The Folk folk

Peggy Seeger – First Time Ever: A Memoir (Faber & Faber)

A doe-eyed child holds a harmonica to their lips with two pudgy hands. A sombre looking man sits stiffly on a chair situated behind the child. He appears to be mid-strum of the guitar that he grasps. A lady clutching a dulcimer reclines on a couch positioned to the left of the man. The final figure in the black and white photograph is a mischievous looking boy wearing a beret. He is perched atop a wooden cabinet set at the centre-back of the gathering. His fingers are pressed to his lips. Perhaps they conceal a tiny instrument. Or perhaps he is biting his nails.

The doe-eyed child depicted in the image is celebrated folk singer and songwriter Peggy Seeger, aged two years old. The photograph, dated circa 1937, is the first photograph on the inserts of Seeger’s memoir First Time Ever.

Seeger’s childhood, she writes, was ‘steeped in music’.

The lady reclining in the image is Seeger’s mother, the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. The sombre looking man is Seeger’s father, the ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger. The little boy is Mike Seeger who will grow up to be a folk musician.

Section one of First Time Ever consists of Seeger’s whimsical, entertaining reminiscences of her early years in Chevy Chase, New York.

She describes one spring afternoon during which she was instructed by visitor Jackson Pollock to run across a canvas laid out on her front lawn. Her bare feet were first dipped in paint.

The canvas, Seeger believes, was later discarded.

Seeger writes in the foreword to ‘First Time Ever’ that her memoir is intended as a record of ‘what I think I was, what I believe I am’. Are such musings of interest to the reader?

Indeed they are.

Seeger, labelled ‘voice of experience’ in a profile by The Guardian writer Colin Irwin, is an excellent raconteur.

She recalls, for instance, her seasickness on a steamship voyage across the Atlantic, ‘There was a symphony of misery: tuba squawks of wood scraping wood, drum-drone of the engine, cello pizzicatos as dropped water bottles hit walls…’

Seeger describes milling about a theatre backroom shortly after moving to London in 1956. She spies, for the first time, her future musical and romantic partner the folk singer and songwriter Ewan Macoll. She remembers ‘his hairy, fat, naked belly poking out… The filthy lid of a stovepipe hat aslant like a garbage can’.

Seeger and Macoll’s romantic partnership is the source of much emotional turmoil detailed by Seeger in the memoir.

Their musical partnership was very productive. They wrote and recorded music prodigiously. Together with producer Charles Parker they created the acclaimed BBC radio series The Radio Ballads in the late 1950s.

Through the late 1950s and early 1960s they were regular players at The Ballad and Blues Club in London. Partly at the behest of an exasperated Seeger, a musical policy named The Policy was instituted at the venue. Performers were only permitted to play songs which came from their own cultural background.

Writer Rob Young refers to the Club as a ‘petty dictatorship, a microcosm of imagined musical purity and authenticity’’ in an article on English folk clubs published on The Guardian website.

Seeger makes an impassioned and heavily italicised defence of The Policy against accusations of snobbery in ‘First Time Ever’. She begins, ‘East London vowels don’t really fit with Lead Belly’.

Seeger was aged 83 the year the memoir was published. In a string of ominously titled closing chapters (‘Slow Express to Eternity’, ‘Last Time Ever’) she describes in a jovial tone the illnesses that have beset her in recent years.

‘Frequent, lengthy, audible, malodorous and dense beyond belief,’ she writes of her ‘gaseous emanations’.

Seeger presently lives in Oxford. She is married to folk singer Irene Pyper-Scott. She continues to perform music and she is a passionate social activist.

The most recently dated video of Seeger on Youtube is a clip from the January 2017 edition of the current affairs television programme ‘That’s Oxfordshire’.

Under stark studio lighting Seeger does battle with Oxford City Councillor Bob Price on the subject of a recently demolished Oxford swimming pool.

Seeger gives a formidable performance.

– Abby Kearney


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

Terse Wisdom

Wiley – Eskiboy (Heinemann/Penguin)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Cold Comfort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such moments of relief are brief, however.

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

– Abby Kearney


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

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

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.

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.

Don’t Go West

David Gaffney – All The Places I Have Ever Lived (Urbane)

When Iain Sinclair started to turn from an obscure poet, film maker and parks gardener, into a new explorer of Britain, there were places that he described as essentially ‘off the map’. This meant under-explored parts of London, of Wales, as well as stories so badly served by mainstream accounts, be they from historians or journalists, that entirely alternative readings needed to be produced.

The problem now is that those places, once ‘off the map’, are now firmly delineated in a new canonical cartography. Martin Rowson drew a cartoon of the Iain Sinclair A-Z, all Dr Dee and occult curate’s eggs. This cartoon now hangs in Sinclair’s study. Sinclair’s idea of what is or isn’t a psychogeographic hot zone is now wearing a bit thin. John Harris has a better manifesto, which is ‘everywhere is interesting’, or my own version of that, which is ‘nowhere is not interesting.’

