The Dreaded C Word

Boris Pasternak – Doctor Zhivago (Vintage)

A great thing has happened, many of the educated young are left-wing again. Not only that, they are unafraid of the word ‘communist’.

This comes with dangers though. I sense that in the rush to embrace a c-word even more offensive to the polite middle classes than the original, some old lessons have been forgotten. Or rather, some material has been edited out of the script, as always.

It is timely then, that Vintage have just re-issued a slew of Russian classics, including The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman and Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. They are beautifully designed, sumptuously sleeved and reasonably-priced.

Doctor Zhivago is of course better known for its film version. But it is well worth rewinding and reading the original. Here, the romantic aesthetics and soundscapes were yet to be imposed on the narrative. The book was banned in the Soviet Union and the film could not be shot there, so it was made in Spain, in 1965, where Francoism was only just beginning to thaw.

There are things to be read in this, for sure. David Lean’s film returns us to ‘the human story’ under the Bolshevik ideology, the ‘universal’ of love that is so often co-opted as a story to deflate revolutionary requirements. We should definitely be wary of these things, but not just because they limit action, for this is the same romantic bloom that obscured the fascist sympathies of Wallis Simpson and Prince Edward.

Doctor Zhivago contains other things to be wary of. Things that are perhaps being missed by some of the New Left people I meet. In a scene in the middle of the novel, among seeders and threshers, an old lady pulls the switch to shunt trains. In between this, she knits to supplement her meagre wages with other activities, something known to most people in those times, and now these. The lines of telegraph poles stretch off in all directions…

A conversation begins between the Doctor and Samdevyatov. Samdevyatov objects to the assertion that a ‘Marxist has to be a mush-minded driveller’, arguing that Marxism is a hard science with an objective view.

The Doctor is pensive. ‘Marxism has too little control of itself to be a science’ he replies. ‘I don’t know of a movement more isolated within itself and further from the facts than Marxism.’ These remarks are treated by Samdevyatov as ‘the whimsicalities of a witty eccentric’. He chuckles and does not bother to reply. The silence in his mouth contains millions of unmarked graves.

These things are not highlighted here to ask for a turn away from Marxism. They are pinpointed to ask for a version of it in the spirit of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, and actually, a dialectics which properly understands how Hegel really figures in all of this.

The theoretically-inclined might get Henri Lefebvre’s little book Dialectical Materialism, republished by Minnesota University Press in 2009.

But the less theoretically minded could do much worse than return to this grand, stylish novel, and others in the series, Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman particularly.

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Real Urban Fiction

Jonathan Hoskins – Own De Beauvoir! (Open School East)

This timely book takes as its starting point De Beauvoir Town, a small area of North East London, bringing together creative fiction, archival photographs and transcribed testimonials of residents past and present to explore questions of value, ownership, authority, community, belonging and identity.

Own De Beauvoir! is the outcome of a two-year research project by Jonathan Hoskins, supported by Open School East. Based in De Beauvoir Town, Open School East is one of a number of alternative art schools forging alternative ways of learning: collectively, informally and apart from the market-driven higher education system.

Questions raised in the book – for example, the merits of local organisation versus central control, how to meet gaps in welfare and services left unfilled by the state, the motivations of those trying to challenge the status quo and provide alternative models, and who benefits from them – are relevant to many spheres of contemporary life, including education and housing.

The first half of Own De Beauvoir! is given over to fictional and somewhat cryptic diary entries by Hoskins, himself resident in De Beauvoir Town, covering a period of just over a year between 2005 and 2006. The resulting journal suggests protest, engagement, direct, guerrilla action of a non-specified nature and a fight against faceless administrators and authorities. Interspersed with these are scans of seldom-seen documents and photographs giving a sense of a prior struggle, that of the 1960s-1980s, when Hackney Council was intent on demolishing the streets and squares of rundown, and in many cases empty, Georgian houses that characterised De Beauvoir Town.

