Ziggy Played Guitar

Jason Heller – Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-fi Exploded (Melville House, 2018)

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, which is to say that when it’s done well it is a rare and captivating thing. Who wouldn’t want to see a jitterbug about Vetruvius?

Jason Heller’s new book Strange Stars is a work of thrilling scale and intricacy. A study of science fiction’s influence on 1970s music, it is rammed with fascinating details while still being thoroughly readable. A ballet about Gaudi, if you will.

The study is bookended by Bowie songs. It opens with the first appearance of Major Tom. 1969’s “Space Oddity”, written coincide with the moon landings is a critical moment in the creation of space sound. It ends with Major Tom’s drug-addled return in 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes”. Bowie is the thread that ties to whole together.

But Bowie is only part of the story. His gender-bending spaceman Ziggy may have popularized the sci-fi song but it was already well on its way to chart recognition in the works of the Byrds, Joe Meek, Jefferson Airplane and even Jimi Hendrix.

“Purple Haze,” as Heller describes in a fascinating first chapter, began its life as a long poem. Hendrix wrote it after being inspired by a 1957 novel, Night of Light, by Philip José Farmer. The former paratrooper and guitar maestro was, like many of his generation, a total sci-fi nut.

The list of sci-fi influenced artists is long and crosses multiple genres and styles. From the jazz of Sun Ra came the funk of George Clinton and late 1970s Afrofuturist electro hits like “Freak-a-zoid”. The sci-fi silliness of the psychedelic 1960s inspired prog (Yes, King Crimson, Rush), hard rock (Deep Purple, Hawkwind), heavy metal (Motorhead, Black Sabbath), and even soft rock in the form of crooner Gary Wright’s catchy pop ballad “Dream Weaver”.

There’s a lot of pleasure to be had reading this book, lying on the sofa with YouTube open on your phone, listening to tracks that you thought you knew off by heart only to discover that they were about space ships and moon men all along.

Many of these songs can be written off as 1970s era silliness (especially the many naff disco records made to cash in off Star Wars), but as Heller makes clear, all this stargazing does make a lasting impact on music.

The influence is undeniable when it comes to synths and the progression towards a more electronic sound. Many early synth bands drew inspiration from space and starships (I highly recommend the French band Droid and their single “Do You Have the Force?”). The legacy of New Wave sci-fi is critical here, however.

Michael Moorcock, himself an honorary member of Hawkwind, turned New Worlds into an unusual thing: a sci-fi magazine uninterested in space. Writers like J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss and John M Harrison gave birth to a new sci-fi, one focused on contemporary visions of apocalypse. Humanity will be unlikely to reach space, they implied. We will destroy ourselves before then.

The most hopeful future for humans in this bleak techno-wasteland comes from posthumanism; the merging of flesh and circuitry. Kraftwerk, electronic pioneers, adopted the posthuman look wholeheartedly, although it was also flirted with by Joy Division and donned in a playful manner by Devo.

Heller makes the convincing case that the development of synths as instruments in their own right is tied inextricably to the rise of sci-fi music. These artists didn’t want to sound like electric versions of existing instruments, they wanted to sound like the future.

In fact, the only musical genre in the 1970s not to feature its own array of space cadets and starship troopers was punk. Even then, the occasional single like the Only One’s “Another Girl, Another Planet” couldn’t help but feature a few rocket ships and supernovas.

Interestingly, for sci-fi fans, musicians seemed disinterested in the civil war that was being fought within the genre at this time. By the late sixties the hard sci-fi of Asimov and Heinlein was displaced by the New Wave. By the end of the next decade, however, shows like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos had made hard science cool again and the works of Robert L Forward and, once again, Robert A Heinlein, were back on top.

David Bowie didn’t take sides. He’d quote Heinlein and Ballard in the same sentence, Burroughs and Orwell in the same song. Where Bowie led, the rest followed, and sci-fi music is all the richer for it.

More than anything, Strange Stars is great fun. Brilliantly written and comprehensive in its scope. With Christmas coming up it’s a perfect present for Dad as well!

Forget dancing about architecture, singing about sci-fi is my new jam.

– Joe Darlington

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Bombs and Balaclavas

Joseph Darlington – British Terrorists Novels of the 1970s (Palgrave)

I am reading ‘Lorna Doone’
and a life of John Most
terror of the industrialist
a bomb on his desk at all times

– Ferlinghetti, ‘Autobiography’

This is an insightfully produced, thoughtful work for such an explosive subject. Darlington sets up the context well in brief, the creation of the terrorist as we understand it also rose with the nation state as we imagine it.

