Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (112)

Labourism vs. Cultural Politics: A Labour Party Conference Reading Guide
Wednesday, 22 September 2021 07:20

Labourism vs. Cultural Politics: A Labour Party Conference Reading Guide

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As Labour Conference gathers in Brighton, Mark Perryman from Philosophy Football picks ten books that seek to bridge the labourism vs. cultural politics divide

The cultural front will scarcely be acknowledged in either Labour Party Conference proceedings or much of the fringe, whereas at The World Transformed it is as close to centre stage (sic) as cultural politics gets in the arena of the party political. This is as much of a division in Labour, some would argue an even more significant division, as left vs. right. For conference reading I’ve chosen ten new books that in their different ways seek to bridge that divide.   

Paul Sng – This Separated Isle

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This Separated Isle is a fantastic starting point in this respect, in the way it combines incredible photos with short punchy essays to portray this island of modern Britain as a contested space of despair versus hope. A brilliant mix quite untypical of most ‘political’ books, but photography books too.

Owen Hatherley – Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances

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Owen Hatherley’s essay collection, Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstancesis an exploration of how architecture shapes lives and communities from Walthamstow to Edinburgh, via ever-decreasing public toilets and the closure of public libraries. Enchanting and imaginative, with excursions to other nations, a truly great read on the much-neglected subject of the built environment.  

Marcus Gilroy-Ware – After the Fact? The Truth About Fake News

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Marcus Gilroy-Ware’s After the Fact? The Truth About Fake News details how the media is both a product of politics and produces an entire culture, not simply headlines and bulletins. It is these means of production that generate fake news – and worse, eg the anti-mask, anti-vaxx fake news we've witnessed during the pandemic. What kind of left is equipped to acknowledge this, let alone challenge it? As Marcus shows, it's one that contests the cultural front.

Michael Lavalette – Palestinian Cultures of Resistance 

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National liberation movements, often out of necessity, have understood the role of what writer Michael Lavalette calls ‘cultures of resistance’, specifically in Michael’s new book Palestinian Cultures of Resistance where his focus is on Palestine’s ‘national resistance literature’ of an earlier period, the 1960s to early 1990s. With the huge, yet reactive, spurts of Palestine solidarity protests whenever Israel launches its attacks on Gaza and the West Bank it is surely time to provide a platform for the modern-day versions of such cultural resistance for a broad, popular, proactive movement of Palestine solidarity to take shape. 

William Morris – Pilgrims of Hope

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Quintissentially English, yet avowedly internationalist, William Morris’ poetic tribute to the 1871 Paris Commune, The Pilgrims of Hope, in a new edition with an introduction provided by Michael Rosen, couldn’t be more effective as a response to the fiction that Morris did a nice line in floral wallpaper and that’s about it. Rather he was, and remains, a true English revolutionary. 

Rick Blackman – Babylon’s Burning: Music, Subcultures and Anti-Fascism in Britain 1958-20

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For those of us of a certain age, Rock against Racism (RAR) 1978-81 remains the pre-eminent practical example of the fusion of politics and culture. It may be generational but to my mind there’s been nothing like it since – more’s the pity. In Babylon’s Burning: Music, Subcultures and Anti-Fascism in Britain 1958-20 Rick Blackman provides not only a spirited account of RAR but both a prehistory and postscript of movements of ‘pop ’n politics’ which both inspired and were inspired by it.

Chris Brookmyre – The Cut

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To escape from Labour’s conference floor, or all that hard thinking at The World Transformed, a little crime fiction might not go amiss with almost as much intrigue, conspiring and backstabbing as factional warfare manages to conjure up. Chris Brookmyre’s latest, The Cut, uses one of his favourite devices revisiting an old crime to find not all was what it seemed, not even remotely. Pure escapism, or a means to view Labour politics with a new eye?

Janine Booth – Unprecedented Rhymes: Verses versus the Virus

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Janine Booth is a poetic ranter with a socialist-feminist tendency, labour historian, RMT activist, member of Lewes CLP, one of her CLP’s conference delegates, and pioneer of the Spoaken Word night in the town. Her latest poetry collection Unprecedented Rhymes: Verses versus the Virus is bang up to date with poignant Covid poems, notwithstanding the apparent absence of iambic pentameters.

Ed Balls – A Memoir in Recipes of Family and Food 

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Why not serve up a supper after a hard day at conference with an Ed Balls recipe book? Not a sentence I’ll admit I had ever previously imagined myself writing! Appetite: A Memoir in Recipes of Family and Food is warm and endearing, and with enough culinary insight and originality to be taken seriously. This left me wondering why so few of these qualities shone through when Ed was a major figure in the Labour party. Because the food that we eat and cook isn’t considered a suitable topic for a frontline politician to be concerned with. That division – labourism vs. cultural politics – has a lot to answer for. My only quibble is that there’s not much for us vegetarians. Volume two, eco-warrior Ed Balls saves the planet one recipe at a time? Reinvention complete!

Stuart Hall – The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left

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Which brings me to my number one book to provide a cultural politics reading of the 2021 Labour Conference and guide our ideological way through the culture debates at The World Transformed. First published in 1988 following Labour’s third successive defeat, Labour in 2021 has managed to chalk up four more since 2005, and Stuart Hall’s The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left consists of his hugely original essays from these years.

Stuart effortlessly combined the cultural and the political because for him it is through ideas are contested and changed. The analysis is still relevant and highly readable, with uncanny connections to labourism’s enduring failure to contest the cultural front. Readers who make these connections will be prepared for a road that may be hard but is full of possibility. What better road home from Brighton ’21 could there possible be?

Note: No links in this review are to Amazon. If you can avoid giving money to billionaire tax-dodgers who profit from their employees low wages and poor working conditions, please do. Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football and his latest book is Corbynism from Below. 

Anxious Corporals: Fran Lock interviews Alan Morrison
Monday, 30 August 2021 10:25

Anxious Corporals: Fran Lock interviews Alan Morrison

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Fran Lock interviews Alan Morrison about Anxious Corporals, a polemical and poetic history of post-war working-class culture, which can be ordered here

Fran Lock: Hi Alan, thanks for taking the time to talk to me about Anxious Corporals. The term ‘anxious corporals’ was first coined by Arthur Koestler to describe working-class servicemen with a need to ‘satisfy some/ Vitamin deficiency of the mind’, not for the purposes of self-advancement, but to fill some kind of existential void or to make sense of the fragile and threatening world around them. I wonder if you could start by talking a little bit about this feeling of anxiety, which is communicated in the language and restless lyric flow of the poem. Do you have any thoughts about why, at a contemporary moment that is surely ever more precarious and insecure, there doesn’t seem to be a corresponding drive or thirst for knowledge?

Alan Morrison: Anxiety is underneath everything I do, particularly creatively, it’s the conductor of my thoughts and words and ideas; also an obsessiveness, which very much comes through in the obsessional pull of this poem, of the phrasings punctuated only with commas, giving a breathless almost panicky quality.

Creativity and self-expression are essentially anxious acts. Arguably life itself is a state of anxiety, of anticipation, apprehension, excitement, dread, I take quite a Kierkegaardian angle (which can also be exhausting). But on a more personal level, I’m a lifelong sufferer of anxiety so I suppose this comes through in what I write, and what I write about.

My tendency to compose in an almost stream-of-consciousness outpouring of lines and phrasings with only commas is something that’s crept into my poetry in the last couple of years. It’s not really a conscious thing, it just feels natural to me now, and more liberating, to write in this way, for some reason I’ve come to hate full stops, even to the point that I end stanzas and poems with ellipses (i.e. dot dot dots) – full stops look too final, and it feels absurd to me that any thought or thoughts, often profound, especially as expressed in a poem, for example, ever have a definitive end as signified in a full stop: thoughts and feelings and sensations are continuous or recurring, they are tortuous, they loop, they collect and disperse and collect again, like starlings, hence for me it feels completely inappropriate to end a verse or a poem with a full stop.

Within verses and poems I find commas less intrusive, and occasionally I use semi-colons as stitches between different trains of thought; but commas seem to me the most poetically accommodating of punctuation marks, helping the poem keep a constant cadence and flow, each line, phrasing seeping into the next, like thoughts, like feelings…

On the other part of your question, I think the irony today is that with ever greater resources for communication and information the novelties in those areas have diminished rather than expanded, the sense of curiosity blunted, it’s as if a kind of generational ennui has set in, you see perhaps the ultimate triumph of commodity-based consumer capitalism in the sight of families and friends sat at cafes scrolling through their phones rather than conversing properly, the ultimate individualisation, almost a form of mass-solipsism - but which ultimately is just another form of conformity. 

