerned with migrants taking jobs and housing. Are they not also racist? I don’t try to answer this question for you, I think it needs to be discussed, although I certainly have a firm view of my own.

Perhaps only one thing is fully certain here and it is that it isn’t possible to neatly separate things. I wrote an article for Open Democracy called ‘False Consciousness, what’s not to dislike? To begin with I asked us to picture the 48% versus 52% of remain versus leave in shades of grey and simply see them as the smoke from a bonfire of rotten sentiments and dead ideas. It is of course possible to state facts, but I still think that mental exercise is worthwhile.

John Harris, although brilliant on many current questions, fears False Consciousness. It means calling out the working classes using a Marxist term. But False Consciousness is to be found at the same co-ordinates as Post-Truth and Neoliberal doublespeak. Post-Truth is Postmodern False Consciousness.

False Consciousness doesn’t mean the working classes are idiots, but it does mean that they have been systematically fed untruth by the media. Harris and many others are already saying this anyway, in one form or another.

False Consciousness is not a declaration that ‘the working classes are stupid’, it never was. There is not some place ‘over there’ where False Consciousness exists, in relation to a place over here where it does not. We are all blind to the full, macro complexity and Seidler understands this.

I also wrote an article for Open Democracy on my father’s occasional racist outbursts, at the same time as he considers himself to not be racist at all. Then there are my research participants. The engineer who works on complex global projects – a man of free movement if ever there was one – but one who claims that the ethnic other does not belong in Britain at all.

‘They don’t belong here’, he explained to me, as if to a child. I wrote about him in my first book, Small Times, Austere Times (Zero, 2014). He is partly of and not of the basic stereotype of the bad leave voter: He lives in the northwest, but he is not stupid or poor. But I am clear that he is a fascist, no other word should be used.

This said, the mix of bitternesses and resentments clouding our vision above this bonfire of the emotions cannot be neatly separated. But we still need to face the full extent of the fire that is now alight in order to try to put it out before it spreads.

We will all get burned doing this. It is going to be painful, but it needs to be done.

I co-authored a paper with Sundas Ali and Ben Gidley. Ali’s data shows a clear correlation with ‘Englishness’ – as testified to in the last census – and leave votes. There are only two serious anomalies, Hull and Luton, Hull perhaps explainable by being along the ‘Brexit coast’.

Yet at the same time, as Rakib Ehsan explains in a LSE post: ‘A number of jurisdictions with large South Asian populations delivered Leave votes’, including Luton (56.5% Leave), Hillingdon (56.4% Leave), Slough (54.3% Leave) and Bradford (54.2% Leave).

All have ‘South Asian populations of 25% and above’. Ehsan explains that it is ‘not unreasonable to think that such Leave votes could not have been delivered without a significant number of Asian voters opting for Brexit.’

A possible reason for this, Ehsan suggests, is ‘that many voters within the British South Asian diaspora don’t feel European’, as ‘Europe’ was never part of their integration process, yet the ‘pro-Commonwealth rhetoric coming from the Leave camp’, might well ‘have pulled on the heartstrings of many South Asian voters.’

Here we reach one of the major questions which it was the purpose of our paper to ask: It is possible to declare a correlation between whiteness and Englishness, due to the clear evidence that cities which voted remain and identify as British also have higher ethnic minority demographics: Does Brexit mean xenophobia?

This analysis is further underscored if we turn to a town such as Rochdale and scrutinise the Brexit vote district-by-district; Sayer (2017) points to the ethnic ‘minority wards’ that ‘bucked the Leave trend’ in Bradford, Oldham, Rochdale, and Walsall, and ‘were among the top 100 60% + Leave districts in the UK’.

‘Brexit’, Sivanandan said not long before he died, ‘means racism’. Yet the new left are bending over backwards now, attempting any kind of elaborate mental gymnastics to deny this, because it means calling the working classes racists.

Well, my family are racists and because of that I am not shy of declaring it. Many among the middle class left writing on the subject try to declare this dimension a mirage. The working classes must be noble and lionised at all costs. This is also false consciousness, with a long trail in the equally fantastical lineages of leftwing heritage: The noble workers that will rise through history? Come on. Really? And I say this as a Marxist.

But Seidler does not suffer from these delusions. He doesn’t come at it from my thorny perspective either, but he turns over the material and views it from different sides, as one might examine a crystal, through different facets.

The media has been a big problem. The right wing tabloids are seen as driving the Brexit ‘leave’ debates, before, during and after the vote.

