To read or not to read

Alejandro Zambra – Not To Read (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

This is my first exposure to the Chilean writer and critic Alejandro Zambra who – as translator Megan McDowell explains – would much rather talk about Nicanor Parra than Garcia Marquez, and based on this introduction I am hoping to be able to read a hell of a lot more of him.

This is a great introduction, too, with its short sections. But each mini essay has a depth and purpose other writers would struggle to fit into a chapter. That Zambra does this with a breezy and sometimes cheeky style is kind of miraculous.

I see parallels with Nicanor Parra, when Parra writes that it’s really all the same if god exists or not, Zambra seems to have the same mix of gravity and levity.

‘Against Poets’ presents a picture of the archetypal bard starting out and then reaching mid-life, ‘they didn’t decide to become poets just so they could be forty years old’ he writes, with irreverence, but at the end concludes that these people are the saviours of the world. Again, gravity and levity fuse.

Via this short, humorous piece we get a sense of the longer tradition of poetry, as something to settle into, a thing of temporality that started before you and will go on after you. I sense this book – already far more well known outside Britain – has the same function. As Megan McDowell explains ‘we write to multiply ourselves’, in a search for a collective spirit.

The text is crystal clear and fresh, a thing of joy. The titles invite you in with their everydayness, ‘Other People’s Mail’ for instance and ‘In Praise of the Photocopy’. In the latter piece Zambra mentions Barthes and there’s a sense of Barthes refreshed in the style and brevity of these short essayistic pieces, Mythologies particularly.

The piece that bears the title of the collection is wonderful. Zambra takes pleasure in all the books he will never read, all the things he won’t have to read.

This assumption, sort-of lurking under the surface of academic life, ‘if only we could read everything’ is exposed for what it is, impossible and not actually desirable. I am coming out and saying that I will never read Giddens’ two volumes on historical materialism, since I got as far as the bit that completely rubbishes surplus value from out of nowhere.

I am now enjoying the fact that I will never read them. It glows in me like a secret.

But Zambra goes on to expose the reviewers who don’t finish books they review. I can tell you this smugly because I got that far and so can prove I have been there by writing it into this review. Which of course tells you nothing about my reviewing practice…

This is a book for writers and readers and I suspect that Fitzcarraldo is a publisher for writers and readers.

Long may Fitzcrraldo continue, I cannot find a single flaw in what they do, from the choice of text to publish and the design, right down to the way the paper smells.

This is one of their best titles. A thing to be thrust into rucksacks, battered and then treasured for generations.

– Steve Hanson

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New Old Sincerity, Real Depth

Sally Barrett – A Life’s Work (Red Ceilings Press)

Apparently sincerity is back. The icy ironic sheen of postmodernity is thawing. A group of academics are feverishly putting titles to this – little flags planted on this spring landscape with their names on them – the titles include ‘the New Depthiness’ and ‘Metamodernism’.

Tim Vermeulen describes how he envisions what he calls the ‘New Depthiness’ by saying ‘I am thinking of a snorkeler intuiting depth, imagining it — perceiving it without encountering it.’ He bases this on a viewing of Season 3 of Girls in which ‘just because I feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there’, a Radiohead song lyric, was suddenly inverted for him into ‘just because it isn’t real doesn’t mean I don’t feel it.’

Via this remote control epiphany Vermeulen launched a new movement within arm’s reach of the roasted peanuts. Adam Kelly of the University of York has called it ‘the New Sincerity’ via David Foster Wallace trying to break out of the alienated postmodern condition into a kind of authentic being.

That these ‘paradigms’ emerge from reading Foster Wallace, watching Season 3 of Girls or listening to Radiohead hasn’t stopped the more excitable academics from taking Metamodernism on as if it were a solid object.

