scott manley hadley

REVIEW: Scott Manley Hadley Reviews Bad Boy Poet by Scott Manley Hadley

BAD BOY POET BY SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY (OPEN PEN, 2018)

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Reviewed by Scott Manley Hadley

I don’t want to sound overwrought or uncharacteristically positive, but this brand new book of poetry – Bad Boy Poet by Scott Manley Hadley – is one of the most engaging, amusing and moving works of English language literature I have ever encountered.

I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic, but I don’t believe that ever, in my life, have I felt so seen by a piece of writing. Never have I felt myself so reflected, so known within a book of poems. Bad Boy Poet made me weep, it made me think about myself in uncomfortable yet necessary ways. For me, it effectively functioned in exactly the accessible, emotionally-wrought manner that the poet intended.

Bad Boy Poet is written with an easy simplicity, and as such these poems are rarely “poetic” in the traditional sense (i.e. there is not much “imagery”). In fact, many of the pieces self-consciously veer towards the “anti-poetic”, yet this metapoetic playfulness comes across not as wanky pretentiousness, but instead as an endearing lack of self-confidence. This humility assists with pulling a reader into the close emotional connection that Bad Boy Poet seems to demand.

There are poems here about ageing and sexuality, about dating apps, about personal hypocrisy, about failing to understand oneself and learning to understand oneself better. Bad Boy Poet offers a somewhat uplifting narrative arc through its 70 or so pieces: the voice (a fictionalised Scott Manley Hadley, the poet-self) begins broken, alone, unhappy, and though the text includes a close engagement with the upsetting actuality of familial illness, the first person voice itself seems to end the text in a better position to express and “live with” himself.

This book focuses on a youngish man trying to work out who he is, but contrasting that with the people who he sees around him and the modes of living which he wants to avoid. Can you be a heterosexual man without exhibiting some level of inherent male chauvinism? And if we exist only as our bodies, as our corporeal selves, then how much must we engage with our dirty physicality? Everybody shits, everybody eats, and pretty much everybody fucks and vomits and seeks intoxication (at least from time to time). Bad Boy Poet covers depression and anxiety, lust and hunger, mental illness and medication (as well as self-medication), and tries to keep its meanings accessible and clear throughout. With references to social media and to mainstream celebrity culture, the verse is clearly not aimed at an intellectualising audience: the poet clearly cares more about catharsis than he does about language: this isn’t the kind of cryptic crossword bullshit poetry that leaves the average reader scratching their head, this is the kind of poetry that – a bit too frequently – feels like cut up prose. The poet appears to seek, with his line breaks, a sense of their pronunciation, of physical expression: line breaks are breath marks used for emphasis, rather than punctuation marks meant to add meaning. In this sense, perhaps, I am being less generous than the poet deserves, because the form suits the message. These “confessional-style” poems seek and imply a weighty truthfulness, and though this is not necessarily the case, the persona – however “real” it is – appears fully formed amongst pieces on dog ownership and pooing.

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I’ll be honest, I’m struggling to write this without referring to myself by name in the third person, which somehow seems more inappropriate and disallowed than writing about myself in the third person as “the poet”. I don’t have my poetry hat on here, do I? I have my “hipster blogger” hat on, which is also not the hat I’ll have on shortly when I go and do some Wintry errands.

All that talk of hats is odd, feels self-referential. I used to wear a lot of hats, I used to wear a hat almost all the time, feeling that wearing a hat – as a bald man – would help to hide my “shame” and thus render me more socially acceptable. I’m more “at peace” with my baldness now and thus spend much less time wearing hats. Which is good, because bald men who constantly wear hats are often mocked as much as bald men who wear visible wigs. I know that because I mock them myself. There is no “bald community”, there is no solidarity between baldies. Because there doesn’t need to be. Christ, imagine if there was a “bald community”. Some of us aren’t dickheads (I’m not), but many baldies are absolute arseholes.

Anyway, I’m not wearing a hat, but I am in my “reviewer mode” (maybe that would have been better phrasing). I considered writing this review of myself as a poem, but poems are a lot more work than prose. Like prose you can just fucking pour out onto the page, easy like. Poetry you have to think about, edit. Poetry is about using the best words in the best order. I don’t think that’s what prose is inherently for. And I think far too many people approach poetry with a very different attitude.

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I hadn’t properly tried to write poetry before 2017, even though I read it regularly. Before I started writing poetry I was the only non-poet I knew who read a significant amount of it. Even then, though, I had an ambiguous relationship with verse, sometimes I loved it, sometimes I hated it. And I never felt like I had enough of a handle on the genre to attempt to write it myself.

In the end, what changed to allow me to write poetry was the way I was reading it. 

For years, I thought poetry had to be complicated, complex, difficult. Every time I read poetry I didn’t understand and didn’t like, I felt this was because I was ignorant and at fault. I made a hard rule to never read a poem just once, making sure to enter into a more in-depth relationship with every single poem I read. This (in theory) gave me the time and concentration to attempt a rigorous unpacking of every poem I read. I sought to learn the value and importance of allusion and reference and duplicity of meaning. All that cryptic crossword bullshit that I now feel comfortable dismissing.

Amongst the difficult poems that after two, three, four readings, still left me cold, I also managed to find poetry by writers like Sharon Olds, Anne Carson and Claudia Rankine that I LOVED on the first read. Rereading these poems – the ones that I wanted to (rather than felt obliged to) reread – I found they opened up into works of truly spectacular art. I was rewarded for giving them extra attention, but when I reread wanky, swanky, butch, blokely, cock-comparing, “intellectual” poetry nothing new emerged. 

Oh, I would say to the dull, smug male poets: I get that you’re using an Ovid reference here, I see the allusion to Henry IV, I clock the Hitchcock nod: but what does it add? Poetry can be clever-clever but that doesn’t make it good. Poetry can be complex and filled with meaning and allusion but can still be utter shite: just because something has hidden depths doesn’t mean it isn’t shallow. Like the shit bits of Joyce: they’re clever, but so fucking what? Just because something intimidates with its intellect doesn’t mean it’s worthy of attention: just because you have to work to understand meaning doesn’t mean that said meaning is worth the effort.

Now, don’t worry, I’m not saying that the only good poetry is poetry like the kind I write (which I will freely admit is often formally “bad” poetry #BadBoyPoet), but I will assert the following: Poetry that doesn’t have human, emotive, heft behind it is bad poetry. 

Whether that “heft” is grief or loss (see Sharon Olds), whether that heft is institutionalised racism (see Claudia Rankine), whether that heft is a gripping human narrative (for example Anne Carson’s reimaginings of classical stories), or even – I won’t pretend I’m over it – a weighty ability to define a developing social strata and lifestyle (Howl, Howl, secret hero of my bookshelf) the poems that have hit something in my body, in my mind, are poems that are trying to DO something, SAY something, BE something, not dull poems that are just, like, a collection of pleasing words and images. Eurgh.

