English Journey

Tom Jeffreys – Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot (Influx Press)

In Signal Failure, the writer and critic Tom Jeffreys sets out to walk the route of HS2 on foot, from central London to Birmingham.

The future promise of high-speed travel through middle England is slowed down, with Jeffreys stopping to ‘wild camp’ en route, and to meet and engage people directly affected by HS2, from those who live and work on the route to those who are responsible for the land’s upkeep and conservation.

His initial motivation came from the notion that HS2 was a ‘vitally important project to question and analyse – on account of its scale and the number of people affected and what it might say about the country we live in’.

However, Signal Failure ends up simultaneously being about much less than this – it’s a book about the particular and the local, about places as they’re lived and experienced and, inevitably about personal journeys – and much more, posing big questions about value, power, ownership and authority.

Jeffreys wears his influences on his sleeve and places Signal Failure in a tradition of psychogeography as a (once) radical strategy of experiencing and using space. He also draws extensively on writing about travel, landscape and, to a lesser extent, nature.

Whilst he tips his hat to a lineage of heroic and often solitary male writers, Signal Failure is far from heroic – particularly striking for a book about walking and rail infrastructure are the times when Jeffreys has to be rescued by motor transport.

Jeffreys is honest about his own limitations, from his failure to complete the walk in one go, to his lack of knowledge about plants and trees, to (in a particularly memorable and miserable episode) his inexperience around horses.

What’s concerning, he suggests, is not just the lack of transparency around the origins, accountability and decision-making processes of HS2, but the fact that decisions often seem to be made by those with as little knowledge as him.

Signal Failure is partly autobiographical, describing Jeffreys’ Jewish grandparents’ journey from the city to the country, and his own journey in reverse, leaving the ‘home counties’ for university in Oxford and eventually making London home.

This is a common trajectory, yet Jeffreys also discusses a new trend, prompted by an overinflated property market – the flight of young professionals from an increasingly unaffordable capital to provincial cities – which may be accelerated by HS2.

Whilst some argue that HS2 will help bridge the north-south divide and bring London and regional cities closer together, others question who will benefit from a rail system which is already disproportionately expensive to use. Jeffreys also goes as far to suggest that trains actually cut off the passenger from the outside world, erasing the particularity of places which are passed through at speed, and resulting in a lack of depth of experience. Those he speaks to express concerns, too, that far from connecting communities, HS2 will cut through and isolate existing towns and villages.

Another concern is that despite having lived in Europe and travelled around Latin America, the rest of the UK outside of Jeffreys’ own small corner of the South East seems to be a mystery to him. His time in Birmingham – which Jeffreys visits only for the second time during his research for the book – feels rushed in comparison to earlier sections of the book and the eventual northern expansion of HS2 barely merits a mention.

Despite this, the detail of Signal Failure is impressively researched, offering historical context on the town planning that has altered the areas surrounding the route – from the suburban property speculation that shaped ‘Metroland’, to the modernist Alexandra Estate in north London to the redevelopment of post-war Birmingham – and the way in which the development and growth of places has been intertwined with histories of mobility and transport, from canals to motorways.

Signal Failure is also literary and poetic, and Jeffreys situates HS2 well in the surrounding political debates. The book is particularly strong on the nuances of landscape, acknowledging its links with culture, authority and identity, and positioning it as a place that is owned, mapped, managed and controlled.

Jeffreys challenges the accepted distinction between urban, suburban and rural ways of life, describing the Buckinghamshire town in easy reach of London where he grew up in a way many of us will recognise: ‘not quite suburbia’.

Jeffreys also acknowledges the fallacy of the man-made versus natural dichotomy: one of the most telling sentences is when he realises how lifeless and unnatural much of the countryside is, comprising bland agricultural landscapes and views already criss-crossed with pylons, roads and towns. As he notes: ‘One of the things that has struck me most immediately over the course of this walk is how unlovable parts of the countryside already seen.’