Academic papers are already being produced and passing muster: For instance, ‘Metamodernism as we perceive it’ by Dali Kadagishvili (2013) begins ‘Metamodernism is a new moment in philosophy, art, literature, fashion, photography, economics, politics and other spheres of human activities…’

Lauren Gardner (2016) then launches ‘Metamodernism’ as a ‘A New Philosophical Approach to Counseling’ and Michel Clasquin-Johnson depressingly aims us (2017) ‘Towards a metamodern academic study of religion and a more religiously informed metamodernism’.

Rasa Vasinauskaitė (2015) claims that the paradigm alters ‘cultural contexts, concepts of the perception of the world and its reality’ that the paradigm ‘of postmodernism is being changed by the theories of post-postmodernism, metamodernism, or new realism…’

Personally I think they are all struggling. Ordinary people have been sincere forever. Yes, that sincerity is cracked with contradiction, and always has been – long before postmodernity was announced – but ordinary people have been sincere forever.

Sincerity is not an objective place, it is a subjective one, a place of feeling. Black music – modern R&B for instance – has always been sincere. It’s why Flight of the Conchords find it so funny, because it jars with the default world of irony. Therefore in the north of England black music and the white working class came together in northern soul. It was partly about feeling in a brutalised place.

Richard and Sally Barrett are both northern and I admire their writing so much because they unpretentiously tell us how they feel to an extent that might make some squirm. Indeed, on the back blurb here, Sarah Faith worries that Sally Barrett’s sheer honesty might destabilise her, make her more vulnerable. I think the opposite is the case.

In these poems, in this collection by Sally Barrett, everyday anxieties are mined, those voices in the head are translated to the page so faithfully that they almost become universal. They are not universal anxieties, but the way simple worries tend to inflate must be recognisable to anyone who is fully human:

I WISH RICHARD WOULD GO TO THE OPTICIANS
What if his eyes get worse and then
He can’t see to read and kills himself
He once told me if he was blind
He would top himself
I hope he doesn’t

These poems stay in your head and expand as the days roll on, they illuminate the whole landscape we live in, how the crappy flats we inhabit and the rubbish food we eat are all part of the impossibility of full lives and untroubled relationships. How the past eats us. They are direct and real and they investigate what it is to exist in a compromised and troubling place without any recourse to Derrida.

That there is an expensive AHRC investigation into Metamodernism and the ‘New Sincerity’ for two years is hilarious when these two are working right under their noses.

I am not being anti-intellectual – and I take the core of Derrida’s work seriously too – I am just pointing out bad intellectual endeavour. All you have to do is leave the theoretical slum, just get out more. You might want to buy this book too.

– Steve Hanson

Candles and Cabbage

Martina Evans – Now We Can Talk Openly About Men (Carcanet, 2018) 

Martina Evans’ latest poetry collection takes the form of two dramatic monologues. Set in Mallow, County Cork, 1919 and Dublin, 1924, they mark the two foundational conflicts of the Irish Republic: the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. They also tell a tale of women’s experiences across two turbulent generations.

Both speakers are sceptical of political causes. The first, Kitty Donavan, is made so by necessity. Her dressmaking business is being shunned by the locals for taking business from the British Army. Her daughter too is in love with the young, one-armed socialist, Captain Galway. Kitty is cursed with migraines and relies on the doctor’s laudanum “tonics”. The opiates alternately cushion her from the violence and, caught between doses, emphasise her need.

Kitty’s work provides a language for her suppressed anxieties. Working, her “scissors swim like a dolphin with relief”. They trace “the crown & the letters of Royal Red”, all the while listening to the young rebel Eileen Murphy talk of the future Irish State. No more Royal Red, she says, the post boxes and the uniforms will all soon by green.

I’d imagined something magnificent like

A pure Peacock hue until she showed me

The colour on a bachelor’s gate

On the road to Quartertown. Pure disgusting.

A horrible dark green like an old leaf

Of cabbage you’d see a snail on top of.

Evans’ verse is tightly packed with images, but loose enough in its metre to read naturally. One can take the book at a running pace and enjoy a story with deep emotional beats, or slow the pace and reflect on the careful choice of wording. It’s not a symbolic poem, but its images – a peacock hue, a bachelor’s gate – are not chosen by accident.