These documents conjure the area’s distinct character: common to both the diary and the archival documents is a sense of creativity, invention and making do – for example, in the pictures of a community centre developed from a former factory site, and community-run adventure playgrounds, or in the posters for self-initiated welfare and advice sessions.

As well as creating a dialogue with the present, this fictional journal – with its crossed out words and disjointed narrative – creates a sense of displacement and fragmentation. It reflects the transience, uncertainty and instability of communities (particularly in areas subject to waves of migration, undergoing gentrification, or where large numbers of people live in accommodation rented by private landlords at inflated costs), of initiatives driven by the goodwill and commitment of small groups of individuals, and of the fabric of the built environment itself as places and facilities are demolished and rebuilt.

For me, much more interesting was the second half of the book, which brings out the driving personalities and stories behind local action and change, both individual and collective, from long-term residents of De Beauvoir Town and an architect who surveyed and reimagined the houses, to community organisers, campaigners and the descendant of a large landowner. The book doesn’t just flip between the 1960s and the present, but creates layers of different eras, including the early nineteenth-century masterplanning project of Garden Squares that De Beauvoir was part of.

Reading Own De Beauvoir!, two thoughts were foremost in my mind. Firstly, that this tale of De Beauvoir Town is just one episode of a story that occurred all over London – and in other towns and cities across the country as part of the post-war programme of slum clearance and rehousing; more recently, there are clear parallels in the ‘Pathfinder’ Housing Market Renewal scheme.

Secondly, it’s easy to see a cycle here: ironically, the past few years have seen several protests in London against the demolition of the types of modernist housing that would have replaced the Georgian streets of De Beauvoir Town. As 1960s (primarily council) estates are demolished, residents have once again fought battles against gentrification and displacement.

The difference is that today land values in London are such that it is hard to imagine whole areas of the city being forgotten about by local authorities, in the way depicted in Own De Beauvoir!, where Hackney is described as an area that has been ‘left behind’; today demolition and rebuilding is often criticised for an overreliance on the private sector, a distinct lack of affordable housing, the dispersal of rooted communities and a form of ‘social cleansing’.

Depressingly, it’s no surprise to read at the end of the book that today De Beauvoir Town has the lowest density and highest value housing in Hackney: those residents that stayed put in the area, and in some cases benefited from right to buy, now seem not just forward-thinking but rather canny.

– Natalie Bradbury

The No Longer Sacred Profane

Jeff Nuttall – An Aesthetic of Obscenity: Five Novels (VP Reprint Series)

It is good to see Jeff Nuttall returning as Jeff Nuttall. Those who care should brace themselves for a whole wave of Nuttall nonsense to come. Papers already exist that link him to Deleuze and Guattari, missing the way Jeff hated them, outlined with little ambuguity in Art and the Degradation of Awareness, one of his best books.

Jeff hating them doesn’t mean those links can’t be made, but those links are very weak. There are theorists attempting to push the cumbersome Nuttall body into genderless Bataillean theorising, which itself arrives largely via Allan Stoekl’s flawed Marxist readings of Bataille. Nuttall was phallocentric if he was anything, performing with his cock and balls out often.

‘The subversive thread of the imagination’ currently being claimed for Jeff, is now the most re-directable force for capital there is, on the planet. ‘Social’ labour on the internet is all surplus value for others who know how to profit from the processes.

‘Happening assemblages’ are supposedly all unconscious intensities, but Nuttall hated what happened to the experiments of Allan Kaprow. The ultimate end of those were U2s Zoo Tour. They were absorbed into Neoliberal Europolitics, the Rock ‘n’ Roll dome of Blair and a Stratocaster in number ten, a rebound from Clinton, the first black man in the white house, with his saxophone.

Nuttall hated rock music, he once told me it was ‘stand up wanks using somebody elses’s fist.’ I’d like to propose that Nuttall is a radical materialist, something that has been and will be overlooked. These collected novels give me ballast.