It’s impossible to generalise of course. No doubt there are sections of society, certain types of people who do still thirst knowledge, but a lot of the time the knowledge sought might not be the most enlightening. But ultimately what such vast archives of easily accessed knowledge such as on the internet seem to have achieved is an increasing craving for instant gratification, an impatience, a poor concentration, an attitude that seems to expect everything to be immediately explainable at the touch of a button. But most things aren’t instantly explainable, many things require very active application, long studied reading and processing.

FL: Related to the last question, it occurred to me that we have unprecedented access to all kinds of knowledge today, and that in theory at least, education – both formal and informal – is more readily available to us than ever before. Despite this, Anxious Corporals is excoriating about the demise of critical thinking among working-class cohorts, and I think one really significant aspect of this book is its understanding of this demise as something that is also done to us, deliberately, politically, over time.

I was particularly struck by your critique of relativist or postmodern discourse, which tries to ‘prove/ Everything is relative, ultimately subjective, intrinsically/ Ironic, endlessly reductive’.  I’m reminded of the ways in which these ideas were used cynically within the space of the university to re-establish the status quo, following decades of radical ferment during the sixties and seventies. Throughout this period there was a great deal of on-campus activism, but also a profusion and merging of solidarities inside and outside of the academy, with a huge rise in worker-student alliances.

Postmodernism was deployed in this context to convince students that nothing is true. If activism begins with the basic assumption that some ideas and actions are right, and that others wrong, then undermining this conviction removes the motivation to protest. Being heavily jargonistic, postmodernism also undermines the ability of those inside the academy to speak clearly and coherently to those outside, reinforcing a sense of elitism and hierarchy. Finally, there is the attack on kinship through an absolute insistence on identity-driven subjectivism. Nauseating, and I think one of the things Anxious Corporals is really acute on is articulating how this toxic creed spills out of the academy and is deployed by neoliberal culture more broadly.

Could you say something about how this kind of neoliberal postmodern malaise has affected the way in which working-class cohorts understand ‘knowledge’, how we access knowledge, and how postmodernism has whittled down and shaped the value placed on intellectual curiosity, education, and ‘facts’?

AM: Yes, absolutely, when we think of the internet and its vast repository of information readily available for pretty much anyone to access today (bar maybe those families at the lowest economic scale who perhaps can’t afford phones or computers), a greater democratisation of knowledge if you like, then the past arguments that whole sections of society are unable to access these areas and are thus significantly handicapped in attempts at self-education (though there have always been libraries!) would seem less credible, ostensibly.

I say ostensibly, since of course one has to some extent to know or have some clue as to where to look for certain types of knowledge; okay, so Wikipedia is very prominent and easily accessible on pretty much any subject today, but there still might be barriers of literacy, and domestic demands on time and concentration in those families that are materially impoverished; as I learnt myself as a teenager struggling to learn anything much at school, poverty is not very conducive to learning.

However, in spite of growing up in relative poverty, which had been the result of lots of bad luck on my parents’ part, I had other advantages that many of my working-class and disadvantaged schoolmates didn’t have: my parents were both essentially middle class, they’d not been educated at public schools, but my father had been to a good quality grammar school, while my mother, though from a more working-class background originally, had been partly educated at a convent school, and then had had elocution lessons when she was a young aspiring actress (though she didn’t in the end pursue that career, instead deciding to settle and have a family; she had at one point been a teacher at a fairly prestigious primary school but thereafter had worked as a dental nurse, dinner lady, auxiliary nurse).

So my brother and I grew up in an atmosphere of educational and cultural aspiration, encouraged by fairly well-educated parents, and in my father’s case, well-read. The atmosphere of our upbringing was bookish. But materially we were pretty impoverished for the entire period of our secondary education, during which my father through no fault of his own suffered periods of unemployment. After leaving the Royal Marines in 1967 (AC is part-dedicated to him since he was a Corporal, and an anxious one at that!),he had gone into the civil service and worked in London in different government departments, but after our move from Worthing to Cornwall he had found it extremely difficult to get back into the civil service and eventually ended up working as a security guard for the rest of his working life; he was what sociologists would call a ‘skidder’, someone who has skidded down the occupational ladder. My mother worked as an auxiliary nurse in an old peoples’ home. Both of them were on very low wages and worked punishing shifts.

I suppose I’d describe my family background as lapsed middle class, one of faded gentility, the perennial shabby-genteel; financially and materially we were very much on the working-class level, if not actually below that at various periods (sufficiently poor that I have memories of often going to bed hungry).

So it wouldn’t be entirely accurate for me to claim to speak on behalf of the working classes since mine was a mixed-class background: I think this is a category that even sociology has yet to fully get to grips with. It meant that our kind of poverty was particularly severe in terms of social isolation, since we were not part of any broader and similarly disadvantaged community and lived in a small hamlet which only added to our sense of remoteness from everything. But suffice it to say that I agree that much of this cultural deprivation is ‘done to’ people and of course we see this mass effort of ignorance-promoting misinformation deployed daily through the right-wing red top press, which also completely corrupts our democratic process through its mass hypnotism of vast sections of the population towards voting Tory or the nearest equivalent. Tabloid editors would argue it’s patronising to say so, but what could be more patronising than the presumption that the working classes want to read the anti-intellectual, culturally philistine and politically reactionary tripe that they spoon-feed them?

When I wrote AC I was very angry, perhaps not completely fairly but I felt I’d lost a lot of sympathy with certain sections of the working classes for voting for Brexit in the Referendum. Back in the Eighties many had fallen for the false promises of Thatcherism, which resulted in the spiritual crippling of our culture and society and lasting scars that have still yet to heal; so when so many seemed to fall for the xenophobic populism of Farage, Johnson and Vote Leave, I just felt so frustrated, betrayed and, well, just angry, angry at what I saw as seeming mass ignorance. And then the final nail in the coffin was the ‘red wall’ in the Midlands and North turning blue in December 2019 – how could such huge swathes of the working classes vote for someone so transparently dishonest, unprincipled, unscrupulous and out of touch as Boris Johnson…? How on earth could they perceive an upper-class narcissist like Johnson as representing their interests…?

Of course the red top press has much to do with this, targeting the working classes as it does, but does there come a point when the Left has to stop and ask, to what extent can we blame the tabloids for proletarian attitudes and voting choices? Is there an element on the Left of our sometimes infantilising the working classes by perceiving them as constant victims of circumstances, and assuming to abdicate all responsibility on their behalf, treating them like overly impressionable children who are easily ‘taken in’? (I say working classes as opposed to working class since they’re/we’re not a homogenous mass of course). The Sun and the hard-right Daily Express might well be daily appealing for their attention in every newsagent, but there is also the Daily Mirror, also a tabloid, but a Labour-supporting one, which has a similar ‘celebrity gossip’-pulling power as its right-wing competitors; and the Morning Star, though not available everywhere, is ostensibly presented in an accessible tabloid format. These are just things I’m throwing in the air, they’re open for debate, I’m ultimately still in a quandary about it all.

The study in working-class Toryism, Angels of Marble, which I excerpt extensively in AC, provides us with many depressing and uncomfortable answers to the conundrum of blue-collar Conservatism, and it really is vital information which still applies today and is something so fundamental to British society that it has to be understood and combated by the Left into the future if we’re ever to break the right-wing hegemony of our political system (though personally I think the only real solution to neutralising the Tory monopoly in the long term is proportional representation – something which might come in time through petition, protest and perhaps an electoral referendum, and maybe one day will be rooted out just as rotten boroughs were in the 19th century).

FL: I also wonder to what extent you think that capitalism – and Thatcherism in particular – has succeeded in devaluing education in and of itself, if it is not connected to some kind of quantifiable economic ‘success’?

There’s a kind of grotesque instrumentalisation of intellectual effort at play within capitalism, which goes hand-in-hand with a carefully cultivated suspicion of – and hostility towards – ‘knowledgeable people’ from those organs and institutions supposed to represent working-class interests and ideals. This is beautifully and bleakly communicated by both yourself and Richard Hoggart, who you quote from extensively throughout Anxious Corporals, in section XII. In this section you also talk about the general distortion of working-class values by capitalism and through culture. Hoggart published The Uses of Literacy in 1957, but this process is horribly ongoing.