Violence is always around the corner in Kitty’s Mallow. Soldiers shot in the guts, the Tans beating innocents on the street corner. As it builds to a terrible climax, Kitty barricades herself in. It is Eileen Murphy, the young rebel, who escapes the first poem. Her sewing skills, taught by kitty, make her the fastest sock darner in the IRA.

The second voice, Miss Babe Cronin’s, is more direct than Kitty’s. She is less evasive about her evasion. A stenographer; Babe’s language is clean, but she can’t help but listen. The “open tap of propaganda” from Eileen Murphy’s mouth, “nice looking in spite of the man’s black cap”, eventually turns her head. She starts running packages for the pretty young rebel girl.

Once again Evans’ turns an arresting image to great descriptive purpose:

…A fair haired girl with

Plaits down to her waist handed it over

But when she smiled at me, weren’t her two

Front teeth missing? In that church with the girl

Dressed all in white among the white candles,

It was an awful shock to see her gums.

As if the door of hell opened, I knew

Full well it was a firearm…

The bitter ironies of the civil war carry through the second poem, contrasting the Independence conflict in the first. The armies of the Irish Free State hold British guns, while the rebels speak Gaelic and carry the crucifix. Both sides are buried in their respective traditions. Both carry dogma.

For the women caught between the sides there are the old certainties of men and men’s folly. Men bring danger and adventure, fire and fear. This is perhaps why Evans picked the counterintuitive title; “Now We Can Talk Openly About Men”. The cover, pink and rather twee, seems to have been designed based upon this title alone. I can’t help but feel there are more appropriate colours out there – perhaps dark green and pure disgusting?

Overall, it’s a gripping read. The poetry is both pacey and touching by turns. The personal voices carry you along with them. Reading, you are inside the conflict, scurrying between brief moments of reflection. I will be surprised if awards aren’t won for what Evans has achieved here. A smart concept brilliantly realised.

– Joe Darlington

The sad passions

Vic Seidler – Making Sense of Brexit (Polity)

Everyone should read this book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone should read this book.

– Steve Hanson

Homes for all?

John Boughton – Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing (Verso, 2018)

I woke up in a youth hostel in Oxford in June 2017 to the news of the Grenfell fire. I was there as an attendee at an academic conference themed ‘Architecture, Citizenship, Space: British Architecture from the 1920s to the 1970s’. The grim extent of the catastrophe unfolded as the conference went on, and its repercussions are still being felt now, nearly ten months later.

One of the attractions of the conference was that John Boughton, author of one of my favourite blogs, the meticulously researched yet accessibly written Municipal Dreams, was speaking about his work visiting, documenting and exploring the history of the country’s council estates, one of the key areas of architectural and social development in twentieth century Britain. This work took on a new dimension in the light of Grenfell, which opened in 1974; the conference was both subdued and emotionally charged. There was a general sense of shock. As well as being close to home as a research interest, it was also an area several of the London-based conference participants knew well – many had passed close-by North Kensington on the London to Oxford bus that very morning.

The Grenfell fire, perhaps inevitably, also frames Boughton’s new book, Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing, which both starts and ends by reflecting on the implications the tragedy has for the future of council housing. Although these implications still haven’t become fully clear, Municipal Dreams builds the case, culminating in Grenfell, for a return to a strong state, with both the regulatory capacity and oversight to protect us from the commercial agendas, cost-cutting and failures of neo-liberalism and private enterprise that, Boughton argues, have increasingly characterised the provision of housing for the masses through the late-twentieth and early twentieth centuries.

Municipal Dreams acts as a history of the large-scale provision of housing by local authorities in England. Boughton sets the scene after the First World War, when housing was provided for returning soldiers not just as a right and reward, but also to quell potential disloyalty and unrest. In the inter-war period, council housing proliferated, but after the Second World War military camps were squatted in protest about the lack of availability of housing. The post-war period was characterised by large-scale slum clearance and the dispersal of many former city dwellers to new towns outside of London – although often the accompanying facilities and sense of community took longer to follow. As the 1970s progressed, local authorities brought private rented homes into public ownership, and further into the closing decades of the twentieth century and early twenty-first century, public-private partnerships began to dominate the financing of public resources such as housing. Today, Boughton suggests, the state’s efforts to remove security of tenure through widespread and unpopular welfare reforms are the latest in a series of economic, social and cultural developments that contribute to the spread of precariousness and instability into all aspects of life, from employment to housing.