Nonetheless, at times Signal Failure adopts a slightly wistful tone, interweaving memory and a sense of loss. Jeffreys maps cultural change, celebrating the village green and cricket matches and eulogising the loss of pubs and communal experiences. Jeffreys ends by questioning whether HS2 is so important on a global scale. As Signal Failure demonstrates, perhaps it’s not the physical infrastructure of the train line, or high speed train travel itself that’s the issue – after all, countries across Europe are already connected much better than British cities – but HS2 should stop and make us think about an economic system which prioritises profit, economic growth and monetary value, and fails to take into account ‘real people’. These, says Jeffreys, are the issues of our time, and affect each of us individually, collectively, locally, regionally, nationally and globally.

– Natalie Bradbury 

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From London to the Sea

Estuary – Rachel Lichtenstein (Hamish Hamilton)

Part travelogue and part-homecoming, Rachel Lichtenstein’s Estuary is a journey out from London along the Thames to the sea. Estuary traces the great river through the capital’s marshy hinterlands and out through the counties of Kent and Essex, from metropolis to open sea via fishing village and seaside resort.

This journey is both metaphorical and literal. Lichtenstein is returning to her roots, in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, where her family home is visible from the river. She takes to the water, on trips that are sometimes fraught with danger, portraying the river as a space of loss and unpredictability as well as a resource, drawn upon and put to use by those living alongside it.

However Lichtenstein’s own biography is only hinted at: instead, she focuses on the lives of those who use the water for living, working and recreation, from fishermen and fishwives’ choirs to boat racers and artists responding creatively to the river, as well as community groups campaigning for the ecological and environmental significance of sites alongside the Themes.

The book aims to create a ‘collective memory map’ of experiences, lives and perspectives, showing the importance of the Thames to work, livelihoods, trade, industry, culture and community. Interviews and shared encounters are interwoven with histories of the river and their physical and cultural traces, from shipwrecks to sunken wartime bombs to the cruise terminals where passengers from the Empire Windrush first encountered their new country, to the brief intervention into the airwaves of pirate radio, to Canvey Island band Dr Feelgood, whose ‘Thames Delta’ sound was inextricably linked to the estuarine vistas of their immediate environment.

A highlight of the book is the time she spends visiting the Maunsell Sea Forts, huge concrete towers originally built for defence, which stand tall above the estuary on stilts. Acknowledging a tradition of Great British eccentricity and obstinacy, she pays a visit to the kingdom of Sealand, a remote outpost constituting one family’s private and vigorously defended castle. Lichtenstein looks to the future of the river, too, considering the ways in which the Thames might be transformed once again by the creation of the Thames super port.

It’s difficult to write about the Thames without discussing landscape and the river’s relation to sea, sky and earth, and the way in which it has shaped and been shaped by the places and activities around it. Joseph Conrad is quoted liberally throughout, yet the book itself is written in a brisk, business-like, workmanlike style, sometimes reading like a factual report on the findings of a research project.

That the river is a working thoroughfare is well-conveyed, but the book leaves little room for passion, poetry or politics, preferring instead to take a matter-of-fact, documentary approach. However, what does come across strongly in Estuary is a sense of change, a notion that this book presents only a snapshot of the river at one moment in time, that it is a place to be appreciated, respected and revisited

– Natalie Bradbury

Holding On To A Dear Life

Various – A Jar of Wild Flowers, Essays in Celebration of John Berger (Zed Books)

It’s tempting to think that we no longer have figures like Goethe, Rosa Luxemburg, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt or Adorno. But John Berger was their equivalent, as was Zygmunt Bauman, who also died recently. Berger may not have made work that sounded or looked like any of those people, but why would he?

His work is influenced by them all to a greater or lesser extent, but he rarely came on like a card-carrying German Idealist philosopher. It is there though, pulsing up from the past.

But now we no longer have John Berger.