If we look at newspapers by circulation the right certainly have the power. Newspapers with over one million units of daily circulation are The Sun – 1,666,715; Daily Mail – 1,511,357; Metro – 1,476,956; The Sun on Sunday – 1,375,539; The Mail on Sunday – 1,257,984.

The Guardian only just pips the Daily Record by circulation, although its online journalism is not paywalled and so its reach should not just be read through newspaper sales.

The print newspaper industry has been in decline for a number of years, down at least -4.3% year-on-year. Matthew Smith warns that the ‘National Readership Survey figures for 2016’ are ‘grim reading for those who worry a right-wing media bias.’

They show that ‘collective circulation of right-wing papers is leaving that of the left-wing papers for dust.’

The Mail and Sun are the most read papers in the country and the most rightwing. Jon Burnett cites purported Romanian crimewaves in the British rightwing press and other generated racist panics.

The only fully stable fact here is that racism morphs, it takes new shapes and resists being outlawed at all levels, conscious, semi-conscious and unconscious.

The hope that the xenophobic turn in England is generational and therefore will soon wane is not borne out by current analysis of newspaper circulation. But as the recent Facebook data harvesting scandal shows the battle of online media is only just beginning. Here is a far more slippery, shifting scenery.

Seidler makes the point that journalists are judged by the ‘number of hits their articles receive’, yet in some ways so are academics. The book takes me beyond Brexit into the new cultural and political landscapes that are unfolding before us, at different speeds.

What has happened to universities right across the period leading up to and across the referendum has been as disastrous as what is happening to politics, media, economics and belief. This book is not just about Brexit, it is about The New World. There is too much to cover here, this review would be longer than the book it is dedicated to, so I need to conclude.

I have only one slight criticism and it is that there’s a bit of an over-reliance on the Guardian as a source. In some ways this is understandable considering the media available in Britain, and the arguments I have just made about it, but there it is, you only have to browse the notes to see it.

I don’t think the book is particularly skewed because of it, but the Financial Times contains a lot of hard data. Capitalist swines need strong facts, not strong opinions (which is not the same thing as claiming the FT is ideology-free, far from it).

However, what Seidler brings to this work – something that is mostly absent elsewhere – is not knowing. At the end of the preface, ready to launch into his first substantive chapter, he frames his enquiry partly through it.

What is missing elsewhere is uncertainty and uncertainty – if it can ever be called such a thing in this context – is the ground the subject of ‘Brexit’ stands upon. The book explains the holes in stability as well as the holes in knowledge.

My complaint is nothing in the face of the strength of the analysis here, and in case people have simply stopped listening I’ll say it again:

Everyone should read this book.

– Steve Hanson

Shades of grey

Lynda Nead – The Tiger in the Smoke: Art and Culture in Post-War Britain (Yale, 2017)

Lynda Nead’s new history of art and culture in post-war Britain borrows its title from a novel by crime fiction writer Margery Allingham. Whilst Allingham’s ‘tiger’ was a vicious killer who lurked in the grimy shadows of post-war London, it’s the smoke that is the important word here; Nead frames her study within the fog of 1950s Britain, beginning with the ‘Great Smog’ that hung over London for five days towards the end of 1952, the year The Tiger in the Smoke was published.

It’s significant, too, that Nead borrows from the mass cultural form of the detective novel to set the tone of the book, which emphasises the ordinariness and continuity of experience that characterised much of life in post-war Britain. Nead’s early focus on the atmospheric qualities of smog begins a search for the other collective social and cultural events that set the tone for the period. Although the Festival of Britain of 1951 features as a national focal point and a spectacular showcase of modernity, most of the details she highlights are far more everyday, from the illustrated black and white Picture Post articles that captured life in the streets of derelict and war-ravaged Britain, to the tedium of Sunday afternoons, to family life that was increasingly brought together around the TV set, to the dressing gowns worn by bored housewives up and down the country, to the domestic details captured by the ‘Kitchen Sink Painters’. These humdrum reference points are used as entry points into bigger narratives, from gender and race to national identity.

Underpinning this exploration of post-war culture is the work of cultural theorist Raymond Williams. Nead convincingly draws upon the term ‘structures of feeling’, which Williams used to characterise the intangible shifts in culture, meaning and atmosphere that subtly occur from one generation to the next. Although she focuses on the years between 1945 and 1960, ultimately Nead exposes the impossibility of identifying a neatly delineated time period in this way; as she points out, the new developments of post-war Britain, such as the welfare state and physical reconstruction, existed alongside residual aspects of culture dating not just from the war – rationing, she reminds us, continued until 1954, and towns and cities continued to be haunted by empty bombsites many years the war had ended – but from the Victorian period, both in the country’s crumbling built environment and in lingering social attitudes and artistic influences. The overall picture painted by Nead is far from the colour and experimentation of the swinging sixties; instead, she suggests that for most of the population British life existed in various shades of grey.