Those familiar with the blog will appreciate the thoroughness with which Boughton approaches each estate and development he visits, often drawing heavily on archival research. The book, too, pays brief visits to key estates, but uses these more as examples to illustrate much bigger narratives about the changing motivations behind the provision of homes, the ideologies that underpin public housing, and the political and economic developments that have changed and influenced state-led approaches to house-building over time.

One of the major shifts identified by Boughton concerns changes in public perceptions and cultural and media representations of council housing. It can be easy to forget that most council housing was aspirational, aimed at the upwardly mobile working-classes and ‘respectable’ communities; it’s only relatively recently that it’s become regarded by many as housing of last-resort and become associated with problematic behaviour – partly, as Boughton observes, because of changes in who is housed, and the responsibility of local authorities to house groups such as the homeless.

Other ideas which have been in the headlines recently, conversely, have been around for longer than we might think: Boughton identifies precedents of the so-called ‘poor doors’, for instance, designed to separate residents according to their occupancy and economic status, early in the history of social housing, along with debates about who has the ‘right’ to live in areas such as Hampstead. Boughton questions some of our assumptions about political attitudes towards council housing, too: for example, the Labour party promoted right to buy as early as the 1950s. He also offers a more nuanced view of some of the terms used in contemporary debate around changes to housing, and social housing estates. For example, he seeks to understand the motivations behind processes such as ‘social cleansing’, and challenge the broad catch-all nature of terms such as ‘regeneration’, which often ignore the roots of poverty and deep-rooted issues such as unemployment.

Ultimately, Boughton sets out two poles, between conservatism and socialism in a broad sense. In practice, this equates to a difference in opinion between those who regard the state provision of housing as a safety net, for the neediest in society, and those who regard housing as a fundamental right, access to which should be ensured by the state as part of its duty to ensure basic human needs are met for everyone.

Municipal Dreams the book is a worthwhile counterpart to Municipal Dreams the blog. Whereas the latter visits and responds to individual estates and cities in detail, the former pulls all this together to present a much bigger picture, of national and historical significance.

– Natalie Bradbury

Words at the Workhouse

Paul Henry – The Glass Aisle (Seren, 2018)

I have not been back to the countryside for quite some time. Yet I live there. My imagination dwells in the woodlands. I wonder if this is an English condition.

Paul Henry’s new collection of poems, The Glass Aisle, displays a similar, landscape-bound, Welsh condition. They are poems about music and family and time which always pull back to the land, the trees and the rocky beaches. A veteran poet, Henry’s crisp verse feels like a monument. It is a solid thing, an achievement in itself, which marks still greater things gone quiet.

Henry combines the modernist image with a ruminative range of tones. Poems which leap to mind are ‘Brown Helen Reclining’, ‘Not Stopping’ and ‘Craiglais’. Each in their own way locate that magical space between vision and language that defines great Western poetry. Subject and object combine to create symbol.

The greatest poem of the collection is undoubtedly ‘The Glass Aisle’ itself. The titular image is of a canal in mid-winter. The frozen strip runs beside an old workhouse where the tenant’s names still hang in the air;

Will Solsbury, Miner, Somerset

Lizzie Lewis, Pauper, Llanelli…

From the start we find this old building caught up, tangled between modernity, history and the natural world. Our symbol is the stuck technician:

The line to the old workhouse is down.

The telegraph pole is caged in a tree,

The engineer wedged like a sacrifice

Inside the branch’s lattice-work.

From his height he can only hear the names of the dead, whispering from the workhouse, as the telephone line, dead also, refuses to speak.

