Friday, 21 October 2016

Speaking Out and Up: me, the university and the community

Ok, this is hard to put into words. Ever since Brexit, xenophobia and racism have become mainstream discourses. This we know. Theresa May’s government is set on a ‘hard’ exit from the EU which will be economically damaging and culturally toxic, turning England into an inward-looking, nostalgic, isolated backwater. Friends and colleagues have been horrified by these events, especially those who are resident here but not UK nationals. I don't feel at home in the UK myself, so I can only guess at their feelings. Last night, a Polish woman was apparently booed on BBC Question Time for expressing these feelings, an audience who don't want to know about the pain their xenophobia is causing. I live in Wales and would dearly love for Wales to become independent (even though I was born, raised and educated in England and still work there) from an England and Englishness whose public sphere has been systematically undermined and poisoned over decades, so now The Sun – proven liars over Hillsborough and many other things – has liberty to attack Gary Lineker for ‘spreading lies’ about (i.e. showing compassion towards) refugees. It feels as though we’re one step from the Children of Men film.

I’ve seen on Twitter many calls for the 48%, or for those even who voted Leave, to stand up against this increasingly visible racism and xenophobia. Academia should be one of the biggest voices: universities are international institutions, wanting and needing to attract staff and students from across the globe, whose communities must be inclusive and progressive. This week’s news stories about international students being counted as ‘migrants’ is an urgent symptom of the universities’ failure to do so. But this isn't just to do with the economic viability, or even the social or economic life of the university (as a community rather than an institution). It’s do with what the university thinks it is for.

I work in a department of English (literature) and Creative Writing in a 1960s university that appears in the top 10 or so in all the league tables. You might think we would be strong enough, robust enough, to be able to add our voice to the resistance to racism, to xenophobia. Our department has fantastic international contacts and some of my colleagues do great work in Africa and the Middle East and elsewhere and I admire and respect that enormously. But what about here, in the UK? What’s our role? Shouldn’t we be vigorously defending the ideas and ideals on which the very concept of the university is founded?

This past week we had a departmental meeting. We discussed the Stern report, the changes in what will be the next Research Excellence Framework (the audit of our published work which bears upon how much funding we receive). We talked about student recruitment (which bears upon how much funding we receive). We talked about how we might change or improve our programme to make it more attractive. But when a colleague raised the point about the ethical implications of changes to research funding in the UK, and the folding of International Development monies into the university research budget, the question wasn’t really understood.

And thinking about it afterwards, I wish I’d been sharp enough to say something then. It was at the end of a long, 3-hour meeting in a stuffy room and my mind wasn’t as focused as it should have been. Because the ethics of what we are doing is precisely what we should be talking about. Not just ‘how to attract students’ but ‘how does the department work in relation to its community/ locality/ region’. Not ‘how can we internationalize our work’ but ‘what is the role of the department and the university, in international contexts, in an increasingly xenophobic and racist political discourse in the UK’.

And it’s easy to see why we don’t discuss this. We’re really busy, and the pressures of REF and the coming Teaching Excellence Framework are felt by us, as individuals, and as a department every day. But this instrumentalisation (in an increasingly corporate environment, the university’s own response to the shifting political and economic environment) is corrosive. We don't think of the bigger picture, because we’re too focused on the day-to-day, in implementing new university initiatives which are largely to do with maintaining its position in those league tables I mentioned, let alone the things that are great about the job: teaching and supervising students, and sometimes doing your own research and writing. We don't talk about it because in departmental meetings we are discussing all this instrumental and administrative stuff, and we don't have time to meet as a group outside of those times.

But it’s wrong.

So what do I/ we do about it? The first thing is, of course to talk about it. Something we signally failed to do this week. To make it visible, to speak up. To make sure we do discuss it, that it informs what we do, so we aren’t always speaking instrumentally, simply reflecting the discursive frameworks of the government or the institution. 

If I wonder what kind of country the UK has become – the answer to that is increasingly unpleasant – I also wonder what kind of place the university has become. It mustn’t just blow in the wind of government policy or hide from political discourses we find uncomfortable or plain horrifying. Even when I teach science fiction - as we did this week with The War of the Worlds - we talk about these issues. So I’m starting to speak out and up. 

Friday, 5 August 2016


Well, I haven’t done this for a while.

Anyway, me and the family have just got back from the Altiplano de Granada in southern Spain – in Andalucia, in fact. It’s a fascinating place, of course, the region of Spain that stretches from Cadiz over on the Atlantic west coast to Almeria in the east. The Altiplano de Granada is an arid, high plain in the north-east of the region of Granada, and about 150km from that city. These high, dry uplands very much reminded me of the landscapes of the Spaghetti Westerns, of course, a lot of which were shot a bit further south of where we stayed.

We rented a cave-house built in the hillside above a dusty Andalucian village called Galera. Walking up to where the unmade and precipitous roads ended, to get a view over the town and, beyond, the plain, the area revealed itself almost as a Mars-scape, a place of dust and flattened hills and mountains erupting from the flat terrain. Up above the cave-houses sat a round, whitewashed building, part Moorish and part observatory (or secret state installation): an Andalusian Baikonur?

When we visited the Alhambra in Granada, that extraordinary example of Moorish architecture and culture, its articulations of space struck me as vital to its conception. The supporting columns are thin, attenuated, and some appear to dissolve into the air; ceilings draw the eye upwards, a heaven enclosed in a room; and the fabric of the building itself
wavers in the green surfaces of the courtyard pools. In his BBC series on the art of Spain, Andrew Graham-Dixon suggested that the garden, and thereby the idea of paradise, was deeply encoded in the architecture of al-Andalus, but I also think that the building points outwards and upwards, towers and palms pointing to the sky, a sky reflected in those shimmering pools. It’s a kind of cosmic architecture. While Islamic art prohibits direct representation, its formal gestures are to the divine and the infinite.