I will be blunt about this: right now, the most commercially successful poet in the world is a BAD poet, and many of the poets who defend her are also – formally – bad poets. But it doesn’t fucking matter, does it, because what these poets do is create writing that actually fucking speaks to people. These “Instagram poets” – however you want to term them – write poetry for normal people, not for [other] [overeducated] poets. Be bitchy with me for  second and think about which of your [social media] friends are into these kinda poets: they’re not the smart ones, are they? No, but – and this is the crucial bit – they’re the kind of people who would NEVER have bought a book of poetry a couple of years ago.

The most popular poetry, right now, seeks a universality, one that offers personal experience in return for empathy, one that champions catharsis and, I dunno, a sense of hope that people have (tbh) ALWAYS looked for in verse. When I first started writing poems it was a cynical decision based on the fact that I was seeing poetry EVERYWHERE which I knew I could write as good, if not better, than. One of the first poems I wrote (when I started writing verse on a near-industrial scale) was an aggressive dismissal of the validity of this popular, optimistic, verse. That was wrong of me, and I no longer stand by the vitriol I – well over a year ago – expressed. 

Poetry that is structurally or linguistically unexciting can still be successful, if what it intends to do is what it does. It doesn’t matter if your writing isn’t literary if you weren’t trying to write “literary” verse. I suppose the space where this argument falls apart is when you consider the overconfidence of some of these poets, who sometimes do behave as if the cultural/emotional/political value of their poetry means it has “literary value”. Just because something is constructed using words doesn’t mean it is literature, just like not everything covered in paint is a painting. Maybe I’m wrong here and the general consensus is that most single colour walls are a conscious attempt at artistic expression.

However a person expresses themselves is valid; however anyone chooses to empathise with others is valid; however anyone seeks connection is valid (provided it doesn’t injure anyone else). Because because because…

Should we “literary types” redefine “Poetry” so that these mega-selling poets can count as “good”? Because, by all traditional analysis of poetry, they are not (and neither am I), but given their sociocultural impact, they cannot be dismissed. 

Should I stop referring to myself as a bad poet? Or is it important for me to not take myself too seriously? Would more confidence damage my poetic voice and thus my tone, my style, my vibe? If I decided that being able to make people cry and make people laugh with my writing – which I have always considered to be my aim – means that I’m a good writer, a good poet, then that changes the way I see myself, the way I am.

I’ve already stopped writing poetry about how boring poetry is, now I know it doesn’t have to be. Maybe the next stage in my personal growth is to accept that the poetry I write is not inherently bad. But to write poems and not prewarn readers that it is “bad” means asking people to take my writing seriously, which is braver and harder and possibly beyond me.

I’m very pleased with this collection, it does what I wanted it to do. If you like the sound of it, or if you don’t, please buy a copy and support independent publishing. Remember, the better publishers do, other writers, the more likely they are to publish a book that might include you…

BUY DIRECT FROM THE PUBLISHER HERE

Scott Manley Hadley blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com.

Out This Week

Bad Boy Poet

It’s finally here, out Thursday – Bad Boy Poet, our first book, a poetry collection by Scott Manley Hadley.

Order now for £4.99 – shipping is free.

ORDER BAD BOY POET


Bad Boy Poet is the debut poetry collection from whingy hipster blogger Scott Manley Hadley.

It is a series of “confessional-style” poems describing the life 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 there’s loads about poo, illness, ageing, masculinity, Pierce Brosnan, sexuality and dogs.

(Paperback)

ISBN 9781916413603

Launching a Bad Boy Poet

Or a #BadBoyPoet.

We are launching our first ever book, Bad Boy Poet, at the awesome Burley Fisher Books in Hackney, 7pm, November 14 this very year.

If you know Open Pen mainly from our online presence, you’ll probably know Scott Manley Hadley. He hangs about here slagging off books and occasionally loving them in his regular review column.

But he’s pulled a Truffaut. He’s risking it all and taking us for the ride. This is his debut collection of poetry, Bad Boy Poet, a “confessional style” book charting the life 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 there’s loads about poo, illness, ageing, masculinity, Pierce Brosnan, sexuality and dogs.

The book is priced at £5 on the button (yes, FIVE POUND MATE) and is every bit as well dressed as its author. You can pre-order it here, and of course copies will be available on the night.

It’s going to be a great night. Burley Fisher are the hosts with the mosts (like a functioning bar and stuff), and the Bad Boy Poet is going to smash it. Get this, there will be nude portraits on show and “live karaoke-style original hip-hop”.

Afterafterparty to take place at Brilliant Corners, a short hopskip down the road.

To RSVP and for full details: https://www.facebook.com/events/2067842883259186/

REVIEW: AMSTERDAM EXPOSED

Amsterdam Exposed by David Wienir (De Wallen Press, 2018)

Bitchy opening aside: This may be considered a starred review, because the amount of stars that exist at the end of the following text accurately reflects how many stars I would give the book were I to review with stars. To make this bitchy opening aside clearer, out of FIVE, I would give this book ZERO stars. If I gave stars. Which I don’t.

via GIPHY

Well.

If you’re David Wienir or someone who cares about David Wienir’s feelings, you probably won’t want to read any further than this. Amsterdam Exposed – unless it is subtle, point blank, no-holds-barred, bang-on-the-nose satire (which I don’t think it is) – is one of the worst pieces of misjudged trash I have ever had the misfortune to read. If it is satire – maybe “parody” rather than satire – it’s fucking phenomenal, because Amsterdam Exposed is a book that is laughably confused. It is ignorant, shamefully misguided, presumptive, arrogant, smug and about as reflective as a cardboard box that’s been pissed on in a back alley of a much grimier red light district than the one in Amsterdam.

Please note, I am only going to comment on the book, on the book, on the book, and on the character that the text evokes. If the David Wienir of the text is identical to the David Wienir who wrote it, then I apologise for what I am going to say, because the David Wienir in the text is a fucking moron, and if he is intended to be seen as a moron, then top fucking work, Writer David Wienir, but if he isn’t, then please remember that I am commenting on the literary David Wienir as real-life David Wienir wrote him.

Right.

I read a lot of books. I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as an “expert” on books, but I read at least one a week, I review books regularly for this website and irregularly for many others, I comment on books frequently on Twitter and my blog, TriumphoftheNow.com, and if I wasn’t self-hating and lower middle class I probably would describe myself as an expert on books. I have two degrees, essentially “in books”, so, fuck it, I am gonna own my expertise: I am an expert in books.

