By Patrick Tuck
‘The difficulty is,’ said Hastings, ‘we haven’t hit our targets.’
The glass office and the glass the desk. The city below and beside.
Hastings wore a tie. John Benjamin didn’t wear a tie.
‘Yes I have,’ said John.
‘But the department hasn’t,’ said Hastings.
‘It’s your department,’ said John. ‘Why don’t they fire you?’
‘I’m sorry, John,’ said Hastings.
‘How much do I get?’ said John.
Money. Income. The life support that bought the food, water and shelter he was too useless to acquire without it.
‘Three months,’ said Hastings. ‘You can leave today.’
They looked at each other and Hastings looked away first. He swept his neat brown hair across his head and corrected his posture.
John signed the paper and left.
He called Louise and she cried. It wasn’t like before. There was a time a good salesman was always in demand. One could sit in an interview and point to a list of good companies and targets hit, and as long as they had spare capacity to sell, they’d bring you on.
‘I can’t get back tonight,’ said John, ‘it’ll be too expensive. I’ll come first thing tomorrow.’
Parsimony. A change of circumstances is a change of man. Income, no matter how small, represents an inexhaustible resource. There is no limit to money. So long as a quantity travels towards a man, it’s value is diminished. And now John had none travelling to him.
And it wasn’t like before. These days a man lost a job and never found another. And not just the unskilled or uneducated. Now obsolescence hung over the human condition like a plague. And who would have thought salesmen would hold out so long.
John smiled in the window of the Craven Arms and entered. He walked to the wall and tapped his card and watched the pint of bitter fill the glass.
It was the most useless profession. He’d always known. Even as he accepted his first role after university. Selling solutions. Anyone that used software needed a solution to manage the software. John had sold them, and with fervour, in the masochistic human lust for creating one’s own doom.
There had been some pride at first. Not obvious pride but basic and visceral. Exceeding targets. Breaking a record for daily or monthly sales. He was successful. Not because of financial motivation. Not as a competitive animal. But for the very reason that he saw the futility of the role. He understood its distance from anything good or useful. A vocation that manipulates behaviour, undesired by producer or customer but found to be a necessity of commerce.
The labourers went, then the administrative staff. First they received solutions to ease their workload, to lower staff costs. But the solutions were too complex. It took a skilled worker. So improve the technology. So remove the requirement of skill. So remove the worker.
Then engineers and mechanics and even supervisors. Craftsmen had a brief renaissance, a rebellion against the inevitability of algorithmic efficiency. Progress prevailed. The irrepressible force.
But so long as the consumers were human, they would need to be persuaded by humans. They would need the human touch, charm, cajolery. And a great salesman can read a person, understand them, and can see the individual and the demographic and can tweak a pitch and listen and mirror and buy the confidence and attention with subtle movements and choice words. But this can be done with perception and experience. Nothing more.
But what sees beyond a demographic, and beyond language, and beyond reaction? And what is there to probe so deep into consciousness? A solution can burrow deep beyond any veneer a human has learnt to construct. It sees every man naked. It can visit a woman in privacy. It can spy on a child without fear of reprimand.
And so, while consumers remained human, a profession began to die. A solution can persuade and pester and target and manipulate without the transparency of the salesman. It is ‘helping to buy’, John’s father’s great saying. It is urging the consumer and it is relentless and it holds no fear of rejection and it is slavish to its cause and cannot be hindered by morality or the balance of work and life.
‘Hastings,’ said John.
Hasting scanned his card. Ice clattered into the glass and then gin, tonic and a slice of lime.
‘You want anything?’ said Hastings.
His accent slipped and his tie was loose.
‘Another bitter if you’re offering.’
‘I am,’ said Hastings.
They sat at a table.
‘You don’t look happy,’ said John.
‘They took your advice,’ said Hastings. ‘No salesmen to manage, no need for a manager.’
‘I guess that was an easy one to see coming.’
‘Did you see yours coming?’
‘Now that it’s happened,’ said John.
‘Because we hope,’ said Hastings. ‘If that’s a word fit for the things we settle to do.’
‘Cheers,’ said John and drank.
‘Not hope,’ said Hastings. ‘I don’t know why I said hope. It’s just delusion and denial. What time are you heading north?’
‘West,’ said John. ‘My family is west. I’ll go in the morning.’
‘This gin’s rancid,’ said Hastings.
‘It’s probably the tonic,’ said John. ‘Been in the line too long. Not many gin drinkers here.’
Hastings looked over John’s shoulder out the window and across the pub. He took out his phone and pressed the screen and swiped up and down and right and left.
‘I’m going back north,’ said Hastings. ‘It’ll be horrible.’
‘It’s not so bad,’ said John. ‘Still a few people with work up there.’
‘That’s worse,’ said Hastings.
‘Maybe it won’t be much longer,’ said John. ‘They’re talking about the universal income again.’
Hastings lowered his head to his gin and sipped through the straw. He was like a child with a secret.
‘They’re always talking about it. They’ll hold out as long as they can. Besides, there’s no one to pay tax.’
‘What’ll you do?’ said John.
‘A friend of mine has a few luddite restaurants,’ said Hastings.
‘The expensive ones?’ said John.
‘That must be a good business.’
‘Not really. Things are expensive when you have to pay people.’
‘Still, it would be nice.’
‘Yes. Maybe. You want another?’
‘I can get them,’ said John.
‘Don’t. They gave me six months and I make, made, more than you anyway.’
Hastings walked to the wall and tapped the card and touched the screen. A drink and some words back and forth and an evolution of the man. Rigid, removed Hastings. And now they had something to share. Their situation. A sense of despair and inevitability. The common experience tied them in brief affinity. Pain cannot be transferred. Sympathy’s limit is shallow. Friends had been made redundant. Others had suffered worse. And now it was him, it meant something. The context of the suffering is everything.
‘What’ll you do?’ said Hastings. He put two pints of bitter on the table.
‘I think this’ll be it,’ said John, ‘with the house. We’ve kept it going a good while, but there comes a point. I suppose we’ll look at one of the communes.’
Hastings failed to conceal a wince. ‘I hear some are okay,’ he said.
‘Louise’s brother lives in one. He’s always pestering us,’ said John. ‘Energy’s free now. You can live comfortably.’
‘Until you need a doctor.’
‘Others are talking about fighting,’ said John.
‘That’d be a dumb thing to do.’
‘Not if we won,’ said John.
‘It’d be no different if you won. Just some of you and some of them would die along the way,’ said Hastings.
John thought of his father and the fleeting moments of joy in prosperity he’d witnessed as a child. A promotion. A bonus. A raise. His father smiled and forgot his miseries and his failures and the emptiness of his progress. He bought John a magazine and a pastry and talked loosely in celebratory inebriation.
‘There has to be another way,’ said John. ‘You don’t have to pay robots; the machines are labour saving. People should be able to live well.’
Hastings twirled his gin. He waited on his words, as John’s father would, contemplating how much to disclose. Judging the level of ignorance to grant.
‘You don’t pay robots,’ said Hastings, ‘but you have to buy them. Someone has created them, or created the intellectual property for them.’