The fact that there’s been considerable interest in the post-war period in recent years, from Owen Hatherley’s writing on nostalgia, to the inception of Manchester’s own Modernist magazine, to the restaging of the Independent Group’s famous exhibition Parallel of Art and Life at the ICA in 2013, hardly needs restating. What Nead adds to this return to the post-war era is a rare talent for combining in-depth research and academic analysis with a style of writing that’s interesting and pleasurable for the general reader.

She also ventures beyond the standard texts of the period to offer up reading – and viewing – lists of less-known books and films from the era, providing a starting point for further explorations into the culture of Britain at a time when the country was simultaneously in thrall to its past, absorbing increasingly international influences, and exploring new ideas of what it might become.

– Natalie Bradbury

Human Error as Truth

Essayism – Brian Dillon; This Little Art – Kate Briggs; Pretentiousness, Why It Matters – Dan Fox; The Hatred of Poetry – Ben Lerner (all Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Fitzcarraldo Editions are beautifully made, with their matt cover and drop caps serif typeface, with their embossed bell logo. Fitzcarraldo publish novels and other things, but I have just read a brace of their essayistic books, with their white covers. Four of them: Essayism by Brian Dillon; This Little Art by Kate Briggs; Pretentiousness, Why It Matters by Dan Fox and The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner.

These editions look like European editions. They talk like European editions, perhaps with the addition of a little English punk attitude, in the case of Ben Lerner’s book on poetry. In a time of Europhobia in Britain this is all the more reason to buy and read the essayist Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Kate Briggs contributes a wonderful book (sort of) on translation called This Little Art. She begins in a section of Thomas Mann’s genius novel, The Magic Mountain. It is a dramatic opening, it grabs you and pulls you in. But the story twists into that of Helen Lowe-Porter’s translation of Thomas Mann and her villification after her death.

‘No poem is intended for the reader’ Benjamin once wrote, in his own meditation on translation, but Briggs points out how the ‘little art’ of translation carries big risks. The underpaid, unacknowledged and ignored craftspeople that are translators carry huge burdens and risks along with their joys. Rilke’s translations into English by J.B. Leishman have been similarly villified. These are stigmas that travel beyond death. I have a copy of ‘The Rilke of Ruth Speirs’. The title says, essentially, ‘the proper stuff, not that other shit’.

A dangerous game for no stakes, this is truly the zone of the ‘committed’. Briggs cites a translation of Deleuze by Hugh Tomlinson. Coincidentally, my friend Robert Galeta translated some of the Deleuze editions after Hugh could no longer do it. He tells me, ‘I went grey doing it’. Imagine then being pilloried for your efforts.

In medieval times a Bard could sing a Queen or King into 1000 years of hell. In an unliterate culture they made songs that would outlive the mortal life of its targets. It could put an entire family into a ‘spell’ that persisted for generations. Here I sing Briggs into the opposite, into a song that I hope will carry this book through many reprints and editions.

Briggs describes translating Barthes. But she is navigating Paris, going to libraries, looking at Barthes old apartment, thinking about the people she sees, feeling, reflecting. Briggs puts shoes on, cooks, teaches. She is a human being. The chapters of this book both are and are not about translation, because like translation itself they draw on all the skills and experiences a human has, right to the edge of their consciousness. Because of this, I am reminded of my own reading of psychoanalytical texts often, when reading Briggs.

Kate Briggs is an explorer of her own under-read zones, as well as her over-read exterior, which is littered with Barthes and Benjamin on reading lists as though first year undergrads – and often many of their university tutors – straightforwardly know what those texts contain.

Briggs describes Robinson Crusoe making a table for the first time in his life. I have done this, I am the kind of pretentious pervert who will make furniture and fail fifteen times before getting something that works. It is the only way to learn properly. But like a bad translator, I am failing the original here. You just have to, in the case of Briggs’ book, read the original. It is deeply, velvety rich and utterly life-affirming.

Brian Dillon’s Essayism is also a cornucopia of sorts. It argues for the flaws of the essay, for its speculative, hedging, unfinished nature, as its virtue. This is a theme of these editions. That doing scholarship and writing is not something undertaken by Uberhumans beamed down from Planet Academic with everything and some other stuff that nobody knows yet uploaded into their swollen skulls. Out students don’t live in this reality enough. Academics don’t speak honestly about that reality enough.