I read enough to know what – when I’m reading something that’s good – works and what – when I’m reading something that’s bad – doesn’t. When I read a book that intends to be funny, a book that intends to be profound, a book that intends to be educational, a book that intends to be beautiful, a book that intends to be clever, a book that intends to be harrowing, I know that when the book does those things, it is a success. A book that seeks to be serious but makes you laugh is not a success, a book that seeks to discuss a topic but doesn’t, is not a success. A book that claims it is insightful but isn’t… is not a success. Amsterdam Exposed is not a success. It’s not just “not a success”, it’s a complete fucking failure.

via GIPHY

The premise of Amsterdam Exposed is that an American law student, David Wienir, is off to Europe for a semester of cultural exchange. While there, he decides he will “investigate” prostitution and “tell the world” about the “truth” of “the world’s oldest profession”. However, to do so he decides to “infiltrate” the red light district but without becoming a customer. He wants to talk to sex workers, while they’re at work, without paying for their time or fucking them. He commits himself – in writing, repeatedly – to never doing sex with a sex worker, and also not to pay for conversation. He spends most of the book getting pissed off because sex workers tell him to fuck off when he approaches their windows asking for conversation IN EXCHANGE FOR NOTHING, and then he eventually finds a woman who works as a prostitute who is willing to give him her time for free. However, he buys her ludicrously expensive and inappropriate gifts, falls in love with her but never has sex with her, and then eventually gets her to recount her life story to him and it is, as expected, sad and poignant. However, there is an overwhelming sense of judgement that pervades the text, so this story feels utterly out of place. 

To be blunt, Amsterdam Exposed is an embarrassing read: basically imagine the worst possible way a book with this premise could turn out, and then go worse. That is Amsterdam Exposed. Wienir’s text is full of digressions about dog shit, claims about Dutch social mores that are complete presumption, bragging about his education and his previous internships. It is a mess, thematically and literarily, and difficult to read because it’s just so fucking amateur.

The following are some choice excerpts from the text. Basically, I want you to see – through Wienir’s own words – how the narratorial voice is judgemental, is rude, is clueless. He refers to the women who work as prostitutes as “girls” throughout, he falls in love with a sex worker, he refuses to pay for anyone’s time, he speaks about Red Bull as if it’s a deadly narcotic and he constantly constantly constantly writes about the dichotomy between working as a prostitute and being “normal”. He also patronisingly uses words like “save” and “redemption” a lot. The whole thing is terribly fucking pitched. It is judgemental and often cruel about the physical appearance of sex workers, there’s a section in the middle that offers advice to sex tourists, there is constant xenophobic stereotyping, and an overwhelming repetitious mantra about the perceived importance of the book as a whole, which he concludes by claiming it “saved” a woman from sex work. As in the book did. Jesus.