‘Then we’d seize them,’ said John.
‘And then there’d be no new robots,’ said Hastings.
‘You believe in the inevitability of capitalism,’ said John. ‘If it’s inevitable, why is it so often rebelled against?’
‘I believe in the inevitability of revolution,’ said Hastings. ‘Like a wheel always turning.’
John drank his bitter and looked at Hastings suffering through the drink. The wet, bitterness pausing in his mouth as he braced to swallow. And he saw more in the man. He had judged Hastings as he’d resent to be judged, as only what he showed at work, as nothing beyond a professional, and a reluctant one at that.
‘Anyway,’ said John, ‘there’ll be no revolution tonight. What time are you heading north?’
‘Tomorrow,’ said Hastings. ‘They’ve got me a hotel tonight. Park Lane.’
Hastings lowered his head to his drink.
‘They’ve got the fair on Hyde Park,’ said Hastings. ‘I thought I might pop down there if you’re free.’
Carnival lights. White bulbs and limp greens and synthetic, scratchy blues and pinks and yellows. The noise is sharp and warm.
Hastings puts his hands in his pockets. The night is cold and a breeze runs over and through him. People are jerked up and down and left and right on the amusements. Muted then screaming then giggling. He loves the fair. ‘Why do you want to go there?’ his father had said. It was a place for commoners. A place for the conned, not the conmen. A world of distractions, of flashing lights and cheap thrills. Where nothing was learnt, no skills honed, no personal development. Not a place for a boy with his opportunities. A boy that could learn to shoot or ride a horse or play the piano or speak a foreign language.
John brought two spiced ciders and Hastings cupped his hands on the polythene.
There was a magic to the fair. A primitive and unobtrusive virtual reality. You could fall a hundred feet and survive unscathed. Each ride a simulation of the moments before death, or potential death, as the rollercoaster recreates an impossible journey and the pirate ship sways to an extent that would toss the hardiest sailor into the depths of the ocean.
He’d always loved the elation of survival. Emerging from the ride, holding his brother’s hand. A death escaped. A life appreciated. He didn’t think this then. He didn’t think of death then. He just did things.
‘Shall we go on the house of mirrors?’ said John.
They looked at the open front. Men and women and children shaking and wobbling and falling. There were no harnesses there. There was no danger real or simulated. Maybe a bruise on the shin or embarrassment. All he wanted was to be strapped in and thrilled.
‘No,’ said Hastings. ‘I don’t like that one.’
‘I’m getting a hot dog,’ said John.
‘After,’ said Hastings. ‘Let’s go on the pendulum first.’
‘I’ll chuck up my breakfast,’ said John.
Hastings stared at the ride. ‘Don’t be a baby. I’ll pay.’
They queued and sat in and the cold left and Hastings gripped the silver handles hard. He looked across the fairground. The anticipation. The hint of remorse. What if I’m too old? What if I’m sick? What if the harness comes loose? It’s not tight. I could slip out.
And it’s too late. The mechanism is working. The man who strapped him in is talking to someone.
And then the first feeling of weightlessness. The seat jerks up into his backside and they lift off. John’s smiling next to him. Good.
Poor John. Didn’t even negotiate his dismissal. Didn’t even ask for a hotel room. Or for a fourth month’s pay. Didn’t know what was owed him or his statutory rights. John that believes in anything beyond the self. That we are anything more than individual animals with our interests and survival in mind. John that believes a worker can be simultaneously obsolete and powerful. He’s happy to see John smile.
The pendulum is above the tree tops and he can see London. He knows so much about London, about its history and its achievements and importance. He can see Nash’s Georgian masterpieces. He can see the Victorian glory of Tower Bridge. And he can see the modern eyesores that will become celebrated at another time. As all achievements, outside of sport and business, are appreciated fully only in retrospect.
The city has been the focus of an entire life, and he realises, jerking against the cold metal and the hard pillow of the harness that he doesn’t really like the city. That he’s never liked people and doesn’t know why he’s chosen to surround himself so comprehensively with them. Is it to compete against them? To defeat and humiliate them?
Hastings looks to his left and John is white and grimacing. The ride swings and he sees his suit flutter in the wind. His organs move and his head is light as they’re whirled back to the top. It must nearly be over. This is the crescendo of disorientation. These are the moments before the pretend death. This is what his father couldn’t hide from him. He closes his eyes and imagines he’s falling for good. The harness disappears and he opens his palms and falls into the night and the crowd.
‘Hastings,’ said John.
Hastings opened his eyes and the harness was up and he stepped on the metal platform with certainty.
‘What do you want to do now?’ said John. ‘I don’t feel like eating after that.’
‘Let’s play a game,’ said Hastings.
‘They’re all rip offs,’ said John.
‘I don’t care.’
John walked ahead and Hastings followed. He bought John another spiced cider and walked to the games. Pink and blue and yellow vulgarities dangled from the stands. It was proof for anyone in doubt that success is its own reward. That one participates for victory and not for the intrusive, oversized cartoon character that briefly degrades one’s living room before a lifetime imprisonment in the attic.
And what victories had he known? Why had he participated? It wasn’t for the rewards. He had a house and a wife. Many people had houses and wives. He wasn’t exceptional. But there was no manner in which to be so. Technology was the great leveller. A mechanism for equality. Not financial. He’d heard enough about Marxism to understand that technology brought poverty to those that owned nothing. But it brought the equality of un-remarkability. A great warrior built his strength and guile. A man with a palm and a forefinger can pull a trigger.
‘Let’s go on the shooting range,’ said Hastings.
They stopped and each paid and lifted the rifle. John shot and missed. He adjusted his aim and hit, and again and again until he won a prize.
Hastings lifted the butt to his shoulder. ‘Be calm,’ his father said. Even when he hit the target – ‘be calm.’ He exhaled and shot and missed. Adjust a little. These sights are always crooked. He searched for calm and exhaled and shot. He missed. Now he was angry. John had hit. It was the same game and the same rules and he’d had better opportunities and he missed. Poor, simple John, who didn’t ask for anything more than he was given, hit the target and won and succeeded.
Hastings exhaled and missed. He wanted to tell John how much money he’d made, to break the man with his undeniable superiority. A superiority that must be proven.
‘You’re pretty good with a rifle,’ said Hastings.
John smiled. ‘You believe in revolution don’t you?’
John with a gun, confident. And he useless. What did he believe in? Anything? He’d said revolution but the words had come, he hadn’t chosen them. And why had he said it? Because he believed it or because he thought it sounded clever? And why was he so confident that John and his revolutionaries wouldn’t win? What did he know? What did he really understand about what could happen? Communists could be innovative.
There was an urge for chaos. There was little else.
‘John,’ he said. ‘Let’s go back to the office.’
‘Let’s just go.’
‘I’ve only loved one woman other than my wife,’ said Hastings.
The night was cold and thin. Hastings was drunk and spluttered his feet over the payment.
‘I knew her at university. She smelt very floral. I really loved her.’
