I’ve two oddball pieces in two collected editions by Pavement Books. “On Paper” is a short story, included by Jack Boulton in Hand Picked: Stimulus Respond, and “We hate humans!” is an article on skinheads and the demonisation of working class violence in Return to the Street, edited by Sophie Fuggle and Tom Henri. There are far better pieces in both collections and I recommend a quick peek, and the other publications of this relatively new press.
Dawn, Albert Square
Golden light streaks down Mount Street, casting shadows over William Gladstone, cast in metal and stone. Pigeons are stirring, the occasional swooshing of a passing taxi’s interrupted by the gentle swishing of a sweeper-truck. I’ve landed here without a ticket or an alibi, into a city with no clear exit or entry. Cottoned in thick rings of terraced suburbia, brown brick and cramped, remnants of the dwellings where the working class built this city, roads snake in and out to a centre with no obvious centre. Lost, it might be 6am. Pause here.
There’s no statues to the textile workers, the dockers, the railway workers, the blood of this city. Who made this place might be a frustrating question to ask. Look up at the buildings. Money did, free trade, each shrieks. The Town Hall in its neo-gothic splendour, statuettes of knights and kings and queens. The extension next, Art Deco in style, a second wave, you felt sure of yourself. The Central Library with its classic pretensions, your belief that you had citizens, not subjects, that the working class would thrive through access to learning and culture, and your strange paternalistic assumptions about what that might mean. No pubs, regulated football. Then the Midland Hotel, red-brick and self-important, next to Bridgwater Hall, brassy glass façade of the modern age. I peer around each corner at these weird interruptions, the expressions of money filtered through different cultural presumptions: civic pride, crafts, a return to classic values, the adoration of property and free markets, each side by side. Was it always about the flow of money?
The bodies and stories must be hidden somewhere. You’ve knocked down the chimneys and rebuilt your city centre in the colours and forms of the future according to Corbusier, Richard Seifert and Tony Blair. Perhaps I’m looking in the wrong places. I might be better off heading out south to Moss Side and Hulme, where you once ghettoised your workers, or west to Salford, or out north to Cheetham, and north-east to Harpurhey. Friedrich Engels says you were made this way.
‘The town itself is peculiarly built, so that a person may live in it for years, and go in and out daily without coming into contact with a working-people’s quarter or even with workers, that is, so long as he confides himself to his business or to pleasure walks. This arises chiefly from the fact, that by unconscious tacit agreement, as well as with out-spoken conscious determination, the working-people’s quarters are sharply separated from the sections of the city reserved for the middle-class; or, if this does not succeed, they are concealed with the cloak of charity.’
Neat trick. But no matter how well you bred your children, the south-east clings onto its cultural hegemony. Anything with an accent is deemed to display its inferior class. It still plays out today, when prime ministers, business figures and journalists share the same school tie. Mothers on the back-to-back terraces with a little money on the side sending their sons and daughters for elocution lessons. ‘The working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making’, that was E. P Thompson, writing about Halifax but writing about you too, about Peterloo, nearby. The bosses and merchants of the Free Trade Hall and Town Corporation didn’t want their workers thinking or discussing. Trade Unions began in Glasgow and they began in you, among workers in skilled trades like textiles, dreaming up something so scandalous as the right to vote. Labour, co-operatives, a working class that knew its own name, that had read Thomas Paine, William Morris, Keir Hardie and Karl Marx.
‘Down with class rule.
Down with the rule of brute force!
Down with war!
Up with the peaceful rule of the people!’