For me, Benedict Anderson’s classic Imagined Communities lurks just under the surface here, as Anderson explains how ‘the world’ comes into being through literature, for a historically unworldly humanity, as modernity develops. Darlington adds that you need a real and imagined state to then have enemies of it.

The structure and clarity of this book is superb. But the journey it takes you on is also entertaining and challenges some of the perhaps more naive habits of the subject. For instance, Darlington refuses to put terrorism in scare quotes as “terrorism”, avoiding the sometimes ludicrous radical posturing to be found in some academic texts.

He sides with granting his readers the intelligence to decide where the distinction lies and is confident in his abilities as a writer to convey his own judgements.

Darlington actually contributes a chapter which I think might explain the origins of some of that radical posturing and it is the relationship between the counterculture and the ‘urban guerrilla’ – many thinkers went through the counterculture and into academia.

This chapter deals with the – by comparison with the RAF in Germany and others – almost pet British leftwing terrorist group The Angry Brigade. The sense of the surface of the 1970s is strongly captured here. It makes me remember that the English rock band Hawkwind produced a single called ‘Urban Guerrilla’ in 1975 which was withdrawn Clockwork Orange-style as it charted:

‘I’m an urban guerrilla, I make bombs in my cellar, I’m a derelict dweller, I’m a potential killer […] So let’s not talk of love and flowers and things that don’t explode, you know we used up all of our magic powers trying to do it in the road.’

It isn’t Joseph Conrad, it isn’t even Tom Sharpe, but it shows that the ‘countercultural nasty’ – Manson and The Family, the bad hippies in Dirty Harry movies – were one thing in America and quite another in Britain. Darlington’s chapter fleshes out my skeletal understanding of this immensely.

Here the link between Darlington’s earlier work – which this book grew out of – becomes clearer. He began by reading popular fiction to take time off from the experimental works of the 60s and 70s which his PhD thesis covers: We have a reading addict on our hands here.

Jeff Nuttall and B.S. Johnson are covered, Snipes’ Spinster by the former and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by the latter. The milder revolt of sticking two fingers up to the establishment are definitely part of the discourse here, what I might coin a ‘Vaudeville of the Absurd’.

But the book doesn’t shy away from the hard realities of the terrorist subject at all, as the excellent chapter on Ireland and the IRA shows. The chapter on The Angry Brigade etc is also carefully judged, it isn’t flippant at all.

A key strength of the book is the way in which it picks up each facet of the subject and examines it, creating a rich view of the whole strange but solid prism. That Darlington shows it to be both solid and light-bending is all of the work, and it is work carried out with erudition, wit and style.

In the chapter on post-colonial terrorist fictions, the structures of feeling this book captures really become explicit. There is a turn to a helpless state agent figure in the face of the shifting world of 1970s oil politics. This figure seems like one of mass psychoanalysis as the cold war slowly thaws in the heat of hot wars in hot places.

This chapter seems to link back to Darlington’s introductory remarks about how terrorism changed across the years during which he wrote this book – from Al-Qaeda to ISIS – and how it will therefore always morph into new shapes in relation to the geopolitical environments of the future. This chapter feels very ‘now’.

The confidence displayed in this book is well-earned and deserved. Darlington makes more modest claims where he needs to and similarly bucks pointless trends. He clearly enjoys the subject, yet has a bird’s eye view of it that is distant enough to see the big contours jutting out through the subject – the discourses that can only be fleetingly glimpsed up close. The conclusion is clear, decisive and compact.

It is useful, too, this book, at lots of different scales. Turn to Netflix and you will find scores of terrorist films, as though the golden age of 1970s terrorist literature is being replayed there, via the big VHS cassette boxes of the 1980s video rental store, now miniaturised as gaudy pixel buttons.

The point to make is that this book is as useful to film studies as it is to literature studies and politics. It would also serve a more avid but non-academic cineaste well.

As Darlington produces his terrorist taxonomy – and I’m sure it isn’t his intention at all – I imagine that one could start to write new terrorist fiction by reading this book. Recalibrate the structures, swap tropes and begin.

But the book has a wider overall effect on me that is a mark of its quality. Some writers, it doesn’t matter what they cover, or how narrowly they focus, always give you the world through any subject.

I finish the book feeling that the limits of my world are the limits of what I can know and that what I can know is seriously restricted by the media environment I am in. A historical and philosophical work then, too. Highly recommended.