Could you speak about this process of distortion and some of its most recent manifestations? Is it a trend that you also see reflected in contemporary poetry?

AM: Oh absolutely, the primary preoccupation of capitalism and all capitalist governments is economic productivity and this is why there is such lack of interest in and low tolerance of Tory ministers towards the Arts and Humanities in academia, as these areas are not perceived to be particularly productive economically nor geared towards capitalist/Tory notions of societal progress which they see as almost solely invested in the sciences and technologies – this betrays the philistine materialism of much Tory and capitalist thought (if it can be called thought at all).

This is why we’re now seeing governmental disengagement with the Arts and Humanities, not only in terms of funding in the universities but also in wider culture. Moreover, the Tories tend to also see the Arts and Humanities as an intellectual threat to capitalist dogma and hegemony, particularly subjects such as Sociology and Cultural Studies. To use the old adage, capitalism ‘knows the price of everything but the value of nothing’.

There is definitely a cultural hostility towards ‘knowledge’, to some extent there’s always been a philistine seam to the British mentality, but our society became very actively anti-intellectual since the Thatcherite revolution, neoliberalism is the ultimate bourgeoisification of culture in terms of promoting mediocrity and banality (e.g. celebrity culture), imagination is distrusted, everything is trivialised to the lowest common denominator, individualism encouraged but individuality mystified and even stigmatised.

I think this anti-intellectualism and, indeed, anti-idealism, has permeated contemporary poetry for some decades now in the postmodernist mainstream, there’s long been a culture of stylistic policing which increasingly homogenises the medium, and so one has to look elsewhere, to the fringes, the small presses, to find the most interesting and authentic poetry being published. For a long time, certainly through the Nineties and Noughties, political poetry was generally frowned upon and belittled by the literary establishment and shunned by mainstream imprints (notable exceptions were presses such as Smokestack, Five Leaves, Flambard and a few others).

It took the financial crash and the onslaught of Tory austerity, then Brexit, then Trump, to jump-start the poetry mainstream into more active political consciousness, but even then it’s been on catch up. As I’ve written before, in a polemical monograph ‘Reoccupying Auden Country’, published at The International Times in 2011 (http://internationaltimes.it/reoccpying-auden-country/) and then reproduced in The Robin Hood Book – Verse Versus Austerity, postmodernism is peculiarly ill-equipped to tackle socio-political topics.

But there has been a slow continuing politicisation of poetry over the past few years, something like a depth-charge, which is has infiltrated the mainstream to some extent, though nowhere as markedly and authentically as through such auspices as Culture Matters, Smokestack Books, the Morning Star, the Communist Review, poetry journals such as Red Poets and The Penniless Press, and other such politically engaged outlets, that have been doing this since long before the mainstream picked up the scent. Nonetheless, at the upper echelons of the poetry scene, the trend is still, stubbornly and increasingly towards social irrelevance, individualism, poetic solipsism, and attitudinal narcissism – selfie-poetry.

FL: Following on from that last thought, I wonder to what extent you see poetry as a potential site of resistance to this distortion of working-class values by capitalism; a kind of redoubt against mass or – to quote Hoggart  ‘synthetic culture and intellectually-vetted entertainments’?

AM: Yes I think poetry can be a form of creative resistance, of polemical response through poetic self-expression to political events, but at the same time it can also end up being co-opted by the capitalist powers and upper echelons, and there are excerpts I include in AC from Ken Worpole’s exceptional polemic Dockers and Detectives that specifically touches on this phenomenon. Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy, too, is an extensive polemic about the dumbing down of mass culture which he documented way back in the late 50s, which was still well within the post war social democratic consensus. I’ve yet to read any of Hoggart’s later writings but I can only imagine his sense of complete despair at how things sped up in these respects through the Eighties and beyond.

But to return to poetry: in a sense, being arguably the least economically productive or enriching artistic medium, it has nothing to lose in being as political, as oppositional as it can be (and yet so much of it is so conservative!); it’s a medium belittled by the capitalist establishment, if not openly despised for its impecuniousness, and thus deeply distrusted. Poetry can be weaponised, more spiritually than politically I think, in the sense that it is something materially transcendent, since it has such little material incentive, and this gives it an unpredictable power all its own. Most of this power is in metaphor – metaphor is both weapon and camouflage. 

FL: My own take has always been that poetry requires of us – both as readers and writers – such deep, sustained attention to the operations of language, that it offers a kind of antidote to the passive content-imbibing we’re encouraged to participate in by other forms of literature and media. This leads me with a numbing inevitability to Insta-poetry, and the commercially successful pap that’s pumped out in its name.

One of the things I love about Anxious Corporals is that it is the absolute opposite of Insta-poetry. It’s knotty and complex, rich, allusive, rigorous and dense; it demands and rewards the reader’s non-trivial attention. It doesn’t offer these neat little parcels of peaceable catharsis. It’s troubling and difficult on the level of ethics and ideas. I suppose what I want to know is to what extent you see the cynical and sinister operations of capitalism through the rise of Insta-entrepreneur figures like Rupi Kaur and ‘Atticus’? Do you feel that the commercial ascendancy of such figures under the banner of ‘poetry’ is capitalism’s attempt to colonise or absorb the one form of literature it hasn’t yet successfully assimilated?

AM: I’ve no problem with accessibility and even simplicity in poetry, when it is appropriate for the subject or the tone or purpose of the poem, but I think people have the right to expect from apparently simple poems that, like Blake’s Songs of Innocence, there are other levels which the closer reader can discover under the ostensibly accessible surface.

Complete simplicity in and of itself in poetry –and any medium– inescapably morphs into the commonplace, quotidian, banal, into truism or platitude; there needs to be something else to it, engagement with language, symbol, metaphor, aphorism, something that lifts it beyond the trite or trivial. Ultimately I’m much more exercised by dumbing down or casualisation of literature.

But yes, capitalism absolutely tries to absorb or colonise any artforms that otherwise might pose some sort of threat such as becoming widespread or popular outside of its control. You see this increasingly in bank and building society adverts using spoken word artists, often from BAME backgrounds, in order to give the impression these corporate organisations somehow stand for inclusivity and are there to serve ordinary people, as opposed to profiting out of them.

FL: Connected to this last idea, I wanted to ask you about the notion of ‘accessibility’, both in terms of literature in general and poetry in particular. One of the beautiful things about the Pelican imprint – which is evoked throughout Anxious Corporals as both an emblem of working-class intellectual curiosity and a visual metaphor for the loss of this vital drive – was that it placed the tools of education within the working man’s material reach. These books were readily available in places working people were likely to frequent; they were easily identifiable, they were portable, and they were cheap. In other words ‘accessible’ in the truest sense.

One quietly disturbing trend in contemporary culture has been this shift in emphasis from ‘accessibility’ as equality of opportunity in terms of affordability and distribution, to being ‘accessible’ in terms of content, style or form. This has allowed any work that is challenging or nuanced or risk-taking to be positioned as ‘difficult’ or wilfully ‘alienating’, and this stance meets demands for richness, rigour and innovation with accusations of elitism. Is this something you feel aware of, maybe even write against? Could you tell me if it is something you have experienced in terms of the critical reception of your own writing? And to what extent do you see publishers like Smokestack as inheritors of Pelican’s mission?

AM: Yes, as AC pays to tribute to, Pelicans were originally sold in outlets such as Woolworths, purposely to target working-class readerships – this was a huge part of the Pelican ‘brief’, it was at the core of its publishing mission: to make knowledge, and mostly that hitherto perceived as ‘highbrow’ knowledge, readily available to the masses, cheaply priced, and accessibly communicated, but in no way that meant dumbing down, Pelican books were usually very well-written, often by leading thinkers and intellectuals of the time, but they were presented in an accessible and affordable format so as to attract the ordinary person on the street and give them access to hitherto cordoned-off rooms of information. Pelicans gave opportunities for true self-education on a wide variety of subjects. I agree with you that the perception of what ‘accessibility’ seems to mean today is in terms of over-simplifying. Crucially Pelicans still required intellectual effort from the readers, but glossaries elucidated all jargon.

Yes I suspect that much of my poetry is perceived as a bit ‘difficult’ at times, and on precisely this subject there was one review of AC which was generally positive but in which the reviewer took me to task for not making the poem a bit more accessible, mostly in terms of its presentation, density and, presumably, the absence of any glossary or notes. So perhaps with AC I didn’t quite hit the ‘accessibility’ mark of the very Pelican mission it’s partly paying tribute to.

