Medicine for the Masses

John Bargh – Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do (Touchstone Books)

I was dying to read this book: Before You Know It authored by Experimental Psychologist, John Bargh. However, I was cautious when the opening line read as follows:

“In college, I majored in psychology and minored in Led Zeppelin. Or maybe it was the other way around”…

Thankfully, I persevered, and although the Led Zep references did reoccur occasionally (making me kind of gag each time), it really did pay off. The project is a huge success. Bargh has done a wonderful job of pulling together such a wealth of research – a lot of which he performed — in such a narratologically pleasing, accessible, and insightful manner. He is likable, if at times he comes across sounding like a cringe-inducing dad. The book is deeply engaging in that it is so relatable and Bargh writes in a kind of welcoming, conversational while thoroughly informed tone. He cites countless experiments without sounding blandly reportive.

I must admit that my opinion isn’t exactly bias-free. I wrote a thesis regarding the application of neuroscientific theory to literature criticism and so I have been reading any and every book on neuroscience that I can get my hands on. Bargh’s ideology is right up my street – he even uses the same analogy for readdressing the way that we think that I used in my dissertation.

Bargh says, “learning to see what is hidden, we acquire a new set of eyes. Or maybe just a new pair of prescription glasses we hadn’t realised we’d needed.” My own work reads: “If our vision is blurry or our eyes strain we put on glasses so that we can see differently – better. If they don’t work we get a new prescription. If our vision changes we adapt the lenses. We don’t walk around with the same blurred views. Open up those windows. It’s about opening the closed mind.” This idea of developing fresh eyes really resonates with me, and I think it is one that could help a lot of people broaden their minds.

If Bargh’s literary capacity is sometimes swamped by the conceptual weight of what he is saying, this does not negate the validity of the concepts themselves. Like most social scientists he has a tendency to repeat himself until a point is at risk of losing its appeal. The concepts are sometimes lost in trailing sentence structures and unconvincing metaphors – for example, he describes a dream he had about an alligator turning over to reveal its soft underbelly as an analogy for turning his thinking upside-down. He talks about that alligator a lot. Forget the damn alligator.

For a book that so successfully conveys the subjective nature of the unconscious, it seems strange that it does not occur to Bargh that his alligator may only hold significance to him. It muddies the point and comes across as a candied technique to engage the reader. But, essentially, he is proving his own theories as he writes. Bargh’s recognition of the subjectivity of significance is well-evidence elsewhere.

I cannot help but apply Bargh’s research and proposed conclusions to my own life and my own subconscious reactions. I imagine that this is the point. Bargh explains that metaphors are rooted in neuro-physical responses — such as “cold-shoulder” and “warm person,” meaning that we actually feel the physical sensation which leads us to describe things in terms of temperature. I have come to suspect that the reason my temperature seems to swing from high to low at the drop of a hat has something to do with my emotional dysregulation.

What Bargh offers is medicine for the masses. One of my favourite parts of the book was the study revealing the ways in which fear motivates a lot of our important decisions and behaviours. Bargh says that “Under threat or fear people are less risk-taking and they resist change” and he shows us that we must not be afraid of change. He demonstrates how our memory “can be fooled by recent experience, but also by the fact that we pay selective attention to some things and not to others.” And perhaps most importantly, the book begs us to question our assumptions, to question in general. Bargh’s suggestions for lines of enquiry include:

“On any given day, how much of what we say, feel, and do is under our conscious control? More important, how much is not? And most crucial of all: if we understood how our unconscious worked – if we knew why we do what we do – could we finally, fundamentally know ourselves? Could insights into our hidden drivers unlock different ways of thinking, feeling, and acting? What might this mean for our lives?”

And one of my own:

Is it because I am depressed that I don’t like salad?

Bargh urges us to see that new ideas will only surface if we are amenable to them – that if you want to achieve something you must open up your mind to the possibility of doing so. I think that this ideology needs to be taught to people at an early age so that they can achieve a better level of control over their lives. The world might be a much better place if people were better educated about the processes of their own brains.

– Blair James

 

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Of Freedom, Fornication and Flatulence

Anthony Burgess, Andrew Biswell and Germaine Greer – Obscenity and the Arts (Pariah Press, 2018)

Malta in 1968 should have been a haven for Anthony Burgess. More Catholic than the Pope (Malta, like Burgess, resented Pope John XIII’s modernising reforms), a tax haven (British ex-pats were taxed only 6 pence in the pound), and filled with the kind of vibrant, sunsoaked culture he had longed for back in stodgy old Britain. If Burgess designed heaven, it would look like Malta.

One can imagine his chagrin upon arrival as he was caught up in a minor fracas over vehicle registration and a major fracas over forty-seven books from his private library. Seized by the censor for obscenities as diverse as sex, drugs, blasphemy, homosexuality and feminism, the books were sent away to be burned as Burgess, a lifelong enemy of censorship, trembled with rage.

To cap it all, his own novel Tremor of Intent would be seized by the censor under its French title, Un Agent Qui Vous Veut du Bien, and burned for its depravity, while the same book was thoroughly commended under its Dutch title Martyrenes Blod, or, “Martyr’s Blood”.

Filled with liberal zeal, Burgess began a letter writing campaign, was interviewed for the local Maltese papers and delivered with a public lecture under the juicy title “Obscenity and the Arts”. It is this lecture which is the centrepiece of Pariah Press’s new book.

Improvised in a typically Burgessian manner, the lecture itself feels like a series of polished witticisms strung together around a central theme. It lacks the unity of his written essays, but is perhaps more energetic, and more direct in its assertions as a result. His trusty thesaurus is left on the shelf.

A biographical introduction from Andrew Biswell accompanies the essay and does an excellent job not only of situating the lecture but also the importance of Malta and battles over censorship in the life of Burgess overall. This is accompanied by some nicely reproduced photographs and two interviews with Burgess taken from Maltese papers.

The second part of the book is a response to Burgess by the renowned feminist scholar Germaine Greer. As much a passionate advocate of free speech as Burgess, Greer takes the author to task for the manner of his defence. The result is a fascinating demonstration of how two writers can agree upon a position in deeply conflicting ways.