In them, Nuttall tries to use words, often to describe sex, that will wake our switched off bodies to their anaesthetised conditions, conditions he thought were injected by the presence of the nuclear bomb.

Nuttall’s small press poetry was put out by tiny outfits like Arc, struggling for years and then selling the remainders as rare luxuries. I have never seen the novels and so hats off to Douglas Field and Jay Jones for collecting them in all their profane glory. They have done a marvellous job here.

These novels should be read by all the academics preparing to chop Nuttall’s body up even further to use as fuel in the Higher Education novelty race. Snipe’s Spinster proves what they all conveniently forget, that Nuttall was ANTI-COUNTERCULTURE. Bomb Culture was a way of distancing himself from it all, rather than pulling himself further in.

This does not mean that Nuttall was some kind of conservative, far from it, he saw the counterculture commodified and he disaffiliated immediately. For Nuttall, the counterculture was not radical enough.

There’s lots of fucking of the non-transgender sort. Cocks and fannies. Very British, and the novel writing in between the mad nutty riffs is so very British too. Kingsley Amis sticking two fingers up then getting his wanger out. This isn’t Joyce or Burroughs, no matter how much people want to claim him for ‘non-linearity’.

There’s a clear lineage of music hall smut, stand-up comedian, jazz riffer and scat singer. These novels are a whole lot of fun and they are an antidote to the pretentious radical posturing being performed around Nuttall’s corpse, which oddly makes them a whole lot more radical than they were before, somehow.

I can’t imagine that this collection exists in vast numbers or that they will hang around for long. Get one from verbivoraciouspress.org

Powerhouse Gothic

Joseph Darlington – Avon Murray (Joseph Darlington)

This collection of short stories by Joe Darlington is limited to less than a hundred copies, but it is well worth tracking down. The beautiful cover, designed by Broady Blackwell, suggests that the book dovetails at northern romanticism and neo-goth, Wuthering Heights perhaps, via some of the dark savagery of Ted Hughes. Avon Murray seems like a sick composite of High Peaks and Calder Valley towns.

But this book is also hilarious, in a bleak, nutty, dark way. The overall narrative involves The Search for The One Big Laugh, but The One Big Laugh is also Death. How much more quintessentially northern, of the Greater Manchester region, particularly its outlying Lancastrian towns, can you get?

The answer is none more. But this collection seems equally informed by the European surrealist tradition and bizarre 1970s works of Thomas Pynchon. The Brothers Even More Grimm and Will Self’s early novels, My Idea of Fun. It is not a simplistic leaden Lancashire comedy novel at all.

The Search for The One Big Laugh goes on through the history of Avon Murray. The Enlightenment section is particularly side-splitting, but also philosophically astute. It involves Elgar Nisferdanus, the Alchemist, with his OcculensadPurgatorisSpecularum. Voltaire’s Candide, then, floats ghostlike through the book too.

Then there’s young Toby and his addled father, finding equally raddled vagrants in the shed. Each section melts away into beautiful surrealist prose, leaving you giggling but feeling slightly frisked, before another weird fairground ride cranks up again:

‘She found herself a new man who gave her a new tongue. He’d carved it from all the editions of Capital he’d never read.’

Vintage jazz, poppers and vegan sausage rolls form the backdrop to a man called Stodge and a girl called Frigg, definitely names coming down to us from the Yorkshire Danelaw tradition. Martin Amis would approve of them, they are names that Do Jobs.

The tale of Sally Lumb, M.P., ‘Shievemaster’ and Town Planner, feels as though it is going to complete the narrative of Avon Murray, this Northwestern Twin Peaks. But the whole book is extinguished in the mind-ravishing tale of Celery, the Forest Spirit, seemingly all that is left after the deluge, after all the residents of Avon Murray have been fucked off to a world of pure shit.

That’s plenty of spoilers. You will need to hurry if you are to get one of these editions, run now, before reality itself buckles again: josefadarlington@hotmail.co.uk