While there, I read Tariq Ali’s The Shadow of the Pomegranate Tree, the first in his ‘Islamic Quintet’ of novels. This novel is set a few years after the culmination of the Reconquista, the fall al-Andalus when Granada was surrendered to the Christian besiegers in (irony of ironies, that Ali points out) 1492. It’s a novel of defeat, of the violent elimination of a way of life, the Muslim civilization of al-Andalus, and the expropriation of its property and wealth. As such, it ends in terror and death. But I began to wonder, a what if?: what if al-Andalus hadn’t fallen? What if the intellectual, scientific and philosophical culture (which had actively embraced tolerance of religious belief and practice, with Jews, Christians and Muslims sharing the same communities and social structures) had endured?
Would there be an Andalusian space program in the deserts of the Altiplano, looking upwards towards the divine and the infinite?

Clearly I need to do some more historical reading about the culture and communities of al-Andalus in its ‘golden age’ of the 11th and 12th centuries, but it intrigues to me think that there might have been another Enlightenment, another Industrial Revolution, another European history. Would technological development have avoided the exploitation of fossil fuels, and concentrated on water, wind, chemistry? Would Europe have avoided its deeply damaging and corrosive imperatives towards Empire and the domination of non-white, non-Christian others? Could tolerance have prevailed? In the town of Galera, we saw memorials to the persecution and violent deaths of the Moriscos (Muslim coverts to Christianity) as they resisted further repression in the 16th century, and the land was literally ploughed with salt afterwards: the very ground of Andalucia tells a different story.

At the recent Fantastika conference, Mark Bould gave an excellent and thought-provoking keynote on Afrofuturism, which (in its North African inflection) has clear affinities to what has been going through my own mind on holiday. If the Moorish architecture of the Alhambra is a dream, of capturing the divine in the formal structure of the building and its pools and courtyards, then al-Andalus makes me dream of possibilities of a different time, a different now. I’m just about to start the second of Ali’s quintet, based on the story of Salah al-Din (Saladin) and the Crusades, the political dimension of which is all too apparent. Amid the narratives of disaster and defeat, I’m looking for ways to hope and dream.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

A Night to Kill A King Is This Night

On Saturday, October 24, I attended and age a short talk at an excellent event in Oxford called Spectral Landscapes: Explorations of the English 'Eerie'. It showcased the work of Adam Scovell and three short films (in the end) were shown, including Adam's newest, Salthouse Marshes, and his collaboration with Robert Macfarlane, Holloway. I was fortunate enough to be invited to give one of the talks, along with Justin Hopper, Sharron Kraus (who also gave a performance), Katy Soar, George Bickers, and Eddie Proctor. It was a highly enjoyable evening and built upon the Alchemical Landscapes conference in Cambridge that was held back in March (see previous post).

I gave a talk about Alan Garner and in particular his 1980 teleplay To Kill A King. (It's available on YouTube - well worth a watch.) Here is the script.

In this talk I’ll be considering To Kill A King, a half-hour BBC tv teleplay broadcast in 1980 as part of ‘Leap in the Dark’, a series of uncanny tales. To Kill A King was written as an original screenplay by Alan Garner, and is a narrative of a blocked writer and what seems to be his muse, filmed around Garner’s property in Cheshire, which resides next to the Jodrell Bank radio telescopes.

The opening shot of the teleplay shows a train passing through the countryside – grey, wintry, dark – on an elevated railway embankment. As it passes out of shot, the camera rests momentarily on the main Lovell telescope, before panning and refocusing on the house in the foreground, in which we can see a woman in a window. This is the ‘muse’. In voice-over, we hear the voice of Harry, the writer (Anthony Bate), who awakens to find that a message is ‘already coming’.

The visual connection between the train, the landscape and the radio telescope, which is then further connected to an act of poetic transmission, rehearses the visual fabric of Red Shift, the BBC tv adaptation of Garner’s earlier novel which was directed by John Mackenzie (The Long Good Friday) in 1978.

Red Shift connects landscape with a mythic conception of history and recurrence, in which the presence of a stone axe-head (a ‘thunderstone’) links three distinct eras: the first century AD, the period of the English Civil War, and the ‘present day’. Images of transportation (the M6, Crewe railway station), mass communication (tv, headphones) and place (in particular Mow Cop in Cheshire) indicate a deep vertical relation in Garner’s work between place and time which is revealed through acts of transmission, in place but across time.

This still from Adam Scovell’s Weirdstone (for Alan Garner) present the same imagistic register: Mow Cop, the Lovell telescope, the bare trees of a winter landscape. The film draws directly from Garner’s language, though it was written by Adam Scovell himself:

Under my ground is the ancient, the old world of magic and ritual, of weirdstones and thunderstones, that keep the world in balance.

Garner’s poem, ‘House by Jodrell’, published in 2015, returns directly to this ground, Garner’s home ground:

Across the field astronomers
Name stars.  Trains pass
The house, cows and summer.
Not much shows but that.
Winter, the village is distant,
The house older
Than houses and night than winter.
The line is not to London.
Unfound bones sing louder,
Stars lose names,
Cows fast in shippons wise
Not to be out.  I know
More by winter than by all the year.
And a night to kill a king is this night.

It also returns directly to To Kill A King, as the last line of this poem is the last line that Harry, upon waking, hears and transcribes. Harry takes dictation, but the lines heard as a female voice-over are not the ones he sets down on the page. When he shows the new work to his long-suffering agent, what is revealed is either Joycean glossolalia or a kind of invocation, a ritual spell: ‘It is not a piss-one, or a tin-pot to pick with you, my lad…’ it begins. Just as the Jodrell Bank telescopes ‘listen’ to the universe, a sky full of radio transmissions, Harry attends to the words ‘coming in’. The gap between transmission and transcription causes Harry to have something close to a breakdown.