  • “Looking at her, the last thing I saw was a prostitute. What I saw was a beautiful girl.” (p. 19) Why can’t a person be both? 
  • “It has been said that everyone has a superpower. […] If I could be said to have such a thing, it would be to fall asleep anywhere, on command. Call me Captain Bedtime, The Super Sleeper, Siesta-Man, or whatever. They would all apply.” (p. 24) Right.
  • “Inga had a more optimistic take on life than one would expect from someone who grew up behind the Iron Curtain.” (pp. 25-26) Why? How?
  • “While Estonia had since regained its independence, the aftereffects [of the Soviet Union] lingered, and the devastation was evident on the faces of everyone I encountered.” (p. 26) You see that? Everyone in Estonia looks devastated.
  • “For well over a century, the station has been the gateway to Amsterdam, through which billions have travelled – locals, tourists and prostitutes alike.” (p. 27) The three types of people, hey?
  • “Red Bull had yet to catch on in America, and I was unfamiliar with the stuff. Inga warned me to only drink one at a time. It was rumoured drinking more could cause your heart to stop, possibly explode. There was even talk it contained bull semen. Regardless, Amsterdam was fuelled by the drink.” (pp. 31-32) He finds Red Bull far more taboo and dangerous than marijuana and writes a lot more about the effects of caffeine, presuming the reader has never had a fucking coffee.
  • “we relaxed and discussed the hot topics of the day. Bill Clinton, the death penalty, and why Americans are so fat. […] Relatively speaking, it was an innocent time.” (p. 32) Lol.
  • “Did I really need a coffee after drinking Red Bull? Absolutely not. If anything, the Red Bull was kicking in” (p. 35) and “I felt the Red Bull and coffee coursing through my veins” (p. 37) both show the druglike deification of this product placement.
  • “Many think once a girl steps behind a window, she’s no longer human. I want to change that […] to demystify the profession.” (p. 80) Who thinks this?
  • “No one would have guessed I was walking with a prostitute. In that moment, she was just a normal girl.” (p. 81) Very judgemental.
  • “Besides roses, I had never bought anything for a prostitute.” (p. 84) What an odd sentence.
  • “The pants were tight, very tight […] I found a pair I could sit down in that didn’t show off my ballsack. Those were my two requirements, not easy to satisfy.” (p. 93) I don’t think buying jeans is this difficult in real life.
  • In a barber’s: “I flipped through the pages of Euro-looking dudes until I found a style that didn’t make me look like a pussy.” (p. 93) Very aggressive, very macho.
  • “Did I look like a bit of a douche? Perhaps. Did I look European? Absolutely.” (p. 94) Tbf this is one of the few times where I think Wienir was trying to be funny.
  • “when the most attractive women are gone, the aesthetically challenged are busy at work” (p. 95) Very mean phrasing, very dehumanising.
  • “sitting on a stool in a thong with her legs spread open, was one of the most grotesque women I have ever seen. No taller than five feet, she must have weighed nearly 300 pounds, had thin balding hair, and a rash. / On top of it all, she was a gum chewer.” (p. 96) The comment about gum renders this description ridiculous as well as mean. There are several such moments in the book, leeringly and dismissively describing the bodies of women.
  • “I could tell that, despite everything, she was a good person […] I wanted to save her from the horror.” (p. 99) Presumptive, and presumes moral judgements in the mind of the reader.
  • “Having spent more money than I wanted on two necklaces, one of which was hanging around the neck of a prostitute and the other lying on the bottom of a canal, I needed to get back on budget.” (p 103) He bought the necklace for Emma, the prostitute he falls in love with, then regretted it and threw it in a canal. He then regretted this so bought the same thing again. This bizarre, creepy, behaviour is written as if unremarkable. Also the implication that those two locations (bottom of a canal; neck of a prostitute) are equally valuable.
  • “The concept of justice to a Russian lawyer seemed as foreign as the concept of love to a Dutch prostitute.” (p. 108) Who is this more offensive to? Discuss.
  • “Before moving to Amsterdam, if someone would have told me I would be dipping fries into mayo once, sometimes twice, a day, I would have laughed.” (p. 109) Very much reminded me of the Alan Partridge line about visiting the Earls Court Boat Show with Dale Winton.
  • “Sitting at the bar, I watched as one guy after another stumbled in. […] Most of the men wore pleather, and had mustaches. While there was no sign indicating I was in a gay bar, there were clues. There was a gay cinema across the street, there were no women anywhere, and two dudes with exposed butt-cheeks were making out in a corner.” (p. 111) I struggle to believe almost every word in this sentence.
  • “’Hey there, ladies,’ I said, with no purpose but to affirm my heterosexuality.” (p. 112) This is embarrassing, but it is not written as if it is. Wienir isn’t making fun of himself here, as he should be if this is something he said.
  • “They had left a bad taste in my mouth. Not because they were lesbians, but because of their pool table etiquette.” (p. 112) The denial is implying the “bad taste” is exactly for that reason.
  • “The bathroom was clearly not being used for legitimate purposes.” (p. 118) Very prudish.
  • “I’m not looking for action. I’m just doing some thinking.” (p. 120) This is spoken to a soliciting sex worker.
  • “Blushing and ashamed, she said quietly, ‘David, I’m a prostitute.’ […] ‘No, Emma, you’re more than that,’ I said, ‘and I need you for the book.” (p. 124) None of the dialogue in the text reads realistically.
  • “I knew our connection was real. I knew it transcended the district” (p. 131) Not even certain what this means.
  • “She was out of their league, even for a prostitute.” (p. 134) Incredibly objectifying and dehumanising.
  • “kissing is forbidden. Don’t even ask.” (p. 135) This is from the section offering advice to sex tourists, which is not in keeping with the judgemental tone elsewhere. Wienir is almost implying that he presumes his readers use sex workers, and this piece of advice “Rule Number Eight is just common sense. Don’t try to stick a finger up a girl’s ass.” (p. 138) is strangely specific. He directly evidences his presumption that the people who use sex workers are “people like him” and not “people like sex workers”. 
  • “The prostitute, glowing in the blue light, had an Adam’s apple . . . and a penis.” (p. 140) Some tourists are mocking a trans sex worker and Wienir recounts their taunts as if there is a validity in their behaviour.
  • “When I looked at Ava, I no longer saw a prostitute. I saw a beautiful girl. I had to remind myself I was there to write a book, and somehow stay pure in the process.” (p. 143) The use of “pure” is key there, the tone of judgement sticks out.
  • “I forgot where I was and flirted with her as though she was a normal girl.” (p. 159) In a brothel, he again differentiates between “normal” and sex worker.
  • “’What’s wrong?’ I asked the 24-year-old prostitute.” (p. 173) Prurient detail.
  • “she had just done a line of coke and was thinking about killing herself.” (p. 174) Very unsympathetic.
  • “When I looked at her, I no longer saw a prostitute. I saw a friend.” (p. 175) This is one of the lines that makes me wonder if the book is satire.
  • “More than 10,000 were buried there, including Vermeer and countless prostitutes.” (p. 184) Odd weighting of numbers there.
  • “There were so many times I had wished Emma was an ordinary girl, and we could do ordinary things.” (p. 190) So so so so so judgemental.
  • “With the exception of the flowers, necklace, book, shirt, and our first dinner, she never accepted anything from me.” (p. 190) This is funny for many reasons.
  • “I couldn’t believe I was shopping for eggs and cheese with a Dutch prostitute.” (p. 190) Why couldn’t he believe this? He’s spent months trying to have this exact kind of experience.
  • “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. She was getting out. By agreeing to help with the book, she had seemingly found the closure she needed, and the strength to move on.” (pp. 235-236) So self-aggrandising.
  • “Emma was no longer a prostitute. She was now just a girl.” (p. 237) Ouch.
  • “Against all odds, a Dutch prostitute and an American has connected in the most unlikely of places.” (p. 238) I don’t think that’s an unlikely thing to happen in Amsterdam’s red light district…
  • “I do not expect anyone to have much empathy for Emma after reading this book, or for any of the other women mentioned. […] I only ask that you remember that Emma, and others like her, are people.” (p. 247) Again, this presumption that the reader is cruel and very right wing.
  • “Deep down, this book is not about Emma, or prostitution, or even Amsterdam. Rather, it’s about humanity. […] It’s about the inherent worth of the individual.” (p. 248) No it’s not, it’s about David Wienir.
  • “Many thought Y2K would bring about the end of time.” (p. 249) Did they? 
  • “I never thought of myself as being above Emma, or any of the other women in the district […] I think this is one of the things Emma saw in my eyes when we met.” (p. 249) He’s special, Emma’s special, prostitution is dirty, is the message. He definitely thinks he is better than the woman chewing gum, for example.
  • “I never imagined working on this book would lead to Emma quitting the profession. Few things have made me happier. […] if any working girls happen to stumble on this book, I hope the story inspires you to make similar choices. With Emma, it all started with developing a speck of self-worth. […] The last time I saw Emma, she asked me to marry her. […] It makes me happy knowing I meant something to her. I never became a customer, and finally had what I needed for my book. […] We defied the odds and did the impossible.” (pp. 250-251) No sex workers will be reading this book, certainly not to the end. The tone is of success, of self-importance, of a job well done. The word “speck” is damning, too.

As the above shows, Wienir’s book is ignorant, offensive, arrogant and anachronistic. Amsterdam Exposed uses tired and old-school clichés as if unaware of them. Tropes that are embarrassing to read, the idea of a “special prostitute”/”tart with a heart” etc., the idea of a man “saving” a “fallen woman”, of it being “revolutionary” to not want to pay for sex, y’know, which I don’t think it is. I’ve never paid for sex. Have you? The narrative of the book is tired, the insight non-existent…

AND AND AND Amsterdam Exposed feels like a self-published book: there is lots of repetition, poor sentence structure and a crippling lack of self-awareness, yet never have I ever received as many pleading emails from a PR company to get a review out. The writer is a very successful and hyper-privileged lawyer working in Hollywood, so perhaps he paid for the PR agency himself, and/or he is the PR agency, using a fake email address. I honestly can’t believe that there is anyone in the world (other than possibly the writer) who thinks that reviews of this book will make it more likely to sell. Then again, it is fucking hilarious, though it really, really, really, doesn’t mean to be. One laughs at the tone, at the narrator, at the pomposity and self-importance. This is a bad, badly written, book. Unless, to say it again, it’s a parody of a clueless middle-aged man writing about sex work. It reminded me a lot of the books written in the character of Alan Partridge, and I don’t think that’s what Wienir intended.

Then again, maybe a lot of my disapproval comes from classism: I am done with allowing people to make me feel like they are better than I am, and Wiener’s book is riddled with attempts to present himself as elite, as important, as more valid than whoever is reading his work. He portrays himself as an expert, when in reality he isn’t, and he continues to evidence this lack of expertise while simultaneously continuing to claim it. This is what the elite do, isn’t it, pretend they and their work and their world view is the correct and most important one? And that can absolutely fuck the fuck off.