Burgess’s love of free speech is rooted in a respect for free will. By an idiosyncratic welding of Catholic doctrine onto English liberalism, Burgess decrees that to ban a book is to limit the free choice of evil, and that it is the divine possibility of choosing good that distinguishes Catholic spirituality from brute materialism. A Catholic government that bans books denies free will, and so cannot be said to be Catholic at all.

The Maltese government would certainly have disagreed with Burgess’ theologising. Such arguments are, after all, much more the line of John Stuart Mill than the Gospel According to John. This is perhaps why Burgess sets aside theory and argues by example; why not ban the bloodthirsty Shakespeare, or the purgative Swift, or the carnal Rabelais? For their obscenity has value, and moral value at that.

Burgess draws a line between the improving arts, which challenge and provoke, and pornography which has a purely mechanical function. Neither, Burgess argues, should be banned, for it is up to the individual to distinguish the one from the other: something a semi-literate clerk in the censorship office is certainly not qualified to do for us.

Here enters Greer. Greer’s arguments, to the modern reader, are equally idiosyncratic, if slightly more sympathetic than Burgess’s. She argues the counterculturalist’s case for obscenity as in-itself valuable (as Burgess swanned around Malta, she points out, the editors of Oz magazine were facing prison time for publishing cartoons) and that, done properly, obscene material can act as a kind of aversion therapy.

It is when Greer takes Burgess to task for condemning the practice of shitting on someone’s doorstep (perfectly acceptable in some countries, we are told), that Greer’s argument shows its limits. Sixties-type permissiveness, we are reminded, often enjoys its own contrarian provocations to the point of destroying its own arguments. Better to blow minds than change them.

Greer’s feminism acts as a counterbalance to this tendency in her writing, however. Condemning porn’s ready availability, she demonstrates its exploitative practices through her own outrageous treatment by her male co-editors at Suck magazine. What matters, she argues, is not the freedom to indulge obscenity, but cultivating the self-awareness necessary not to be depraved by it.

The real meat of Obscenity and the Arts is this tension between voices in agreement. Government censorship, as Biswell points out, is now largely a thing of the past. The argument for free speech has been won, largely through the negative critique of government ineptitude.

Positive critique, however, seems to have slipped by the wayside in recent years. The default position of many young people at university today is a form of soft neo-Puritanism that sees no benefit to hearing out other opinions and tolerates free speech purely because they are against the return of bans. It doesn’t help that the case for free speech is so often taken up by right wing blowhards that it has become synonymous with them in a highly regrettable manner.

This book is not a comment on these contemporary issues, but in its arguments (and Adam Griffith’s artistic responses, also included) there is a certain timeless provocation. In the face of public shaming, both the obscene and the anti-social must be defended.

I highly recommend this book. It is a beautiful object and compulsively readable. It also fits perfectly inside your jacket pocket, guaranteeing that you won’t be able put it down.

Joe Darlington

Flapping Gums

Rachel Cusk – Kudos (Faber and Faber, 2018)

There is a hypnotic appeal to direct speech. Those quotation marks lean out and grab you by the collars, shaking you to attention. When a character speaks directly, it is like they speak directly to us.

Rachel Cusk’s gambit in her latest trilogy is that direct speech is all you need. Having read only the third book, Kudos, I find the results to be arresting, if not entirely conclusive. By constructing an entire novel out of direct speech, Cusk seems to have superseded the novel form altogether.

There is no narrative to Kudos as such, at least not in terms of plot. A writer flies to a writer’s conference and is spoken to by an assortment of characters. The businessman she sits next to on the plane tells a dramatic story about putting down his dog. A journalist tells a gossipy story about her sister. One writer praises another for preferring real life to extravagant plots.

The stories are held together only by the central protagonist who remains almost silent throughout; if she speaks conveyed to the reader indirectly rather than produced verbatim. As a result, Kudos reads more like a disguised short story collection than a novel, or perhaps like an RPG where a silent protagonist runs between NPCs, clicking on them to activate more dialogue.

It can be frustrating. Boring even. A reminder that life is mostly inane chatter.

But it is in the totality of Cusk’s vision that Kudos offers its hidden charms. Each of the voices presents a subtle variation of the world. Cusk’s neat, clipped prose rarely slides into the literary, remaining convincingly real throughout. Her presentation of character’s speech is like reportage, while the content of that speech is familiar, intimate, and occasionally stirring.

Whether it’s the athletic writer who looks down on his shabby, unfit peers with disgust, or the preachy Remainer bemoaning the poor, deluded, terraced-housed-dwelling Leave voters; each speaker passes judgement, each has their ingroups and outgroups. The act of telling stories marks out social place. Each speaker seeks to bring the protagonist over to their standpoint. Their stories place her in their shoes and, in return, they expect her to confirm them in their point of view.

Cusk’s mosaic of voices, inspired by reality or not, appeal to the sociological gaze of the modern literary reader. The search for power structures, social markers and authentic voices finds succour here. The first-person narrator achieves such a level of self-erasure as to become a walking recorder. How life really is is reduced to a contest of stories, a panoply of competing voices.

Which raises again the question of whether Kudos is, in fact, a novel or – perhaps a better question – whether its rejection of certain fictional elements (plot, structure, action, description, objectives, motivation, arcs) results in an advancement of the medium?

Having read only Kudos, I am not convinced. Perhaps a reading of the entire trilogy will change my mind. Cusk has mastered the art of reproducing natural speech on the page; something which is exceptionally difficult and performed beautifully here. Particular stories also verge on the symbolic, adding depth to these one-sided conversations.

Nevertheless, I find myself longing for action and allegory; for a character who makes decisions and passes the judgement that Cusk’s protagonist refuses to. The struggle of the individual to exist meaningfully in the world is the essence of great literature and is notably absent here.

I thoroughly enjoyed Cusk’s daring experiment. I highly recommend it to writers looking to enhance their dialogue, or readers who enjoy close observation. I, for one, will definitely be purchasing Cusk’s next work, although I will be hoping for more story, and fewer stories, next time around.

Joe Darlington

Geography Psychos

Merlin Coverley – Psychogeography (Oldcastle Books) 

Here is the new updated version of Merlin Coverley’s Psychogeography.