David Gaffney takes us to one of the strangest and most under-explored parts of Britain, a place that is really ‘off the map’ and that is West Cumbria. There is a David Peace-esque Red Riding Trilogy sense to this book, but it is much more magical and strange. Of course, the television series The Lakes delivered an alternative view to the pleasure cruise vision of the area. But West Cumbria is not The Lakes and be very wary of suggesting so to a West Cumbrian.

This novel is also an exploration of stigmata that operates on multiple levels: The original stigmata of Catholic orthodoxy; the stigma of being from nowheresville; the possibly universal stigma arising from the foolishness of youth; the stigma of existing at odds with the status quo on an always already conservative island. The simple stigma of being ‘thin skinned’.

The main signifier for these stigmas is the metallic blisters the main character breaks out in, Gregor Samsa-like, on the opening page. For the celebrated American Sociologist, Erving Goffman, ‘stigma management’ can mean a positive or negative social reaction. If this novel is a manifestation of stigma management as Goffman figured it, it is breaking out in joyful rashes of David Lynch and then singing to them.

But the blisters and rashes are also the burstings out of the Sellafield nuclear power plant. The horrifying everyday risk of one area of the country, mapped onto other horrifying everyday risks, along with the idea that all these risks may or may not be connected…

This novel also has shades of The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills. The caravan. The moronic punk songs. The deadpan, everyday weirdness. It has that dark northern sense of doom, coupled with sheer absurdity. That the problem of life is not, as with Gregor Samsa, the eternal struggle of a basic life form, but an existence tainted by a sheer lack of seriousness from start to finish.

The probem is not necessarily that we are ruled, but that we cannot believe in or take seriously those who rule us, and our stigmas in that sense become marks of belonging to a secret tribe who were born with this truth already installed. But there is a much darker side to this idea, that under these conditions one might flip into extreme reaction.

What is truly great about this book is its confident and economic prose. One example of this is the section where the confession booth is described as ‘talking to a man in a box who is wearing a dress.’ Gaffney only needs to describe the ritual this way to explode it, to expose all its hypocrisy of sexuality, gender and belief.

This economy and skill runs all the way through the book. Fun and psychological disturbance mingle. One laughs, then one thinks, and sometimes what has been dislodged or disturbed in the mind, in your own personal history, is not immediately clear. That is not an easy thing for a novelist to pull off. But we all grew up in a locale that was strange to us, precisely because we formed as humans there. Gaffney explores his own experiences of primal strangeness through this, but in doing so makes you think about your own.

But the thing that really seperates this out from other work is that it has the bravery to deal, if tangentially, with a series of highly traumatic real-life incidents, that of the Whitehaven shootings of 2010. Not only this, but it weaves its strange fiction into the place and events.

If as Adorno said, there can be no poetry after Auschwitz, this novel seems to be prescribing ways to deal with local transgression. Moments that arrive like a lightning strike, where the darkness all around is briefly illuminated, not just on the tiny spot where the amoral transgression hits: These should be responded to by accounting for that whole surreal landscape; a freeze frame, in that one giant moment of flashbulb shock. This is what Walter Benjamin called ‘profane illumination’.

This book is a classic in a heterodox canon of works about Britain that are as far from a Bill Bryson book as it is possible to get. It is the antidote to the default daytime television view of the country, all suburban aesthetics and neatly farmed fields. It is also an alternative type of ghost story to those Sinclair tells, one not loaded with the fetish of occult figures, but stories about real people who are ghosts and the ghosts of real people.

Sous les paves, la vide

Neil Campbell – Sky Hooks (Salt)

The landscape of this novel is very particular and familiar. Apart from some trips away, the story takes place almost completely in the strip around the Manchester university campuses which stretches out to Ardwick, then up to Longsight and Levenshulme. The protagonist gets a black eye outside Retro Bar: These are real places; and of course one asks how much of this is simply biographical, but with the names of those who might litigate changed. In fact, it feels as though it is exactly that.

The tower blocks by the MMU and Manchester University campuses are already important urban geography lessons: Here the largely privileged young make their way through everyday rites of credentialism and qualification, they enjoy the city centre with all its exhilarating, transgressive cultural scenes; yet in and among all of this are places of acute poverty and misery.

This is in fact the landscape of the Russell Club and post-punk Manchester: Hulme is on the border of this book’s territory too. But it is also the post-rave landscape of Mark Fisher, the hollowed out futureless emptiness. Except in Manchester, that void has always been there.

As Peck and Ward observed in 2001, even before the crash of 2008, jaw dropping structural poverty existed. Here, in a tower block by the Mancunian Way, women are on the game, blokes are mugging people for their phones and selling drugs. Campbell is essentially describing the ‘qualities’ of structural, unecessary abjection in the name of riches for the few.