The rule of the ‘people’? That was Keir Hardie, 1914, making an appeal to the working class, and to you, on the eve of a coordinated European slaughter of the revolting industrial working class. But you had a people, you had a working class. They built this city, but you won’t let the people here remember it. A rough-sleeper shuffles through this square I’m in, the first person I’ve seen, face pale like a ghoul, eyes sleepless, city hobgoblins. Send him to a foodbank, he has no money for the gas to warm the food. It’s his own fault, attitudes to welfare hardening. God damn this in between moment in political history, in the age between the working class and the dead exhausted class. Late, skint, indebted, depressed. Anger brewing but frustrated, lashing out against nearby objects. Conversations in the night, falling out with your lover. Disappearing again, back in mental and spatial time-zones, thoughts of the past, thoughts of memories, a paralysing melancholia gripping the dreamers of revolution.
Your museum pays lip-service to their struggles. Class codes have been scrambled. Property speculators, credit cards, the still continuing divide and rule of race played out through the cipher of religion, Islam, Judaism. Education lifts you out of one class and puts you in no class. Skint, indebted, angry. Post your anger on a blog, on a placard, slap bang into the data stream that reaches oblivion a nano-second later.
‘The working class has been shafted, so what the fuck are you sneering at?’ MES, your son, his fifth pint in the Forresters, or the Woodthorpe, or wherever’s open in Prestwich, making no sense these days. Morrissey’s in America attempting to be relevant. Where’s your voice?
Now the textiles that you have made unmade you, an empire in decline. The soot and the fogs. Hard livers with hard livers. City hobgoblins, spectres, a ghost in my house til the slum-clearers pulled it down and sent us to Hulme Crescents, cities in the sky. Dreams of a socialist future that were pulled down and replaced with low-rise, low-intellect, low vision architecture. We’re in between again. A pigeon sits on the head of Gladstone and opens its bowels. Who is Gladstone, who is anyone. Morning’s further along, and people are rushing to work. Headphones in, checking their emails, their smart attire collides against my shoulders, their fragrances collide against the odours acquired through travel, through sleeping in a tent underneath electricity pylons across England and Scotland, and long unfamiliarity with a washing machine. Do they see what you saw, do they think what you thought? We’re in between moments, in between times.
Afternoon, Piccadilly Gardens
Football, kick a ball, score a goal. ‘This is what we live for’, a cheery son of yours tells me. We’re watching the milling crowds shopping with their eyes for some pleasant distraction. A new jacket, booze, chocolate, little treats, toys for adults who no longer look or live like adults. City or United pal?
I wish I knew. I’m been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand. If only these sensations would make me feel the pleasures of a normal man. University students from China and west Africa, learning here, finding knowledge here. I’m hungry, so I head into one of ten trillion local supermarkets that have erupted all over this land like Japanese knotweed. The supermarket veg is better travelled than most of your sons and daughters will ever be. Everywhere sells the same things. Under the pavements, the beach, said your children, now parents, out in Paris, out conspiring in squats and social movements forty years back. North and south becoming indistinguishable. Knock down your Albert Square, knock down your back-to-backs, and welcome into a dream age of cultural indiscernibility. A Ballard land of shopping malls where nothing matters.
‘All my people are lonely. Crowds are the most lonely thing of all. Everyone is a stranger to everyone else.’ Lowry’s wandering round here, cane in hand, trilby hat, feeling awkward amongst these crowds but compelled to record them. He’s sketching with a pencil on the back of That private misery that was once your average white male early Modernist’s, over-stimulated, under-socialised, now stretched out to these young folk here, headphones in ears, debts up to their eyeballs, political change beyond the horizon.
‘I was sorry for them, and at the same time realising that there was really no need to be sorry for them because they were quite in a world of their own’. Lowry’s cripples are today’s cripples, in a world of our own, adjusting the music and the scene, retreating into reproducible images of what are presented as our desires. Desire’s become a lack, dream’s become a need.
‘We like prosperity filtered through car and appliance sales. We like roads that lead past airports, we like airfreight offices and rent-a-van forecourts, we like impulse-buy holidays to anywhere that takes our fancy. We’re the citizens of the shopping mall and the marina, the Internet and cable TV. We like it here, and we’re in no hurry for you to join us.”