What we have here is then a poetic of transmission, a model of poetic creation that Tom McCarthy, in his International Necronautical Society documents, outlines as central to 20th century poetics, from automatic writing to Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus to Cocteau’s Orphée.

In To Kill A King, this is emphasised by the increasing dominance of communications equipment within the visual compositions: a reel-to-reel tape machine; disembodied telephone messages; a typewriter that begins to print on its own; and finally television broadcasts, in which Harry is trapped inside the screen of a tv, one that appears in shot directly behind him.

Is Harry a creator, a writer struggling to write and suffering mental anguish as a result? Or is he a receiver, human communications equipment that no longer functions properly?

Harry ‘escapes’ this dilemma by smashing the tv screen with a rock, a stone face that he plucks then throws back, horrified, into a pond in a walk through the winter landscape. This object, like a thunderstone, connects him directly to ritual and to place, and his ‘release’ is an act of symbolic and purgative violence, destroying his connection to the communications technologies of modernity and his fear of being ‘switched off’.

In the last shot of the play, Harry assumes the place in a chair in which the female muse had been sitting.  This can be read as a kind of fusing, in which Harry (e)merges as a writer once more, both receiver and transmitter, listener and creator.

The conception of artist as receiver, a poetic of transmissions, is crucial to Garner’s work and, I would argue, the figuration of the Spectral Landscape. In the forging of a creative connection between times, listening to transmissions of place and making these into new forms, new artworks, the artist or writer or film-maker (e)merges as a conduit between landscape, time and the broadcasting sky.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The Ground of the Sea: Sinclair, Scovell and nature writing

During a summer in which we holidayed in different parts of Wales - on Anglesey, in a cold but dry week spent on beaches and checking out standing stones and ancient burial sites, and then a wet week in Ceredigion - I was invited to participate in an upcoming evening of talks and films to celebrate the work of Adam Scovell. it's in Oxford on the 24th of October, and is called 'Spectral Landscapes: Explorations of the English Eerie'. I'm excited by this, as it should be  a fascinating event, with different speakers, a showing of some of Adam's films, poetry readings and a performance by Sharron Kraus. I'm going to be talking a bit about Alan Garner, in relation to Adam's film homage. At a previous conference, the Alchemical Landscape conference in Cambridge in March, I talked about Garner's later book Thursbitch and how it presented topographies of land and sky in relation to each other. This time, I'm going to be talking about a less well-known Garner text, a short tv play broadcast in 1980 called 'To Kill A King'. It has much of the Garner idiom compressed into a short vignette in which a blocked writer struggles with his muse, and it's shot in the landscape around Garner's own house, with railway line and Jodrell Bank radio telescope highly visible. I'll post the talk up here in due course.

In the meantime, summer reading has - when not bound up with the necessities of academic publications - tended towards writing on landscape. In my last blog post I wrote about Iain Sinclair's London Overground, which documents a days's walk taken around the 'Ginger Line' with Andrew Kötting, who now seems to be a preferred Sinclair companion/ provocateur/ foil. His other text of 2015, Black Apples of Gower, published by Little Toller (as is the reprint of Richard Mabey's The Unofficial Countryside, another summer read), returns more to the familial and personal ground in a text like Edge of the Orison (2005) and his companion is Sinclair's wife Anna. This feels right both for the kind of book this is, and the the territory being covered. It's interesting that Sinclair returns to his childhood on the Gower in the same year in which his film collaboration with Kötting, By Ourselves, which itself returns to the ground of Edge of the Orison: John Clare's 'Journey Out of Essex', in which he escaped from the asylum in which he had been placed and walked back to his home village in Northamptonshire. Northampton has strong familial connections for Anna, and there's a very interesting turn towards personal and family history in that book which I found very engaging, even refreshing.

As Sinclair says in a long interview with John Rogers about London Overground and Black Apples of Gower, they're quite different books, written in slightly variant styles. London Overground is pacy, zooming along with Sinclair and Kötting around the circuit, flashing with the kind of cultural associations and connections to occluded histories that is a Sinclair staple, but as I noted in my previous post, it's not Sinclair's own ground, 'Sinclair's London'. He often confesses his relation to bits of the South and West of the city is fleeting or tenuous. Black Apples is rather more meditative, and is a kind of deep reflection on his childhood, his formative relationship with the landscape of the Gower, and his meeting with Vernon Watkins (which encourages a kind of ethos of openness with regard to other, particularly neophyte, writers and artists). I liked Black Apples a lot, and think it's a more weighty and interesting book than London Overground.

As Adam Scovell has recently collaborated with Robert Macfarlane on a short film of Holloway, I picked up a copy at our local independent bookshop in Oswestry. Holloway is a short but fascinating book, much more oblique than The Wild Places or The Old Ways, and for me, much the better for it. And I noted with interest that the film of Holloway has a different script: it doesn't stage the book, instead becoming a visual and aural meditation on it. I'm rather ambivalent about Macfarlane's work myself; while Mark Cocker's New Statesman critique of Macfarlane and the 'new nature writing' mode was something of a takedown (and received a strong rebuttal from Macfarlane himself), I think the point made by David Craig in the current edition of the LRB, in which he reviews Macfarlane's Landmarks, is correct: where writers such as Richard Maybe or Mark Cocker 'stay with a region or species for long enough to sink into it and pass, as nearly as can be, inside it, he [Macfarlane] veers from one writer or locale to another. ... The necessity for Macfarlane is finding words to express the experience of nature.' Although Craig says 'it depends on how deep you want to go', the implication is of course that Macfarlane's work doesn't go deep enough.