Manchester has long had a psychogeographic tradition, but in 2016, with all the sinkholes opening up – including the now legendary chasm under the Mancunian Way – it is no longer ‘sous les paves, la plage’, but Under the Paving Stones, The Void.

Those holes are very far from just metaphorical: There are terrible jobs in vast, freezing warehouses. At one point our narrator says that manual labour is the worst kind of work there is. He is right. Yet we still hear it, from the Northern Powerhouse House rhetoric to leftwing chest-beating: ‘This wonderful world “we” have lost’; but how many of those who bemoan the loss of industry actually worked a factory job for any length of time without alternatives? I expect none of them.

The protagonist describes being threatened on a monthly basis with job loss, by the company boss, if they don’t work harder. He doesn’t give a toss and rightly so. His work regime only speeds up when he wants to get through the day that way: He knows this life is a dead end, he can see it in those who have been there for forty years. I have had all of those experiences and so have many people I know. This is a book of shared ‘experience’ in the sense that Raymond Williams uses that word: That the working classes have what the posh people call ‘heritage’; and this is fucking it.

J.B. Priestly said something like, when you’re done in the factory, all you want to do is go to a pub to quench your thirst, preferably where there are some girls. You don’t go home and read a book by the fireside like the middle classes. This is not a ‘choice’, this is structural, it is in the labour, and it is in the division of labour. Yet the right and far right dogma piles up, that ‘these people’ have a choice, that behaving differently is somehow a flat decision between good and bad. It is not. Our protagonist says exactly the same as Priestly: Your first pint after work is the best thing you have ever tasted. But the trajectory from there on, short, medium and long term, is of course something else.

But there are no chumpy political speeches or cloying sentiments here. This book is strong precisely because it doesn’t have characters standing by the fireplace talking about co-operation, like some ghastly Walter Greenwood novel. The work it does is largely done through flat description and that description is as close to the interior monologue of a young Mancunian lad of a particular generation as it is possible to get and still end up with a saleable book. For that alone, this novel is surely already a regional classic of some sort.

This book has its nearest equivalent in Mark Hodkinson’s northern writing. It is unpretentious and powerful, cuttingly honest. It would be a mistake to put this book in the lineage of the ‘lad fiction’ that emerged in the 1990s, with Irvine Welsh as its Guru, although I expect some reviewers might.

This book is far too subtle. It tightens its grip on you by loosening its hold. It achieves high results by not trying. It is the first time in a long time that I have immersed myself in a novel, forgetting, for significant periods of time, that I was reading at all. This may be because I am of the same gender, class and probably generation, give or take a decade or so. But that isn’t the whole reason. It silently slides its tentacles around you, showing you how life in structural poverty feels.

All of this is achieved through very workaday description, interior monologue and dialoge. A football, blowing in the wind on the roof of the International College, links back to the protagonist’s failed career with Manchester City. The author has mastered the art of tiny details that do massive amounts of work. It should be given to creative writing undergraduates for exactly that reason. ‘Creative’ as a word arrives loaded with connotations of being ostentatiously free to overflow with ‘expression’. Campbell’s writing sticks deadpan to its own minimal code and by doing so is hugely creative.

There is a section where the protagonist goes through a brief phase of picking prostitutes up on the streets. It is chillingly, shockingly matter-of-fact. It is an incredibly refreshing antidote to the hearts and flowers gush of… well, most contemporary writing, frankly. His youth is rising in him constantly, he ogles the women at work. These obsessive oglings are not edited out, but the book is far stronger and more honest for that. Some, of course, might object.

He goes off to America, naive, and on other trips. He tries to have sex. He honestly describes the banality of failure. He comes back and it feels ten times worse. He is looking for something, but without any of the familiar signposts or advice that arrives naturally in middle class households. His escape, finally, is going to university, one of the big Manchester ones.

At one point he describes folding university hoodies and putting them on sale where the German literature used to be. He is clear that he becomes someone else by going to university and emerging out the other side. I am equally clear, as I work in them, and this detail speaks to the idea, that the university is becoming something else. The book ends with the author publishing his first novel.

Much of the narrative is bleak. But it is what might happen to the escape routes writers such as Campbell have taken that is, for me, the bleakest story of all. The unwritten story, that is nonetheless present. The people who don’t make it through this rite-of-passage, through the class maze, which at the bottom has no clear signposts, will be stuck in dead end jobs. Turning to drink, drugs, prostitution and crime. Or just stagnating in nothing. An early death in emiserating circumstances is the price of this obscene masterpiece we live in.

George Osborne still fantasises about it, and anyone who clings to this fantasy, even just a little bit, should read this book and renew their refusal one thousand fold.