I am DONE with people with more money and/or confidence than me making me feel small, I have given up on accepting bullshit and I have given up on letting bullies bully me or bully in front of me. The problem, though, is that this requires me to play a role I don’t want to play: acquiesce or fight seem to be the choice, and I don’t want to do either, but other people want and expect me to do the first and will only accept the second as an alternative. 

Since deciding to give up on other’s people’s bullshit, I have almost got into physical fights multiple times: not because I can’t do this fucking late-capitalist bullshit, but because I can, and if I live within society and want to respect myself then I have to. I face up to my own hypocrisies and I acknowledge the fucking world’s. I am better better better and more reflective, more empathetic, more connected than David Wienir’s literary self is, even though he thinks he’s a fucking Master of the Universe.

Maybe reading this condescending, ignorant, middle class (in the English sense) misreading of continental Europe was exactly what I needed at this stage in my life. I’m leaving England, hoping to find – to be frank – better people. It is people like David Wienir I am leaving and will seek to avoid forever: the “cracks” I am deliberately fucking diving through are the “cracks” that pricks like this “warn” their pampered, aupaired, offspring that they might fall through. 

I spent my teenage years being told I wasn’t good enough because my parents weren’t wealthy, then my twenties being told I wasn’t good enough because the raging fucking wiiiiiild inferno of ambition I felt wasn’t ambition towards economic clout. Fuck it all. Fuck the bullies from school and fuck the bullies from my twenties. I end this decade of my life prepped for greater personal happiness, pumped for international travel and a life not tied down to a middle aged, middle class idea of acceptable rebellion. Casual weekend drug use doesn’t make you interesting, paying fucking car insurance doesn’t make you more worthwhile. For fuck’s sake, stop telling other people how to live, stop pretending YOUR LIFESTYLE is the only valid lifestyle. Live how you like, but let other fucking people do too. No one is better or worse than anyone else. Good and evil are fucking relative. Live your own life, stop being a prick.

I like to work, I like to work HARD, but I’m not working for bullshit, I’m not working to directly make any lazy bastard richer than anyone needs to be; maybe this isn’t the place for a personal manifesto, maybe this isn’t the place to recommend everyone quits their office job and starts working in an independent bakery or something and spends the whole day after their shift making art, making music, making fuck. Well, actually, I am. If we all extricate ourselves from the corrupt capitalistic system that funnels super wealth to a handful of self-important wankers, then we’d all be better off. Spiritually, culturally and socially.

It’s not hard to have a revelatory experience in Amsterdam, but David Wienir failed to do so. However, his privilege and highly inflated sense of self-worth allowed him to invest huge amounts of his time getting next to nothing out of the city. He names the bicycle he rides around on “the purple rocket”, like a penis. He is not mature enough to write about sex work with any validity. If Amsterdam Exposed is a joke, it’s hilarious and it works. If it is trying or hoping or believing itself to be anything else, it’s an absolutely irredeemable piece of shit.

Avoid like Wienir avoided sex – though not sex workers – in Amsterdam.

Preorder my poems.

 


 

If you think Scott probably just didn’t get it, man, you can purchase Amsterdam Exposed by David Wienir here.

Bad Boy Poet, available for pre-order now

We are chuffed to announce that Bad Boy Poet, the debut poetry collection from Scott Manley Hadley is now available for pre-order here.

Bad Boy Poet is a series of “confessional-style” poems describing the life 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 there’s loads about poo, illness, ageing, masculinity, Pierce Brosnan, sexuality and dogs.

“Re-inventing self-confession as shockwave” – Susana Medina
“Moving and powerful” – Faruk Šehić (winner of the EU Prize for Literature)
“Painfully honest, hilarious, full of sh*t” – Fernando Sdrigotti

POESY

PENCAST 3: Poesy

May 29, 2018
INTRO Sean Preston & Ian Green.
Fiction – DEAD YARD by Maria Thomas @mariatwrites – LONDON SHORT STORY PRIZE WINNING STORY
Fiction – THE THURSDAY CLUB by Elissa Soave @elissa_soave
Fiction – TRUCK TALE by Tadhg Muller
Poetry by Scott Manley Hadley from his forthcoming Bad Boy Poet book. @Scott_Hadley
MUSIC:  Ketsa FreeMusicArchive
PRODUCED BY: Ian Green

READ. WRITE. SUBMIT.

REVIEW: River

SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY REVIEWS
RIVER  (Fitzcarraldo Editions)  BY ESTHER KINSKY
(translated Iain Galbraith)

OR, PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY IS RIGHT WING

Reviewed by Scott Manley Hadley, MA Hons, BA Hons, Poet, Lover, Fighter, Man (not in that order)

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).

zxqruubremifviux6dwcWHAT 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, normallyIn 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.

No.

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. 

CONCLUDE PLEASE

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.

REVIEW: MOVING KINGS BY JOSHUA COHEN

WITHOUT EXCITEMENT THERE CANNOT BE LOVE

Between reading the majority of Moving Kings (Joshua Cohen, published July 2017 by Fitzcarraldo Editions) and sitting down to write this review, I’ve had a massive breakdown. Not the most massive a breakdown you can have – no psychosis – but weeks of panic attacks while hiding inside cupboards, screaming into the sky in public, lying on pavements and weeping, daily nightmares that seep into conscious premonitions of death, going to city farms to stare at goats instead of going to work, full days spent in the psychiatric section of A&E, so, like, yeah, a full-on breakdown.

I don’t think Moving Kings and my breakdown are necessarily linked, but I think the context of my mental decline – and the book’s inability to arrest it – is significant. For me, a great book stops the world. A great book, any great book, is as compatible with a breakdown as staring at a cute dog is compatible with not smiling. Moving Kings – though inarguably a “good book” – isn’t the kind of book one can read to reawaken their dying soul. Moving Kings is well-written, well-structured and engages with interesting topics, but Moving Kings doesn’t feel in any way remotely fresh. Maybe the pop culture and the technology is up to date, but Cohen’s massively acclaimed novel (also newly released over in Trump’s America) didn’t do anything to me I hadn’t felt done to my reading self many, many times before. It reminded me of all those books that increasingly underwhelmed me as I read my way through – and then beyond – the texts that claim to the title of The Great American Novel.

Moving Kings is a beefy, blokey, book about American perceptions of contemporary Israel, mostly focused on the Jewish diaspora of New York and its environs. There are multiple protagonists: the first to be introduced is David King, a wealthy baby boomer who runs a logistics company that shares its name with the novel. He is divorced, he’s into drugs and fucking his secretary (who’s like clingy, y’know), but most importantly he’s into making shitloads of cash. He’s a typical American [anti-] hero: wealth accumulated by effort, combined with a vestige of empathy in a character overwhelmed by flaws. One of these flaws – and the one that will prove to be significant – is his paternalistic wish to look after Yoav, his Israeli cousin’s son, met once when Yoav was a child. In the present day, David arranges for his company to give Yoav (and his buddy Uri) some back-hand, visa-free work when they arrive into America following their national service. Together, Yoav and Uri try to integrate into the American youth culture scene (or whatever) but are frustrated by a) a language barrier (minor for Yoav but severe for Uri) and b) the repercussions of their time spent in the Israeli army. Naturally, chaos ensues.