That’s J.G. Ballard, driving through you in his mind from distant Shepperton. Your semi-detacheds and your malls could be in Staines or Twickenham, or Ickenham or Ipswich, or Preston or Prestwich, anywhere at all. Sending up these dreams that were not dreamt, desires that were not desired. Your sons and daughters hurrying hither and thither, late again. When do we turn actions into dreams, dramatise ideas into change, I ask to an empty crowd. Your suburbs are being regenerated, scrubbed clean, but there’s no hiding the grit and grime that is people’s lives. These malls, these glassy shite office blocks. They’re not enough, and I think you know it too.
What lives beyond after a life well lived is spent? There is a light that never goes out, but drifting out by Salford Quays, one could be forgiven for thinking anything existed here before 2003. They’ll sweep you away too if you lose these dreams of civic pride, of the people that built you and made you. There’s these quays that mean nothing, avenues all lines with trees that lead to a half-full office block. No soul stalks here except the passing office worker, a tough day today.
‘I think that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent, to put himself under that government.’ That’s Thomas Rainsborough talking, addressing a large crowd of curious passers-by who are today flicking through Sky Plus, searching fruitlessly for some lost pleasure which won’t be found here, like trying to find a pearl in the sand. The decisions are made elsewhere, delegate and demarcate, lost in the post. Perhaps it’s too much struggle striving. I’m passing here just watching the lights flicker through the glass, wondering how dates these Norman Rogers’ dreams will look in thirty years time, and what will replace them. I see cleaners hovering between the windows.
‘They are ghostly figures … They are symbols of my mood, they are myself.’ I can’t help quoting Lowry, because sometimes only voices of the past make sense, like a parent, or singer, or the sound of the wind, the air that was elsewhere ten seconds ago, or the light of the stars, barely filtered through your ever thick clouds, transmissions from millions of light years. Escape’s always been on the tip of the tongue, ‘they keep calling me’, those dead souls stalking Ian Curtis, escapism into drugs, or travel, or dreams of revenge, the north will rise again. But it will turn out wrong. Perhaps it need not. The neoliberals put the torch to the docks, as they’ll put the torch to your civic pride, unless you stop them. Stop looking to London with fingers covering your eyes! Manchester, so much to answer for. But they will, because struggles are widening, fissures are deepening. There’s only so much money to be made, land to be speculated, energies to be burnt. You’re asleep, but you haven’t had a dream in a long time. The luck you’ve had could turn a good town bad.
Still, something’s unanswered. I’ve felt it in the conversations here, in the moods here, the disputes here. There’s promise without need for excessive pride. I’m lost again somewhere by MediaCity, lost as I started the day by Albert Square. Nothing points left or right, only up and down. Look up to the secret splendours of these buildings, to the joys and dreams in the minds of the people I’ve spoken to, it’s there. Let me finish with Lowry, talking about somewhere else, but let’s attribute it to Manchester, this proud city’s cocky enough to pull it off.
‘The battle of life is there. And fate. And the inevitability of it all. And the purpose.’
Written as writer in residence for Manchester Left Writers.
This blog will be a little quiet for the next few months, so please visit www.searchingforalbion.com, where I publish new writing by the day. Scroll down to the bottom to follow new posts and find out what mishaps and strange stories I come across as I bike across Britain.
I also have a book out, Negative Capitalism, which comes with overgenerous praise and is available here.
That’s the sale pitch over! Thanks again, and peace to you all.
Last night has now eaten into this morning, and here I am with my empty bottles and missing time, making a half-hearted attempt at an audit. Let’s spare the scribbles and agree that there’s a certain pleasure in always being busy and late for things. But it’s not always that delightful. J.G. Ballard’s right: in the heat of beating some deadline, there’s a certain masochism at the source of our pleasure. Masochism, mania and melancholia are at the root of most endeavours so insane that, without rational explication, they have to be done. Beyond an extraordinary detail to dramatic scenes, there is no greater quality in the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky than a reflection on the masochistic promises of romance, a romance that fails to deliver, and by its failure, delivers so much more.