I re-read 'Silt' (about the Broomway, a shoreline track off Foulness Island in Essex that's fairly close to where I grew up) and feel that Craig has a point. It's very well written, has a rather lyrical quality, and it makes you see and feel the place. But Macfarlane is only visiting: in some ways, it's like very high-class travel writing. That has it's own pleasures, certainly. Macfarlane's work certainly doesn't pretend to be anything other than it is, a visitor's perspective, almost a connoisseur's; and Craig's own language - the verb 'pass' is very revealing, as in 'pass for local' - arouses my suspicions about the 'depth' of other writers who 'stay'. What we should have is more writing by those who live in these particular places: what do Foulness dwellers think of it? I've just picked up the collection Est: Collected Reports from East Anglia, published by Dunlin Press, and I'm hoping that sense of rootedness in the local is what I'll find there. First delvings look promising.

That's what attracts me to Sinclair and to Garner, I suppose. Their work is very strongly associated with a territory, a ground, re-visited and re-worked over and over again. (This is why London Overground isn't such a revealing book, in many ways, as Black Apples of Gower.) As an incomer to Wales, I'm still a visitor, though I've lived here for 15 years now. Going to Anglesey or the Ceredigion coast isn't a return to home ground, but I've realised that the sea and the coast, having grown up in Thames-side Essex, has a symbolic pull for me that the mountains of North Wales don't have. The sound, the smells, of sea and estuary mud, as well as the shifting blue/grey/green/brown of deep water, says something to me. Much as I love the valley where we live, and I'm fascinated by its history, Triton always comes knocking on my door.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Beating the bounds: misreading Iain Sinclair

My sense of Iain Sinclair’s recent book, London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line  (Hamish Hamilton, 2015), is determined by a misreading on my part. In a scene where Sinclair recalls giving a reading in a ‘bamboo bar’, one of the punters, a ‘heavy presence, tieless in a loose designer suit that gave off sparks as he moved’ (38), gets a bit confrontational at the Q&A sessions. Grabbing the microphone, he lays into Sinclair:

History, he said, was pigs’ bollocks dipped in sherbert. But if you want to listen to … Arthur Morrison, A Child of the Jago, Tales of Mean Streets, Arnold Circus, Charles Dickens, furniture sweatshops, bagels and … blah blah blah: OK fine. Each to his own. But these are not, my friend, the realities of the moment. You know fuck all about that. About the rewrite of territory, the rescue of the old shitheaps, for which he was responsible: a player, an investor, he put his money where his mouth was. And his tongue was blistered with diamonds. (38)

A couple of things threw me. One was the double ellipsis, the gaps: what did this signify? A halting in the punter’s discourse? A shift of speaker? The problem here is that Sinclair begins to ventriloquise the other man, or vice versa; ‘he said’ appears right at the beginning of the scene, but who said what becomes a little unclear. And this is where I misread, as after ‘blah blah blah’, it sounded like Sinclair was putting down the heckler. ‘But these are not, my friend, the realities of the moment. You know fuck all about that. About the rewrite of territory’: you know fuck all. Wow, I thought, this is something new, Sinclair giving the punter a verbal kiss-off. But wait, no, that can’t be right. It’s not until ‘tongue blistered with diamonds’ that we return to Sinclair speaking, with a far more oblique put-down. It’s the punter telling Sinclair that history is bunk, that money talks (blah blah blah), that London is being purposefully re-written into a different future. Yes, now that is much more likely.

The question is: why did I mis-read the scene so violently? Sinclair telling someone that they know fuck all? How likely is that? (The italics might even be seen as diacritical indicators by Sinclair that ‘this is not me speaking’.) And the answer I came up with is: because I wanted him to say that, wanted him to be angry, wanted him to directly tell the representative of a boorish, know-nothing exploitative capital to fuck off.

Which he never does, of course. But I (would like to) think that he would like to.

In my 2007 book on Sinclair, I called the last chapter ‘Driven to the margins’, which was largely about London Orbital (2002). Since then, his major books, except for Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (2009), have elucidated a connection with London which, if not quite attenuated, then expressed the desire or need to tread new territory. Edge of the Orison (2005) re-traced John Clare’s ‘Journey Out of Essex’ and, with the central role of Anna Sinclair and family history, seemed to me to be an extension of the walking/researching/narrating method, treading on directly personal ground in a way not seen in previous books. (It will be interesting to see what Sinclair’s next collaboration with Andrew Kötting, By Our Selves, which also recapitulates Clare’s journey on foot, does with the same primary event.) Ghost Milk (2011) was about the coming London Olympics and the ‘grands projets’ of all such vastly expensive stage-sets; he visits the rotting stadia in the Athens Olympic park as a past that might haunt London’s future. And in American Smoke (2014), Sinclair takes off for the States in search of the writers and writing (particularly poetry) that remain fundamental to his Modernist poetics and world-view, a true ‘lighting out for the territory’.

So London Overground feels like a deliberate return to London, after the pointed tomfoolery of Swandown (2012), where Sinclair’s cerebral discourse acts as a foil to Kötting’s physical cinema of running, jumping and standing still (or piloting a pedalo up English waterways). It narrates a walk that Sinclair takes with Kötting, who is a somewhat different companion to other such as the photographer Marc Atkins or film-maker and author Chris Petit, who were crucial to earlier books. Kötting, who Sinclair has described as a ‘New Age stormtrooper’, is presented in London Overground as a man of physical appetite and activity: pissing in bushes, measuring the miles in terms of pit-stops to refuel, yarning about youthful sexual conquests around London. If not quite Sancho Panza to Sinclair’s Quixote, Kötting represents a different principle of physicality to Sinclair’s, which is always in service of the story (of the books themselves and of literature per se). Kötting’s own body revolts over the 30-odd mile tramp, his feet ‘squelching’ by the end (and in a coda to the book, this broken-down physicality is re-doubled in a shocking account of the motorbike accident Kötting suffered in 2013, where he suffered significant injuries). But his body is present in a way that Sinclair’s own rarely is in his texts. Instead, we are presented with Sinclair's voice.