I started the Materialist Psychogeographical Affiliation with Mark Rainey and hung around the fringes of the MAP group and received post from the LPA and many other groups in the 1990s. I then spoke at TRIP, MMU Manchester in 2008. I also registered a PhD on British Psychogeography groups in the 1990s at Goldsmiths and had Chris Jenks down to supervise.

I went to a few events and then was horrified enough to drop the subject. Pas de regrets, Mr Debord.

I was cited on the last page of the first edition of this book, interviewing Patrick Keiller about how Psychogeography now boiled down to the Time Out Book of London Walks (which is still in the bibliography here as recommended reading).

The new conclusion is much less acid, which is not to my taste. In fact the aggrieved might suggest this review is sour grapes on my part for being left out of the new edition – apart from the surviving reference – but my take on Psychogeography remains largely unchanged, something which is evidenced by my 2007 article ‘Mind The Gap, Psychogeography as an Expanded Tradition’, for Street Signs, the Centre For Urban and Community Research journal.

Coverley’s book in any edition has never been a history and it still isn’t. What it does is run a timeline through seemingly arbitrary figures such as Defoe – included because Patrick Keiller makes intertextual use of Defoe’s work – into increasingly less arbitrary figures such as Alfred Watkins, and then on into surrealism and the Situationists – where the subject really starts – then out into what I have called ‘psychogeography as an expanded tradition’.

But ‘psychogeography as an expanded tradition’ is actually what Coverley gives us – even though he isn’t explicit enough about this. The Telegraph blurb on the cover which says the book ‘examines, explains and whets the appetite’ is actually a good description of the book’s strengths.

The more positive note Coverley ends on in this edition, which essentially places Nick Papadimitriou at the head of that tradition, is a good one too. If there is decent published work being done it is by him and a few others.

However, I cannot say the same for the figure he lumps in with Papadimitriou, Will Self. Self is that quintessentially English figure, the scoffing, jeering, privileged intellectual who also manages to be anti-intellectual at the same time, witness his trolling and then baiting Zizek like a common badger. Self, surely, is the perfect replacement for all those slimy Victorian flaneurs, and not to be celebrated at all.

I suspect Chris Jenks, as VC of Brunel, had a hand in Will Self’s appointment to teach there. Jenks also doffed his cap to Her Royal Highness and awarded himself some stupefying pay rises while he was at it: Radical.

Will Self’s column ‘Psychogeography’ was about specific things that happen in specific places. In the less successful versions ‘site specific’ becomes a mere fetish of the ontological strangeness of place. It therefore opens itself to class or ethnic tourism because ‘strange’ is rarely your own living room. If even less successful it simply opens itself wide to vacuous indulgence and stays there.

Coverley brings in Self’s walking and his struggle against addiction as a replacement for the romantic tropes he can no longer use: The Sorrows of Young Self. We’ve been through far too much of this kind of nonsense to be tolerating it now.

The anti-intellectual intellectual. How very England, 2018. He is the self-loathing that England seems to have become en masse. A sort of nasal sneer on legs. A kind of virus with shoes, if the death drive were able to be a virus. Anti-thinking – unless it’s done by him – and anti-European: How very English.

But both Papadimitriou and Self have history as addicts and I guess Coverley places them in ‘the lineage’ because of this, running back one assumes to De Quincey. But Coverley misses the recent research on De Quincey as a biological racist. Is that in this book? No.

The literary dimension of this book – Coverley is a bookseller – means that ‘The Canon’ is in the background, unspoken, all the way through. Harold Bloom, Leavis, that lot, all of them.

Coverley’s climax of Papadimitriou and Self then tends to collapse somewhat under all this. It’s the usual applause of the addict if the addict is supposed an intellectual rather than an estate junkie on the rob.

If it’s in cool clothes and the LRB then it’s oh so very wonderful darling, as much as the scum down the road are the direct opposite. It also puts some extra metaphysical nonsense into the act of walking, walking high, walking with access to occult knowledge, all of it sets up and lifts aloft a priesthood and we’ve definitely been through far too much of that nonsense.

Jeff Nuttall once moaned to me that some of his colleagues in the People Show with their ‘posh Sunday paper cred’ wanted to remain ostentatiously free to do whatever they pleased and Psychogeography definitely attracts that kind of pseudo-anarchist narcissism.

If Psychogeography is anything now it is where the art and geography schools meet in universities and in particular art scenes. The list of psychogeographic film in this book reveals a particular taste fetish as much as it shows a collection of aesthetics or particular epistemologies.

Pyschogeography is taught in universities as solidly as romantic literature was, although its largely practical nature has meant that it has replaced cricket as the thing to do on Wednesday afternoon. It has become the new extracurricular activity.

‘Psychogeography?’ we did some of that at university. I put it to you that cricket is far less jingoistic an activity than Psychogeography.

Here comes someone now, to tell me ‘psychogeography as an expanded tradition’ really is an open, hybrid, totally inclusive rainbow. Unless, of course, you are negative about that inclusive rainbow, at which point he will exclude you.

In my experience this kind of supposedly avuncular micro-trolling actually constitutes a hard core of the subject. Via one particular figure who has monopolised the discourse the MPA now exist in corners of the world, in art gallery discussions, in MA theses, typecast as miserable puritans when he never went to a single one of their events, cocktail drifting included. In fact, only Mark Rainey and I ever went to one.

The thing that the middle classes do is make borders between themselves and their neighbours. In the hipster, new cultural capital is being generated constantly by a particular haircut, a certain piercing, an even tinier bicycle. These are, after all, the real borders that matter to Psychogeographers: ‘I’m a Neo-Metageographer‘.

In contemporary British universities there is a direct but inverse relationship between the testimonies to radicalism and the radicalism that can be found there. The louder the boast the deeper the lack of radicalism in the university in which it is being declared. The university now is a place completely intolerant of any real radicalism. No wonder that any discussion of the subject – including the one that will come after this review – tend towards one-upping lippiness.

This is before we even start on ‘Prevent’ duty towards Islamic radicalism being rolled out in universities at the same time as this nauseating middle class posturing about ‘being radical’ happens (and is then written up and submitted for RKE funding).