Manchester Review of Books covered Tom Overton’s book on Berger, Landscapes, some time ago. This book though, arriving for Berger’s 90th, not long before he passed away, is a collection of tributes.

Berger’s life spans much of the 20th and some of the 21st century, emerging after the second world war, alongside the British New Left. But he carried on, becoming, if anything, more radical the older he got.

I remember reading an essay on Bruegel the Elder and ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymus Bosch. Berger compared the social world in the paintings to our own, implausibly, I thought, at first, until he explained that the lack of a centre, of a focal point, was a description of hell. He compared them to a CNN news bulletin.

It was utterly brilliant: So simple, so counterintuitive; yet so completely correct.

I also remember reading Hold Everything Dear when it came out and getting a sense that he had jettisoned many of the pointless courtly dances of writing. In it, he states, at one point, bluntly, that yes, he is still a Marxist. At the same time, the book is filled with poetry.

Zed Books are a co-op and this seems very appropriate, part of the tribute of the edition. Berger’s leftism never departed from him, it seemed to get stauncher, in inverse proportion to his generosity of spirit.

In London, Berger hung out with exiles who knew a lot about art, but cared nothing for art markets, and in fact were completely scornful of them. Berger was highly critical of the art market all his life, a tradition carried on nicely by Julian Stallabrass, who puts out books with empty squares where the accompanying picture should be, because the copyright is locked down by capitalist cartels.

The titles of the pieces in this collection are just single words, grouped under a themed heading. For instance a section called The Colours of the Cosmos has titles which run ‘Graphite’, ‘Hay’, ‘Fire’, ‘Milk’, ‘Blood’, ‘Forest’, ‘Toast’ and ‘Oil’.

There’s something straightforward and poetic about this, as there was about Berger’s work, and Jean Mohr’s, who also contributes the moving foreword to this collection.

But the universal and particular are one here too. Toast, blood, fire, oil. The cosmos and your immediate surroundings are part of the same vast continuum. But the search for god, or in this case, the god particle at CERN, is pointless, if the mortal lives of all cannot be lived blessedly.

For Berger, as Amarjit Chandan puts it, and beautifully, the ‘existential angst’ is ‘further expanded with the extent of multiplied horizons’.

Put more practically though, this way of titling pieces avoids the usual contents page in a collection, where each author’s long title, well-crafted in isolation, immediately drowns in all the others. This is refreshing.

Editor Yasmin Gunaratnam mentions that Berger met Orwell while working for New Statesman and that some of his style of argument is passed on from Orwell. This simple fact strikes me hard. Just that plain fact, that they met, and the continuum back into the past, into Orwell’s time, or rather Eric Blair’s time, in the Imperial police in India, on the road with ‘vagrants’.

Suddenly I cannot stop thinking about the simultaneous closeness and distance of history. But it is ordinary, too, as Hans Jürgen Balmes shows, in his section ‘Graphite’. He remembers Berger lighting a candle during a powercut and then reading. Suddenly I’m in some place with friends, on a break. Anywhere. The pencil line, fragile, shaking, easy to erase, is history.

Rema Hammami then writes about John Berger’s text messages. The facile notion that somehow newer forms of inscription are profane or less serious, although it is faster or more quotidian, is completely exploded by this section. The SMS message is a fugitive pencil line too.

A very interesting dimension of Berger’s life that is becoming much clearer in this moment of national breakdown is his decision to move to a rural, remote town in France and live there. There are parallels with Henri Lefebvre here, the great urbanist who in fact began in the landscape and life of the French peasant. But Berger also seems to mirror that other very British exile, Robert Graves. Part of the establishment, but pacifist, avant garde and totally dissenting. They left the island and stayed away. Never has this made more sense than now.

You can never escape, of course, in France there is Le Pen, but you can remove yourself to the edges in order to look back in again, awry.