If so, this was not a conscious thing, but basically down to space restriction, page count limit, and having already practically cut the poem by around 50% believe it or not – it was originally of truly epic proportions, now it’s a mere epic poem

And yes, absolutely, presses like Smokestack, and Culture Matters, and a handful of others, are indeed the poetry-equivalent to Pelican in many respects, and of the Left Book Club, while in the wider polemical field there are presses like Zed Books, Verso, Pluto, Lawrence & Wishart et al, and, indeed, a newly resurgent Pelican and Left Book Club. And online we have Prole, Proletarian Poetry, Poets’ Republic, Culture Matters, and of course my own The Recusant and its imprint Caparison, and Militant Thistles.

FL: Something else I’d like to ask about is the lack of funding this project received. I mention this because a bugbear of mine over the last few years has been to witness a number of poetic projects that were researched and written with assistance from ACE or like organisations. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but I always end up reading the declaration that ‘This book could not have been written without the generous support of blah-de-blah’ and thinking ‘Really?’ Because I think very often working-class writers are performing that work totally unacknowledged and unsupported because it doesn’t even occur to us to ask for help, or because we wouldn’t know who to ask or how to apply. And there’s a sense in which this is totally unfair, but there’s also a sense in which it produces rare, exciting and autonomous thought.

It proves that we can be the archaeologists, archivists and explorers of our own history and collective experience, without any mediation between ourselves as writers and the knowledge we seek, and the community of readers we are striving to reach. And in that sense, I think Anxious Corporals is not only a didactic work, it is also a hopeful example of what we can learn and what we can create under our own steam. Can you tell me something about your process for writing and researching this book, and share any thoughts you have about the differences between funded research projects and the kinds of self-directed autodidactic research you were engaged in with this book?

AM: I know exactly what you’re getting at here. You’re right, this particular work wasn’t funded in any way, it was a long-standing labour of love researched, written and painstakingly redrafted (over 100 times!) throughout the last three or more years. Having said that, I have received funding for some of my previous poetry books, two Arts Council G4A Awards in consecutive years for Blaze a Vanishing and The Tall Skies (Waterloo, 2013) and an online-only epic polemical poem Odour of Devon Violet (2014-) which has been an ongoing work-in-progress.

I’ve also over the years received grants from other bodies such as the Royal Literary Fund and the Society of Authors, not to work on particular books but as general subsistence support, and I did also acknowledge the Oppenheim-John Downes Memorial Trust for its financial support while I finished Gum Arabic (Cyberwit, India/US, 2020). But certainly for my earlier collections I was fairly unaware of any opportunities for support and it took many years of completely unfunded writing before I came to find out about some of these, mostly through tips from other poets and writers more adept at finding and applying for such things. But it’s not really a creative instinct, I think, to seek out support and funding for your work, even if it becomes a financial necessity (such as ‘time to write’ grants) – poets are perhaps particularly ill-suited to anything so rational and practical as filling out funding applications (though you might be surprised just how adept at this some are!).

It’s also difficult not to be sceptical about the poetry prize culture, since for so long it appears to have been monopolised by a relatively small grouping of perceived ‘top’ presses, which stretches credibility, the best work can’t always be being published by the same six or so imprints (out of tens of dozens), surely…? But there are pecking orders. Certain expectations. Self-fulfilling prophecies. Less than transparent protocols. There’s also the Oxbridge dimension which has never gone away and which has if anything become much more prevalent in the past decade (in every area of culture).

These prizes not only bestow prestige on recipients but also in some cases considerable financial reward, so it can be a double bitter pill for those struggling working-class and marginalised poets who feel they keep missing out on them. (And when I say ‘marginalised’ this also covers those with disabilities, whether physical or mental health issues, which significantly impact on their access to opportunities; ‘underrepresented’ is the term applied today, and I myself have been described before as an ‘underrepresented poet’). Then there’s the domino effect whereby scooping one prize seems to act as a passport to scooping more, often in fairly quick succession. One of the things I’ve observed over the years is that the best networkers, the pushiest, tend to get the best opportunities; it’s all as much to do with first come, first serve as it is with merit. Many of the most gifted poets I’ve known have often been the least pushy and thus the ones who have languished the longest in obscurity with few breaks or openings – perhaps that’s because they’re more focused on their craft than on its marketing.

Walter Gallichan (writing as Geoffrey Mortimer) in his brilliantly witty The Blight of Respectability, which I excerpt extensively in AC, coined some excellent adages on precisely this theme, one which touched on the ‘shy genius’ being shunned by the establishments while the ‘author of mediocre ability’, the ‘adept of claptrap’, gets all the opportunities and plaudits, just as in, as I also mention at this point in AC, the characters of Edwin Reardon (impoverished authentic writer) and Jasper Milvain (networking hack-writer) in George Gissing’s New Grub Street, a novel Gallichan would have no doubt been aware of and probably would have read. So little has changed since their time of writing in the 1890s!

AC was created out of self-directed research, it’s one of the ways I come to poetry, as a response to wide reading on certain subjects, the sources are books I largely sought out or discovered by chance, one of them was on my father’s bookshelves, he being a keen amateur genealogist with a strong interest in social history, and particularly that of the lower middle classes – I might point out here, too, that AC is not only or entirely focused on the historic working classes, it also takes in the lower middle classes, particularly clerks, much of the information sourced from David Lockwood’s rather dry but informative and compendious The Black Coated Worker. As mentioned before, I’d describe my own background as mixed class: materially and financially working-class (even at times underclass) but educationally and attitudinally middle-class, if that makes any sense.

FL: One of my favourite passages from Anxious Corporals contains these elegiac lines for the Pelican imprint:

Turn at ever more frequent intervals to silent trickles
Of the written page, and in those captivating lakes
Of meaning-making, of careful thought and crafted phrase,
Empathetic pools of escape, come to expand their mental plains

There is so much of note in these lines, which read in the first instance like both an elegy for and a celebration of print media itself, for a particular tactile experience of reading. There is also the real sense of the Pelican imprint’s value being in its empathetic reach, its capacity to expand horizons and connect working people in a kind of felt mutuality. This is exactly opposite to the cynically exploited ‘brand’ value of Pelican as a fetishised commodity, a hollow simple, emptied out of meaning, deployed in the service of a weaponised nostalgia.

What I really relish about this final section of the text is how the old Pelicans, surviving in ‘charity shop surplus’ become sources of solidarity and sustenance for the ‘amputees of new/ Imperialism’, for a new vanguard of ‘anxious corporals’.  There is deep sadness towards the end of the book for a loss of Pelican, and for the aims and aspirations of an intellectually curious working-class, but I also have a sense of hope: Pelican – like the working classes ourselves – persists, endures by other means. This is also something that is communicated in your muscular and resistive use of language. Would you mind finishing by talking about this germ of hope, and where – if it is coming from anywhere – you see it as coming from?

AM: Where there’s humanity, compassion, and spirit, there’s always hope, in the spirit of poetry, of creativity, of giving, of unconditional love – in this spirit of compassionate opposition, whether it manifests politically in socialism or communism, in liberation theology at the fusion point of Marxism and Christianity, in Christianity as the religion of the poor and oppressed as it was originally, and all other likeminded religions, where there’s imagination and compassion there’s always hope for something better to come, and if we are to save humanity and, indeed, the world on which we depend, then we need to become more compassionate, empathetic, communitarian and, of course, more nurturing of the planet which supports us.

Capitalism, materialism, consumerism all stand in the way of this, and so they must be swept aside, in time they will have to be, simply, if humanity is to survive into any future worth having, whether through human means or those outside of our control.  

FL: Thanks so much for talking to me, Alan! I hope that wasn’t too painful.

AM: Not at all, it was a pleasure answering such incisive questions.

 

Look! It's a Woman Writer! Irish Literary Feminisms, 1970-2020
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Friday, 09 July 2021 08:55

Look! It's a Woman Writer! Irish Literary Feminisms, 1970-2020

Written by

Jenny Farrell reviews a new book on the fight to write by women writers in Ireland

And perhaps, before literature dies, there will come a day when no one notices an author’s gender or race but says only ‘I have just read an astonishing, unforgettable book by a fantastic human writer.’ I plan to live to see this.