John shoved his hands in his pockets and wished he was alone. So many evenings had ended like this, lost to politeness. He couldn’t blame it on workplace etiquette now. Hastings could offer him nothing. He wanted solitude and a bed. There were things to think about now. He was retired. And still he stood there with a man he didn’t like and listened.
‘Do you believe in love, John?’ said Hastings.
‘Good,’ said Hastings. ‘What do you think it is?’
‘I think it’s mostly compassion,’ said John. ‘And I think it’s gratitude.’
‘Are you grateful for your wife?’
‘Because she does things for me. Because she stays with me when there’s nothing in it for her other than to have me.’
‘The woman I loved at university, she did things for me, she was thoughtful. Now I do things for my wife, and she’s not grateful or compassionate.’
‘I’m sorry about that.’
Hastings shrugged. ‘It’s funny how we get to these places.’
They stopped and John looked up at the glass office tower. Five years he’d come every day. He’d picked up another man’s phone and sold another man’s product and had taken his money and left more. And the years moved quickly now and he was always, always behind. And now it seemed life would offer him very little of what he had hoped. And that was something to be accepted and managed. At least the burden of ambition would no more haunt him.
‘What are we doing here?’ said John.
‘Let’s break something,’ said Hastings.
‘Yeah, you wanted a revolution. Let’s break something. Let’s get back at them.’
‘You’re drunk,’ said John.
‘So?’ said Hastings. He was leaning and drunk and frowning. ‘This is your problem, John, you’re soft. You know you’ve been mistreated and you do nothing.’
‘What good will breaking a window or a door do?’ said John. ‘I do get at them. I don’t buy their products. I don’t use their solutions. I don’t accept their comfort.’
‘And where has that got you?’
‘Further than smashing windows.’
‘Fine then,’ said Hastings. ‘If you’re too soft I’ll do it.’
Hastings looked around for a missile and found none. He turned the street corner and came back with a jagged brick.
‘Sometimes, John, you need action,’ said Hastings.
He swayed under the brick. The venom seeped from his eyes and he lifted the brick like a shotput practice.
John looked at the office tower and at the staggering man with the brick.
Hastings took a deep breath in and out.
‘They’ve probably got cameras,’ said John. ‘It’s not worth it.’
‘Let them watch. I don’t care.’
‘They can take back the money.’
Hastings laughed. ‘Who cares? It’s tens of thousands. I’m forty-eight. It’s not enough to last. It’ll get me nowhere. They can keep the money.’
Hastings drew back his arm.
The city was quiet and the street close.
He dropped the brick and looked at the ground.
‘Come on,’ said Hastings.
They walked to Postman’s Park and sat on a bench. Hastings was quiet a while and John couldn’t leave him.
‘You never asked what I thought it was,’ said Hastings.
‘I’m sorry. Tell me,’ said John.
‘I think it’s apology, contrition. I think it’s the counterweight for all the things we do out of selfish ambition.’
‘What about the woman at university?’
Hastings looked into his lap.
‘I was already ambitious then. I knew I wanted to make money. I met a great woman, and I knew I would always put myself first, so I made sure that I loved her, that I gave her things to balance my life out. And because I loved her, she loved me, and so I thought I couldn’t lose her and I lost her.’
They said nothing else of meaning. John had no reply and so they sat there. Hastings, still in the vulnerability of his disclosure, drifted to sleep. And John sat and watched the morning come.
At sunrise they walked to a café and had tea and toast.
‘Off to Paddington?’ said Hastings.
‘Well, thanks for coming last night.’
‘No,’ said John. ‘It was good. I hope things go well with the luddite chefs.’
Hastings rolled his eyes.
‘Good luck, John. Again, I’m sorry.’
They shook hands.
o o o
Hey hey hey hey, that’s right, it’s time for another review from the eternally acclaimed book reviewer and “literary lifestyle blogger”, Scott Manley Hadley, and this time I’m giving you the gift of too many gifs:
As an opening aside, I’m very proud to announce that this year I’ve been longlisted for the Saboteur Award for Best Reviewer, which although that’s a downgrade from being on last year’s shortlist, as it’s a public vote and in 2017 I tried to get everyone I’d ever met to vote for me and this year I did literally nothing – I didn’t even vote for myself – I think that’s a real triumph for both myself and Open Pen, the magazine that most regularly publishes my reviews (if we’re not counting – and we’re not – my very own TriumphoftheNow.com). This is, therefore, some non-negligible recognition with zero direct effort: It’s flattering, because it means that some (probs not many) of the literary scenesters who vote in the Saboteur Awards think about me, in my absence, without prompting. That’s a beautiful thing, a wonderful thing, and I feel honoured. If this sounds like I’m being sarcastic, I apologise, as I really really really mean this. I’m feeling great about everything atm tbh, things are genuinely good for me and I’m STILL on masses of antidepressants. Should probably lower the dose soon but meh, booo: let’s enjoy life while I can.
I am genuinely flattered to be longlisted for a 2018 Saboteur Award, though I’m probably not going to add it to my CV, my “writer bio”, or really mention it again as, like I said, it is a stepdown from last year.
So, to the review. The book I am considering today is a collection of short stories by Dana Diehl, titled Our Dreams Might Align. This is a brand new, fresh publication from a brand new, fresh indie press called Splice, based in Birmingham, UK, the top city of my very own native West Midlands.
Splice plan to release multiple short story collections, an annual anthology, plus regular new online content, and Our Dreams Might Align is their first print publication. It is, to be blunt, great. However, given that the source of the publisher’s name is the planned anthology (which will contain new writing from the writers whose collections they publish SPLICED with writing from other voices) and that this book is not a splicing of a new and old, that Dana Diehl herself would be a non-London-based British writer. She, however, isn’t.
Dana Diehl is American and this collection was previously published in 2016 by (now closed) Jellyfish Highway Press. As a huge vocal champion of British indie presses irl AND in the numerous places my “critical writing” pops up, I’m wary to criticise anyone who is setting up and putting out GREAT fiction (as indeed this undeniably is). But I did feel a little disappointed by the lack of an evidenced publisher narrative for me to rave about here. Splice has published a gorgeous, moving, impressive collection of stories in Our Dreams Might Align, but I don’t feel like this book gave me any unique sense of their identity as a publisher. Not to say that this collection wasn’t varied and engaging and taut and moving, in fact it was a near-perfect collection featuring whales and love and heartache and regret and komodo fucking dragons. It is EXCELLENT. BUT Dead Ink, Influx, Fitzcarraldo, And Other Stories, Dodo Ink, Burning Eye, Galley Beggar are all great indie presses putting out consistently top content, and from the first time I read a book published by each of those houses I understood the vibe, the theme, the ideology of said publisher. Though Splice – outside of this book – mention plans that are super exciting and pleasingly innovative, as a statement of innovative intent, Our Dreams Might Align doesn’t enter the publishing landscape with an unfamiliar bang. I love the book, I think it’s great, but I don’t know if I love Splice yet.