This voice, or perhaps style, is one that characterises my experience of Sinclair’s texts as much as the territories and terrains they traverse. It’s not surprising that some of the writers and artists that are considered in London Overground have very strong and distinct styles: JG Ballard, Angela Carter, Leon Kossoff, Samuel Beckett. These are distinctive voices of which, like Sinclair, you only have to read a sentence or two to know who is writing.

The circuit (key Sinclair word all the way back to Lud Heat (1975)) that Sinclair and Kötting enact haunts the ‘Ginger Line’ in a similar fashion to the method of London Orbital, where Sinclair and others traced the ‘acoustic footsteps’ of the motorway. The Overground Line is of course much further in, a circle/ circuit that begins in Haggerston and takes in Shadwell, Denmark Hill, Clapham Junction, Shepherd’s Bush, Camden Town, and back to Haggerston. It’s interesting to note how Sinclair confesses that he does not know some of the ground particularly well, that it connects only marginally with his own personal history or recurrent interests.

But there is recapitulation here, deliberately so. When Sinclair describes Kossoff’s ‘method of choosing a number of privileged viewpoints, and returning to them, time after time’ (240) might be describing his own. In another passage, the journey takes on rather more epic clothing:

Enough miles have been covered in this half-day’s walk to call up a discussion about circularity, the Homeric voyage of adventure and return, against the grander reach of the diurnal cycle, an eternal and unchanging figure. Night chasing day chasing night. The abacus of the stars. The eye of heaven orbiting under the dish of the ocean, as Charles Olson says in the Maximus Poems [….] The drawing together of the circle is our faith in that model of the universe. And our love of it. (124)

This then positions London Overground as nostos, a return to home, beating the bounds of Sinclair’s own territory. (‘Beating the bounds’ was a phrase that appeared in my head as I was reading London Overground, and then, on page 72, it appears: ‘A rectangle filled with a unique signature of self: the beating of the bounds’. Did I tune in to Sinclair’s voice or call this phrase up?)

The text is not filled with nostalgia, however, so much as a sense of loss. For all Kötting’s antic presence, the book feels like a lament. This is why, when Sinclair and Kötting call on the venerable (and wonderful) actor Freddie Jones – now starring, completely unknown to me, in Emmerdale – the references to Jones’ performance as King Lear started to make a different sense. (Freddie and his son Toby appear in By Our Selves.) The wintry feel of London Overground – the walk takes place on a cold February day – brought to mind not the wine-dark seas of Homeric nostoi, nor sun-baked La Mancha, but rather Lear’s wanderings around a lost kingdom, lucidly mad, suffering revelation. Sinclair in London Overground is a Winter King, traversing a kingdom split in two, accompanied by a Fool who speaks truth.

As I wrote about in another blog, I’ve recently been listening a lot to the Sleaford Mods, whose angry, aggressive and expletive-filled albums seem to express not only the tenor of the times but also something about myself and the problems of a working-class person entering academia (not least in terms of the voice). The anger, the fuck off-ness of the Sleaford Mods is bracing and invigorating, which is probably why I wanted Sinclair to say the same thing. Where Laura Oldfield Ford, whose Savage Messiah (2011) seems to intersect with the Sleaford Mods’ punk sensibility, has a strong sense of articulating exclusion and deprivation and the fraying fabric of working-class urban lives, that’s not what Sinclair does, and it would be unfair to criticise him for not doing so.

But in a time of ideologically-enforced economic austerity, where a prospective Labour leadership candidate who opposes this is attacked by the establishment as a kind of fifth columnist leading the party to ‘disaster’, and where anger seems to have no purchase on political agency (as Mark Fisher wrote about the Sleaford Mods’ last album), the politics of beating the bounds is more urgent than ever. I like and admire Sinclair’s work a lot (enough to have written a book about him), and the politics of his non-fiction are clear, but in London Overground I missed the savagery and the satire of the early novels, of White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987) and Downriver (1990) in particular. In completing the circuit, once again, I wonder where we can go next.

Friday, 19 June 2015

What Men Don't See: All That Outer Space Allows

I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for a while. It’s the final book of Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet, and where the other books are novella length, this one is longer, a short novel. It’s a curious text, in some ways: a recapitulation, a revision, an inversion, an alternate history of the Apollo programme that is more an alternate history of science fiction, and ultimately, an alternate history of the Apollo Quartet itself.

The main character is Ginny Eckhardt, the wife of Walden Eckhardt who is, as the novel opens, a test pilot at Edwards AFB in the mid-60s. Ginny is not only a pilot’s, and then when Eckhardt is accepted into NASA, an astronaut’s wife, but is also a science fiction author, writing under the name V.G. Parker (Virginia Parker, her birth name). The rather brilliant conceit of All That Outer Space Allows is that sf is a genre written and read by women: its most famous authors are women (Ginny is pen-pals with ‘Ursula, Judith and Doris’), the editors of Galaxy and Astounding are women, its readers and correspondents are mainly women. The gender politics of this alternate scenario mean that sf had still less cultural capital in the 1950s and 1960s than it had in our world: disregarded as a ‘women’s genre’ (like romance fiction, or the melodrama that the novel’s title overtly refers to) sf is something of a social secret for Ginny. Frowned upon by her ‘flyboy’ husband, who inhabits a retrograde patriarchal machismo, her writing is kept hidden, like the copies of sf magazines she stashes in her cupboard.