So writes Mary Dorcey in the newly published Look! It’s a Woman Writer! Irish Literary Feminisms, 1970-2020 (Éilís Ní Dhuibhne ed., Arlen House 2021). Does her statement contradict the book’s purpose? I think not. Rather, it reaches into a time beyond the experiences described here, into a future when such full equality of gender, race and class is achieved that they no longer spell marginalisation and exclusion from the cultural mainstream.

The twenty-one poets, fiction writers, playwrights in this book tell how they became the writers they are. They come from the whole island of Ireland, they author in both Irish and English, and they were born into a range of social backgrounds.

Most of the women were born in the 1950s and benefited from the abolition of secondary school fees. This dilution of class educational privilege was significant. The writers grew up in a society that oppressed women on many levels, intersecting with class background, resulting in a far-reaching and profound lack of self-belief.

“Nothing in my childhood suggested I might become a writer… I expected that one day I would grow up and become a shop assistant or hairdresser” writes Celia de Fréine. Educators ignored women writers, and society banned books by any progressive author, female or male.

The writers collected here describe their personal trajectories to becoming the authors they are today, how they learnt about women writers in the past and how they each individually broke into the world of literature, despite continuing societal prejudice. Catherine Dunne relates a 2015 experience where “novelist Catherine Nichols, disappointed at the silence from agents that greeted her latest manuscript, decided to send it out under a (male) pseudonym.” She received a very different response – similar to the experience of the Bröntes, over 150 years ago.  

This book is important. It sheds light on the history of Irish women writers, and the personal stories related in the book represent a much greater circle. It also highlights areas of continuing failures by the cultural establishment towards them. And it celebrates people like Jessie Lendennie and Eavan Boland who played a crucial role in encouraging women to take on the fight and write. It will be a long road before we reach the classless society anticipated by Mary Dorcey. Books like this are steps along the way.

The book will be launched online on July 15th at 7pm, see here.

Solidarity suite for Cynthia Cruz: Review of The Melancholia of Class
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 28 June 2021 15:38

Solidarity suite for Cynthia Cruz: Review of The Melancholia of Class

Written by

Fran Lock reviews The Melancholia of Class, by Cynthia Cruz, published by Repeater Books - 'a link in the chain and a light to see by'. Images by Fran Lock unless otherwise credited

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It begins, as it must, in shock. We have been asleep, 'asleep in the belief' as Cruz puts it, that our colleagues and our peers regard us as equals. We have entered the academy; we play out the pretence. We are somnambulists, amnesiacs, protected by forgetfulness, by daily acts of effortful dissociation. We are adept at this, so much so that we convince even ourselves, and especially ourselves, and only ourselves. Indeed, our deepest delusion is that anyone else is fooled. It begins, as it must, in the moments we run up against the Real. Cruz' mentor tells her that she doesn't 'dress or talk' like somebody from the working class, and she is stunned, speechlessly bewildered and appalled.

To read The Melancholia of Class is also to be stunned. I experienced this book as a series of concussive blows. This is not hyperbole. We encounter others like ourselves within neoliberal culture so seldom that to meet a shared experience upon the page is to reel from the recognition. In so many ways Cruz and myself have lived parallel lives. No, more accurately, our very different lives have been marked by the same moments of disruption, erasure, and impediment; by the same endlessly iterative series of rude awakenings. We are not regarded as equal. The middle-class culture in which we find ourselves scarcely regards us as human.

Class? What class?

Numerous times over the last ten years I have been told that the “class system” in England is a “thing of the past”, that it has simply “ceased to exist”. Cruz' writing is startlingly sharp on the kinds of Janus-faced manoeuvre that make such pronouncements possible, and on the specific pain, for working-class artists, of occupying the position of the absent subject. She writes:

 I was not aware I was not middle-class until my being working-class was interpolated onto me as a child. Furthermore, because neoliberalism insists there are no social classes, there is, according to its ideology, no working class. By default, the working-class subject miraculously does not exist. This being the case, the working-class subject is a ghost, which is to say alive but not living, a double, a contradiction.

Cruz asks how one is to write about social class, something that 'informs every aspect' of her life, when for many, it does not exist? She writes compellingly of how it feels to persist within culture as a haunting, or as a collective hallucination: spectral, a fever dream.

I have often described my own existence as a working-class woman within popular imagination as a kind of poltergeist or boggart. “Pikeys” are spoken around with superstitious fear, approached, but never met; glimpsed but never seen. We are known only by our effects: the saucer of milk upset, the smashed glass, the crackle of static. Within the elite space of the academy, nobody would deny that poverty exists; everyone is quite prepared to perform distress at the existence of poverty. It is a terrible thing, but it is always happening elsewhere to an idealised victim whom you do not resemble. Worse, for many middle-class artists this poverty becomes a kind of inscription surface, an aestheticised stele, a depthless backdrop. The poor and working-class people who negotiate and inhabit this poverty are always somehow missing. The social forces that create and contour the experience of living in poverty are, as Cruz puts it, 'razored out'. We flicker across this backdrop in vague gestures, 'oblique references', 'tropes emptied of meaning'. The rocking chair rocks by itself: spooky.

Cruz Picture6

If you deny the existence of the poor, then poverty becomes empty and up for grabs, another hollow symbol. This is an integral part of the mechanism by which gentrification operates: class is erased in the very instance it is enacted. The middle-class talk endlessly about “regenerating” “deprived areas”. Areas are not “deprived”, people are. The human is edged out of language as a precursor to being edged out of civic space. They arrive in our communities – attracted precisely by the frisson of glamour, the cultural cache, the aura that surrounds poverty – and they begin living life without any responsibility or reference to those their presence has impacted and displaced. They don't ask themselves where we go to. They see florists and boutique bakeries flourish around them and they are well pleased. They walk through people as if we were not there.

Cruz Picture21 camden Frans old stomping ground

Ghosts and ghostliness are significant features in my writing. Cruz identifies the recurrence of the spectral within her own work as signalling the presence or the possibility of death that hovers over working-class existence. Simply put, death and illness 'haunt the lives of the working class', and so they haunt, inform and constitute our art. When I attempt to talk about ghosts I feel as if I have been telling the same story on a loop forever: a photo exists of myself and my London-Irish squat-punk friends, sat on the bridge at Camden Lock. Of the twelve people visible in that photograph, only four of us survive. I am, as far as I know, the only one of those four survivors who might also be said to have “thrived”. I tell this story because our ghosts are also literal, and their existence is everywhere refused. Cruz describes an incident in which work informed by her teenage years living in an abandoned house with other teenagers was mischaracterised by an 'eminent writer' as 'dystopian'. She states that: 'He simply could not comprehend what I had described occurring in the US.' The middle class has been so effectively naturalised as the sole implied audience for art and literature that they feel no qualms about using their own experience of the world as an absolute model for all human experience.

Cruz Picture8

I have written before about how an early manuscript for my second collection was rejected by an independent middle-class publisher because – and I quote – 'working-class people do not speak that way'. I was told that I was 'ventriloquising' and 'inauthentic'. I had explained – I thought, painstakingly – in my cover letter, that the work grew out of an actual correspondence and actual conversations with a person I had loved and whom I had lost. The rejection was arrogant and callous, and a function of almost breathtaking privilege: because my poetic “performance” of class did not comfortably confirm the stereotypes that middle-class culture had itself created about me, I could not “authentically” belong to the working class. Because the working class, as this one white middle-aged, middle-class man imagined them, did not sound or think like myself or my lost friend, then we must be a put-on, a fabrication, a fiction.

Cruz' book is riddled with such moments. As when her mentor measures her against an imagined working-class person and finds her reassuringly dissimilar. As when an 'Ivy League educated professor' tells her simply she is 'wrong' when she points out that the working class do exist; she knows this for a fact because she is working-class. That is real power: when your illusion has more weight than somebody else's reality. Frequently, we are not trusted to be authors of or experts in our own experience. In recent years, my writing has been called “depressing”, “morbid” and “abject”. I have been disparagingly described as a “poète maudit”, accused of “romanticising” “the margins” simply because I write about those who inhabit them with empathy and love. I was asked once where all the “good” or valorous poor people were in my work. That one disturbed me most of all. As if the figures I write about had a moral obligation to be “inspirational” or “heroic” according to the arbitrary standard of a culture they cannot access or participate in. To the middle classes an “inspirational” subject can only ever be one who “transcends” the socio-economic conditions into which they were born. They welcome only work that endorses the belief that this is possible. Further, they refuse to credit any other kinds of “success”, or to understand, as Cruz also points out, that the working class may not want what they want. They refuse, absolutely to recognise their own desires as subjective and contingent. They are the world.