– Steve Hanson

The Boy From Hell

Rimbaud – Illuminations (Carcanet, 2018, trans., John Ashbery)

Seth Whidden – Arthur Rimbaud (Reaktion, 2018)

Rimbaud’s Illuminations crashes through the dead wood of its epoch as Baudelaire’s work did, a figure the young poet Rimbaud worshipped as the great seer of modern poetry.

And Rimbaud will only ever be young, he has become a cipher for the beautiful damned youth, too fast to live, too young to die, burning out before fulfilling.

But Seth Whidden’s biography of Rimbaud also impressively chops away some of the myths and clichés that have grown up around Rimbaud’s life like strangling ivy. Rimbaud, who wrote of new urban heavens and hells, sounds like an absolute bloody nightmare.

He was utterly brilliant too, of course, mastering the history of poetry as a schoolboy and then rejecting its slow, traditional and bourgeois forms.

Etienne Carjat destroyed the negatives and remaining prints of the now-iconic portrait of Rimbaud after an altercation with the maniacal youth one evening in Paris. Lucky for us, prints survived elsewhere. The Henri Fantin-Latour painting Un Coin de Table (A Corner of the Table) observes Rimbaud on the very same evening of the spat with Carjat and others.

I was fairly familiar with this painting, but after reading Whidden’s biography, I can now only see an evil brat where I once saw a slightly aloof cherub.

Verlaine too, Rimbaud’s lover, gripped by absinthe mania, is rumoured to have thrown his child against the wall and attacked his wife, eventually imploding into piousness. Before seeking redemption, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist during a heated argument.

Eventually, nobody would speak to Rimbaud. He kept leaving his stuffy rural home for Paris, only to fly back there as it spat him out yet again.

The account of Rimbaud and Verlaine in London is fascinating, drinking in Soho, followed by the secret police, getting to know the routes and leylines of London we still experience: ‘Monstrous city, endless night!’

Rimbaud stopped writing poetry and headed off to sell in the European Imperial adventure. This may or may not have included guns, and if you want the picture under the clichés – ‘gun runner’ flashes up elsewhere as though it’s a solid fact – Whidden’s biography is the place to go. It’s an impressive piece of work, it manages to be scholarly, thrilling and sober in one. Not easy.

The late great poet John Ashbery learned French precisely to read Rimbaud’s Illuminations after reading it first in English in the 1940s. He then translated it again and Carcanet have put his edition out for some time, only now they have re-issued it with a smart new cover as part of their brilliant classics range.

It takes a little immersion to really get Illuminations, you need some context to understand just how radical the work is. What is explained as utterly modern, can in fact seem very old to us now, particularly if you are new to nineteenth century modernism. The same goes for Manet’s painting and Baudelaire himself.

Certainly, there would be no Bob Dylan without Rimbaud, that bizarre burlesque of an environment where reality seems to have been turned off – the first full experience of the modern city – is originally present in Illuminations.

But this little volume is the best way to take it on, and paired with Whidden’s biography, also released this year, it’s possible to really feel the spirit of the Rimbaud carnival. The alienation and togetherness of the city, its pleasures and hells, are one for the first time in a dreamlike scalding of the senses.

Ashbery’s translation comes in the French with the English translation opposite, to allow us to shuttle between the two. MRB recommends a double purchase here: Read these books simultaneously, but stay off the Absinthe, eh?

– Steve Hanson

Rivers of French Blood

Adam Roberts – The Black Prince (Unbound, 2018)

There are certain things that the novel cannot do without. Character is foremost among these, and a sense of development is another. Books have been known to limp on without them on some theoretical pretext or other, but their progress is usually limited, borne along with false reverence like the coffin of a Soviet dictator.

Anthony Burgess saw this back in the late 1960s. As the whole hip world was turning to the kinds of literary experiments he’d been doing since ’61, he reminded them that, experimental or not, the entire edifice of fiction stands on the unshakeable foundation of character.

By the same measure, with solid characterization and a tight plot in place, a writer can push experiment out to the far reaches, confident in holding their reader’s attention throughout.

Adam Roberts’s new novel is proof of this. Based on a project abandoned by Anthony Burgess, The Black Prince tells the story of its eponymous hero through an interweaving collage of voices. The Prince’s bloody campaigns from his early triumph at Cressy to his final massacre of French peasants at Limoges are presented from a variety of perspectives, some diegetic, some not.

The success of Robert’s novel lies in the sympathy he generates for the Prince; an innocent who, as Roberts also makes clear, can act at times like a genocidal monster. We see him as a product of his time, his father happy for him to die in battle, his first love kept from him by the barriers of royal expectation, and, above all, driven by the quasi-theology of chivalry.