There is an opacity to these set of images that keep them from becoming metaphor. To explain the poetry away you would have to bend and break it, or else you too will end up tangled in its tight-woven branches. Instead, the lines resonate. The words are loaded with a weight of symbolism that draws us down and away from clear explanations.

‘John Moonlight,’ the speaker later calls, ‘your name is fading from its bench’. Throughout the collection Henry calls out in direct address, sometimes to friends and sometimes, as here, to once living people he never knew. This is perhaps the bardic tradition speaking through Henry. The poet calls out to his community, weaving their names and words into the lattice of history…

John, if I may, whose laughter

Was writ in air,

Whose moment the sun engraves,

Who loved this view,

Something of your ecstasy survives.

The injection of words Henry has found in the world to the flow of words he conjures from the imagination adds life, also, to his reflections. The real world keeps him moving, stirs his energies. Again, this is a modernist lesson grafted on an older stem: the paths that Wordsworth reflected upon in tranquillity are walked by Henry in a flaneuriste mode.

Yet the lessons are maybe the same…

I cannot tell an owl

From a name on the wind,

The voices in the wire

From the voices in the leaves.

If poetry has a purpose, it is perhaps to show us once again those things we know so intimately. Our woods, our past, they keep speaking. The poet makes us new words for old music, or new music for old words. I feel like Paul Henry has achieved that here. These poems are a reconciliation.

– Joe Darlington

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

Mapping the Conjuncture

Various – Stuart Hall, Conversations, Projects and Legacies (Goldsmiths Press)

John Akomfrah’s wonderful Stuart Hall Project endearingly shows how in love with the music of Miles Davis Stuart Hall was.

It isn’t a facile part of Hall’s biography, this. Think about it: Miles Davis is always identifiably ‘Miles’, during The Birth of the Cool period, in the fusion cauldron of Bitches Brew and Get Up With It, and playing ‘Time After Time’ in the 1980s. Miles Davis both reacted to and shaped the music of each period he lived through.

Similarly, Stuart Hall both reacted to and shaped the discourses of the times he lived through. In Britain, yes – although a diasporic Britain few could even see at the start of the New Left project – and via journal articles, books and teaching, rather than through music.

Equally, the archive Hall leaves us is as essential to take forward as that of Miles Davis, and as difficult to match, let alone better. The purpose of this book is a retrospective celebration of Hall’s work, coming out of the proceedings of the celebratory conference at Goldsmiths after Stuart Hall’s death.

Some of these articles were written to be spoken at that event, and that purpose juts out of the text a little. Some of the material has also been well-covered elsewhere, Hall’s relationship with the British new left for instance, but the best material here explains how the written work of Stuart Hall can be used in the moment we are in to allow us to diagnose it and try to do something about it. For that alone this book is essential.

This book is organised into sections: Part One, Cultural Studies, Multiple Legacies; Part Two, the Politics of Conjuncture; Part Three, Identities and the Redefinition of Politics; Part Four, Policy, Practice and Creativity; Part Five, the International Expansion and Extension of Cultural Studies and Part Six, the Intellectual Legacies of Policing the Crisis.

Paul’s widow Catherine provides the Afterword and there is an engaging set of introductions.

The first set of essays frame the context to an extent. James Curran, the great media theorist, explores Stuart Hall’s early work and shows how wilfully neglected it has been, as though all writers have to have some kind of initial period of development, which is always a priori to be dismissed, before we get round to the ‘serious later work’, it is not the case with Stuart Hall. Like Miles Davis, Hall was on it all the way through.

Part Two is the richest section in terms of the immediate present and future. The politics of conjuncture are precisely the things we need to revisit now, in 2018. John Clark’s analysis of Hall’s conjunctural methods contains precisely the suggestion that we turn back to them now.

But now we have an academic milieu which has drifted very far from this kind of work. We have, on the one hand, macro big data surveys grounded in a kind of neo-Kantianism, often instrumentalised work, and on the other hand the frayed remains of the erroneously named ‘post-structuralism’; the infra-analysis of cultural texts which seem to be sealed, which seem not to emerge from the real world, and I use the term ‘real’ in a general sociological sense here.