Class-based oppression within art and literature

Time and again while reading The Melancholia of Class, my mind returned obsessively to that initial rejection of my manuscript. Not because the rejection itself is still painful to me, but because it both typifies and exposes a significant aspect of class-based oppression within art and literature, one that I am only beginning at this late stage of my “career” to fully comprehend. What strikes me now is that when encountering my text, the editor in question felt able to discount one of the most fundamental and well-established “rules” for reading poetry: that poetry is, at best, an imperfect sieve for lived experience; that poetic language is not the unfiltered real. How could it be? Poetry is heightened speech, is crafted and refined, whether larded or stripped. I do not write exactly as I think or speak in the supermarket or down the pub, nobody does. I make, as every writer does, aesthetic choices, and these choices are every bit as deliberate and disciplined as those of my middle-class contemporaries. But rather than attempting to understand the aesthetic basis of my work, he insisted upon seeing my various poetic strategies as “proof” of deception or inauthenticity. This reading of my work tells me two things: that he believes poetic invention to be the exclusive property of the middle class, and that a voice characterised by artless “sincerity” is the only kind of working-class voice he could possibly abide. Artless sincerity is not threatening. It confirms him, once again, in the exclusive ownership of intellectual techniques and tools that he understands instinctively as belonging to himself and to his class cohort.

Cruz Picture15

Throughout my erratic trajectory as a writer, words such as “raw” or “edgy” or “fauve” have followed me, heavily disguised as compliments. They function in related but opposite ways to the charge most frequently levelled against my work: that it is – that I am – “too much”. That is “too angry”, “too sentimental”, “too depressing”, “too political”, too “melodramatic”, “excessive” and over-the-top. As I have long understood it, this type of language allows my middle-class critics to admit, without ever having to credit, the rich aesthetic basis for my creative practice. By persistently figuring features as bugs, and choices as accidents of untutored energy, they preserve the myth that rigour and innovation are solely the fruits of middle-class literary production. Reading The Melancholia of Class has helped enormously to clarify my thinking on this process. As Cruz writes:

 by creating terms such as “outsider art”, “primitive art” and “Art-brut,” middle-class art historians are able to label work that does not fit into already established modes, work that tends to be made by artists not already inculcated within the middle-class art and literary worlds, as backward or inferior.

 This is deeply true of poetry. The book is also particularly insightful about capitalist culture's perpetual cool-hunt; its insistence upon frictionless linear “progression”, its surface-skating quest for the “avant-garde”, the ever-new:

Middle-class culture does not engage with the concrete and material conditions on the ground – or, if it does, it incorporates the symbolic terms or language of such conditions in order to capitalise on their edginess. 

 A topical gloss, in other words, masking a shallow politic, “Marxy”, to quote UK poet Verity Spott, not actually Marxist. This coolness manifests in riot porn and social safari; middle-class bands posing against a backdrop of somebody else's post-industrial decay. It manifests as poets haphazardly deploying the signifiers of working-class precarity in a gestural and fleeting manner.

If working-class artists are “too” anything, perhaps we are “too present” in the events and experiences we describe. “Cool” presupposes a distance. “Cool” does not grieve. Distance itself is a function of privilege. For working-class and poor people our only option is to inhabit the world with a strained, hyper-vigilant intensity, because to live inside of capitalism demands of us a continuous negotiation. We are eternally reacting, seldom afforded the space for reflection. Neoliberal culture is endured as an exhausting series of assaults on our time and attention; on our communities and persons. The world is a barrage: encroaching and inundating. It requires, always, a pressured attention language, to the business of simply staying alive. And for us, there can be no exit ramp, no territory of tactical retreat. Except perhaps for the hedged retreats of empty sex; of drugs, alcohol, and ultimately, death.

Assimilation or annihilation

Where, after all, would we go? What would we be escaping into? This question haunts Cruz' book, where the urge to “leave” or to “become” something – anything – else is enacted in a variety of ways: the working-class person might – as Cruz did – move far away from the family and community in which they were raised. If they are fortunate, talented, dedicated, with a modicum of support behind them, they might work, in this new place, towards a variety of educational and creative goals. Or perhaps the working-class person will marry “up” and out of their class, tying their fate to a socially mobile partner. Perhaps they will walk a more reckless route, seek temporary respite within the fatal cocoon of narcotics. They might find themselves swallowed up by the military industrial complex, or by sex work, consumed by any one of a million false promises. As Cruz is at pains to point out, even in the best-case scenario, the working-class person is only and always “escaping” into a world where: 'one does not exist, being ignored and, at the same time, being the subject of daily acts of violence.' To live in such a way is 'difficult, if not impossible'. Cruz presents the bind in which we so often find ourselves in the starkest possible terms: 'assimilation or annihilation'. Choices which aren't really choices at all, for “assimilation” can only ever be imperfect:

Having abandoned her working-class origins, coming up against the threshold of the middle-class world (which will not allow her access), she is neither working-class nor is she middle-class. She is a ghost, existing between worlds, a haunting.

I find myself thinking about this a lot, about my own erratic and ultimately doomed attempts at “escape”. These attempts fail for a variety of reasons, not least because I have no objective criteria for success: I neither value or desire anything that neoliberal society has to offer. Their failure is also an imaginative failure: the void at the centre of my escape fantasies. Trained as I am to understand the world as not being for me, I have no future to project myself into. I can imagine my life only in increments: from month to month, from day to day. In part this is the result of a long socio-economic precarity, but it is also driven by a lack of confidence in a version of the future not actively hostile to my existence.

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I read a nauseating article recently, which dwelt upon the “enchantment” and the “mystery” of the circus, the fairground, “gypsy” encampments and of other such “liminal” spaces. Not having access to the elite publication arena in which the article appeared, I found no zone of response, and no place of respite from the waves of cold, rolling fury the piece initiated in me. I could type out an essay to no one. I could send it to the two friends I felt would receive it on its own terms, with understanding and empathy. I could submit it to the one online journal that reliably publishes my prose. I could put it out on social media and cause a brief controversy. But the author speaks with the weight of her agent, her publisher, her academic institution, and her entire social circle behind her. Authority and status are encoded into her every pronouncement, her every digital gesture. I am hopelessly outmatched. We are both “early career academics” and published poets, but I am older, uglier, and less sure of myself; it has taken me longer and cost me more to arrive at a less-good version of the same place. I have worked every bit as hard and every bit as well. I have achieved every bit as much. But she is middle-class.

Cruz Picture10

For the author, the margins are devoid of context, of the class dynamics that created them, and so they become a mirror, or a hollow repository for her awe and sense of spectacle. In the process, she erases the real people who occupy those margins, and who have not the opportunity or the ability to reply. As she erases them, she also imbues them with a silent and fascinating power. That power is the pull of her “enchantment”. Cruz tackles this same emptying out in her thorough and loving treatment of director Barbara Loden. Talking about the ways in which middle-class female writers have received and interpreted Loden's film, Wanda (1970), she describes the process of mystification that occurs when an understanding of class dynamics is removed from a reading of the film:

Loden's social class does not exist because the working class is symbolically dead; because we are told that there are no social classes. Or, rather, class does exist, but only the middle class, which is the only class represented in the media. As a result of this deliberate erasure, Wanda appears enigmatic, incomprehensible. At the same time, due to the erasure of her class Wanda and Loden (because for non-working-class female writers the two are one and the same) becomes a tabula rasa, a blank slate onto which middle-class writers project themselves.

Cruz points out that Loden has articulated her artistic intentions for the film and the motivations of Wanda's titular character numerous times, but Loden's own words were not consulted by the middle-class writers engaged in draining her film of meaning. Rather, middle-class discourse overwrites the very working-class art it is ostensibly attempting to understand or to describe.