This allows Sales to make some play with the idea of performance and role-playing; we first see Ginny in a plaid shirt and slacks, which is both her writing attire and a symbol of the ‘real’ Ginny masked by the enacting of the role of ‘wife’ that she must do to support Walden’s career. Later in the novel, Sales suggests that Ginny no longer needs that hidden persona symbolised by the clothes, that Ginny is able to bring public and private personas together, but the details of her career – after some success in the late 60s and early 70s, she drifts away from sf – indicate otherwise. The importance of clothes is connected to a crucial theme in the novel, to do with gender and women’s lives under patriarchy: that of seeing and being seen.

At the beginning of the novel, Ginny watches a plume of smoke hanging over Edwards AFB, and fears that it is her husband who has crashed, perhaps fatally. This isn’t so; an officer comes to seek out Ginny’s neighbour with the news that the pilot has been injured, but is in the hospital. She invites him in for an iced tea while he waits, and after an awkward interlude, wonders whether she has overstepped the bounds of social propriety, but he soon leaves, wanting to wait outside in the car for the neighbour ‘so I don’t miss her’. In an unassuming way, this introduces a recurrent motif in the narrative: men not seeing women, both physically and literally. When Walden takes Ginny on a tour around the Houston MSC, he runs off to check on a missed appointment. Abandoned to her own devices (another recurrent motif) Ginny is taken into the suiting room by Dee, a female technician. Searching for her, Walden pokes his head around the door, scans the room, scowls, and departs, only later coming back to locate her. He has physically not seen his wife. Other details compound this motif: when she has lost an item in the house, he ‘happily’ joins in the search, but ‘never’ finds it, and Ginny often comes across the object in a place he has already looked.

This idea is literalised through a short story Ginny publishes, given in full in the novel, called ‘The Spaceships Men Don’t See’. Like the title of the novel itself, this is a playful intertextual allusion, this time to James Tiptree Jr/ Alice B. Sheldon’s famous story ‘The Women Men Don’t See’; in a mocked up Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction entry for VG Parker, it is suggested that Ginny’s story gains more visibility retrospectively, after readers make the intertextual connection to the Tiptree story. There is a curious and playful fiddling with chronology here, where Ginny’s story anticipates the more famous (and ‘real’) Tiptree’s, which then refers back to and legitimates it in some way. This playfulness has the effect of stitching Ginny’s story into the history of actual science fiction written by women throughout the twentieth century, and in that sense, we can see All That Outer Space Allows as a parallel project to Sales’ SF Mistressworks project, which explicitly challenges the gendered language of Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series. In both, Sales attempts to make visible the unseen history of sf by women.

All That Outer Space Allows does not only re-write, through an alternate history scenario, the gendered history of science fiction; it also re-writes the gendered history of the Apollo Quartet itself. It has become ever clearer, in each successive book, how an underlying tension between Sales’ admiration for and investment in the Apollo programme (one I share) and a critique of the patriarchal masculinity and codes of ‘heroic’ endeavour are being worked out. In Adrift on the Sea of Rains, the first book in the Quartet, the pathological Cold War antagonisms underpinning the Space Race are embodied in Colonel Vance Peterson, one of the astronauts marooned on the Moon after World War III; All That Outer Space Allows explicitly re-writes this in gender terms, as when Ginny begins writing the novella ‘Hard Vacuum’, her last significant sf publication, the opening paragraphs are given in the text itself:

Some days, when it feels like the end of the world yet again, Vanessa Peterson goes out onto the surface and gazes up at what they have lost.

This is, of course, the opening of Adrift on the Sea of Rains, with ‘Vanessa’ substituted for ‘Vance’. Several other moments in All That Outer Space Allows suggest that Ginny is the ‘author’ of narratives that approximate The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself (where a mission to Mars uncovers an alien ftl drive) and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (where one of the two narratives proposes an Korean War ongoing into the mid-1960s, and a NASA astronaut programme populated by women).

This is very interesting and I admire the playfulness as well as the serious intent, the implication of Sales’ own writing in the patriarchal imperatives of sf (and the Apollo programme). Cannily, he doesn’t spare himself. However, I get the sense that Ginny is, in part, a version of Sales-the-sf-author, as presented in the novel. Throughout the narrative, it is suggested that Ginny writes sf in part because the patriarchal structures of the post-war USA means that she cannot and will not be allowed to go into space herself; it’s a kind of displacement activity that stands in for all the exclusions suffered by women in a patriarchal social and cultural circumstance. But this displacement is also one assigned to Sales-the-sf-author in the end matter. In ‘About the Author’, he writes: ‘Ian Sales wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up, but sadly wasn’t born in the USA or USSR. So he writes about them instead.’ How should we take this? A confession? A performance? A cryptic clue that Ginny’s ambivalence is his own? A message that Sales’ re-imagining of the Apollo project is in some ways an appropriation, a means of playing out or re-negotiating a fantasy investment in it?

I don’t think that we can take the Quartet as a mea culpa; Sales has no need to apologise for NASA’s (and by extension post-war United States’) ideological exclusions and oppressions, and his own cultural work (in the SF Mistressworks project as well as the Quartet) should leave the reader in no doubt as to his politics. It is, however, a critique, and ultimately this turns into a kind of auto-critique, and for All That Outer Space Allows this becomes a formal principle, one of the boldest manoeuvres in the text.

All of the previous novellas in the Quartet have offered a formal extension (and by the time of And Will The Great Ocean, perhaps formal difficulty) to the political and thematic revisions offered in each text. Adrift has a Glossary and Chronology section at the end, offering an alternative series of Apollo missions; The Eye With Which… also incorporates these, but also has a dual time-frame, where the narrative intercuts the protagonist finding the alien artefact on Mars and then, years later, journeying on an ftl ship to the stars; and Then Will The Great Ocean… has two different alternate histories placed side by side in a kind of narrative interlocution. As I noted in a previous review, I found this the most awkward and problematic, though not really because we are given two time-lines. But in All That Outer Space Allows Sales goes further still, and begins to deconstruct the narrative from within.