I knew little to nothing about the Black Prince before this novel. By the final page I felt not only familiar with his life story, but with his contested reputation. Whether referred to as the Prince of Wales, Edward the younger, le terrible prince noir, or just plain Ned, Roberts builds up his character through the contrasting perceptions of others. Every character brings their own expectations to their dealings with the would-be monarch, and the Prince is caught between them all.

Among the more interesting perspectives are those of the clairvoyant Joan and her “camera eye”, a murder witnessed through the vision of a faithful dog and a siege as seen by a Cornish miner-turned-sapper. Less convincing are the newsflashes and the faux-Middle English verse, both of which I found to hinder rather than help with the development of a narrative flow.

Roberts embraces anarchronism, as Burgess did in his original plan, with idiosyncratic but ultimately endearing results. Talk of cameras and tape might sit strangely on medieval tongues but it serves to remind us of the constructed, cinematic nature of Roberts’ vision.

It is ultimately the classic cinematic appeal of a warrior hero and his tragic lady love that carries the novel beyond its initial appeal as an exercise in collage. The tale of Joan in particular grants it a real, emotive core. By the final scenes the reader is left with a swelling sensation. The sense of a long and complicated journey coming to an end. The stuff that great costumed epics are made of.

The Black Prince is unusual and brilliant in equal measure. Roberts fulfils the promise of Burgess’ plot and, arguably, even surpasses it with his broader range of styles and approaches. There is plenty of Burgessian wordplay, polyglot etymologies and baroque phonetics throughout, but Roberts can also be concise at times, even Spartan. His violence is more brutal than Burgess’s, less linguistically choreographed.

I highly recommend The Black Prince for its actions scenes alone. The most innovative page-turner you’ll read all year and packed with enough blood, guts and politics to keep even the most jaded reader on the edge of their seats. A prince among novels.

– Joe Darlington 

About Nowt

Martin Demant Frederiksen – An Anthropology of Nothing in Particular (Zero Books, 2018)

For a short while in my formative years I was deeply involved with a girl from what sociologists would call the underclass. Three generations of unemployment lived head-to-toe in the same battered and neglected council house. “Nothing” was a common refrain.

What you doing? Nothing. What do you think? I don’t think nothing. Why did you do that? Because I don’t give a fuck and I don’t believe in nothing. Through a haze of hashish and casual violence they had reached a twenty-first century approximation of Hassan-e Sabba.

Subsequent success in the world of academia trained me to identify this nihilistic mindset with an extreme mode of alienation. Philosophers cannot abide meaninglessness. Expressions of nothingness must be meaning in disguise.

It’s a comforting thought, not only as it keeps nothingness at bay, but also because it suggests that these people will all join the Glorious Socialist Revolution once the Oxbridge Marxists finally bring it about.

But what else are we to do with the organic nihilists of the world if not interpret them? In his new book, Martin Demant Frederiksen proposes a radical answer: take them at their word.

Instead of training a prurient eye upon the abjection and squalor of those who do not give a fuck, Frederiksen proposes nothingness as a recognizable mode of being. It is a valueless and directionless way of encountering the world, but it is nevertheless an encounter. Compared to other philosophies, it at least has the virtue of honesty and consistency.

Although Frederiksen does utilize the occasional philosopher to craft his arguments, he balances this with an anthropologist’s observation of real life (mostly in the form of pointless chats with acquaintances and drinking vodka). Part real observation, partly fictional condensations of lived experience; the form of the book is as wonderfully unfocused as its subject matter.

The writing is detached and casual. Frederiksen carries you along like a directionless wander on a balmy afternoon, passing around a bottle. It is as unpretentious as a work integrating Nietzsche, Boudieu and the Null Morpheme could possibly be, using a light touch which leaves questions open and ideas unfixed. It feels like the kind of loose talk you’d have in the early hours. A fitting approach.

So what happens when we believe that some people just do nothing? Well, nothing much. There is no heroic conclusion to the book. No moment where the angry young writer declares “…and therefore we must all do this!”. Instead you get a real anthropological sense of how some, perhaps many, people live… and that’s it.

As a joyless workaholic I personally could not live the way that Frederiksen’s characters live. My existence is instead dictated by my desperate bad faith, clawing at any and all bits of meaning that fall within reach. Yet this, somehow, made the book appealing to me, comforting almost.