The most interesting recent article on Psychogeography was Andrea Gibbons’ ‘Salvaging Situationism: Race and Space’, which was concerned with the Algerian section and the dropping of Psychogeography by the Situationists thereafter. The Algerians couldn’t like drift, man, they were under curfew and surveillance.

Anthony Hayes’ and others have given shitty responses to Gibbons’ article as the sad armchair orthodox party-line toers of a party that barely existed in its own time. Hayes has that neo-Debordian tone of sheer male pomposity and arrogance that characterises the very worst of the Psychogeography tradition. The S.I. may have railed against France in Algeria but they dropped the Derive and ran off in their nice but scuffed brogues. Is a robust discussion of any of that in this new edition? No.

The urge to mystify and therefore exclusivise quite simple practices is at the root of the contemporary expanded tradition of psychogeography. I walk around and think about stuff. I walk about and get ideas from the landscape. I take a notebook and camera and write things down then make work later. Good journalists and writers have been doing this forever. Walking in a circle is useless. Walking in a ghetto is not, a rich ghetto, a poor ghetto.

The attempt to make intellectual and cultural capital out of this mirrors the way the market more widely hoovers everything into commodity form. Here the end result is offered to the university, which after the Consumer Rights Act was applied to it a few years ago is now one more branch of British consumer industry like any other. And therein can be found most of the supposed spectacle-busting radicals and pretend anarchists.

But none of this is particularly amazing to me. The absolutely amazing thing about this new edition is that it inhabits a bubble which appears to have wombed its author away from the last ten years of politics in Britain completely.

Alastair Bonnett wrote a paper for Theory, Culture & Society in 2009, on identifiable strains of nostalgia within ‘radical’ political groups. Among his examples are the Situationists and British Psychogeography groups. Earlier, in 2006, Bonnett described the:

‘…idea of nostalgia as a removable stain upon the bright clothes of proper politics, something that anyone who is not a fearful conservative can and should have nothing to do with. Yet, as we have seen, the most outrageous revolutionary politics of the last century contained clear nostalgic tendencies. Nostalgia isn’t a disease, nor is it a virtue. One can turn away from it, but it remains nevertheless.’ In this, I think, it is possible to detect the strains of romantic nostalgia emerging from beneath the surface of Bonnett’s paper. He wishes to ‘…show that a newly confident politics of nostalgia can be glimpsed within this milieu: at the counter-cultural margins of society radicalism is (once again) becoming tied to a popular politics of loss.’

A popular politics of loss is strongly detectable within leftwing discourses, and Bonnett places them there, but for ‘radicalism’ the UK far right organisations the English Defence League and British National Party now give the most strikingly retrograde view.

The Situationist International, or 1990s British Psychogeography groups, none of them are Britain First or the EDL. But what all those organisations share is their use of a radical collage loaded with signs, which then become fragmented and re-ordered within an entirely new regime of meaning. Politics and aesthetics have always been a deadly mix. Crucial to this process of symbolic and social collaging is the simple fact that a popular politics of loss was being urged for by Bonnett, right at the moment when popular politics was lost, a haunted, staggering, zombie figure.

Popular politics is now back, it is what Bonnett wanted, and it is fascist. I’ve been saying this since the articles came out, but nobody dare publish the point, or they have been far too ignorant.

But this hard right romantic populism isn’t new either, it has just come to the fore. In 2010 The British National Party attempted to exploit fears regarding a possible undermining of ‘community’ via a leaflet with Winston Churchill on the front cover, his face merging with a union jack flag. The expression on Churchill’s face in the portrait the BNP used seemed to express a mixture of gravity and pride. The BNP were mobilising Churchill as a signifier of Britain under attack during World War II.

Not only does the BNP leaflet attempt to connotationally re-map the ‘attack’ of World War II on to processes of immigration, but it also attempts to re-vitalise the kinds of nostalgia which might look back to the ‘blitz spirit’ as a positively imagined form of community, in the face of its presumed lack in the present.

Interestingly, the BNP also highlighted in their leaflet what they clearly saw as an ‘irrational’ mapping of borders by the European Union: They re-presented a map of all the counties in the ‘Manche region’ of European governance, which includes Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Hants, as well as Somme, Calvados, Cotes D’Armor, etc., across the Channel.

It doesn’t matter that this new significatory whole falls apart in your hands with just a little unpicking. It may be epistemological hypochondria, but it ‘works’. That leaflet also counts as Psychogeography.

Well, that was eight years ago and look where we are now.

Alastair Bonnett made his points well and nostalgia does, I think, present us with a series of dilemmas. In the Psychogeography groups Bonnett describes, we have another form of looking-back to reinclude previous traditions, ideologies and historical material, in order to look forward. Here is another set of cultural collages fakely presented as a lineage or great tradition: Merlin Coverley’s book on Psychogeography is an ‘expanded tradition’ in that it re-includes a-historical material to create an ideological collage for the present which is declared as history.

The examples I use here all share this ‘fake collage’ approach, and they are not directly linked to the writing of history in an academic sense, to be clear, or to simplified histories taught in schools. These collages are deployed on the ground by supposedly ‘autonomous’ cultures empowering themselves with aestheticised rhetoric.

Bonnett outlines how for him nostalgia and looking forward can somehow resolve into a worthwhile creative praxis. Bonnett’s understanding of his subject is genuinely complex, he sees nostalgia as simultaneously ‘refused and deployed’ within the sprawling psyche of the subject. But nevertheless, he is interested in finding resolution within ‘radical nostalgias’.

I am much less interested in resolution, and I see much British Psychogoegraphical literature as intentionally, radically, unresolved. The search for ‘resolution’ is always also the search for ‘home’.

Bonnett goes on to examine the work of Iain Sinclair – an important literary fiction writer, influenced by occult forms of psychogeography – in relation to some of the 1990s psychogeography groups, and what he has to say here is telling in this respect:

‘These groups shared with Sinclair a quixotic, love-hate relationship with the past. Like Sinclair, they emphasized historical re-readings of the everyday landscape and exhibited an uneasy combination of deracinating modernism and folksy localism.’

Bonnett describes how Sinclair made his own books, bread and yoghurt. We hear nothing of Sinclair’s wife’s job as a schoolteacher in Hackney, or the commune they gradually bought out there. This ‘folksy’ localism, which Bonnett describes positively, still sits and moves around on the old base-and-superstructure of property ownership.