Cohen weaves together his multiple strands and multiple flashbacks very well, there are great passages of description and evocative descriptions of male ennui. It ticks all those boxes of books that are meant to be “good”: race and identity are explored; the immigrant and the touristic experience of being culturally overwhelmed; regret and ageing; mortality and railing against it… The big themes of American letters are here, and big themes related to the contemporary world crop up too: the problems with landlords and increasing rents and overseas property investors; money and international trade is important, the way people structure their lives and their finances; people trying to connect with estranged family members; intoxication and addiction and the reasons for it; homelessness; poverty as the counterpoint to affluence…

All these big, weighty, hefty topics, all discussed in accessible and uncomplex but simultaneously explorative prose… When one pulls Moving Kings apart, it is easy to see that all the ingredients are present for a great book, but in combination they achieve something underwhelming, and – important – underwhelming in a familiar way. Moving Kings feels like a novel written to a formula, even down to its inclusion of a weird (and v male fantasy) sex scene in the middle of the book. This is the Updike, Franzen, school, y’know – American novels on big themes that are good, y’know, unquestioningly good, but when you’ve read one you’ve read them all. No, that’s unfair: when you’ve read five or six you’ve read most of them, and when you’ve read ten or fifteen you’ve definitely read them all. And, sadly, I have read ten or fifteen of this type of novel, and my appetite for them has long been sated, and was probably sated even before that weird Summer when everyone read and raved about John Williams’ Stoner, another underwhelming book from the same school.

I get it, I get that explorations of affluent WASP and affluent North American Jewish lives are different from each other, but these stories are presented in the same way, with the same styles and the same voices. Moving Kings was published by a major publisher in the US (as were Cohen’s previous novels here), and that is the kind of place where this book belongs. It is a good book, but it’s a good book by rote, y’know (I need to stop saying “y’know”, I know, but I’m recovering from a breakdown SO PLEASE JUST BEAR WITH ME), it’s a good book in the tradition of good books, it’s a good book that doesn’t feel like it’s taking any risks, that doesn’t feel like it’ll offend, annoy or insult anyone, it’s a good book that lacks bite, it’s a good book that is never going to be anyone’s favourite novel, it’s a good book without question, and – for me – that’s what makes it disappointing.

Fitzcarraldo Editions – and indie presses in general – usually do something mainstream publishers don’t. Indie presses take risks, have to take risks, because without risky publications they’re never going to get any attention. Indie presses put out books like The Wake, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, Attrib. & Other Stories, Quiet Flows The Una, Pond. Big publishers put out books that are like books they’ve already had success with, because they are big machines with big overheads (MIXED METAPHOR) that need oiling. Indie presses have lower overheads, less staff, y’know, and get their kicks out of publishing literature that wouldn’t get a hearing elsewhere. The reasons for this are diverse, but one similarity I find between books published by indie presses is their uniqueness. Fitzcarraldo Editions is one of my favourite publishers and they’ve put out many of the best books I’ve read over the last couple of years. And those great books, those INCREDIBLE books, are books unlike anything I’ve read before. That book on football, that book on smoking, that book on suicide, Claire-Louise Bennett’s prose, Mathias Enard in translation, y’know, AMAZING books. By publishing Moving Kings – a good book in a traditional, riskfree sense – they have done something they didn’t need to do. There is no arguing that Cohen is a good writer, that his book is successful as literature, but it feels so familiar, so part of that style/canon of “American novels”, that there’s nothing to get excited by, and without excitement there cannot be love.

Had I reread Zone instead of reading Moving Kings, I would never have felt so low, so broken, so depressed. There is power in the potentiality of art. Literature exists – much of it published by Fitzcarraldo – that makes life seem worth living. Writers, thinkers and translators have contributed to the output of this publishing house that consistently maintains my faith in the changing and eternal power of literature. Moving Kings – as technically “good” as it is – did nothing to make me enthusiastic about the world of books or the world of America. I hadn’t read this text before, but I’d read its style, its concerns and its worldview. By all means read and enjoy it – there is nothing (other than that sex scene) to dislike – because Moving Kings is a good book, it does what it’s meant to do. But it’s literary fiction like loadsa literary fiction. It’s literary fiction that’s going to change no one’s life.

Moving Kings is a good book, but it’s a good book in the same way that hundreds of books are good books and that – for me – isn’t good enough. I want great books that are great in ways I could never imagine. I want books to make me hungry for literature and life and everything inbetween. Moving Kings isn’t exciting as a work of literary art. It’s fine, it’s good, but Pond and Zone are published by the same people and are both unique, life-changing, texts. Read those, if you haven’t. Do support Fitzcarraldo and other indie presses, because amazing, unexpected, books are pouring from them. This book – though it’s good – isn’t amazing.

o         o         o

Scott Manley Hadley is not OK and blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com.

REVIEW

SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY REVIEWS (Scott is up for an award – vote for him here)
SIGNAL FAILURE  (INFLUX PRESS)  BY TOM JEFFREYS

Tom Jeffreys is a journalist/writer/curator with a strong interest in the contemporary Arts scene. Signal Failure (Influx Press, April 2017) is his first book, and as explained by its subtitle: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot, it is a full-length piece of psychogeography about a walk from Euston Station in London up to Curzon Street in Birmingham, the proposed site of the as-yet-unbuilt terminus of a truly exciting national infrastructure project.

The book is great and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Signal Failure is well written and researched, it is informed and informative, and showcases a real and deeply intellectual interest in the many subjects it covers. This is a book about writing, about nature, about history and about regional identity. Jeffreys walks and talks and sleeps and reads, and Signal Failure is evidence of a great amount of effort and thought and it is thus a commendable and timely piece. To reiterate: I enjoyed reading it, and it’s important I make this clear, because the more I write about Signal Failure the harder I’m finding it to ignore the very angry way its politics made me feel over and over and over again.

I’m going to give a little sidenote on my personal opinions, and then come back to politics later, because if I don’t make a concerted effort to separate discussion of the book’s ideas from my discussion of the book as a book, ideology is going to get in the way. And Signal Failure is an impressive read and I don’t want to put anyone off it. I just happen to disagree fundamentally with what it’s saying, regardless of how much I like the way it says it.