I guess it’s nice to think that somewhere out there are people who are happy to watch twenty minutes of a movie they’ve seen before and then turn it off and have a nap even though it’s only 11am. It’s pleasant to read about people with nowhere to be. People who hold opinions that aren’t particularly strong and who have no interest in whether they are agreed with or not.

In summing up meaninglessness and packaging it in a form perfectly suited to the subject matter, Frederiksen has essentially captured a little bit of nothing between the covers of a book. I would recommend it both to those who want to feel nothing, and those who are simply tired of always being made to feel something.

You should definitely read this book. Or don’t. Whatever…

– Joe Darlington

Hard Symbolism

Cristina Rivera Garza, The Iliac Crest. Sarah Booker, trans. (And Other Stories, 2018)

Magical realism has been around for a while now. Long enough to have its heroic founders, its Nobel Laureates, and its third-generation imitators. The like-Marqueses, like-Borgeses, and like-Carters seem to have turned the form into as much of a genre as are the like-Lovecrafts of horror and the like-Tolkeins of fantasy.

But at its core magical realism has always been a literary form. It seems to separate itself off from genre fiction, elevating the supernatural to a symbolic element. If magical realism is to survive as an innovative rather than derivative form then, I believe, it is this symbolical element that must be emphasized.

Garza’s newly translated novel, The Iliac Crest, is an excellent example of this symbolism elevating narrative in a new and exciting way. It uses magical realism as a way of making symbolic aspects physical; they come to life and walk around the page. Rather than magical realism, it might be better described as Hard Symbolism.

The narrative concerns our male protagonist, a doctor at a sanatorium where political dissidents are quietly silenced, defending his masculinity against the incursions of two women. These young revenants in black are alternately known as the Magpies, False One, the Betrayer or the Betrayed. They are in search of a lost manuscript by Amparo Dávila, a writer who has gone missing in a region infamous for its femicides.

The resulting story plays out as a contest for power, with the unnamed protagonist seeking to maintain his humanity in the face of the women’s accusations and the requirements of his job. Soon he finds that he’s trying to use his medical pacifiers – morphine, restraints – on the women… and that they conspire to use them on him.

As a narrative it wanders around far more than a ghost story would, although its atmosphere is unmistakably that of Gothic mystery. Instead of heart-racing progression, the unease lingers in each scene. The direction of travel is unclear and, as readers, we are left guessing as to where we are going to be led next. The Symbols, it seems, are leading us.

The translation by Sarah Booker is effective in reflecting Garza’s narrative in its prose. She uses long sentences, often with a baroque flavour to their grammar and word choice. What she can’t capture, as she explains in her translator’s note, is the play Garza makes of gendered referents. Spanish, as a highly gendered language, leaves many opportunities for disruption and ambiguity which English doesn’t. Booker nevertheless approximates these effects well by exploring the possibilities of first person.

The Iliac Crest is a fascinating book for these and other reasons. It exhibits the rare capacity to transcend its conceptual innovations and become a compellingly readable tale, all the while never downplaying its own innovations.

A reviewer has already compared it to David Lynch, although to me a more fitting comparison is Rex Warner and his quasi-allegorical tales. The story may be symbolic but, unlike Lynch, this isn’t necessarily its core focus. It is readable, immersive and concise.

I highly recommend the book for reading over a spooky weekend, ideally with a glass of red wine and the sound of ravens tapping at the window.

– Joe Darlington 

Piss and vinegar

Frederic Raphael – Against The Stream (Carcanet) 

Manchester. Cucumber sandwiches left out by Helen, but the bread was of a low standard. I turned to the business of F.

Carcanet are up to Volume 7 of this fellow Frederic Raphael’s published journals already, but I haven’t read any of it. So for me it’s a journey into a world both old and new, which dazzles with its light, but stings the eyes.

I can see why it is all being published. It’s the kind of detailed record-keeping a talented, expensively educated person undertakes, and he reflects on the times in which he is writing.

But F. is unremittingly bitchy, to understate the case greatly. He is The Genius in the world and all other humans are mere flies, irritants buzzing around, sometimes worth the comment, but those comments are nearly always intellectualised flyswats.

This volume opens with a colleague of F’s who, in his eyes, is a mere drudge, lucky to be promoted way beyond drudgery, and her partner is a sort of human turd. Each description of this man’s tastes, opinions and behaviour drips with revulsion.

George Steiner gets the rolled up newspaper THWACK merely for asking for a synopsis of some research, and not the whole thing.

In some ways this material is as important as that left by Mr Pepys, but instead of ‘it was washday for my wife, so I slammed her coney, and so to bed’, we get:

‘Eric Paice has recently retired as Chairman of the Writers’ Guild, depressed by the erosion of drama slots on the networks, he proposes to emigrate to the novel.’