Hmmm. I don’t know if my comments here are useful, because Our Dreams Might Align is one of the best short story collections I’ve read in ages. Probably since Eley Williams’ Attrib. and other stories (Influx Press, 2017, my response here), which structurally this reminded me of. Dana Diehl’s collection is amazing, I want to say this plain. The criticisms I’m making are probably stupid, pointless, vapid, and the fact that I feel not only comfortable making them but UNcomfortable writing about *any* book without including some kind of pointed negativity is an example of my own white male privilege that I’d never understood until I saw a viral tweet a few days ago.
Last week I read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race (Bloomsbury, 2017, my thoughts here), and perhaps my own liberal, progressive prior engagement with “identity politics”, systems of prejudice and – gently – intersectionality meant that I found it a less personally-challenging book than the introduction led me to expect. Though I was made uncomfortable by the examples of state-approved discrimination, of lynchings and race riots and cruelty, I wasn’t encountering any of the “ideas” for the first time, though I was newly encountering a pointed and direct history of race relations in the UK. I understand what white privilege is, I understand intersectionality, and Eddo-Lodge’s book informed and expanded my knowledge of ideas I had already explored, whilst tying them to my own national history in a way that I was unused to. So, maybe I’m trying to say that the book about racism left me feeling almost smug in my awareness of my own progressive, liberal, attitudes and empathy and understanding. Because I try to never talk over black people speaking about race, over women speaking about gender, over gay people speaking about sexuality (though, as a white man, I am sure I am guilty of all those things at some point and I apologise), because my ability to “listen” and believe what I listen to is something I am firm and comfortable in, I knew I was not guilty of the most accidentally destructive contemporary liberal sin Eddo-Lodge writes about: wilful faux ignorance.
But then, on Twitter – which I have very much turned into a wishy washy internationalist safe space by blocking everyone I think has an unredeemable broken soul – I suddenly saw a thread being shared by some of the team behind Minor Literature[s] that directly told me I was doing something wrong. (NB: if you don’t know what Minor Literature[s] is, it’s a more serious literary magazine than this one, basically the “bed in” era John Lennon to Open Pen’s Thomas the Tank Engine era Ringo Starr.) It was a thread written by a North American BME woman about how the only people who ever proselytise about the importance of negative reviews are heterosexual middle class white men. Oh, I gulped: you’re right, I *am* the only person I know who regularly writes about hating books (here is yet another link to that Tom Jeffreys review), and who as recently as like March has blogged about the importance (imo) of negative responses to cultural products. As I opened the thread and prepared to have my proverbial ass proverbially handed to me, I thought about how white men feel comfortable expressing whatever opinion they have, how white men judge all cultural products as if heterowhiteman is the default experience etc, but what I read instead was actually far, far more depressing. The commentator was saying that the reason negative opinions are rarely expressed is due to the fear and the threat and the reality of backlash. Of personal, discriminatory, abusive attacks aimed at a critic following a negative denouncement. This is horrendous and fucking shameful.
I thought about the literature I had written about negatively and who I had pissed off and what repercussions that had had, and I realised: pretty much NOTHING. I slated Joshua Cohen’s Moving Kings, but Fitzcarraldo still send me review copies of almost everything they publish (which is a situation I love, thank you thank you thank you), Influx Press named me as a “Literary Hero of 2017” after I wrote that one of their publications was best read by anyone who “actively hopes the entire country north of Oxford will become cholera-filled slums filled with little toad men by the year 2050.” I can think of other good “working” (not for money like) relationships I have with other indie publishers that I have, on occasion, hugely offended with a review. Am I able to “get away” with negativity because of my perceived identity? By virtue of the way I present, am I intrinsically already in the tent pissing [not out but] into a bucket that’s there for the purpose, rather than outside, pissing on the waterproofed canvas? I might make the tent stinky, but I’m not gonna be asked to leave because the tent like is like mine? This metaphor OK?
I thought a bit harder and realised the complexity of my problem. When I consider which books it is I’ve read and most disliked, almost EVERY SINGLE ONE is by a smug middle class white man (occasionally I get bored by smug middle class white women too). Do I come across as bitter when I’m criticising more successful people within my own demographic, or does my ability to comfortably criticise have some kind of cultural value? Or – and this is probably the case – is every bad book I comment on by a mediocre white man just giving less attention, less space, to potential positive reviews of work by non-binary or BME or disabled writers? I don’t know any more, but having reneged on my previous decision to shut the fuck up (none of the white men who DON’T give a shit about trying to be kind bothered shutting up), I’m uncertain how I can actually help. I don’t want to be a dickhead, I don’t want to be part of the problem, but I know that the bigoted pricks who spread hatred and division and contempt will NEVER shut up while there is anyone left to listen to their old men colonial wet dreams.
Here’s a little point: it is easier for middle class white men to attain the outward markers of success than any other group. To be a published writer who diverges from that norm in any way means the book HAS TO be better than that mediocre base. That’s why most books by BME, gay or female writers aren’t shit, because they HAVE TO not be. I didn’t read Signal Failure and think “well, I’ll never read a book by a white Englishman again”, but there are too many prejudiced middle class white people who WILL avoid every book by a mixed race woman because they didn’t like White Teeth, for example. So the lesson, I think, is this: positivity about work by marginalised voices can do a lot of good, while negativity about mediocre white men barely does any harm. I will continue to read and write about books that I think will be exciting, but I firmly expect to continue being underwhelmed mostly, only, by the work of mediocre white men.
Dana Diehl’s collection deserved more attention in this post. I’ve done that thing again. Sorry. Diehl writes with gritty authenticity, she uses animals to great imagistic and allegorical strength, she plays with magical realism in a couple of pieces and the final story – about a fragmenting couple trying to reconnect in Germany while failing to tame a pair of komodo dragons – is one of the strongest and most affecting short stories I have read in a while. Splice has done a great service in publishing this, and I’m sure that the rest of their forthcoming collections, plus their debut anthology, will continue to give me much to enjoy. I’m sorry I feel the need to be negative, because this isn’t a publication that deserves it. I can’t help it. I will go away and think about what I’ve done.
By Neil Clark
Then there was the romance between the carton of smoothie and me.
It started innocently enough. I knocked it over and it said, “Stop looking at my bottom.” When I examined it closer, it told me other things. It told me that it was good for me. It had a website, which complimented me and told me its mum hopes we end up together. It told me I’m perfectly layered, like a lasagne. It said to get in touch any time, to ask it anything.
So you can see how I’d be led on.
I’m alone. As in, I’ll spend hours in front of the mirror interviewing myself, putting on different voices, sometimes dressing up. Alone, as in when I’m doing a dump, I’ll do it with the door open and provide running commentary. I’ll cuddle my pillow at night and pretend it is anything but a pillow. I’m forty-five and recently gave myself a love bite on my right bicep. Since the last time I kissed someone real, millions have conceived and given birth, and those children have grown up and kissed more people than I ever did.
The night I knocked over that carton, I had this dream. There were Ferris wheels on fire, and the flames were doused by hoses spraying fruit smoothie.
I brought it up in the pub the next night, after pint number five. Mentioned that I felt there was some sort of ethereal connection somewhere.