Living frugally in a nice area where things are cheap is allowed by wider forces and social contexts than just the desire to do so. Sinclair doesn’t make his own books anymore, most of the titles on my shelf were printed in Guernsey, but someone will have to ask him about the bread and yoghurt.

That was then, now we have the mass social cleansing of London.

Attempting to make laudable the politics of nostalgia and loss back then, in the face of a still relatively free market economic system, hoovering up vast tracts of capital in what David Harvey described as a ‘re-capitalisation’ was a stretch. Now it’s nauseating.

What is really happening here is that some are accumulating, and that accumulation is always tied to the dis-accumulation of others, and its attendant geographies. These arguments have an increasing relevance, particularly when aestheticised forms of localism seem to be the default defensive responses to the repeated failure of the compact of neoliberal government and consumer capital to provide anything like a stable social apparatus.

This is heavily underscored by the crash of 2008, and its still-ongoing aftermath. But of course ten years later we can see the popular politics of nostalgia Bonnett loved was heading to the alt-right, Brexit and the rise of everyday racism and a spike in racist attacks and violence all along. Bravo. Well done all. Is any of that in this book? No. Is Bonnett still referenced uncritically? Yes.

I could write a cracking book on this subject, but it would be a total waste of time, as the field is so clearly populated by the inheritors of Richard Neville’s ghastly Playpower, at the same time as those people claim to be everything but.

But of course the great smoking gun of Psychogeography and its transformation of all the world is there for everyone to see, isn’t it?

Perhaps they need to move on from Psychogeography to Psychoanalysis.

– Steve Hanson 

Ode to Sussex

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Natalie Bradbury

Beyond the ‘Basildon Man’

Radical ESSEX (Focal Point Gallery, 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natalie Bradbury

Pillar of Hercules

Nicholas Rankin – Defending the Rock: How Gibraltar Defeated Hitler (Faber and Faber, 2017)

There are times when the exchange of a single syllable for another would have resulted in an entirely different history of the world. On 23rd October 1940, Hitler asked Franco for permission to move his Panzer divisions through Spain in order to attack Gibraltar. Franco said “no”.

The simple exchange of a “no” for a “yes”, Nicholas Rankin argues in his new book, would have had profound consequences.

Standing at a whopping 650+ pages, Defending the Rock is a magisterial defense of Gibraltar’s importance during the second world war. He combines individual stories with tactical analyses, cultural insights with empirical data. It’s meticulously researched and pleasingly written. I read the book over my Christmas break and barely put it down to carve the turkey.

Rankin traces the peninsula’s contested history prior to the war, the better to situate us once the war begins. And by “before the war”, I mean long before. We begin with the peninsula’s geological origins.

During the Zanclean flood, when the Mediterranean first filled with water, the power of the inundation turned the Rock on its side. The resulting peak, known to the Greeks as one of the two Pillars of Hercules, proved militarily impregnable for a whole host of inhabitants, from the Moors to pirates to, in the seventeenth century, the British.

The British Empire is an essential element of the Gibraltar story. Why else would anyone want to hold on to such a tiny piece of limestone sticking out into the sea? The Spaniards never wanted it, nor, really, did the Moors; that’s how a gang of drunken British sailors were able to take the Mountain of Tariq in the first place. “Jabal Tariq” became “Jabaltar” then “Gibraltar” through rum-soaked Anglophone repetition. The peninsula found its purpose as a place to park boats on their way down to Africa, or heading round the Horn to the Raj.

After the opening of Suez, Gibraltar became even more important. Many Empires have laid claim to the Mediterranean over the years – the Romans called it “our sea”, as did Mussolini – but it was the British Navy, stationed at Gibraltar, Suez and Malta, who could really claim to rule those warm and war-tossed waves.

The Napoleonic Wars brought cannons and sappers, and the first closing of of the border to La Linea, the Spanish town next door. The Battle of Trafalgar was mere miles away and Gibraltar, underestimated as always, played a critical role.

As we cut to the second world war itself Rankin’s history appears to move between three historical levels. Firstly, the grand tactical maneuvers of the fighting forces. Secondly, the politics, internecine struggles and ultimate resilience of the Gibraltarian people. And finally, the surprising number of cultural figures who passed through the base at wartime and the ways it impacted their lives.

The Spanish Civil War, for example, brought famous spies and freedom fighters to Gibraltar, hoping to sneak over the border and join the fighting. Hitler and Mussolini first began their surreptitious campaign against the base using their support for Franco as a cover, and, in spite of many working class Gibraltarians supporting the Republicans, the peninsula became a haven for right wing royalists and Syndicalists cast out during the Falangist coup.

Rankin, whose other works include Churchill’s Wizards and Ian Fleming’s Commandos, two excellent books on wartime intelligence, combines a nuanced understanding of spycraft with an eye for a great story. My favourite of the many sneaky shenanigans depicted in the book was that of Mussolini’s frogmen, who drove two-man-operated self-propelled torpedoes across the bay from La Linea into the Naval Base.

Some mis-steered, others blew themselves up and some, perhaps more sensible, abandoned their torpedoes after guards began shooting into the water at them – only to then return the next week with new ones.

The man tasked with checking for mines beneath British ships, we are told, could barely swim. He was the only one mad enough to do the job, and it won him a George Cross.

Gibraltar was also the staging post for the controversial attacks on Mers-el-Kebir and Dakar. Rankin tells the unfortunate story of Churchill deciding the bombard the French fleet (turning the French against us but, he argues, securing the support of the Eastern Empire) through the sailors who had shared port facilities in Gibraltar only months before.

Before the war, it is worth recalling, Gibraltar was a staging post for all kinds of vessels. Hitler visited in the mid-1930s, and the mole was hung with swastikas in greeting.

Evelyn Waugh passed through on his way to a defeat at Dakar. The story of bureaucratic ineptitude, tactical folly and humiliating flight would provide the raw material for his masterpiece, the Sword of Honour trilogy.

He was not the only figure to flee to Gibraltar after a humiliating defeat. The Emperor Haile Selassie, ruler of Ethiopia and God Incarnate of the Rastafari, fled his nation after the invasion of Mussolini’s forces in 1935. No major power was willing to help independent Ethiopia in repelling Mussolini’s illegal invasion, and as Selassie abandoned his country the League of Nations was shown to be a paper tiger.