Nick Thorpe and Iain Chambers turn the book towards migration. A Seventh Man is now a book about all migrant journeys. Decades old, it is as contemporary as the breaking news and as universally intense as Homer. Rochelle Simmons’ section explores Berger’s use of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic to open up the politics of race. Simmons unflinchingly points out the ‘limitations’ of Berger’s ‘propaganda by deed’ – in this case donating his Booker Prize money to the Black Panthers – at the same time as celebrating it. Yahia Yakhlef’s final chapter ‘Courage’ makes clear Berger’s commitment.

Gunaratnam writes about Berger’s comments on the photographer Chris Killip’s work, in Thatcher’s Britain, describing it as a series of views of a -20 degree winter where people simply insulate themselves in any way they can to get through.

The same horror is with us again. Out on to the streets you go, and if you are lucky, with a tent or sleeping bag. She describes Howard Becker’s comments on Berger and Mohr’s work, how it gives you what I call in my head ‘truthness’.

There’s a richness to this collection. It unfolds, yields, gives. Nikos Papastergiadis contributes a wonderful section on landscapes, art and creation and how it connects with the human social world. The essay by Gavin Francis on A Fortunate Man is wonderful. It’s one of Berger and Mohr’s most moving books, and, perhaps not surprisingly, one that I rarely see for sale in book shops.

Who will replace the likes of Berger, Bauman and those taken far too soon, such as Gillian Rose? There is much to hold dear here for the art school. There is a generational cliff edge as those of Berger’s generation and the one after pass into retirement. The arts have been coloured pink for a long time, but it is not a natural state of affairs. It can and will change, and now we see how quantifiable outcomes and instrumentalised rationales affect all but the most resistant arts institutions.

However, what’s truly great about this anthology is that it is almost completely multi-purpose. It is of relevance to everyone in the humanities as well as the arts, and to the general reader interested in the new century and the one that has passed and how they connect: This is an electrically passionate collection.

The King and I

Roy Bayfield – Desire Paths – Real Walks to Nonreal Places (Triarchy) 

Around Christmas 2016, after a few days offline, Roy Bayfield discovered that he was existing inside a review.

The Reviewer had realised what the game was. He was not unwilling to play along, but knowing too much, he was also unable to completely immerse.

The witness protection program was full. After 2008, the funds had dried up. Opting for an exemplifying tone and strategy was now the only way out.

Like sneaking into the office and posting the story without a byline, hoping the news desk would publish the devious, lying thing anyway.

The Reviewer had no idea if it had been noticed or written elsewhere, but it seemed blindingly obvious to him that Roy is really ‘Roi’, as in King – with a nod to Ubu – and the Field of Bay means an abundance of laurels to be gathered ‘out there’.

Roy Bayfield. It is a banal but ingenious name, as it reaches right back through and to the Grail Quest. Without mentioning a single Templar, it manages to gather them all into a swollen lineage of questing. The Bay is also the place where all the ships arrive.

All those naughty Crusaders, re-appearing in legions on the Daily Express masthead. Sleeper Cells from the twelfth century staring at the same headlines about migrants and Strictly and Clarkson day after day after day.

‘Bayfield’ tries to make them recede in the text, in order, oddly, to try to desperately raise them with impunity.

But the Grail Quest was always the search for meaning, and this book is definitely about that, under the franchising term of ‘Mythogeography’.

There are many contiguous lines and corresponding points in this book for The Reviewer. André Stitt, who he hung out with, Long Mynd, where caught short, he once had to strain at his stool plein air. Caerleon, where Arthur Machen lived.

Machen’s Great God Pan is based in part on a Roman prayer statue in the museum at Caerleon. It was probably dedicated to Nemesis or one of the other gods called on for good fortune when backing a winner, or rather damning an opponent to hell.

You see, what was thought to be Arthur’s Round Table, at Caerleon, when excavated, turned out to be a Roman amphitheatre. It is likely that the statue Machen saw stood in an alcove in the amphitheatre to allow gambling sports fans to make an offering.