The essay on enchantment made me feel obscurely overwritten too, and all I could do was to push back with my own cancelled voice, as if the author could hear, as if she were listening, as if the voices of people like me counted for anything. I told her: beholder, the magic was inside you all along. I told her there was no “enchantment”; this frisson is the feeling of one who beholds from a place of relative safety. I told her that to run away there must be somewhere to run from. I told her that for the solid middle-class citizen, the circus is an escape from the settled, conventional centre, but that the circus is suffered to survive only because it helps this centre to hold, because it acts as a psychic purgative, a place to keep their secrets, their sex and sugar-rush taboos. On a certain level the circus is the deepest possible expression of a moral and cultural status quo. I told her that “circus” is a word for an illusion; that the word works as a denial of its moving parts, that “circus” is a euphemism, a nominative blurring of the real, a form of abdication, like “porn”, like saying “sausage” so you don't have to reckon with reconstituted flesh. I told her that the lion in the circus is not an Aztec sacrifice; that the lion in the circus is August Ames. A sacrifice is special. A circus animal in one among many instrumentalised “others”, is the other whose otherness is the very argument for their instrumentalisation. The circus is a spectacle, and spectacle at its most fundamental is a retreat from empathy. Of course, this is the crux of the attraction: cheap holidays in other people's misery.

I wrote and I wrote, pointlessly, against my own erasure. Lately, I have felt this pointlessness, this sense of numbing futility, more deeply rooted within the heart of my creative practice than at any time since my early twenties. The Melancholia of Class arrived on my desk at a moment when I felt consumed by a like form of melancholia. Worn down by my repeated attempts to evade, surmount or negotiate a stacked system, frustrated by the hedged or partial nature of even my victories, I also felt – feel – lost in a more amorphous way.

Cruz uses Freud's model of melancholic mourning as a way of understanding that particular feeling of diffuse, pervasive and ambivalent loss experienced by the working-class subject who cannot or will not assimilate into neoliberal culture, and yet who stubbornly persists, “alive but not living”. I was initially somewhat resistant, somewhat sceptical, about adopting a psychoanalytic framework for understanding my own relationship to class, but Cruz is both persuasive and clear: because neoliberal culture refuses to acknowledge social class, and because the working class are symbolically dead, the working-class subject has no language in which to articulate that which they have lost, no language in which to name, and to release their attachment to the lost love object. 

Cruz Picture25

Cruz draws on her own formative experiences of having shame of her class background 'interpolated onto her as a child', and the ways in which this shame was internalised, the way it warped her understanding of herself and her community. This feeling is familiar to me. Self-loathing is familiar: this obtrusive and often overwhelming sense that I am defective or “less”; that something is wrong with me. Cruz writes movingly about the mechanics of this experience:

I didn't know that my social alienation was the direct result of my class and that my being marginalized was too. The few friends I had at the time were also bullied. Some dropped out of high school, some ran away from home, moved to San Francisco where they became homeless. Some ended up addicted to drugs, some were forced to sell their bodies in order to survive. Many eventually killed themselves. By the time I left my hometown for college, most of the working-class kids I'd known were dead or had gone missing.

No tools, no space, no way

To read these words produces an uncanny feeling: this is one of many places in The Melancholia of Class where Cruz' experience appears eerily similar to my own. But it is not eerie, merely sad. The intense identification I feel for Cruz in these moments is itself the result of a vast cultural silence surrounding class-based oppression; a fiercely willed inattention to the voices and stories of poor and working-class persons. Myself and Cruz are not, in fact, two exceptional individuals united by some kind of supernatural affinity; I do not doubt that our experiences are shared by hundreds of thousands of other working-class women and girls. But because we were not given the tools to understand ourselves as a class cohort, and because our stories are seldom afforded space within the dominant discourse, we have had no way of apprehending that fact, of finding each other; we have remained isolated. This is one significant reason that Cruz' book is so important: in its appeal to horizontal solidarity, in its empathetic and embracive reach, The Melancholia of Class performs 'an act of communal rite, a calling-into-being'. Through this act, Cruz aims to 'begin to awaken from the death-sleep of amnesia.' This book might awaken others too.

Cruz review depression

Am I awake? Truly awake? Or simply wondering around the corridors and battlements of my own isolation like Lady Macbeth: my eyes are open but their sense is shut, etc. I am not dazed. I am jaggedly alert, unable to relax. I drink a lot of coffee. When I am working, ideas and images pass in intermittent flickers across the fitful continuum of my attention. This is not an inability to concentrate as such; rather “concentration” itself consists of something other than what is typically meant by “concentration”. Cruz touches upon this in the opening chapter of The Melancholia of Class, writing about the ways in which working-class people experience and perceive time under capitalism; the ways in which our time is perceived, valued, and managed by others. The middle class are allowed leisure. That is to say that economic and material security afford them the time and the space to be idle. It is also to say that they are permitted this idleness, that no moral taint attends it as it does for the working class. As Cruz writes, we are expected to conform to an endless cycle of 'work and recovery', and any refusal of this pattern is punished both by moral disapprobation and the withholding of essential resources by the systems that administer us. The DWP and like agencies feel perfectly entitled – indeed morally obligated – to waste our time: we do not require leisure because we are not capable of using it profitably.

We have no abstract thought, no long-term desires; we are not curious or enquiring. We cannot appreciate, and consequently we do not deserve travel, or culture, nature, or art. Our pleasures are supposed to be immediate and crude: the compulsive joyless gratifications of sex, food, and alcohol; the stupor of daytime television. We are taught to be ashamed of our idleness. We are told that to rest is “lazy”. My mother and I have both internalised this shame to a dangerous degree. Sometimes the fog clears and I am able to see this objectively: here are two generations of working-class women, workaholic over-achievers who nonetheless feel themselves to be lazy, derelict and failing. When work is offered that we neither want or particularly need, we take it anyway. The flip-side to shame is guilt, the desperate desire to prove that we do not consider ourselves “above” the work that is offered us, however menial or degrading the labour, however over-qualified and eminently unsuitable we are for the work.

Cruz Picture17 As seen in North London

We do not wish to appear “ungrateful” for the “opportunity”, when so many working-class people are desperate for employment. This anxiety has permeated every level of our lives. At the time of writing, my mother is so busy, so tied to her desk, that she has not been outside for a walk in over a week. I am, frankly, a doormat at home, piling domestic drudgery on top of research, teaching, writing, editorial and publication commitments. I occupy numerous voluntary positions, all of which I love, but which eat into and through my days like acid. I clean frenetically, cook from scratch. In the free time that remains to me I walk or run. I can “rest” only when I am physically exhausted, when my mind is quiet and I can allow myself to believe that I deserve this respite. I put the radio on and hear nothing. I stare at a screen without appetite or interest.

I have written a great deal about the impact these cycles of shame and guilt have on working-class literary production: for middle-class persons the act of reading is most often conceptualised as a leisure activity, as inherently pleasurable and restorative. But it is also an exercise of pleasure through which the reader participates in the acquisition and confirmation of cultural status. It is a prestige-seeking activity, which situates the reader within a cohort of similarly well-read peers. Reading, and being seen to have read the “right” books, contributes to a sense of shared class identity; contributes to a “house style”, a common fund of formal tropes and characteristic concerns. For the middle class, to read is to connect to a community of others like oneself. There is often a significant overlap between the life experiences of readers and the writers whose work they consume. There is a level of identification and comfort between writers who submit their work, and the journal editors who decide what is published. This kind of entitlement is impossible to imagine for even the most joyful and voracious of working-class readers, the most driven and devoted of aspirant writers. Although we may also read for pleasure, we do so in omnivorous and opportunistic ways, clawing back time and attention from myriad material demands and from the unconducive conditions of home and work. When we read, we must read with the ambient hum of alienation and shame at the back of us. We do not recognise affirmative reflections of ourselves in literature, and we feel uncertain of our right to either literature or the time required to access it.

The idea of what constitutes “good” (middle-class) prosody emerges from the mistaken assumption that working-class writers share not only the same material and social capital as our middle-class peers, but that we also share an experience of time. We do not. And compression, interruption, impediment and delay – all the discomforts of working-class existence – combine to exert a peculiar power over the rhetorics and aesthetics of our poetry.

The rhythms of our lived experience are often punctuated and messy. Against the relentless routinised scheduling of work, the endless accounting to government agencies, there is every conceivable kind or disruption or incursion: barking dogs, wailing sirens, the stutter of drills, the screaming of kids; the stereos and televisions of our neighbours, the ticking of a clock that announces we must return to paid employment, take the dinner from the hob, pick the children up from school, or collect prescriptions. This affects how we think, how we read, write, and study: our default is not silence and space. This translates onto the page in numerous ways, and constitutes a central component of our work, its context, its aesthetic basis.