In two months time by my reckoning I will be in Glasgow, having cycled anticlockwise around the British mainland, with lengthy digressions into the Midlands and Peak District. Sleeping in parks, pedaling up lung-bursting heights and keeping up with the heavy-drinkers of England and Scotland will no doubt reduce my capacity for wireless fidelity internet, but I will record what I can at http://www.searchingforalbion.com. The site will be a cabinet of curiosities as I pass through places, a record of what I see and hear. It will get a smaller readership than the kind of top 10 lists that represents the best of online journalism. The goal is to indicate how simple and interesting it is to travel.
I often reach for the strong stuff when I write – rousing invective, political polemic, some worthy social goal. Zzz. I’m bored with the thoughts in my own head, and with those of others. I’ve studied history and political philosophy and had prizes for my essays, yet I’m advancing little beyond the predictable views that constitute a mainstream in universities and an aloof left media out of touch with popular cultures. Most people I meet talking about the working-class and the need for revolution come across as middle-class and conservative, righteous reformers of a Methodist hue. Good intentions and reforms reflect the vanities of those that seek to justify them.
Many prefer not being told what to do. How long it has taken me to accept this.
It’s not just a London problem, granted. But I’m throwing myself out of my sphere in the aim of discovering, for once, what I don’t know. No research plan or campaign message attached. The university isn’t the best place to think about new formations of equal, just and secure democracies. Instead of churning out more elitist articles or adding more words to a thesis destined for a recycle bin, let’s see where being out in the world goes. Probably nowhere. Looks like I’ve already managed to type around 500 words of the usual self-righteous balls I go for. I leave tomorrow morning.
There is a broader political goal, inspired by Spinoza and Rousseau, up at http://www.englishpolitic.com. I had aimed to finish that today but I got distracted working at the times of the ferries in the Hebrides and planning where I’ll sleep for the next 60 days with the lightest of budgets (a lot of parks, some friends’ places, and a bit of country wilderness, in the end). There’ll be a new post when it’s ready, but the jist is up at http://www.drownedandsaved.com/an-english-politic.
Ach, it’s come out all jaded, but if procrastination’s your thing, keep an eye on
and in about 3 weeks, http://www.englishpolitic.com.
I travelled with a friend around northern France a couple of weeks back, cycling around Boulogne, Amiens and Lille. The Ch’tis were very friendly and accommodating with my Franglais. We met a lot of very good people and had a few adventures.
We also visited Albert, headquarters of the British during the Somme offensive. ‘Somme’ is actually the name of the whole region, with the battle itself being ‘fought’ in the fields and villages between Albert and Péronne. A little before the trip I started writing something on the looming legacy disputes. I share the finished doggerel here, ‘1914 and all that’.
It’s no succour to blind or limbless men
When historians crown the victor of a luckless war.
Trade machine gun rattle for imperial prattle.
Cabinet rooms become playing fields,
Bomb factory man smarts ‘never again’,
Great men too proud to call off the hounds.
War misery now makes the mock GCSE
Centenaries continue on over-the-hill TV
Patriotic pastorals without syphilis or gin.
This accursed heritage gloom and doom
Leaves no room for the wounds of living men,
Basra or Belfast, that lost DLA appeal.
Commemorations led by horsey royals
Whose subjects still die in today’s poppy-fields.
Victory’s paper flowers and penny change.
What’s left of Wipers or the Somme?
Lads swallowed whole by Flanders mud,
Devoured by the moods of distant guns.
Never forget the rats or the lice,
Nine in ten soldiers actually survived,
Unclassifiable degrees of disintegration.
Strictly adhering to deference and duty
Today still blinds any attempt at explaining
The necessity of perpetual and unwinnable war.
One side loses more slowly.
A game of blood-potlatch
Played out by history’s great men.
Sweet and proper it must be then
To die for abstractions, like fatherland
Or liberty, or the fallacy of democracy.