The first such moment takes place in chapter 1, on p.17. Ginny muses that it was ‘so strange that his parents should name [Walden Eckhardt] after a book subtitle “Life in the Woods” … ’. And then we have this:

They didn’t, of course; I did. I named him Walden for Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 polemic. There is a scene in Douglas Sirk’s 1955 movie All That Heaven Allows – the title of this novel is not a coincidence: the movie is a favourite, and in broad stroke, both All That Heaven Allows and All That Outer Space Allows tell similar stories: an unconventional woman who attempts to break free of conventional life …

After a paragraph and a half, we segue back into Ginny’s point of view. This technique recurs throughout the novel, wrenching the reader out of the immersive experience of reading Ginny’s story into something else entirely. And notice how halting it becomes, the syntax and flow as though unsure of itself, jumping from Thoreau to Sirk, interrupted by dashes, by colons (twice), by ellipsis marks. What I think is going on here, as well as Sales demonstrating that (of course) this is a fiction, is a kind of crisis in the parameters of his own project, a point at which narrative can no longer be written, where the cultural work of revision and re-scripting comes to a halt because it is narrative.

As Sales points out, partly through these ‘authorial’ disruptions, Apollo was always embedded in a range of different narratives, from official documents, jargon and acronyms (some of which are directly reproduced in All That Outer Space Allows) to the Life magazine news-management of NASA’s image to the memoirs of astronauts and their wives, many of which appear in the novel’s bibliography. To re-write Apollo, particularly in the way Sales does so (through exhaustive research and citation) is, in part, to be complicit in Apollo and its narratives.

If it is ‘no coincidence’ that All That Outer Space Allows refers to the Sirk film, it is also no coincidence that each of the chapter titles refers to a part of the process of an Apollo mission: ‘Liftoff’, ‘First Stage Separation’, ‘Lunar Orbit Insertion’. The personal (Ginny’s story, or even Sales’ investment) is mapped onto the procedural and public. The last chapter is ‘“We have touchdown”’, and is then a kind of closure; but the Eagle landing was never the end of the story, of course. Armstrong and Aldrin (and Collins) still had to get back. The end of All That Outer Space Allows is then a closure that is not a closure, because the novel has refused those gestures all the way through (as, in other ways, the other books of the Quartet had also done).

The deliberate disjunctions and disruptions will make All That Outer Space Allows a problematic, even difficult read, for some, I would guess. I really admire the ambition and boldness behind these manoeuvres, though, a willingness to take formal risks, even if (as with Then Will The Great Ocean…) they don’t quite pay off. All That Outer Space Allows foregrounds the acts of writing and reading, of narration and reception, and provoked me into asking ‘why is he doing this? What is the purpose?’ In a few months which will see the publication of Ben Johncock’s The Last Pilot and in which a tv version of The Astronaut Wives Club has just aired in the States, the figure of the test pilot’s/ astronaut’s wife has herself suddenly become a lot more visible. Ian Sales’ All That Outer Space Allows is provocative in more than one way: about Apollo, about science fiction, about the Quartet, about its own narration and story, and I like that very much. It’s a worthy conclusion to the Quartet, albeit one which refuses the idea of closure even as it ends.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Landscape and (science) (fiction) (fantasy)

A week or two ago I went down (or is that up?) to Cambridge for a one-day conference called TheAlchemical Landscape, an event organised by Evie Salmon and James Riley of the Counter-cultural Research group there. It was mentioned in a Guardian article by Robert Macfarlane about the ‘eerie’ quality of much contemporary writing about the English landscape, an article which enumerated a considerable amount of texts I’ve been interested in lately, from JA Baker’s The Peregrine (now quite widely cited in this regard) to Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England. It was noted at the conference by Alastair Reid that there was a strong Essex connection at the conference, and in particular he noted that several Essex boys had (like myself) drifted onto ‘Celtic’ territories and pre-occupations. Whether Wales and Welsh is Celtic or not I’ll leave for another time, but the re-imagination of Essex and the Essex landscape in the work of Justin Hopper (in Public Record), in Robert Macfarlane’s Silt, in Rachel Lichtenstein’s Estuary:Working Lives project, in the work of Ken Worpole and Jules Pretty indicates that the county of my birth, which I once thought a place where nothing much happened, has become the site of a re-contestation of what living in a particular place might mean.

I gave a talk about Alan Garner and his novels Thursbitch and Boneland. Garner proposes a form of ‘sentient landscape’ in both novels, in which the land is deeply implicated (through and across time) with imagination, ritual, death and loss. Both novels range across history. Thursbitch connects events of the 1750s with the present day, siting this connection in a ‘valley of the demon’ where the landscape is immanent with strange powers. Boneland also has a double narrative. Colin Whisterfield, grown up from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963), now a Professor of Astrophysics associated with the nearby Jodrell Bank, lives alone and attempts to recover his lost memory, caused by the traumatic separation from his sister that happens in the earlier two books; an unnamed Neolithic male, through ritual and cave-painting, tries to bring forth other beings into the world upon the loss of his female partner and child. I find both novels fascinating, but Boneland in particular, with its connection of science (fiction) with myth and ritual, and its symbolic use of the Jodrell Bank radio telescope, seems to fit in with recurrent images and tropes in the ‘eerie’ forms identified by Macfarlane. 

In particular, I’m thinking of the connection between the Neolithic and television science fiction that has a particular investment in landscape: the HTV children’s series Children of the Stones  (1977) and Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass (1979), the latter using both radio telescope dishes (built specifically for the programme) and stone circles as key visual motifs. Kneale, of course, has a long history of bringing together sf and Gothic / ‘eerie’ elements, in the Quatermass narratives and in The Stone Tape. Boneland seems to me to be strongly in this tradition, moving away from the more strictly fantasy elements you find in the Weirdstone or Moon of Gomrath.