“My smoothie cartons try to be my friend too,” said Darren, the barman. “So does the company that provided my shaving products. I cancelled the service and they keep emailing me asking where I’ve been, saying they miss me and stuff. Stuff that’d get you a restraining order these days.”
What I didn’t tell Darren was that we were already more than friends. I’d emailed ‘Smoothie HQ’ asking about favourite films and music. I’d confessed my Ferris wheel dream. Someone called Lucy replied and it turned out we had things in common. She helpfully suggested that maybe the Ferris wheel means going around in circles, and the fire signifies anger.
The smoothie carton was waiting for me when I stumbled home, seven pints in the bladder. I clutched it from the fridge and sang it our favourite song, quoted it lines from our favourite film. I devoured the remainder of its sweet nectar and licked the residue from its rim. I told it I wasn’t bothered about its lack of curves. Then we lit candles and bathed in coconut water and put the world to rights. We made Jackson Pollock art on my white bathrooms tiles – dramatic splashes of kiwi and beetroot. We awoke in a warm embrace, pillows tossed aside, the line between reality and dreams blended and smudged.
“You’re being manipulated,” said Darren the following night, pulling pint number four. “You do realise they’re really people in suits, with PHDs in psychosomatic ploys to get your money? Those smoothies are probably made in a Chinese sweatshop, and Lucy is probably a fat, balding middle-aged cocaine addict with a mistress, a six-figure salary, syphilis and an offshore bank account.”
“Well… you’re just after my money too,” I said. “That’s why you talk to me every night. What’s the difference?”
“Mate, I talk to you because you sit at the bar, and if I don’t engage with you, you start staring into space and muttering unintelligible garble to yourself. Then the other punters start to leave. Also, scientists have been running some tests on me recently. Results came back saying that I’m actual flesh and blood, not a carton.”
But Darren didn’t know what he was on about. He didn’t know them the way I did. They were not cocaine addicts in suits with syphilis. I’d seen them myself. It was all on the website. They were out and about in shorts and knitted scarfs, seeing the world. They were taking pictures of fruit farms in Africa, supporting local produce and charities. They were taking kooky selfies and blogging, bantering, living ethically – loving!
The emails with Lucy went on. Long enough to get into conversations about marriage and core values and favourite baby names. Long enough for me to tell Lucy I wanted to visit her and the gang. I wanted to go fruit picking with them and chill with them in their office, compliment them for real. I came up with a nickname for her – ‘Juicy Lucy’. I bought all the flavours and did the Jackson Pollock art thing all over my own naked body and sent her the photo.
Someone I hadn’t spoken to emailed back. Gordon, he was called, Head of Customer Care.
It’s been lovely talking to you. What we had was special. But we think it might be a good idea if we stopped emailing. It’s not you – it’s us. All the best for the future.
“Dumped by blended fruit.” Darren hadn’t charged for the last two beers. It was after closing time. “I’ve heard some belters from you over the years, but this definitely makes the top five. Here, I’ve got an idea,” he spontaneously drummed his fingers on the bar. “You got forty quid? Give it here. Trust me.”
Next night, Darren plonked a cardboard box on the bar. “This is a starter kit for your new life.” In it was some fruit and a blender. Taped to the blender was a list of dating websites. “Get yourself out there, mate. You’re an interesting guy.”
I got home at half past two and started blending fervently into the night…
Until a knock on the door woke me up. It was a woman. She told me she’d just moved in upstairs. Wondered if I knew anything about the noise in the middle of the night, something sounding like a vacuum or a lawnmower.
“Oh, I was doing my art,” I said. “I’m an artist.”
Then there was the romance between me and the upstairs neighbour I kept waking up.
o o o
likes fruit smoothies, but is more of an Irn Bru man. He is a Scottish writer with Guyanese and Chinese inflections (it’s complicated… one day he might write about it). His work has been longlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award and has been published in a number of print and online journals. Most days, he posts very short stories in tweet form. Find these @NeilRClark
By Ellie Broughton
It started small, at first. The bed was a bit crunchier than before. There was sometimes wet sawdust, like a porridge, in the shower tray. She had a few splinters in a row. I thought nothing of it. You know how it is: even the most paranoid people struggle to see what’s going on in their own back garden. She used to cry sometimes. She kept these wood shavings the size of ringlets in her bag, and I thought they were just rubbish.
She was out a lot. She’d done this BTEC, you see, to give herself something practical to make some money on the side. At first it was useful. She straightened bits of furniture. She’d fashion supports for the back of a bookcase to sober up its drunken lean. She stabilised a desk that shook when you sat down to it, varnished chairs and hushed whinging hinges.
But after a while, it was hard for her to hide how much the carpentry course was taking over her life. She used to sing ‘Knock On Wood’ so often I had to ask her to stop. And the wood shavings were everywhere now – and I mean everywhere. I would wake up in the night with a dry mouth, coughing, and on sunny afternoons the air between us was so thick with dust motes I could hardly bring myself to reach across it, or speak. We never slept together any more. She’d stay up late doing her coursework. What is it, I’d ask sometimes. Nothing, she’d reply, in varying degrees of nonchalance, grief, defiance, insecurity and fury.
I wouldn’t have said anything, but it was getting in the food. She’s a smashing cook, my girlfriend, but dinners were coming coated in wood dust. Eat something like a lasagne and a bit of dust in the bechamel doesn’t bother you, but it wasn’t just that. Cups of tea had particles floating in them like old biscuit crumbs. There were woodchips in the pesto. I found offcuts in sandwiches. In a matter of weeks I was raking through curries, checking for rawlplugs.
I started to date a girl from work with big pale blue eyes. She had a sand timer on her desk. I walked over most days, and one day I began to play with it. She fixed me for a minute with those eyes of her, then giggled. After work she took me to the pub.
Everything alright at home, she asked.
Fine, I said. She took me back to hers and made me toast. She burned it but handed it to me anyway, thinking I was too drunk to notice. Oh, I noticed. I felt sorry for myself, then, tucking into that toast: one in a series of ruined meals in my life.
With a friend, I texted my girlfriend.
I thought maybe my girlfriend would let it slide. No. It all came to a head when I found a nail in my birthday cake.
When my teeth hit metal I immediately opened my mouth. I heard the spit-wet sponge clatter onto the plate. My head hung there for a moment and her eyes swivelled to the glistening mouthful.
Was that a nail? she asked.
I think so, I replied.
We sat there in silence for a while as she felt for something to say.
I’m sorry, she whispered.
There shouldn’t be a nail in the cake, I pointed out.
I know that, she replied.
I could have impaled myself on that, I shouted.
I know, she said, I’m mortified.
After a moment, she said: You know I never wanted to hurt you?
Then there were tears welling in her eyes. Rivulets ran new tracks down her cheeks and her skin shone through a layer of dust.
I’ve been building, she gulped, a cabin.
It was a shock. She let the words sink in.
Ah, I replied. That’s where all the sawdust came from.
I think I should move in.
Out? I asked.
Yes, she replied, out. Into the house.
Cabin, I corrected.
She looked at me like she was waiting for something, then got up and went to the back door, and looked at me again. I got up and went over to her.