The long queues outside the labour exchange,
Memories that no will can possibly erase,
Medals of a man who once shared your name.
Strange hells left in Gurney’s head,
Demented choirs of wailing shells
Like Owen saw, a banal picaresque of death.
A century now since that “never again”,
One hundred busy years of the destruction of men.
Nothing we learn, nothing we forget.
Never before, so never again?
Larkin laments lost innocence then,
Innocence and obedience, time tends to bend.
In J.G. Ballard’s final writing — a typewritten synopsis of an unfinished project of Conversations with his physician, Jonathan Waxman — he rounds up with these moving lines:
‘nature has invented this remarkable instrument of rejuvenation, that touches almost every level of our existence.’
What might this instrument be? A vague and semi-religious sense of hope, or the comfort of family? A technological or economic faith in human progress, or the pleasures of a midday scotch and soda? The completion of the next work project, or a mobile phone upgrade?
‘It is sex to which we turn after bereavement. It is a door that is always open…..’
Etienne Balibar once wrote of Spinoza that, in his final words, a dismissal of women’s right to participate in a model democracy, seemingly at odds with his belief in human capability, he seemed to die right before us on the page. With Ballard, he fizzes out majestically, revealing the key to his generous belief in life and its joyous potential. His words also indicate what I’ve felt yet frustratingly inarticulated. It indicates the most available mystical experience for the largely secular and cynical generation I’ve grown up in.
Love in all forms can be pursued by anyone. A life dedicated to loving others cannot be wasted. It is a striving that is never completed, a joy experienced in its expression.
There is no lack or pent-up drives, forget those Freudian abstractions and plumbing metaphors. It is far stranger than ‘pleasure accompanied by the idea of an external cause’ (Spinoza) and far more earthly than the highest stage of being given by the primitive gods (Ricardo Reis). Where felt, it is revelatory; where shared, it is redemptive.
In providing objects outside oneself upon which to transfer one’s hopes, happiness and curiosity, it reveals that happiness cannot be a solipsistic affair. Reason is most lonely. Yet it must never be confused with the object itself, that bitter lesson of heartache. Sadness and confusion come alongside the relaxed bliss, generosity, and emotionally-charged excitement that imbues one’s life with a drama beyond anything in Ibsen or Eastenders. It is a door that is always open, provided one is willing to suspend disbelief and risk it. The heart, that most disabused compass, indicates the way. How long it takes some to risk it… It is never final or finished, and never quite clear.
Nature has made us far less sophisticated and interesting than popular culture might suppose. At times I see each of us as bundles of energy, expressing light and rhythm, rapidly expiring but, at our best — and this is what I’m now most interested in — momentarily alive in our joys. Even speaking of atoms swerving in the cosmos is another abstraction foisted on the simplicity of our natural experiences.
I am also doubting the certainty of the above words, and expect to lose, and rediscover, to infinity, the feeling and taste of these words.
On March 23rd this year, on our ten year anniversary, me and my partner Sarah were married in Kauai. It was an extraordinary and wonderful experience. I thank her for teaching me what love is, and what it can be.
I’ll be travelling through Northern France for the next few days, and to honour the journey, here’s an interview with André Breton I undertook for a recent French assignment. When I’m back I’ll be overhauling this blog and introducing some new projects, but for now, I’m off to indulge in the new sins of modern times, unproductivity and idleness.
L’existence est ailleurs: une interview avec André Breton
«C’est vivre et cesser de vivre qui sont des solutions imaginaires. L’existence est ailleurs.»1
– Manifeste du Surréalisme, 1924
Dans cette interview unique, nous parlons avec le romancier et poète André Breton, qui est connu aujourd’hui comme le fondateur du Surréalisme. Malgré qu’il meure en 1966, nous pouvions communiquer avec M. Breton grâce à une modification secrète de la technique de l’écriture automatique, qu’il a découverte et a développée lui-même dans Les Champs Magnétique (avec Philippe Souppault) et le premier Manifeste du Surréalisme. Nous avons demandé son opinion sur la politique, la beauté, et la vie après la mort.