Ben Lerner’s book on poetry argues that we might engage with poetry through the negative. This isn’t quite Hegel via the Frankfurt School, the negative he describes is closer to the word ‘HATE’ written in white paint on a leather biker jacket. After being immersed in intolerably polite Manchester Literature Festival events, this is a wonderful read. Who says the literature scene must be polite clapping and cups of tea? At this point in history, why wouldn’t the discussion of literature that is often so fluffy it barely touches the world be characterised only by seething invective? However, this is to reduce Lerner’s argument a great deal. He begins hating poetry and urges us, in a Beckett-like way, to ‘hate better’. In between these almost identical poles there lies a fecund meditation on poetry.

Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit prefigures Pretentiousness, by Dan Fox. This book is also very un-British, as it calls for fabulation in the face of the British climate of dumbed-down, stylistically lumpen miserablism. If I have a worry here it is that the book dovetails too easily with ‘play’ and its origins in horrors such as Playpower by Richard Neville. They didn’t play where I grew up, they were slowly ground down in twelve hour shifts, six days a week, and that was down to another very British thing, class. But then I know from emerging out of the working classes that you get called a ‘clever bastard’. Is there an equivalent phrase in French? I don’t know.

But these books make you think. They don’t just drone information at you. These books take risks. They blend serious scholarship with a human voice. British academia has for too long been a blend of its past in an empirico-logico-utilitarianism that does not really exist outside of its texts and its present in an Americanised vaguely po-mo ‘liberalism’. These books are not some middle way between the two, they just ignore all that and begin where they stand. For that alone I applaud all the authors under review here.

This does not mean they are uncitable, dangerous curveballs from the world beyond Truth. It means that they are a little more Real than all the other rubbish pouring out of academic publishers. This is not to denigrate the few percent of incredible, lightning work emerging from academic publishers. But it is a percentage. You know the other books too well: The literature review with an argument imposed on it, rather than an argument being made from long messy immersion in the world, as the scholarship was done.

We are going to need Fitzcarraldo Editions on this island much more in times to come.

Branches and Routes

Billy Bragg – Roots, Radicals & Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World (Faber & Faber)

A great deal of research has gone into this book, and also a great commitment to set out the social and political contexts of how and why this music happened and its contributions to what happened next.

The book ends where many others have started: the R’n’B boom and its derivative pop.

One strand in the phenomenon of the rapidly developing music scenes here is the – at first – delayed response in their mediation, whether in photography or graphics. Among the photos, politely staged or caught live, Bragg tellingly reproduces Music Revue posters, basically names of acts, with the headliner at the top. They seem already obsolete in conveying the different aims and energy of this new music.

He takes us through the challenges to the music business of handling money-making opportunities and the awkward attitudes and politics of some key players: Communists? CND? ‘Stars’ were by and by found, sort of in the mould of what was happening.

In the pre-blurb to the 1967 Pan paperback of Quant by Quant, we read about her first shop and business: ‘It all snowballed fantastically’. Quant by Quant has all the headlong pace, the outrageous nerve and delirious gaiety…’ ‘Mediation‘, in other words, took only a few years to catch up.

We see the same change of pace of packaging in Michael Braun’s book Love me Do, the Beatles’ Progress (Penguin 1964) where Brian Epstein, at a posh Hotel supper, suggests that he requires a new look for the group.

Yet another example of contradiction and what would be called recuperation is the demonising tone of newspaper headlines about hooligans and jiving in the street quoted by Bragg here, and the selling of rebels we see in the moody LP and EP photo-covers of the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Them and others around 1964.

Bragg is unhurried and extremely engaging in his tracing of developments and connections. In the chapter The Highbrow of Swing, he introduces us to Denis Preston. I went to look through some 78s left to me by a dear friend of this generation and read on the London American recordings label of Josh White’s ‘T.B.Blues’, rhythm accompaniment supervised by Denis Preston.

Bragg also tells us the background of another, better known producer, Joe Meek. As well as such in-depth information and assessment, there are some good one-liners. One is a David Bowie lyric perhaps incubated from a certain concert the nine-year old David Jones attended.

What this meticulous study is especially valuable for in terms of musical change is exemplified in the chapter Lonnie Opens the Door. There are three key elements combining to make a change: the guitar coming to the front of a band rather than being at the back as part of the rhythm section; there appearing no bar to playing because you can’t read music; and readily available, home-made or cheap instruments.

Because of its insights into post-war British class and the opening up of new affinities and possibilities, this book sits for me alongside these: George Melly’s Revolt Into Style (1972); Ray Gosling’s Personal Copy (1980); Jonathan Green’s Days in the Life (1988); and Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles (2005).

– Robert Galeta