For Clarke and others, conjunctural analysis is difficult and requires collaboration, it depends ‘on the building and sustenance of various forms of collaboration’, which ‘were at the heart of the CCCS project’. It is, then, completely at odds with the individualistic and careerist trajectory of the neoliberal university and in it we might find a negation and way out of that impasse too.

Conjunctural analysis contains the need to ‘resist the temptations of various forms of lazy theoretical reductionism’, whether ‘in the modes of fundamentalist Marxism or technological determinism’, and to avoid falling ‘into the trap of believing that everything is necessarily predetermined’ and ‘recognise that our task is also to identify and pursue the specific forms of marginal, residual and emergent cultures’.

This last need of course emerges from Stuart’s friend the late Raymond Williams. Conjunctural analysis also tallies with some things in Jameson – cognitive mapping for instance – and in Neil Smith, David Harvey et al.

But this is Marxist analysis without the blinkers, as much as that is ever possible. It doesn’t contain the religious belief, nor the comfort of finding ‘out there’ the signs we are looking for, but it can show us what is assembled and where the tensions and contradictions lie.

Clarke argues that conjunctural analysis presents ‘the exact opposite of the dominant modalities produced by the contemporary pressures of academic institutional life.’ Pressures that ‘continually induce competitive forms of academic careerism, characteristically involving forms of self-promotion’, via which people maintain positions and progress.

Therefore ‘individuals must claim to have made ever more exciting and definitive intellectual breakthroughs’. We can see the arrogant new orthodoxies being hastily pushed through conferences now, ‘Metamodernism’, ‘the new depthiness’, both of which are not just ‘meta’ but entirely orbital. There is no new depth here, only the old thinness of postmodernity rebranded.

Stuart Hall’s project of conjunctural analysis outlines that macro research should be rooted in the multiple realities of the nationstate, in politics, in capitalism, in the masses, in the movement of people across borders, and of course now in the resistance of the movement of people across borders. Here also lies the crucial importance of this book to the future.

Tony Jefferson’s contribution, ‘Race, Immigration and the Present Conjuncture’ sutures those conjunctural methods to Britain’s contemporary moment of Brexit via a great reading of Shane Meadows’ film This is England. Jefferson describes how racism shapeshifts into different forms, how we can never find the pure racist anymore than we can find the pure outsider or the pure alien.

Part Six, then, The Intellectual Legacies of Policing the Crisis, is one sole essay – by Angela Davis no less – who argues that Hall’s book Policing the Crisis should be applied to America. I tend to think that America’s race situation and its policing is in fact much more pronounced and severe than in Britain – even with the vile racist nicks in London and elsewhere proceeding relatively unchallenged – and therefore it might be the other way around. This demonstrates just how powerful and influential Hall’s work has been. It was often rooted in a hybrid sense of Britain, but it has projected out, way beyond its own original context.

Again, Stuart Hall both reacted to and shaped the discourses of the times he lived through, but his work will also continue to shape those discourses into the future, and in that we can find some much-needed sustenance and purpose.

– Steve Hanson

Of Means and Endings

Megan Hunter – The End We Start From (Picador, 2017)

I want to tell you about a book. I liked reading it and I think that you, too, would like reading it. Where do I start? I tell you its genre: it’s about an apocalypse. What type? A flood. And who’s the protagonist? A mother of a newborn son… so I suppose you could say it’s about motherhood too.

But already I feel worried, and guilty. A book recommendation is a dangerous thing. I am asking to take hours of your life from you, asking you to spend them reading sentence after sentence. There are some great lines, I clarify. It is short, I add. But there are so many other things you might be doing. So many things that don’t involve reading.

The book I am describing is The End We Start From; the 2017 debut of author and poet Megan Hunter. It is, as I say, a novel about a new mother navigating Britain after an apocalyptic flood. Society has collapsed, refugee camps abound and our hero, with her son ‘Z’, must entrust themselves to a shifting array of men, women and officials as they wait for a new normality to return.