Here we go:

Signal FailureI am 100% pro-HS2 and – I’m sorry Mr Jeffreys – Signal Failure did nothing to change my mind. I grew up in the West Midlands and have lived for most of a decade in navel-gazing London (with a spell in South Wales inbetween) and there is nothing that repulses me more here in real-life Kings’ Landing than the capital’s broad, constant, sneering belief that the rest of the UK doesn’t matter. The rest of the country does matter (unless London stops letting them vote), and what the Midlands and the North desperately need is the kind of infrastructure investment that London receives with regularity. HS1, Crossrail, Thameslink, Heathrow expansion, the extension of the Bakerloo Line, Crossrail 2 etc… HS2 would give Birmingham (and then Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow) massive piles of cash, huge amounts of jobs and enviable long term international connectivity. It is quicker to travel by train from central London to central Amsterdam (crossing THREE international borders, one of which is a SEA) than central Edinburgh: this could – and should – be fixed, especially if the UK doesn’t want itself to fracture along brexit-voting lines.

Right, while I can still stop myself from getting excited, let’s talk about Signal Failure in two separate and distinct phases.

SIGNAL FAILURE AS A BOOK, I.E. HOW IT SAYS WHAT IT SAYS BUT IGNORING WHAT IT ACTUALLY SAYS BECAUSE I DON’T LIKE WHAT IT SAYS AND I DO LIKE THE BOOK

Jeffreys sets off from the Euston Road on a crisp (love that adjective) November morning, and walks, close by the West Coast Main Line, out to the ‘burbs. He passes many different types of architecture and is direct witness to London’s long-standing historicity. Jeffreys strolls by churches and housing estates, old stations and new, and reflects on the city’s changing landscape and the way a very specific type of change occurs in parts of cities close to travel hubs. Combining impressive knowledge of both architectural and social history, Jeffreys talks us through the areas of London that will be demolished to make way for the HS2 tracks, setting the didactic, disapproving, tone.

The reader learns about the construction of the large, prefabricated housing estate that sits between the train tracks north of Euston and Regents’ Park, and the way it has changed over time. As well as detail of design, construction and demographic make up, Jeffreys offers poignant and personalised anecdotes about individual residents. He strolls on, and describes the change in architecture and personal interaction that happens as he gets towards greener spaces – people are unconfrontational by the time he reaches the suburbs, and people are even friendly, accommodating and interested in him once he’s out of Greater London. He follows the course of the Metropolitan Line and gives a lot of detail about the societal changes wrought by this metropolitan incursion into the Buckinghamshire countryside, repeatedly discussing John Betjeman’s 1973 documentary, Metro-Land.

The whole of Signal Failure is like this, really, looking at (often obscure) films and books and essays and artworks that tie themselves to the locations Jeffreys is beside and the ideas he is considering. These textual touchstones vary from the most famous works by household names (in a certain type of household) to limited edition poetry pamphlets published by independent presses. There is no smugness to Jeffreys’ discussion of niche texts, in fact he is quite egalitarian, imbuing no more significance to the work of John Betjeman than the work of, for example, Alan Corkish. Thanks to Jeffreys’ wide reading, he is able to write on a variety of topics with an impressive tone of authority, which is backed up by quotation and bibliographic referencing.

A recurring topic is an exploratory discussion of nature writing and its history, particularly that of its recent rebirth. By considering texts written by its foremost exponents as well as criticics, Jeffreys offers an investigation into the societal need for this kind of writing. He also discusses why it is so frequently a lone man, alone but not lonely, who voices these pieces. Other significant themes in Signal Failure include the creation of the motorway network, the redevelopment of Birmingham following the Blitz (with many references to the excellent Midland by Honor Gavin), the Beeching Report (anyone else remember this?), as well as poetry and prose inspired by travel and transport (not just nature).

Jeffreys tries wild sleeping, but is spooked by a horse on the first night (his intense fear of horses is a frequent source of comedy) and then tries to avoid the wilderness as much as possible. He sleeps the second night at his parents’ house in Amersham (his father a vociferous campaigner against HS2, even going so far as to regularly wear a sweatshirt bearing the slogan “STOP HS2”, which I kept imagining in the same style as “FRANKIE SAYS RELAX”, as they’re both phrases encouraging denial of something that other people would really, really, get to enjoy), and walks on. His musings – which are articulate and investigative – are enjoyable, and as a result of his textual analyses I ordered several of the niche publications mentioned. Jeffreys quotes from poetry and essay, from scientific studies and from fiction. He is a well read and intelligent individual, and his insights into the development of suburbia, the changing demographics and industries of the country as a whole and the contemporary art scene are all well-formed. I enjoyed travelling across the countryside with this witty and thoughtful man, his conversation a mixture of fact and opinion, journalistic knowledge gained from both personal interaction with strangers as well as desk-based research.

He describes landscapes and buildings well, and despite regularly chastising himself for his ignorance of the flora and fauna of the British countryside, seems to know a lot about the birds and mammals of his part of the world. This lack of confidence in his knowledge – as well an eight-month pause in the middle of the walk – successfully humanise Jeffreys, and characterise him as a fallible and engaging narrator. It is only when his thoughts and his writings veer too close to the unignorable pole of firm political opinion that he starts to lose me. Because all of the people who are anti-HS2 are – excuse my language – exactly the kind of privileged white southern dickheads you’d fucking expect, all of them about as interested in the long term good of the nation as Donald Trump is interested in the long term good of his.

AND HERE WE GO:

SIGNAL FAILURE AS BULLSHIT SOUTHERNCENTRIC PROPAGANDA, OR: THE POLITICS BIT

What makes a text didactic beyond forgiveness? What is it within a film or a speech or a book – one that is conspicuously trying to persuade an audience towards a specific opinion – that makes it dismissable as a cultural product? Or is there not one? Is it possible to praise the graphic design of wartime propaganda despite underlying nationalist (and often racist) rhetoric? Can one attend Futurist exhibitions without compromising membership of a left wing political party? Can a hateful poem be beautiful? Is it possible to enjoy Neapolitan pizza – a respected and praised national symbol of Italy – and be a UKIP-supporter? Can anyone who believes in representative democracy and the smoothness of capitalism comfortably sit in a room with the globalised face of Che Guevara pouting off a coffee mug? Can we watch Casablanca despite not believing in the holy purity of war? Can we be interested in accurate reproductions of the past and still enjoy Inglorious Basterds? Is it possible to believe that World War One was necessary and still like the poetry of Wilfred Owen? Can songs of religious devotion be moving to non-believers?

The answer to all of these questions is YES.

Everything and everyone has an agenda – to deny this is naïve at best, ignorant at worst. Every book you read, every film you watch, every breath you take: all are products of someone’s mind and thus someone’s ideology (especially ‘Every Breath You Take’). Most works of art are imbued with an ideology that most of its audience would describe as apolitical, but that’s because most works of art pander to an ideology that’s so tucked inside the status quo that – to an audience from that society – the ways in which it normalises and standardises the lived experience of that culture isn’t noticed.