It’s in the garden, I realised.
It’s in the garden, she explained, and opened the back door. I could smell, faintly, the musk of cut timber.
I could see it already, out of focus, its warmth flooding my gaze.
But actually I heard it before I saw it. Before it came into focus I heard a deep, towering creaking, and I could hear a picture of it clearer than an image.
It’s not a cabin, I realised, sinking.
She walked over to the house, and put her hand on its flank like it was a wild animal she’d tamed.
Still touching it, she turned back to me.
I’m sorry, she said, in a voice like an exhalation.
It’s OK, I replied.
Behind her, the house sighed and settled, creaked and cracked, and stood.
o o o
Ellie Broughtonis a writer and journalist from London. Short stories that she has written have been published by The Cadaverine, The Learned Pig, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and she has also had non-fiction published in Elsewhere Journal.
OPEN PEN ISSUE TWENTY-ONE – OUT APRIL 21.
Should be a big year for Open Pen, we’re publishing a poetry collection by Scott Manley Hadley. It’s a real book because it has a spine. Just like Scott’s poetry.
Marshmallow hot choc copywriting aside, this really is a big year for us, we’ve got a few novelettes up our sleeve and we should be able to let you know more about that in the coming months, a Summer party, launches, podcasts, and more copies of Open Pen going to more stockists than ever before. That’s true of Open Pen Issue Twenty-One, which hits our bookshops (and is FREE as always) Saturday, April 21.
In its pages you will find the following fiction by the following writers:
What Happened at the Squash Club on 23 April 1982 – Amanda Quinn
An Act of Faith – Ian Green
Session 3 Homework – Janelle Hardacre
Fumes – Abigail Fish
Promotion – Anthea Morrison
External Audits – Sam Hurcom
And the London Short Story Prize winning
Dead Yard – Maria Thomas
All that fiction is introduced by Fernando Sdrigotti, author of Dysfunctional Males (La Casita Grande Editores) and Issue Seventeen’s cover author. True to form, Sdrigotti finds himself emoting a warmth of feeling for our literary landscape with such lines as:
You could and should be pardoned for thinking literature is dead, that it metamorphosed into a column on an Excel file, or the filling of a sandwich served at the bestest writerly conference, where toilets get clogged on the last day, and literature stinks worse than the final question in every panel, but hey networking!
All that, still free, in your bookshop April 21. Not stocked in your bookshop? Tell them about us. Tell us about them. You’ll also note that you can now subscribe to Open Pen for just £10 for four issues.
Thanks for supporting Open Pen. Read. Write. SUBMIT.
‘Bad Boy Poet’ – debut poetry collection by Scott Manley Hadley
If you follow what we do you’ll know that our book reviews are written by Scott Manley Hadley, and that his meandering personal reviews can often be honest to a fault. And if you follow what we do, you’ll know that we don’t publish poetry. We make a point of it. And so it is with absolutely no sense of trepidation or doubt that we’re chuffed to eff to announce that ‘Bad Boy Poet’, the debut poetry collection by Scott Manley Hadley will be the first standalone book we’ve ever published.
Out in paperback and e-book form this Summer, ‘Bad Boy Poet’ is a series of “confessional-style” poems evoking the experiences of a confused and conflicted youngish man as he tries to work out who he is, following a mental health crisis and the subsequent breakdown of a relationship. Also poo.
Scott Manley Hadley writes: “Basically I just wanna give a shout out to anyone who ever doubted me, all the haters and watergaters. Eff you guys. For what it’s worth, I don’t think the world needs any more straight white male middle class poets writing about depression and penises. However, this time the man doing it is me, and I’m the effing bomb, so please do buy Bad Boy Poet, even if you never read it. Also I’ve been advised to say that it’s all fictional, *especially* the bits that seem the most like they’re not.”
You can find out more about Scott and his writing over at Triumph of the Now.
To request a review copy of the forthcoming collection (payback), please email us at the usual address.
SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY REVIEWS
RIVER (Fitzcarraldo Editions) BY ESTHER KINSKY
(translated Iain Galbraith)
OR, PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY IS RIGHT WING
Now that I self-identify as a poet (see blog on that revelation here), let’s fuck about with the reviewing format a bit. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna make it into a poem, but now that I feel like language is mine to fuck with, fuck with it I AM GOING TO DO. NB: poets like to say “fuck”.
SO, WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT IN THIS ARTICLE?
I’m writing, not talking, about River, a novel published at the end of 2017 by Fitzcarraldo Editions, the people behind many of my favourite books of the last few years (eg Pond, eg Zone, eg Football).
Fitzcarraldo specialises – as far as I can tell – in a kind of literary prose that offers both great emotional heft and rich intellectualism, with the essays they publish provoking intense catharses and their novels evidencing deep learning. Fitzcarraldo make great, beautiful, books, and River is no exception. It is a novel written by Esther Kinsky and published in its original German in 2014, with the translation completed by Iain Galbraith (who, like me, is also a poet) and part funded by English PEN (no relation to Open Pen).
WHAT IS IT ABOUT?
Not certain about this format choice, but I’m gonna roll with it anyway.
River is about lots of things, but predominantly place, memory and change. The aftereffects of war and industrialisation ripple through the novel, which is set in disparate places that exist beside and around rivers. It feels very lived, if that makes sense, as in it feels more like a collection of honest, enterable, memories, rather than fiction. I mean this as a compliment, rather than an accusation: I don’t care how realistic or realist a novel is, as long as its truth is cohesive and consistent, I’m a happy little reader.
DIDN’T REALLY ANSWER THE QUESTION THERE.
OK, right. Will try again.
River features one female first person narrator who is reminiscing on numerous personal experiences she’s had close to flowing water. In the present, the narrator has just moved into a flat, alone, in east London, near the River Lea. She wanders around the riverbanks, canals, marshes and parks that surround this river, taking photographs, collecting objects, and amassing memories from the other wanderers she meets. As she explores, the narrator disappears into her own past, too. This leads to chapters set near the Rhine (beside which she grew up), the Hooghly (a distributary of the Ganges), the St Lawrence (Toronto), the Tisza (which flows through Hungary and neighbouring countries) and the Neretva (Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia), as well as glimpses of the Thames, the Danube, the Po and many rivers that aren’t famous enough for me to remember their names (the ones here that aren’t famous are the titles of chapters, so v easy to check.)
The memories that are evoked stem from across an entire life, from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood and living away from the parental home for the first time, to brief trips made within Europe to long distance, long format, holidays taken to India. There is a curiosity throughout, a real love and engagement with water as a force, as a signifier and as a literal thing that is both beautiful and dangerous. We see rivers that bring life, that bring death, rivers that cleanse, rivers that are polluted with chemicals, polluted with excrement, rivers that are hidden by human structures that negate the natural landscape, and rivers that are used for play, albeit play that is haunted by risk (the concept, not the boardgame).
The memories that are plucked out of the narrator’s head weave in and out of different times, and frequently engage with ideas related to place, to the way that a place affects those who live in it, and how industrialisation and societal development change the way in which people interact with land and with water. River is a book that is dense in detail: it describes rich, complex landscapes and emotive personal experiences, all of them tied to rivers, all of them drawing a portrait of a character who is looking for – I think – peace.