Perhaps as a consequence of the ‘erosion of drama slots’, Ed Reardon’s Week has now occupied F’s mode of discourse almost completely. I half expected a cameo from Jaz Milvane and a scene where Raphael and Felix get trapped, completely pissed, in the revolving doors of the Connaught Hotel.

In some ways that scene is in Against The Stream, it is one modelled on a sequence from Will Hay’s Oh, Mr Porter!, where hapless fools are trapped on the windmill shouting ‘help!’ for far longer than it is funny.

F. predicts a rash of morbid books about the decline of ‘standards’ from people such as Paice, which is brilliant and prescient. But then he describes Paice, pipe smoker, in his mackintosh, as ‘splay-toothed, yellow faced, his eyes look out from a wince of narrowed lids.’

Clearly F. is a great writer, but ‘curmudgeonly’ doesn’t get near. He makes me watch people he thinks are idiots stuck on the relentless windmill of his life until I loathe him for it.

F. is the kind of egoist who also has an ego. There is a difference. There are people who are egoists, but who are not egotistical. F. is both and his ego is at war with itself as well as everything else.

He also has hair like the stuffing coming out of the peach seat of the old sofa left in the street outside, the transplanted eyes and eyebrows of Robert Maxwell and a false grimace of a smile absolutely in keeping with his psychology and its diarised output.

Clearly he will relish this picture of himself just as much as he routinely enjoys turning description into a form of character assassination.

The blurb actually tries to sell its author’s vitriol as virtue, with the bizarre analysis that his nastiness holds a mirror up to him. But sometimes a brilliant but nasty person is just a brilliant but nasty person. This double or triple take, or second guessing him as insecure, surely this is just for his analyst? And pity that person. Pity.

So I will say it and you can stop reading at this point if you want to: F is a brilliant but nasty person. A raconteur intellectual with a viper’s bite.

But the larger contours under all the details are those of the so-called British class ‘system’, and that is interesting, and that is worth looking at leeward, from the angle of 100 years hence, if there is a 100 years hence.

Here is proof that the upper-middles get away with blue murder and still think the world owes them a living. But if I tried that on I would probably end up living under a bridge. If I converted F’s journal content into my voice and milieu and had it published I’d be ostracised.

If you sift out the nastiness and ephemera, all that is left is a snobbish intellectual fetish, under which is class fetish.

From the mid-twentieth to the twenty-first century, we have so many British voices to preserve, Doreen Massey, Stuart Hall, Alan Sinfield. Clever, been right through it, but admirable in spirit, whatever their background.

In the end, no matter how interesting the glimpse into the Thatcher years, through this most brilliant of minds – and it clearly is – the double disclaimer and weird validation of a mirror held up to the author is bunk.

Perhaps the next volume will be called Pissing Off Beachy Head.

– F.R.

Cadenza

Scott Thurston, We Must Betray Our Potential (Red Ceilings Press, 2018)

Where exactly does poetry happen? On the page, stamped in with the ink? Maybe it lives in the wrists, or somewhere in the fingertips where notes are also stored to be released by guitar or flute. Maybe it’s “all subjective”… whatever that means.

Scott Thurston’s latest collection, We Must Betray Our Potential, is the product of a long exploration of poetry and movement. In particular, the art of modern dance. That gestural, ephemeral, suggestive form that can signify everything or nothing, depending on the viewer seems a natural partner for poetry, and yet work in this area is still rare, or undeveloped.

Poetry and dance both seem to emanate from somewhere deeply internal. Yet they both also depend upon a conscious cultivation of skill through long and rigorous training. Both embody art’s great contradiction. Natured nurture, nurtured nature.

Thurston’s poetry realises this. It holds a residue of movement in its eminently careful poetics:

the way you hold

in the biceps

that idea in your

spine letter number

head turns your

left achilles tendon

can’t look at

the sore city

without seeing ghosts

sunlit patch in the

wood with mazy

points

There is something reminiscent of Japanese calligraphic poetry in these brittle little columns of words. The kind of poetry in which the inscription is itself part of the form. Writing is cultivated as a movement as well as a semantic declaration. Both the written and its writing signify together.

These narrow columns are separated by justified blocks of prose-poetry. More descriptive; the solid blocks of text let us into the reflective process of dancing poetry. Muscles and bone are felt, as solid as practice rooms and views of the city. Politics too incurs, impressing on the world that impresses on the body. The collection’s title is one such reflection.