H.P. Lovecraft partly based the Cthulhu myth on Machen’s Pan. This means – if we follow the curve of influence on its oxbow mythological course – that Cthulhu is a kind of good luck keyring for blokes out for a flutter.

Not so scared now, are you?

However, if one takes ‘Arthur’s Round Table’ as the myth of chivalry, as a text of benevolent, patriarchal fairness, which actually concealed a site for sick, bloody, amoral entertainments, the real significatory lode can be accessed again.

Can you see how by slicing right through the surface with a sterile scalpel one really gets to the assembling organs? How merely remaining on the surface doesn’t quite ‘cut it’.

This is not why The Reviewer warns against the occult. Nor does The Reviewer warn against it because it is supposedly dangerous, frightening or dark.

Black Sabbath, Hammer Horror, The Omen films and inverted crucifixes. One should worry about the lightweight comedy and melodrama all of that might bring, emerging, as all those cultures do, across their longer historical curves, from Music Hall, Vaudeville and back into the bardic traditions.

This isn’t to deny light entertainment its place in our scrying practices. This book, in opening, cites Heraclitus next to a song called I Am The Walker by the 1960s mod pop band The Creation. ‘I am the walker’, they sing, but Bayfield omits the following half of the rhyming couplet, which is a declaration that he – the singer, presumably – is also ‘the telephone talker’.

Surely then, after affirming a kind of peripatetic mythologising, the text folds immediately back into what Raymond Williams called ‘mobile privatisation’.

Now, the two have folded into each other, as people walk in public with their earpieces, seemingly schizophrenic, talking to a distant body, attached, one hopes, to a brain.

The kind of schizoid norm R.D. Laing diagnosed is here. As he diagnosed it, The Creation described their music as ‘red with purple flashes’. But this book is grey-green with claret text.

No, the reason The Reviewer warns so strongly against the occult is because via it, as The Metaphysician – as he has demonstrated here – he has you all by The Laurels.

Signing off. Votre Roi, et Ami.

– Roy Bayfield 

On Yer Bike!

JD Taylor – Island Story (Repeater)

It’s strange how ideas of distance change with context. I consider a train journey of three hours or more to be gruelling, a long slog – to travel from Manchester to, say, Plymouth, would be an exceptional undertaking, only to be done in the rarest of circumstances. Say that to an American, though, and they’ll marvel at how compact Britain is, how close together and well-connected its towns and cities are.

In the UK, however, this distance is reinforced by other boundaries, many of them going beyond the geographical to encompass the socioeconomic and political, the cultural and the imaginary – as well as the distance from London, whether physical or perceived. As a born, bred and educated resident of the South East – more specifically, the southern reaches of the capital – JD Taylor’s mission to explore ‘The Island’ by bike, documented in his recent book Island Story, comes across as both admirable and necessary, yet also sometimes naïve.

To start with, the obvious. Taylor’s journey ticks many of the boxes of the conventional heroic male travelogue: he’s a lonesome traveller, setting out on a slightly misguided trip on a wonky bike which he appears to barely know how to ride – let alone maintain, something in which he gradually becomes self-sufficient. He camps clandestinely underneath the stars, at the sides of roads, in fields and in woods, relatively free to pitch up wherever he chooses. Elsewhere, he relies on the kindness of friends, strangers and acquaintances, not just to offer a bed for the night, and perhaps a meal, but to share conversation and an insight into everyday lived perspectives.

He has a vague idea of learning more about the country of which he is a part, at the same time as seeking answers to some pretty big questions around the nature of political, cultural and class identity, Britishness and belonging. So far so Beatnik, and Taylor is adept at literary and poetic description of place.

Yet Taylor is also a philosopher and a thinker, and he challenges many of the conventional narratives of the island, going beyond the surface story to reveal the concealed and the hidden. Visiting the vast, low-rise redbrick council estates on the outskirts of cities, as well as market towns, sleepy villages and far-flung cottages, he suggests it’s the former that’s more typical of the way in which most of the islanders live: in touching distance of both city and country, but somehow removed from both of them.