Only when setting foot on British soil in Gibraltar did the Emperor feel secure again. The British gave him a royal welcome, despite his now dethroned status. Respecting his deposed government would also set a precedent for our wartime relations with Free French, Free Polish and other governments-in-exile.

The everyday lives of Gibraltans and of their neighbours in La Linea are depicted with tremendous sympathy and understanding by Rankin. Although, comparable to other bases like Malta, the rock escaped the war relatively unscathed, he perfectly captures the tremendous tension that the war brought. Countless times the island was saved, sometimes by the heroism of its defenders, sometimes by the incompetence of the Axis, who were so obsessed with panzers and stukas that they left the theatre-defining control of the waves to the Brits.

It was the fear of the British Navy which lay behind Franco’s “no”. It was also his country’s tremendous poverty, which superseded his ideological commitments, and that a British/American blockade would exacerbate. It was also the advice of his generals, a number of whom, Rankin points out, were on the British payroll.

Vast sums were spent on bribing these crooked generals. Britain also met with international condemnation for its willingness to accept the Franco government after the Civil War ended. Both, in Rankin’s narrative, are political sacrifices made in the name of keeping Gibraltar free.

So what would have happened if Franco had said “yes”? Well, as an immediate consequence, the Axis would have controlled the Med. Malta would have fallen, as would Suez. The battles in the Middle East and over El Alamein could never have taken place. The “Empire beyond the seas,” who Churchill boasted would never surrender, may have never even joined the conflict; the journey around the Horn of Africa being too dangerous. Britain could have fallen before America even entered the war.

These are some dramatic “what ifs”. To live with such a daily threat above your head must have been chilling. To take their minds off things, the Gibraltans built tennis courts and erected a library between bomb craters.

Anthony Burgess, a favourite of ours here at the MRB, crops up towards the end of the book. He was stationed on Gibraltar near the end of the war. The fighting, by his arrival 1943, had reached mainland Europe. Burgess spent his time in the Educational Corps teaching the British Way and Purpose to hungover squaddies, visiting brothels in La Linea, making notes for his novel A Vision of Battlements, and debating the merits of Gibraltan independence.

Burgess, as he would in Malaya and Brunei, learned the language the better to immerse himself in local culture and, more importantly, to avoid spending time with British officials. He would later brag that, unlike James Joyce, he could speak the language of Molly Bloom: herself a Gibraltan by birth.

Defending the Rock is a tremendous book, one that turns a relatively obscure subject into the stuff of epic drama. It is compulsively readable, and justifies its length by combining multiple complex narratives into a satisfying, almost novelistic structure. It combines touching human stories and literary allusions in such a way that pacifistic readers like me will be hooked, while also containing plenty of wartime action for those of a militaristic bent. It’d also make a cracking present for dad.

Inspired by the subject matter, my review too has become rather long. Reduced to a single syllable, I’d say “yes” to this book.

– Joe Darlington

The Burgess Reviews Reviews No.3

Anthony Burgess – The Ink Trade, Selected Journalism 1961-1993 (Carcanet, edited by Will Carr, 2018)

Burgess has been deemed a monstre sacré (by someone unimportant), which, of course, he is. Has been said to write with “a badness at once so surprisingly defiant and so exceedingly obvious” (by someone else ridiculous). It is this defiance and this haughtiness that make his reviews so bloody enjoyable.

Burgess cared greatly about language, and, with it, language’s herculean guardians; it’s male mothers: Nabokov, Hemingway, and Wilde. He wrote consistently on brothers Vladimir and Ernest, and, though Oscar was not so prolific within Burgess’ work, consideration of this third review of a great literary man makes a nice collection.

They are all men, of course. As a friend of mine quipped recently (and accurately), “the only woman Burgess ever writes about is his first wife”. He often focuses on masculinity. He discusses Hemingway’s manly stature, his sportsmanship, hairy chest, and cojones. He notes Wilde’s similarly manly stature, his manly drinking ability, and, of course, his manly love. He once even cited Hemingway’s plain style as “emasculated” in fact as “the medium preferred by the most vauntedly masculine of writers” (appreciation of the word vauntedly well due).

Burgess speaks of each man in complimentary terms, though one may definitely sense some self-defensive reluctance. Years earlier in an interview with John Cullinan he denounced Nabokov as “unworthy to unlatch Joyce’s shoe” however it seems that over time Burgess grew a profound admiration of him. Perhaps longing for the bygone dandy. Needless to say, he produced innumerable writings on Nabokov, even stretching to say that he was “one of the few living writers I honestly admire and would, had I the equipment, like to emulate”. But it wouldn’t be a Burgess review without jabs such as this one: “He’s not afraid of being snobbish, which is a good thing because now he can afford it.”

We can easily deduce that Burgess had a soft spot for Hemingway, writing even more prolifically on the American writer than the aforementioned Russian. In the same Cullinan interview, he states that Hemmingway had a “curious freshness of vision”. In this article, previously unpublished, he repeats a lot of sentiments from other commentaries, but we get a more personal look in. He speaks of Hemingway as of an old friend.

The Wilde review (well, the Ellmann review, I guess) feels much more detached than the previous two, but we still experience a charming, while rational, air of respect. Burgess’ language is lovely and flowery in this one as though emulating Wilde’s own style. Words like “refulgent” knock into their partners, “imperial” in this case, prompting conscious, homonymic investigation in the reader – or at least, in me. His playfulness extends to the title of the piece: “Wilde with all Regrets”, which subverts the title of Wilfred Owen’s poem “Wild with all Regrets”. Owen’s title in turn lends its words from the Tennyson Poem “The Princess”. The line reads “Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;” Considering Owen’s address of the poem to Siegfried Sassoon, together with Wilde’s homosexuality, we can assume that Burgess has enjoyed an educated little laugh. Oh, Mr Wilson, how clever you are. He calls Wilde “a great subject”.