Last week we visited Jodrell Bank, and it was an extraordinary place, out in the middle of the Cheshire plain. The Lovell telescope pointed straight up behind us, we used the ‘whispering dishes’ (acoustic mirrors, something I’ve long been fascinated by) to speak to each other across space; in the radio silence, I envied the people who worked with the telescope, looking out into the skies. (In fact, I’m considering buying our own optical telescope, as we live in in the North Wales countryside with unpolluted skies.) Garner implies, of course, that what Colin Whisterfield does at Jodrell Bank is simply a technological version of what the Neolithic man enacts in his cave paintings: rituals in which sky and land come together in a spatio-temporal conjunction, enabling the watcher (or shaman) to see. The visionary aspect of Garner’s work, in multiple ways, also connects him to what Macfarlane identifies as the ‘eerie’ mode, but also to the more esoteric forms of writing about the British landscape, from Alfred Watkins to John Michell. I come at this partly, of course, through my own Sinclairian interests; I didn’t quite give enough weight the extent of his embeddedness in that mode when I wrote a book about his work, though.

What Garner also investigates is male trauma. When Alastair Reid mentioned ‘Essex boys’ he also put his finger on the strong gendering of the presenters and audience at The Alchemical Landscape, most of which were (white) men. In my own paper, I half-consciously revisited some of the emphasis on masculinity and trauma that I was working through in my most recent book on Contemporary Masculinities, as well as re-igniting my interests in the relation between literature/film/culture and place, and in particularly the spaces of Essex and of North Wales. For Garner, the conjunction of land and sky involves an articulation of masculine fertility (particularly in Thursbitch), where the symbol of the Bull, as constellation, ‘demon’ and sacrifice, is central. 

The connection between science fiction (or science fantasy, I suppose) and (eerie) landscape presents itself in the coming together of two of my recurrent interests. I noticed that Macfarlane didn’t mention Simon Reynolds and his work on hauntology in contemporary music (and although Macfarlane does mention Mark Fisher, it’s not in relation to K-Punk), nor Ghost Box. As Reynolds and Fisher identify, The Advisory Circle, The Focus Group and Belbury Poly also work with this imaginary, combining uncanny folk with early electronic music. Belbury Poly’s name, of course, refers to CS Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, a novel at the science fantasy/ planetary romance end of the ‘eerie landscape’ mode, which reads the ‘occupation’ of the English landscape by malign forces in an overtly theological (and Grail legend-inflected) mode. I recently wrote a bit about this novel in a large collection of articles about the occult. But the figuring of occult or ancient forces in the landscape, a recurrent motif in the work that I’ve mentioned so far (and which Macfarlane identifies, particularly in the ghost stories of MR James) can signify a much more material occupation.

One other place we’ve been to over the past few weeks is Lake Vyrnwy in mid-Wales. Like the more famous (and more recent) case of Capel Celyn, the drowned village north-west of Lake Bala, Vyrnwy is a man-made lake, created at the behest of the Corporation of Liverpool, which displaced a village in the name of providing Liverpool with fresh water. Lake Vyrnwy was constructed in the late 19th century, and so does not figure in the cause of Welsh nationalism as does Capel Celyn. But when we visited the dam, built of massively imposing slate, reared up like the walls of a prison. The water of the lake was black. Both my wife Deniz and I felt deeply uncomfortable in this place, not just because we are incomers to Wales (though I have lived there for 15 years now, and Deniz over 20). There felt something malignant at Vyrnwy, something wrong. For all the RSPB softening of this English imposition on Welsh lands and its marketing as a leisure destination, we could not look on this black lake as something other than a symbol of power, of displacement, even of ‘evil’. We felt the political decision to fill this valley with water for Liverpool as an act of occupation, something monstrous, a desecration of sorts. After a quick cup of tea, we left in a hurry, the inky shadows of the lake at our backs.   

Macfarlane is right, of course, to point out the centrality of the ‘eerie landscape mode’ to a renewed contestation of England and Englishness. He writes:

A loose but substantial body of work is emerging that explores the English landscape in terms of its anomalies rather than its continuities, that is sceptical of comfortable notions of “dwelling” and “belonging”, and of the packagings of the past as “heritage”, and that locates itself within a spectred rather than a sceptred isle.

It is unfortunate, then, that the example he uses of Garner is The Owl Service, which is deeply invested in the particularities of the Welsh landscape and of the Welsh literary tradition, notably the Mabinogion. (At The Alchemical Landscape, Sharron Kraus spoke movingly about how the landscape of mid-Wales inspires her music; Macfarlane could also have mentioned the music of The Lowland Hundred, also Aberystwyth-based, whose singer is the erstwhile Sinclair scholar (and son of Essex) Paul Newland.) As an incomer to Wales, I am deeply aware of the political implications of being an ‘Essex boy’ in this land, and do not seek to appropriate it as more meaningful from the one I left at age 18. Indeed, I keep returning to the images and histories of Essex, as much as I am interested in investigating the stories and myths and landscapes of the Vale of Llangollen. But I am worried by this use of ‘English landscape’, even if it marks a mode of writing, art, film and music which contests official histories and spaces. Mafarlane also cites Paul Kingsnorth, whose The Wake surely points out the contested constructions of what ‘English’ is or might be. The English are themselves incomers, one of the waves of settlement that has marked the history of the British Isles over thousands of years, and the landscape reflects its multiple occupations, from Neolithic standing stones to the architecture of the Industrial Revolution to roads and new housing developments. It is my own experience of uprootedness rather than belonging, displacement rather than dwelling, which is surely characteristic of life in the British Isles, and I suppose that the mode of the ‘eerie’, with its haunted subjects and landscapes, reflects that unbelonging.