The most fascinating aspect of Hunter’s work, however, is not so much the story as the way it is constructed. The narrative is communicated through tiny paragraphs, mostly between one or two sentences in length. The characters’ names are single letters: S, J, N, R, G. There is very little by way of description and no speech. There is, nevertheless, a full plot and, within those tiny paragraphs, many moments of pure, sweet imagery.

It is the reading equivalent of Ian Simpson’s architecture: the structure is there, you can see its shape, but instead of bricks and mortar there is a wall of glass.

And, as with glass and steel, Hunter’s prose represents a response to twenty-first century technology; a kind of minimalist ornament. The novel might be a quick read (I got through it in a single afternoon) but it is not a fast read. One lingers on the imagery. All that white space on the page is there to promote reverie and reflection. Faced with the impatience of the modern reader, Hunter has bartered a small wordcount for high rate of impact-per-word. This promises a new route for the stylist. A baroque in miniature.

What we lose in Hunter’s writing is the rhythmical journey. For characters defined by their wandering, our protagonists nevertheless seem to exist in an eternal present. There is no space in the narrative for their hopes or their regrets, for mundane conversations or the details of setting. Perhaps these elements have been usurped by visual mediums? What is left for literature, Hunter’s writing seems to suggest, is the allusive detail and the perfect sentence… the stylistics which have become our substance. But then, the story tells itself in a moving way – so perhaps these hesitancies are unwarranted.

The End We Start From is an intriguing prospect. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in contemporary writing. To writers I’d recommend it for its innovations, for readers I’d recommend it for its pace. More than anything I’d recommend it because it’s easy to recommend. It is a fundamentally recommendable book.

– Joe Darlington

Go northern global…

Various – Poets and the Algerian War (edited by Francis Combes, translated by Alan Dent)
Francis Combes – If The Symptoms Persist
Ishaq Imruh Bakari – Without Passport or Apology (all Smokestack Books)

Smokestack Books have been quietly putting out a roster of writers for some time now which can easily face those of more well-known poetry publishers such as Bloodaxe and Carcanet. But Smokestack are little known and there is an injustice in that.

I didn’t know about them until I took a trip to Mima in the northeast, one of the most exciting galleries in the country right now, and one which stocks their titles.

One thing I love about Smokestack editions is that they come out of the north of England, but are determinedly international in their interests. Francis Combes edits Poets and the Algerian War, which includes Louis Aragon, Jacques Guacheron and others. It is a ragingly eloquent collection, historical, yes, but just as applicable to Syria and the post-Arab Spring conflict zones now as the poems were to France’s war in Algeria.

For someone who has published a book of conversations with Henri Lefebvre, Francis Combes’ own anthology is very accessible. If The Symptoms Persist bears a cover photograph of a homeless man on his knees, hungry, half a paper cup put out for spare change. The rucksack and modern clothing can no longer disguise the fact that the same situation that was present in the 18th and 19th century is with us again, and that this is where liberalism – the great dream of that age – leads.

The poems themselves are humorous, straightforward, engaging, entertaining even, although the homeless flash up within them time and time again. The lady cleaning herself by the side of the road – there are glimpses all over Paris – the intimate details humanise these victims of laissez faire and a blasé state, they show you that they are us and we are them. The poems fizz with anti-capitalist sentiment too, but always with a sense of humour, a spirit that we can crack this blank grey wall of indifference with language, and with simple language.

Without Passport or Apology is an excellent new anthology of poems by Ishaq Imruh Bakari. This volume contains poems for Stuart Hall, Marcus Garvey, Louis Farrakhan, Shake Keane and Courtney Pine. The story of African and Carribean migration is never far away, but there are also meditations on London in 2011, riots and trouble, vignettes.

This is just a slice of the publisher’s catalogue, there is much more great work being put out: Smokestack Books deserve our interest and support.

– Steve Hanson

http://www.smokestack-books.co.uk