But as he speaks of these men, I cannot help but perceive empathy fuelled by self-preoccupation. This is how I read too, so I don’t mind. When he speaks of Nabokov’s dandyism, the great struggle of originality that bequeathed itself upon Hemingway, the glitteriness of Wilde – it just sounds as though he is speaking of himself. Ever the aesthete, he defends not Nabokov’s dandyism but his own. Discussing Hemingway he says, “but life is life, and fiction is fiction, and it is sometimes dangerous for them to touch”. Really, John?! Was it dangerous for you? Burgess is known for “effortlessly reinventing” his past “or at least giving some of it a more satisfactory shape” in the same way that he accuses Hemingway. I think that he felt a kind of connection with these guys through language. In Urgent Copy he writes that self understanding requires “a concern with language” and that “only through the exploration of language can the personality be coaxed into yielding a few more of its secrets”. And perhaps he is revealing his own secrets by engaging with these writers.

Language is definitely of top concern in these three articles. He believed that language and wordplay should be of top concern to anyone. In the Hemingway piece, he quite greatly questions, “How can you explain to the great public that one of the most important things in the world is to invent a new way of saying things?” We really hear Burgess shouting not for Hemingway’s but his own, and, in fact, all writing. He defends Wilde as “unforgettable”, Nabokov as a transformer of language. So these men, these towering manly men, are also pillars of language – or it may be that they break those pillars with their huge manly fists. Yes. And Burgess wants them broken too. Some of the most poignant points made in these pieces are more of a hammer to the roots of literature than a comment on the writers themselves. Take this for example, “nobody cares about style, language, the power of the word.” I want to say that Burgess recognized lost brothers in his fellow writing men, and expressed a communal sigh on their behalves. He talks mainly about their lives outside of Literature, as he so condemns others for doing, and yet manages to say so much about the state of Literature as a whole.

Burgess identifies one main obstruction for his three boys: Scandal. The sodomy, the censorship, the suicide. The sin! And I think that he felt that a kindred scandal had been attached to him. Burgess says that this focus on the scandal of a writer’s life “continues to get in the way of sober appraisal of his literary achievement”. He certainly distanced himself from his own scandal, dare I speak the words, A Clockwork Orange. He wants Wilde “cleansed of scandal” and perhaps he sees himself as similarly dirty with notoriety. Perhaps we should engage with writing on its own terms. He may be arrogant and chauvinistic, and he may have a habit of mixing his dates up, but it seems that Burgess tried to adopt the role of valiant, though uncompromising, protector and defender of great literature.

– Blair James

Reviews covered

Last of the Literary Dandies

A Very Blasphemous Fallacy (Previously Unpublished)

Wilde With All Regret

Childhood on the Prairies

Keith Erwin Brower – Chronicles of the Glen: Childhood Anecdotes at Poplar Glen Farms (Friesen Press, 2017)

There is a long tradition, in both fiction and non-fiction, of writing about childhood on the Canadian Prairies. Perhaps most notable are William Kurelek’s A Prairie Boy’s Winter and A Prairie Boy’s Summer. Keith Erwin Brower’s Chronicles of the Glen is a welcome addition to this tradition. The book is a series of recollections about Brower’s early childhood on Poplar Glen Farms – a small family farm in eastern Alberta. There’s a natural ease to the writing and, no doubt, these stories were told and retold to children and grandchildren long before they were committed to paper. Each story carries a youthful fascination with the world. It’s infectious and as readers we share in the unfolding sense of discovery that each chapter brings.

The Canadian Prairies are defined by their seasons. There are blazing hot summers and prolonged, freezing winters. The depth of each season and their transition into one another provides a current that runs throughout the book: from the vulnerability of a small farm during a winter blizzard to picking wild mushrooms in the fertile soil of the barnyard following a summer rainstorm. Spring was a time to witness new life, whether among the livestock or in the wild. And weekly family walks through the surrounding pastures and forests were a key part of learning about nature as a child. To grow up on a farm is to grow up alongside animals and some become recurring characters in Brower’s book. There are the workhorses Lexi and Flicka, Teko the bull and Mona the mischievous dairy cow who nonetheless has a fondness for children.

Chronicles of the Glen depicts life in rural Alberta in the early 1950s. An important aspect of this book is the sweeping social and technological changes that Brower witnesses in the mid-twentieth century. The workhorses are eventually replaced with tractors, herd sires with artificial insemination and static threshing machines with combine harvesters. Yet, within all these changes Brower also describes the continuing ‘fine art’ of farming – from laying fences and building construction to rigging machinery for multiple uses. There’s a craft and ingenuity to it all. And as Brower illustrates each story these everyday practices (as well as everything else) are brought to life in his unique visual style.

Poplar Glen Farms is about 5km northwest of Wainwright, Alberta. I know the place well. My mother was born there and – full disclosure – Keith Erwin Brower is my uncle. I have many fond memories of the farm: rolling down the grassy slope in front of my grandparents’ house as a child, hockey games on the frozen pond in the sheep pen and playing in the fields and forests with my cousins. The crunch of snow underfoot while walking between houses on a crisp and starry winter night will be an abiding memory of Christmas on the farm. Throughout my childhood I had an ongoing internal debate over whether pasteurised milk or unpasteurised milk tasted better. I called them ‘town milk’ and ‘farm milk’. I’d think over the merits of each whenever I sat for breakfast around my grandparents’ table with a glass of ‘farm milk’ in hand. There’s no debate now. ‘Farm milk’ is the clear winner . . . I’m retreating into my own memories here. . . Reading this book by Uncle Keith is a reminder of the indelible link between place and memory in shaping who we are.