There then follows a second section that reminds me of cut-up poetry. The interplay of prose-poetry blocks and poetic columns is replaced by small bars of wordflow. They sit in the middle of each page like square stamps.

trade didn’t land setting mimesis

working blocked from circles in

alignment the small medicine body

My word processor won’t allow me to justify the text as neatly as it appears in the book itself. Imagine a rectangle of words. They seem to have landed in a perfect alignment, fresh from some movement invisible now to the reader. We aren’t present for the dance itself, but these are undeniably traces of a critical impact.

As with a carefully choreographed but experimental dance piece, there are moments in Thurston’s collection which strike the reader as opaque. I, for one, desired at times an explanation. But then I’d encounter a perfect little fragment – “I have hurt my arm; torn-open throat, lingua unfolded” – and be reminded that the pleasure here is in the impalpable spaces. The discernible moments within the indiscernible. Flickers of sublimity.

It’s a book that provokes, and rewards numerous readings. Red Ceilings Press have done an excellent job of presenting the work. As an object it is a perfect-bound little pocket-sized enigma that I found myself carrying around in a jacket pocket and bringing out in a snatched moment. New parts leapt out every time.

This collection feels like it’s something alive and, although the end of a long journey for the writer, it also seems like a changing thing for the reader. A thing of movement. I find it moves me. I find I am moving now, and I like it.

– Joe Darlington

Yin Minus Yang

Haruki Murakami – Men Without Women (Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen trans., Vintage, 2018)

I’m not exactly sure when I became one of the Men Without Women. I don’t recall a specific transformation. One arrives at it slowly. Barely notices it until, suddenly, it’s there. You’re one of them.

Murakami’s latest short story collection (published in Japan in 2014, the US in 2017, and now in the UK) concerns this strange breed in all of its many shapes. From Kafuku the solitary thespian, to Dr Tokai the bachelor with many fleeting partners, to the lovelorn, recently divorced Kino; all are men defined in some way by their lack of an other half. They are single, if not in terms of their relationships, at least in terms of their identity, their self-contained natures.

It is tempting to draw some easy moral from Murakami’s choice of subject matter. Urban living, as the great paradox dictates, isolates us from others. The internet too seems to have made love valueless through sheer overabundance. In oft-quoted statistics and polls, Japan leads the world in producing a “sexless” generation of young people who find dating a bore.

As the diversity of these stories shows, however, the idea that Men Without Women can be reduced to an anonymous mass of incel losers does an injustice to the variety of lives that are to be lived by unattached men. True, each story contains an undertone of sadness, but there is also hope and conviction.

Murakami’s writing is narrative-driven. This excuses the sometimes static language of the translations, as it is action and observation that bring his characters to life, not language itself. The eccentric Kitaru whose presence lies at the heart of the story “Yesterday”, for example, speaks, we are told, in a rough Kansai dialect; a dialect he has adopted after long study as he finds it more interesting than the popular Tokyo dialect in which he was raised. No attempt is made to provide an English language equivalent – it is the mere fact of his attempt that marks him out as an eccentric, pushing against the grain of linguistic standardization.

Kitaru has a girlfriend, but he feels too close to her emotionally to be interested in her physically. He sets her up with the protagonist of the story, Aki, whose more stereotypical and ritualized dating habits are the inspiration that Erika, the girlfriend, needs to finally leave Kitaru. Kitaru, as a Man Without Women, has his own life organized to best fit his personality. For Erika, a normal girl with conventional aspirations, the process of maturing depends upon her casting off the guy with the strong personality in favour of the flexible man who is willing to abide by social convention.

Social conventions lie at the core of each story. The Men Without Women are largely defined by a core stubbornness that keeps them from regular dating, or a happy marriage. The same stubbornness is seen at a distance in the corresponding world of Women Without Men. Kafuku’s chainsmoking driver who would rather sit in silence than make idle conversation. Scheherazade, the woman for whom sex is only foreplay compared to the thrill of telling stories about her former lovers. These women too are self-contained. Their universes too are solitary.

A notable thing about the collection is that, despite its focus, there are no men within it who are entirely without women as companions and lovers. The phenomenon Murukami is addressing is more complex. The Men Without Women and the Women Without Men are creatures defined by their intrinsic separateness even during moments of intimacy.

In some ways the people who Murukami is writing about are ideal adults. They have grown habitually independent, or non-dependent, free of reliance upon others. Dependency, by contrast, is a trait associated with emotional immaturity, with cloying sentimentality and with childishness. Yet, such is the paradox, the very independence of these characters also inevitably seems sad, lonely, and perhaps itself immature; indicative of an unwillingness to compromise and bend.