WHO IS IT ABOUT?
The narrator is complex and, at times, confusing. The novel speaks in the same voice throughout, but there is a lot that is left unspoken, unexplored, unnamed. The narrator’s friends are never quite friends, more acquaintances, and their names are sometimes guessed, sometimes nicknames, but never complete descriptions of an identity, though they may be complete descriptions of a character. We rarely know both who and what a person is, if that makes sense?
There are immigrants from all over the world whose histories are explored, and the narrator is sociable and observant. However, she never seems to make any close connections with others, perhaps because of personal tragedy. In the narrator’s memories of Toronto she has a son, a son who does not feature in the present. Is the narrator recently bereaved, did she lose custody of the child, or are her circumstances, wandering alone in East London, perfectly happy, i.e. has enough time passed for the child to have grown up and become independent? I dunno. Am I seeking for an undercurrent of tragedy because that is what I like in fiction? Am I asking the wrong questions? Was I incorrectly looking at River for a singular human story, when in fact it is far more concerned with numerous, pluralised, lives?
I suppose what this comes down to is that, no matter how gorgeous and evocative Galbraith’s translation of Kinsky’s descriptions are, this is a book that is fundamentally about place and people’s immediate, direct, relationship with it. There are mentions of emotion and swift, moving, passages about grief and loneliness, for example, but what recurs, what never goes away, is the presence of rivers, which flow onwards, like life innit, which flows. And though the metaphorical emotionality of this text might be deep, for me there is an absence of personal emotional engagement that left me a little… unfulfilled. I, as a mature, complex, adult, though, can tell this is an issue of my taste and Kinsky’s intention: River is a strong and impressive novel, it just isn’t the kind of novel that drives me wild. I wanna cry big wet tears; this is not the book for that.
WHO IS IT FOR?
I don’t know about this.
River could be described as female-led (or female centric) psychogeography, which – as a USP – sounds like something with the potential for absolutely top sales, right? So, the target demographic would be people who regularly read psychogeography, right, plus people who are intrigued by the idea of psychogeography but find the genre too male, too self-absorbed, too flat, normally. In my opinion – which is literally what this whole fucking post is – River isn’t quite enough of a departure from psychogeography as standard to please people with a pre-existing disapproval of it. This doesn’t mean that River isn’t a particularly good example of the genre (it is), but it does mean that River doesn’t do anything to disrupt the presumptions and traits of psychogeography. Does that make sense? I keep asking that. I’m nervous, this is very much an intellectual text and I’m feeling self-conscious about being critical of it. Does it make sense?
KINDA. I WORRY YOU’RE ABOUT TO START GETTING BITCHY.
No, almost certainly not. Kinsky’s written a top book of its type here, however my point is that it’s a type of book I’m not really into.
WELL, I HAVE TO ASK: IS IT GOOD?
I’m pretty certain I said explicitly, above, that it is a great example of its genre, yes. River is more than a good text.
Kinsky’s landscape descriptions are gorgeous, a reader is transported across multiple continents and driven beside, sailed along, walked near, waded in, swam in and sat, overlooking, numerous rivers. The reader is inundated with references to the way society changes, the ways in which geography is understood differently in different parts of the world. Kinsky shows how communities behave towards water in different places, sometimes playful, reverential, fearful and – especially in London – contemptuous.
The rivers serve their imagistic purpose, and the novel expands itself into an intriguing and complex piece, however, it is ALL ABOUT PLACE, and it is all focused on how one individual responds to place, one individual who sits outside of these different societies, who is an observer, an observer and a tourist, and I don’t know if that is something that I’m that keen to be praising in this evermore fracturing world.
PLEASE GIVE THE INEVITABLE DIGRESSION.
OH RIGHT, BABY!!!! THIS IS THE PERMISSION I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR.
Think of the people you know who like psychogeography. No, I don’t mean the people who’ve read one book about a guy taking a walk, but the people you know who tell you that Iain Sinclair is a “genius”, who listen to Will Self’s Radio 4 shows (even I don’t do that and I’m a total whore for Radio 4) and who tell you that Robert Macfarlane and all those other ones I CAN’T EVEN THINK OF are good. Picturing these book lovers? Right, yeah: they’re usually white men who are like totally into rolled cigarettes, irregular shaving routines and like radical socialism or whatever, yeah? If this isn’t the case for you, then it is for me, all SIX of the men I know who LOVE psychogeography are like this, and I think there is a gentle but unignorable hypocrisy in the intersection of socialism and environmentalism. Also I think psychogeography is right wing.
Psychogeography is a selfish, individualistic, elitist, small c conservative genre, all of which strike me as pretty Big C Conservative traits. Psychogeography is a genre that focuses on the individual experience of – almost always – a well-educated white man who has VOLUNTARILY and TEMPORARILY removed himself from his own circles (and thus interpersonal responsibilities) in order to “report on” other peoples, or on nature itself.
Nature is not people. There is a reason why conservatism and conservation are such similar fucking words. The people who want to “protect the greenbelt” and “stop HS2” are the same people who vote brexit and use the 4 letter p word (not piss) to refer to the local convenience store owned by someone whose like great grandparents were born in Mumbai or somewhere else that definitely isn’t Pakistan. The environment is being destroyed, it is going, and as much as people would like to decry that Donald Trump’s administration’s ignorant policies (seeking to reduce the intended reduction in pollution) are the last railings of a dying attitude, that is sadly bullshit. Things are not – in my uninformed opinion – going to change quickly or dramatically enough for the tight balance between humanity and sustainable nature to be restored. I’m not being pessimistic, I’m being realistic (though uninformed). Most people are selfish fucking individualists and are far, far more easily tempted towards the immediate gratification of, for example, their oil investments continuing to make them money, than to earning slightly less megabucks and allowing species that aren’t humans (or the animals we keep as livestock or pets) to survive for more than a couple of hundred years.
The only way to “save” the planet is MASSIVE depopulation, which is not something a “caring” person can advocate, right? A person who cares about the environment must be caring, right, must therefore also care about people? Bullshit. The state of the world is such, now, that it is only massive state intervention on a global scale that can reverse or repair or at least decelerate the damage we, as a species, have done. You cannot genuinely believe in the conservation of the environment AND in the importance of personal freedoms. The rights and the choices of individuals MUST be curbed for the world to be saved; environmentalists – here, for a moment, like big socialists – are all for a massive state, and implicitly see the value of all individuals as equal, as part of a bigger collective whole that dwarfs any one person’s opinions or needs. So, to care about the environment means it is impossible to also care about individuals, and if you don’t care about individuals, you don’t actually care about people, because ALL PEOPLE ARE INDIVIDUALS. Keeping everybody warm and fed is not compatible with saving the planet, certainly not at present. True environmentalists must be socialists to the point where they discredit the value of any person, not just any individual person.