Some works of art are a response against accepted culture, are a deliberate and provocative attack against normalised power structures in the real world. Texts like this are not considered propaganda, they are considered protest and are rarely maligned for their politics. Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot rests here – at least within its own ideology – as a book sticking it to “the man”, as a piece deeply emotionally invested in an opinion and relentlessly pressing that through every page. And its politics are deliberately and proudly unprogressive: Signal Failure advocates “radical conservatism”, it praises maintaining the status quo, stopping Westminster from ruining the retirements of “decent, ordinary people” (Farage’s phrase, not Jeffreys’).

We are asked to see HS2 as a bad thing because it will disrupt many people’s lives for many years. And many of those lives are the lives of successful, affluent, people who’ve moved to the Chilterns specifically for a peaceful life. It isn’t fair on them. But HS2 isn’t for these people, HS2 isn’t being built to improve the lives of retired people who already live within commutable distance of central London, it’s being built as an investment in the long term success of the country, specifically the parts of the country that have suffered from years of London and South East-centric policies.

By positioning itself, self-consciously, as protest, Signal Failure betrays a deep southerncentricism, grossly confusing the government’s decision to offend the retirees of Buckinghamshire with being Londoncentric. HS2 is for the North, HS2 is for the Midlands – it will temporarily disrupt the peace of the Chilterns during its construction and then they’ll forget it was ever a nuisance. With the success of HS2 the UK will be filled with skilled workers able to implement large scale infrastructure projects like this one, who will then go on to complete HS3, which won’t even be anywhere near London, a sign of solidarity and respect given from the country as a whole to the North.

The people Jeffreys meets who hate HS2 are all affluent, Southern, successful: they are not going to benefit from the trainline and they only want to stop it so as to help themselves in the short term. They are retired lawyers, doctors, scientists, etc: they are all elites. Their opposition is inherently selfish and should be condemned, not pandered to. I felt scorn when encouraged to feel pity for a person who felt suicidal because the value of their property might be reduced – so fucking what? If your self-worth is rooted in the price of your house, you should be seeking psychological assistance long before that number starts getting lower.

The construction of HS2 will prioritise the long-term future of the British economy and help it stop being so reliant on bankers in fucking smog-ridden London. Opening the UK up with high speed trains will make it possible to reduce aeroplane usage (why fly from Manchester to Paris when it’s quicker by train?), and will show that we’re a forward-looking, future-focused nation that wants to prosper in the real, modern, world, rather than a bunch of backwards-looking isolationists who want to sit in pub gardens drinking pints of bitter with spouses who are also their cousins.

Constructing HS2 will be a sign that Westminster cares about parts of the country other than the Home Counties and self-important London. Opposing HS2 because it might mess up some property values and a few fucking lakes is wilfully southerncentric.

For a bit of context, UKIP and the Green Party are both anti-HS2. If that doesn’t emphasise that being against this project is either irrational or atavistic I don’t know what does. “Stop HS2” banners, blotting the front lawns of racist bank managers and pothead geography teachers everywhere in the Chilterns. And the Chilterns, let’s be honest, isn’t even a particularly beautiful area of natural beauty, it certainly isn’t “outstanding” when compared to the Lake District, the Highlands, the Pennines, Snowdonia, the Brecon Beacons and most parts of the coastline.

HS2 is an important and necessary statement of interest in the welfare of the nation as a whole, and I think it is telling that a book written in protest against it is a book about a man walking in familiar places, meeting familiar kinds of people and going out of his way to engage with people who share his opinions, but not those who disagree.

To dismiss Signal Failure as propaganda, even in my best (long repressed) Brummie accent, would be churlish, because Jeffreys’ book is deeply engaging, and even when I disagreed with it, I felt something very strongly. I was exasperated by the characters who spoke out against the planned railway and irritated by the swift writing away from any conversations with opposing viewpoints.

BUT – and this is important – it doesn’t matter that me and Jeffreys (no, I don’t mean “Jeffreys and I”) disagree on HS2, because I have a huge amount of respect for his production of this informative, witty and engaging book. Signal Failure was a great read for me, so I imagine it will be book of the year for anyone who – like Tom Jeffreys – actively hopes the entire country north of Oxford will become cholera-filled slums filled with little toad men by the year 2050.

Truly, a great book. But one filled with despicable, southern-centric, politics.

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Buy Signal Failure

SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY IS UP FOR “BEST REVIEWER’ IN THE SABOTEUR AWARDS 2017.

VOTE SCOTT HERE.

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The following is a word from our resident bush-pissing reviewer Scott Manley Hadley

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PLEASE VOTE FOR SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY AS BEST REVIEWER AT SABOTEUR AWARDS 2017

Scott Manley Hadley is Open Pen’s resident indie books reviewer and he’s been shortlisted in the Best Reviewer category at this year’s Saboteur Awards. To win this prestigious award, however, he needs YOUR HELP, as he’s up against people who write and review for like TV and radio and stuff! That’s right, this is your opportunity to stick it to “the man” by helping a [comparatively] unsuccessful middle class white person beat some [comparatively] successful middle class white people to an award! #breakthewheel

But why should you vote for Scott Manley Hadley? “Who is he and what has he done for me?” you ask. Why does he deserve to win? Let me tell you:

Scott Manley Hadley is a “literary lifestyle blogger” who has been publishing book reviews on his personal blog, Triumph of the Now, since 2013 and for Open Pen since Summer 2016. He believes that biographical criticism is not just valid but essential – if he was being pretentious (which he’s trying hard not to be), he’d describe himself as a “post-Barthesian critic”. He believes that the experience of reading literature is deeply rooted in the mood and circumstances of the writer (obviously) but also the reader: a bad book is cut a lot of slack if you read it on a beach, while a great work of literature crumbles to nothing if you try to read it while commuting, going through a messy divorce or when too wasted to concentrate.

As well as his prose reviews, Scott Manley Hadley has recently begun producing a lo-fi literary magazine web series, Triumph of the Now TV, with guests including Ros Barber (academic and writer of The Marlowe Papers), Hermione Eyre (journalist and author of Viper Wine), Faruk Sehic (Bosnian poet & novelist, winner of the EU Prize for Literature), Eley Williams (author of Attrib. and Other Stories) and Open Pen editor (and former [semi-]professional wrestler) Sean Preston. Winning this award will help him to secure even more exciting guests for his web series and get even fresher, newer, hotter takes on the great fiction that is currently pouring out of indie presses in the UK.

Why will it be good for Open Pen if Scott Manley Hadley wins this award? Because (other than winning awards itself) nothing makes a publication look better than its regular contributors winning awards. This is win-win-win-win, so please, please, please vote for him.

Once you’re ready to get down to doing it, click here. If you’re uncertain what to vote for in other categories, we heartily recommend Attrib and Other Stories by Eley Williams in ‘Best  Short Story Collection’ and An Unreliable Guide to London in ‘Best Anthology’.