The town of Wainwright, Alberta was once home to Buffalo National Park which operated between 1909 and 1939. It was a state-backed attempt to preserve the plains bison (or buffalo) which were facing extinction at the opening of the 20th century. An initial herd of around 700 was brought in from Montana and within three decades the park had produced over 40,000 buffalo. However, Buffalo National Park became a victim of its own success as disease and starvation spread among the expanding herd within the bounded Park area. As Europe lurched into another war the Park was wound down and the site converted into a military base. The preservation of the plains bison speaks to a wider history of the Prairies. It’s a history wrapped up in colonialism and the devastation of peoples and cultures and wildlife. While the seasons continue to pass with seemingly eternal regularity, the Prairies have also witnessed three centuries of irrevocable change. The plains bison, for instance, will never migrate across the North American continent again. The literature on this history is as expansive as the Prairies themselves. My own reading is limited – a drop in the ancient ocean that once covered the area. Irene Ternier Gordon’s A People on the Move: The Métis of the Western Plains offers insight into the everyday life of the Métis Peoples over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries – including the practical, cultural and eventual political significance of the plains bison. And Grant McKewan’s biography of John Ware details the life of one of Alberta’s most famous cowboys. John Ware was an African-American slave who, following the American Civil War, herded cattle across North America and eventually took up residence in what is now Alberta. Both these books depict a key period of transition in the history of the Prairies: after colonisation but before the expansion of the railway and wider settlement. Significantly, both books are also primarily based on oral history and testimony passed down through generations. Such shared stories form part of the connective tissue of the cultural history of the Prairies, whether as the living memory of pre-colonial Canada or as witness to lives lived in changing times. Brower’s book is another thread in this social fabric.

There is a certain power to childhood stories. They bring a simplicity to otherwise complex situations. And they are often imbued with a sense of awe. The title of Brower’s book is a clear reference to The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis. It’s a series of novels about children who discover an alternate, magical world. Narnia is full of adventure, excitement, danger and laughter. Yet, in Brower’s Chronicles of the Glen we’re reminded that such adventures don’t always need an imaginary realm. They are often right in front of us, in the here and now. Chronicles of the Glen is about the wonder of childhood and, ultimately, the joy of living.

References:

Kurelek, W., A Prairie Boy’s Winter (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973)

_________, A Prairie Boy’s Summer (Toronto: Tundra Books, 1975)

Brower, J. Lost Tracks: Buffalo National Park, 1909-1939 (Athabasca University Press, 2008)

Gordon, IT, A People on the Move: The Métis of the Western Plains (Surrey: Heritage House Publishing, 2009)

McKewan, G. John Ware’s Cow Country (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1973)

Lewis, CS. The Chronicles of Narnia (New York: Harper Collins, 1994)

– Mark Rainey

The Burgess Reviews Reviews No.2

Anthony Burgess – The Ink Trade, Selected Journalism 1961-1993 (Carcanet, edited by Will Carr, 2018)

A good review can bear a little preamble. It can tell some home truths, and sustain a little storytelling of its own.

The role of the reviewer, as m’colleague Steve Hanson made clear in the first of these Burgessian reflections, is primarily to entertain the reader. The charming delineation of a work’s positives and the witty rebuke of its negatives provoke a particular pleasure; the exercise of the critical faculty in the cultivation of taste, as Addison might put it.

But there is an additional pleasure to be gained from what this volume’s editor, Will Carr, has grouped under the heading “journalism”, and that is the joy of intelligence unbound by rigour. The strictures of academic writing and review strike out a large portion of what really makes literature enjoyable: the anecdotes, the sensations, and the unsupportable opinions. The review has no such strictures.

Burgess was a great yarn spinner, and never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The Ink Trade offers us a collection of anecdotes that are so funny, insightful or memorable that a reader will enjoy them in spite of their very likely apocryphal nature.

The young Samuel Beckett, Burgess would have us believe, walked around Paris in shoes so tiny that they damaged his feet; all to impress his hero, James Joyce. Joyce was apparently so proud of his small feet that he regularly boasted about them.

This is the same Beckett who preferred the sports pages to poetry and who, in Burgess’ mind, not only became a naturalized Frenchman but was always, in fact, a Frenchman. A child of the Huguenots, Burgess tells us, who only happened to be born in Ireland, and whose Protestantism dragged him back to his true homeland as soon as he had graduated from the (also Protestant) Trinity College.

We learn too of Shakespeare meeting Cervantes. If the King’s Men travelled to Valladolid as part of the peace delegation of 1605, and the writer of the Quixote had also been at court then, by pure coincidence, the two great founders of modern literature would have met.

They would, of course, have spoken in Arabic; Cervantes learning it as a slave and Shakespeare picking it up on a trip to Tangier with the Earl of Southampton. Perhaps they theorized about a great author who would write of this meeting in centuries to come? It is just as likely.

To defend Burgess against the charge of bullshitmongery, he is usually very clear, when slipping into the anecdotal mode, to make the reader aware of this. His tone of address brings the reader in, puts a linguistical arm around them and assures them that this part of the review is just between ourselves; a bit of after dinner gossip that the bores at the university would rather us not share.

The success of Burgess’ journalistic voice is its ability to move between the informal and the insightful with very little friction. Reading the collection, you will encounter narratology, insights into character, musical theory, phonetics and a wealth of psychological, historical and cultural knowledge which reinforces his personal reveries and reflections.

This is perhaps why I can disagree with Burgess’ opinions a solid third of the time while also thoroughly enjoying the way in which he expresses them.

In the essay “The Academic Critic and the Living Writer”, published in 1986, Burgess reflects upon academics as being the true allies of creative writers, where critics, reviewers, journalists – whatever you want to call them – are mercenary jackals, only out for blood. To share an anecdote of my own, I was once informed that Burgess regularly attended symposia about his own works, and enthusiastically took notes as academics interpreted his novels. They, he conceded, knew better how to analyse the work; he only knew how to create it.

In the modern era, however, I feel the tables have turned. Literary criticism as it appears in the journals, and as imposed by the peer-review system, favours the political dismantling of writers’ work and careers over the appreciation of its form and beauty. Our literary theory is often more slogan than aphorism.

If we are to begin appreciating authors again, it might be that a return to reading reviews (ideally those by authors, rather than aspiring politicians) will help us to rekindle the dying flame of aesthetic appreciation. There is certainly something in The Ink Trade which encourages you. Burgess’ generosity abounds from the page such that we, too, as readers, respond with generosity, even when he’s clearly talking rubbish.

Carr has achieved a heroic feat in the editing of this book. From the vast mountain of Burgess’ non-fiction writing he has curated a selection that is intensely readable, pleasantly eclectic, and balances the published and the unpublished in such a way that those who have read all of Burgess’ previous collections will enjoy this book as much as the newcomer.

After summing up the book at hand, the reviewer should then end on a pithy statement. Such would be fitting; to walk in Burgess’ shoes. Let us hope that they fit.

– Joe Darlington