In the eastern flatlands, he tries to go beyond the stories in the headlines, seeking out the often-exploited foreign vegetable pickers upon whose labour the country depends for cheap food. Taylor also disrupts certain narratives about the north-south divide: for example, he finds Plymouth more like a Yorkshire town than the gateway to Cornwall, and struggling seaside/estuary towns mean the counties of Kent and Essex fail to fit easily into the contented, comforting ‘pleasantness’ he encounters in well-heeled commuter towns in the home counties.

Kent too, he notes, seldom appears in accounts of the miners’ strikes of the 1980s, despite its collieries playing a major part. The North East, Taylor realises, is very different not just from the South East but from the North West; the South West is very different again from the concentrated wealth and commerce of the South East.

Taylor is clearly well-versed in the historical and cultural background of the island, telling its tales through key figures and moments from the past lives of places, as well as their literature and music. He brings out local particularity, difference and strangeness, from regional mutations of language to the continuation of old customs.

Yet he also highlights a lot of sameness in experience and the built landscape from place to place – the book contains a surprising number of visits to McDonalds, as well as written detours about vast, anonymous shopping centres. He captures the complexity and contradictions in the island’s history – not least in its long heritage of migration.

At times, the account becomes sheer wide-eyed wonder – Taylor’s eyes are open not just to urban experience, but to landscape, wildlife and nature – particularly in extended descriptions of Scotland and its islands. What’s significant about the book is that wherever he goes Taylor seeks out people and listens to them, to their concerns and experiences.

Many of them have understandable reasons for feeling disenfranchised and disempowered, economically, politically and culturally – they are what the mass media would term, in the acronym of the moment, ‘JAMs’, or the financially ‘just about managing’, feeling that the norms and values of their class are shifting and under threat from influences beyond their control.

The book can’t help but be critical of the political, social and economic factors that have led to and entrench poverty – one of its overriding messages, captured in a quote from film-maker Patrick Keiller, is that Britain is a rich country populated by poor people – many examples of which are encountered and relayed in Island Story.

Island Story is political without becoming polemical and philosophical without becoming inaccessible. There’s humour in it. There’s also lots of Taylor himself – not just opinion, but well-balanced aspects of autobiography, drawing on the migration across the Irish sea, intercity moves and life trajectories of his own family.

Most importantly, Taylor seeks, finds and highlights the occasional glimmer of hope and dares to suggest some collective solutions. This part of the book is sometimes challenging in its idealism. Some of the suggestions are already in place in pockets – Taylor advocates co-operatives for their model of worker ownership and democracy. Others are already being debated in certain political parties and think tanks, such as a universal basic income, collective ownership and the nationalisation of infrastructure. Other suggestions are more utopian or seem more far-fetched and are less likely to go down well with the populace, such as direct democracy and compulsory voting.

There’s a poignancy to reading Island Story. The book was written, and its journey undertaken, before the 2015 general election and when the EU referendum was merely a blot on the horizon, although in many ways its findings seem prescient and go some way towards explaining the result.

It was published and promoted (Taylor set out by bike once more for a book tour of the country in the summer of 2016) in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit result, when many were in shock yet before the cumulative upset of Donald Trump’s election as US President. Island Story is an important education, both for Taylor and for the reader. After Brexit, the media has sought to scapegoat certain sections of the population – the young/the old, the rural/the metropolitan, the northern/the southern, the working-class and the affluent.

There’s also been much written about so-called echo chambers, the gap between the worldview of the individual, reinforced by the perspectives by which they surround themselves, and the way in which people live and think beyond their own immediate little corner of the world.

What Island Story suggests to me is that we should all be doing what Taylor is doing – seeking out the places and people beyond our own little bubble, visiting them, talking to them and trying to understand them, rather than relying on secondhand accounts and false boundaries of distance, demographics and geography.

– Natalie Bradbury