The final message is ultimately ambiguous. Murukami’s stories wander around a lot. Their structure is loose as if to accommodate his character’s obstinacy and unwillingness to follow a pre-ordained path. With the exception of “Samsa in Love” (a retelling of Kafka’s Metamorphosis that, although intriguing, is a poor fit with the rest of the stories), each tale is a slow unfolding of one or two characters. One is left with a sense of overall unity. Not just stories brought together, but a whole picture constructed of seven fragments.

This is my first time reading Murukami and I can understand why he is such a global phenomenon. The balance between the literary and the popular in his writing guarantees that you will read quickly and forget slowly. Much like the relationships of our solitary protagonists it will pass all too quickly, but the memories stick will with you long after.

– Joe Darlington

An Englishman’s home is his castle

Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova – Prefabs: A Social and Cultural History (Historic England, 2018)

Up and down the country, in between areas of traditional brick housing and shiny new builds, it’s still possible to see the odd row of small, single-story rectangular cottages made of concrete and corrugated metal. Whilst they often look unassuming and sometimes shabby, these dwellings are remarkable survivors from the years following the First and Second World Wars, when there was a pressing need to provide housing quickly, cheaply and on a mass-scale. One solution, as a new book by Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova shows, was prefabrication.

Prefabrication, either of entire buildings or of particular components, has a long history, being applied to everything from the construction of the Crystal Palace, to ready-to-assemble houses which were exported to residents setting up home in the colonies, to dormitory housing for factory workers. Over time, materials changed with technological advancements, from timber to corrugated iron to steel and concrete, as did designs. Prefabs situates British prefabs in this historical context, as well as within a wider international survey of approaches to prefabrication, driven by varying circumstances and ideologies.

When prefabrication really came into its own in the UK was immediately after the Second World War, when hundreds of thousands of new homes were needed to house a boom in newlyweds, as well as those who had been bombed. Prefabrication was regarded as a quick and temporary solution to this need, at a time when both materials and labour were in short supply. Factories which had previously produced aircraft as part of the war effort were repurposed to create components for housing. Rubble from bombed houses were used for foundations. Furthermore, construction didn’t require skilled labour – sometimes prisoners of war were put to work erecting prefabs.

Although they were meant only as a temporary solution, these houses often vastly exceeded residents’ former living conditions, offering a self-contained (if small), detached house with front and back garden at a time when many families, especially in the inner cities, were still crammed into rooms in houses shared with several others.

As the book shows, these houses not only offered a roof over residents’ heads, but changed their ways of living. In many ways, prefabs were at the forefront of modernity, incorporating then-innovative features such as built-in furniture and storage space, indoor bathrooms, electric appliances, and labour-saving devices such as refrigerators. They also offered self-sufficiency, with space to grow food; the book describes a Women’s Voluntary Service scheme which distributed plants and seeds to the prefabs from gardens in country areas. This goes some way to explaining their popularity, and the fact that some continue to be lived in today, extending their predicted life-span by more than half a century.

Of course, prefabs weren’t without their problems. They suffered from issues such as damp, and it was sometimes difficult to regulate the temperature inside; early designs, demonstrated at experimental show homes on prominent central London sites such as the land behind the Tate Gallery, were improved and refined as their faults became apparent.

The book goes on to show how elements of prefabrication, such as cast concrete and the use of mass-produced, machine-made elements, were applied later in the post-war reconstruction effort to housing intended to be more permanent. By the 1960s, the low-rise bungalow of the immediate post-war years was replaced with the high-rise block of flats as the preferred choice for meeting the need for mass housing; many of these proved less popular and durable than the apparently temporary prefabs, and turned out to have design flaws with far more serious consequences.

Prefabs brings these homes to life, incorporating testimonies from past and present residents as well as illustrations of their construction and their changing place in the housing market as the areas around them have been redeveloped; controversially in the past couple of years Catford’s Excalibur Estate, one of the last major areas of prefab housing, has been largely cleared by the council to be replaced with high-density (and higher-cost) housing in the name of regeneration, despite the objections of residents.

The authors even suggest that prefabs might have a role to play today, in addressing issues such as the shortage of affordable housing and homelessness. Updated with new materials and methods of construction, prefabs benefit from being portable, cost-effective and eco-friendly, and can be easily slotted into the existing city fabric – attributes that made them attractive to planners and councils more than seventy years ago.

Natalie Bradbury