And the other, the other, the OTHER big issue is this:
The people who write psychogeography believe themselves, implicitly AND explicitly, to be BETTER than the rest of us. To take the position where your individual musings on the lives of others are worth more attention than other people’s musings on YOU is to imply a hierarchy, is to acknowledge an-
OH MY GOD YOU’RE GOING TOO FAR AND TOO HARD. STOP.
Psychogeography is a genre of writing about individuals excising themselves from their roles within society. To go and wander in the countryside – or the city – on your own evidences a certain privilege, not just the economic security required to either a) take this time off from paid labour or b) have the position where one is able to exchange the intellectual labour undertaken while walking and thinking for money. Being a writer, regardless of ones origin, is a privileged position. I am writing, here, from a position of privilege, and though – now that I’m not depressed – I no longer feel that my privilege invalidates the value of my expression of thought, I am firmly aware that it is privilege that has allowed me to get to the point where I can write and be read, and where I can afford to write, mostly (though not entirely #highfive) for free.
I, like many white liberals, can make a case for myself as a working-class voice, but it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and scrutinising the realities and the media of expressions of privilege is EXACTLY what we should be doing as self-defined liberals and/or progressives, who tend to be the kind of people who read Psychogeography uncritically. People seem to behave like there is something progressive in entering the wilderness, or an unfamiliar city, alone. But there isn’t. In many ways it is an act of cultural colonialism. Most people writing about the Lake District, to take a “less” colonial example, are not “of” it, and here in River, as in Self, as in Sebald, the individual doing the observing of British working class districts is far more literary and intellectual than the people they are observing. Psychogeography, when it doesn’t bother to ignore people – as in more naturey and thus even more socially valueless texts – tends to observe people with a presumed air of importance. It is the eternal idea that we have been asked to do by writers, which is to see their thoughts and observances as “better”, more valid, than those of – for want of a better word – ordinary people. (Yes, I know I’m saying this in writing.)
Now, the trad critique of this borderline “we’re sick of experts” argument is that somebody has to record existence and that writers who do so, do not think they’re inherently superior to those they write about. They think they are of them, they think they are part of them. But if they’re not, then they’re not.
Writing about one’s own community, or communities one has a genuine connection to in another place, is not condescending, but when anyone others anyone else, whenever anyone describes people *unlike* them, aimed at a readership *like* them, there is an implicit distancing, an implicit condescension. Kinsky’s descriptions of other European migrants living isolated lives in East London have a validity: though her narrator has more education, i.e. more cultural capital, than these people, she is as similarly “alien” in this location. She wanders London as a place that is unfamiliar – familiar enough to understand, but unfamiliar enough to be interesting. However, when she encounters white working class Londoners she – as to be fucking honest I do – has a disconnect. These people live amongst grey London with an attitude of familiarity and a casual sense of entitlement that only really exists in rich people in the rest of the country. Working class Londoners may be more friendly than middle class Londoners, but they still have that raucous tone of self-importance.
I feel like I’m knocking London here, and that really isn’t my intention, but meh, fuck it, London can handle my mild critique in the midst of a takedown of an entire genre of literature.
Kinksy, actually, disproves my earlier comment about psychogeography reducing the importance of people. For though she does, yes, fail to connect with people who claim a firmer connection to some of the places where she is, she repeatedly manages to evoke a very strong sense of lives that are also travelling, also moving, also – like rivers – unrooted, non-static.
Psychogeography is a weird genre in that it is both very masculine but not very macho. What I meant above about River not being enough of an escape from the genre as I’d have liked was that, to be blunt, it was as sexless as psychogeography normally is. I’m trying to avoid writing that normalises sexual repression, and – as a genre – psychogeography is about as chaste as you can get (certainly in the bloodless texts I’ve read).
There is no plot of desire within River, but as a text about emotions and physicality it is present, though never central. River does consider the lives of disparate people, River does offer a nuanced portrait of people from different classes without trying to sell preservation and conservation as important fucking goals. This is a text about people, not about nature, and though it fails in many of the ways that psychogeography as a genre fails to address wider societal problems, it succeeds a damn sight better than a lot of similar texts. For many people, this won’t be a problem, it’s just me with my class-confusion and thus bizarre and confused disapproval of so many things from so many angles. Well, at least since Brexit I don’t have to defend Wales or Middle England any more. Londoners, you were right: they all are a bunch of dogging, racist Morris dancers.
THIS REALLY WENT WRONG, DIDN’T IT?
I’ve spent almost a month working on this, on and off. Like the two many cooks thing, but with TIME, innit?
o o o
Scott Manley Hadley
is a poet now (apparently) and blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com.
To be invaded is a penetration. If not bodily, by blade or flesh, then mentally by a wiping of history, a corrosion of culture, a banishing of the familiar. Invasion takes more than it gives, aggravates the womb of home until even the things you did not know you had are gone, after which you are left feeling empty and strangely stretched. Implanted with the residue of some other landscape.
We do not talk about our invaders – we still cannot process it – but if you dream in the dark, in our last stone halls, you will wake to find a friend’s arms around you.
“I saw them, I saw what happened.”
“But it did happen.”
“Yes, I know. I think I saw it too.”
All of us returning to the same conscious pool, but unable to explain what we find there. I know. I think I saw it too.
Root and leaf, down from the plucked mountains and up from the narrow, dry valleys, the last of them came. They felled our houses and grew brittle in the places where we used to work, until humanity’s cogs were tangled up in weeds and ceased turning. We were left to our once-sacred places, clinging to each other in the dark as our weapons failed to break branch or stem. What is a bullet compared to a petal? A bomb to a seed, or a sword to a stamen? Who were we to stand against the fruits of renewing life with our earnest metal and cocky stone – when we knew all along the miracle of a soft fungus growing through concrete paving slabs?
Always history is written by the victors, but no one now among the legion above could raise a pen between twig and bark – and increasingly, I suspect that they did not fight for a footnote or a furlong in any case.
Some clever fool said I should write something instead, to preserve the passing lest it should fall away before chance commits it to memory. “Didn’t you used to write before?” It is no use to explain this history is a fiction I couldn’t have imagined.
I try. I struggle. A kernel of shame grows inside me, a question over whether our victors might have saved us from a darkness far greater than their wrath. Looking back, I think we cast the first stone, standing on the field of prehistory, building the first house and firing the first arrow. Smoke-stacks and plastic-wraps. Fighting a cold war with a wilful blind eye.
They sang as their roots came down on us, and their words come back to me over and again. It was not a refrain of conquest and glory, but of autumn sap rising, one last rebellion in the face of shadows: We are not the invaders. We are the rebellion. We are the many and you are the few.
Defeat came to us suddenly, at the height of our powers, delivered by the underdogs. How strange that in defeat we – the self-proclaimed idols of freedom – have been given a second chance to ally ourselves with something true and worthy. The invaders that infect us have none of our haste or passion, only the steady, creaking inevitability of wood, the soft sigh of a passing cloud. The violence of a blooming flower. They are quite unlike any empire in history, wanting for nothing but room to breathe.
In this encroaching clarity, I think perhaps our history should be but one note sang in a minor key, a tomb of apology, with “sorry-sorry” penned on every page.
o o o