Moi: Dans votre roman Nadja de 1928, vous avez écrit que «La beauté sera CONVULSIVE OU ne sera pas.»2 Ces mots ont inspiré des générations de jeunes romantique à poursuivre une expérience plus intense de la beauté c’est impossible, qui ne peut pas être réalisé, sauf à travers une transformation profonde dans l’esprit, qui déstabilise les normes sociales restrictives dans l’expression de son désir. Se souvenir de ces mots quatre-vingts ans plus tard, je me demande si une telle idée de la beauté est possible dans cet âge anxieux et hyper-numérisé?
Breton: Non, l’idée est toujours possible, même aujourd’hui. Pour moi, le surréalisme est un engagement de l’esprit à l’expérience de la meilleure partie de l’enfance, de ce désir illimité pour explorer tout ce qui nous intéresse. Sans égard pour les obligations de politesse. Cet engagement à la liberté sera toujours politique, à toutes les époques, et en particulier à la vôtre.
Moi: Avez-vous des regrets?
Breton: Je ne regrette rien. Mais, je regrette que ma génération n’ai pas réagis plus catégoriquement contre l’autoritarisme, qu’il soit fasciste ou stalinien. Notre inactivité et manque de prévoyance a eu un impact dévastateur sur l’imagination politique depuis. Je regrette le sort triste de mon ami et collaborateur Leon Trotsky.
Moi: Décrivez-nous la vie après la mort.
Breton: Je peux la comparer seule à la poésie de Paul Eluard ou les divagations du Marquis de Sade: improbable. Je suis maintenant totalement persuadé par la philosophie de George Berkeley, que tout ce qui existe sont les esprits et les idées. Hier, j’ai pris un café avec un Walter Benjamin, qui a pris la forme d’un chat euphorique. Aujourd’hui, je méditais sur la texture du Saturne fondée sur une photo de visage d’une femme par Man Ray. Si ces choses se sont produites dans la réalité, ou ont été imaginées par mon esprit, n’est plus importante.
Moi: Qu’est-ce que vous pensez des écrivains aujourd’hui, par exemple Michel Houllebecq, qui traitent de sujets similaires de désir et la culture populaire dans leurs livres, mais dans un but moins politique et plus cynique?
Breton: La vénération des racistes radins et narcissique comme Houllebecq démontre la nécessité de maintenir une recherche collective de la beauté, sous toutes ses formes imaginaires, impossibles et oniriques.
Moi: Certaines personnes accusaient votre œuvres de sexisme, en considérant les femmes comme des objets sexuel, qui sont souvent présentes comme un « l’Autre», qui sont chassés par un protagoniste masculin triste. Comment voulez-vous répondre à cela?
Breton: Ma vie, je vivais comme une provocation, pour découvrir et réaliser la liberté de l’esprit sous tous ses formes. Je ne vais jamais m’en excuser.
Moi: Autre chose?
Breton: une fois, il y a plusieurs décennies, j’ai écrit que «Tout porte à croire qu’il existe un certain point de l’esprit d’où la vie et la mort, le réel et l’imaginaire, le passé et le futur, le communicable et l’incommunicable, le haut et le bas cessent d’être perçus contradictoirement.»3 Je peux vous dire aujourd’hui, hier, et demain, la vérité de ces paroles. Je découvrais la nature fictive de ces frontières. Il est ou n’est pas, ou à être ou ne pas être, et alors? Si la vie est un rêve ou une réalité elle est aussi pertinente qu’un conte de fées, charmante et absurde.
1. Manifeste du surréalisme” in Œuvres complètes, tome 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), p. 346.
2. André Breton, Nadja. Texte intégral, dossier par Michel Meyer (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), p. 161.
3. Breton, Manifestes du surréalisme, (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), pp. 76-77.