Anorexia, rage and rejection

Am I truly awake? And not just fretting through my days in a state of hyperarousal? I suffered from insomnia for years; insomnia produces its own kind of waking death-sleep. Mine was an experience of mental and bodily exhaustion which served to intensify rather than dissipate the manic energy inside of me, and inside of which I existed. Throughout my life, this insomnia, and the anorexia that accompanies it, have returned to me with varying degrees of ferocity. Cruz is one of the very few writers I have encountered who articulates anorexia as something both disciplined and – in Cruz' terms – 'vigilant'. Uncanniness creeps in again here: Cruz and I share an understanding of anorexia as a form of negation, of principled refusal. To be anorexic, writes Cruz is 'to become indigestible to the capitalist system. The anorexic is rage made manifest. It is a stance, Antigone's No without explanation.' I find myself extraordinarily grateful to Cruz for giving form to these thoughts because I have long struggled to write about my own eating disorder and its complex relationship to my class and ethnic identity.

Cruz Picture13 Battle jacket

At times it has seemed to me a manner of resistance, a refusal of work, domestic, emotional, and sexual, as well as in terms of the labour market: drained of “erotic capital”, “unfit” for most forms of paid employment, and sealed inside my own impenetrable act of bodily defiance, I was truly surplus. I had zero utility. I lived counter to the clock, against the grain of routine. But it is more than this. For the longest time starvation was the language of my self-and-world-disgust. I did not have the words for what I felt. Literate, but not articulate in the ways that mattered to me. And having only broken phrases in what should have been my “mother tongues”, I had tried repeatedly and without success to unmake the pain of English with English: a language I belonged to which did not belong to me. English – that is the middle-class English that administered and bound me – suffered me, it seemed, condescended to me. It held me, but held me off, and down, and at arm's length. I found it hard to shape my mouth around it in the approved ways. It was slippery and mean. When English and the English world entered me, it made me feel sick. I swallowed it like a sword.

Anorexia nearly killed me. I didn't want to die, quite the opposite was true. More than anything, I wanted to speak, but my mouth was a nest for an enemy language. I hated the sound of myself. Not English or Irish. Not anything. When I spoke “proper” what proceeded from my mouth could never amount to more than a bargain basement version of my tormentors' voices. In refusing to eat, I was burning the English out of me. I was making myself empty and clean. I could not name the ugly things that happened to me with their ugly English mainland words. By refusing food I was refusing their world. I wanted nothing from it. It could not sustain or nourish me. I would not let it keep me alive. I was completely obsessed with the Hunger Strike, with ascetics and mystics; acts – political and spiritual – of absolute renunciation. How else does one resist? How else to stage my counter-claim? This body is mine. I do not recognise your prison or the laws that it upholds.

Hunger has such a profound relationship to Irish identity, and to working-class Irish identity in particular. Historically, it is not merely something we have suffered, but something we have fought with in extremis, when there was nothing left to lose, nothing else at our disposal but the self. When we are denied our language – as countless generations of Irish and Traveller people have been denied – either by law, or by the slow workings of cultural attrition, then all we have left is gesture. Gesture is both language and a failure of or substitute for language. It is not merely that I had no words for articulating my pain, but that eloquence itself felt deeply suspect. Language acts have a tremendous capacity to devastate, oppress, and to coerce. To speak English and to “talk proper” is to compound and to bolster the original trauma. How can language hope to provide a solution or a “cure” when discourse itself is implicated in producing the wound?

Cruz Picture18 Frans boots with Peter Clarkes permission

Fran's boots, photographed by Peter Clarke

I had long connected these ideas to my ethnic heritage, but in the fifth chapter of The Melancholia of Class, writing about 'the libidinal working-class body' Cruz brings into focus their relevance to all displaced and traumatised working-class communities. In a long passage about Joy Division's lead singer, Ian Curtis, Cruz explains how 'a body filled with rage and sorrow, that must remain silent in order to survive, is a body reduced to the act of the gesture'. On stage, the silent accumulation of pain is converted into Curtis' signature delivery: compressed, contorted, urgent, flailing. Cruz makes an important and subtle distinction here: Curtis' onstage affects are not a “performance” as such, but a “distillation” of his traumatised working-class identity. It is worth, I think quoting at length from the section in which Cruz describes Curtis' working-class body becoming:

the vessel for his sorrow, for his melancholia. And it is through his body and gestures that Curtis performs this affect. Growing up working-class in a culture that ignores and abhors the working class is to find oneself marginalised both economically and physically. Add to this the daily subtle and not so subtle insults and slights and what you have is a body filled with sorrow and rage. At the same time, the legacy of this poverty (being raised by parents who've grown up in poverty whose parents grew up in poverty) and the violence incurred through the lived experience of this daily poverty, results in trauma […] With no escape from one's life, from its constraints, the body becomes the only vehicle through which to perform the unsayable. The terror and the hopelessness are internalized, repressed, where they gain power.

Cruz uses Freud's notion of the “libido” to explain that the power of Curtis' delivery on stage is derived from his affects – all that pent up rage and pain – being repressed for so long beforehand. On stage we are witnessing the abandonment of the self to its bottled-up libidinal energies. It isn't, as it is with some other bands, a simulation of “sex”, a performance of snarling, unappeased energy. No, Curtis is releasing his own terror and manic intensity without 'the interpretive buffer of cultural translation', without, in other words, the ironising or ameliorating effects of “distance”. This is why to witness Joy Division live was shocking.

Throughout my writing life, one small source of perverse pride has been to have my work described as both “spasmodic” and “grotesque”, words which also attached themselves to Ian Curtis, and to Joy Division's live performances. These visceral descriptors are telling: they identify my writing absolutely with the body that produced it, with the poor, “other”, working-class body that obtrudes into elite literary space. The grotesque bodies of the poor haunt middle-class imagination: dishevelled (Cruz' term) and sloppy, obtrusive and uncouth. We are too big and too loud in every way. Our physical frames are awkward, ill-disciplined and ungovernable. We are too “there”, a physical reminder of the inequalities that govern our existence; of working-class suffering and middle-class privilege. I connect “grotesque” to the middle-class kids at my school calling me “fat”, or “smelly” or “ugly”. I wasn't any of those things, but I was visible, and that was enough. I disrupted their uninterrupted view of a future fully stocked with others like themselves; their seamless illusion that they and their class cohort made up the world. They didn't understand it in those terms of course, and neither did I. I was merely being punished for my “difference”.

Chav!

When I am anxious, over-tired or angry my carefully cultivated accent suffers slips, exposing me in my paper-thin pretence at “passing”. The speed with which middle-class colleagues, peers and audiences pick up and pounce on these slips is eye-watering. Immediately following the death of my best friend, I was obliged to fulfil a reading commitment in London. Two days before, the shocking news of his loss had reached me in Belfast; I was trying desperately to process this news, but I needed to go straight from the airport to the reading. I had barely slept, and I'd been wearing the same scutty jeans, trainers, and my beloved “Norn” hoody since I received the news. I did not want to be there, but felt constrained to be professional. I knew it was a mistake as soon as I stepped through the door, and an audience member turned in her chair to the friend sitting beside her and hissed chav! in a poisonous sotto voce.

The reading did not go well. The more I tried to keep my voice level and controlled, the more pronounced and wonky my accent became. At the end of the reading, the event organiser, a middle-aged, middle-class man cornered me by the coffee urn, leaned into my face breathing read wine fumes all over me, and told me I was “unintelligible”, that I needed to “enunciate more”, that my voice made me seem “angry”, and began interrogating me about where I was from, as if the way I sound must be continuously explained and atoned for. Accent or vocal identity is inseparable from my status as a working-class woman, and from the expectations that identity engenders. Within elite literary space that sound becomes a way of speaking to and through shifting perceptions of education and class, and subverting or denouncing the political, social and poetic assumptions contained within notions of “accent” or “dialect”. At an event that described itself as “experimental” and that celebrated the decentering of the lyric I, my strong vocal identity complicated and undercut that very decentering, tendering an implied critique of their much lauded “post-identity” poetic moment. They did not like that. And so I was raked over the coals for failing to modulate my class identity, and unsubtly mocked for the way my working-class body presented and took up space.

As Mary Russo writes in The Female Grotesque:

images of the grotesque body are precisely those which are abjected from bodily canons of classical aesthetics. The classical body is transcendental and monumental, closed, static, self-contained, symmetrical and sleek; it is identified with “high” or official culture [...] with the rationalism, individualism, and the normalizing aspirations of the bourgeoisie. The grotesque body is open, protruding, irregular, secreting, and changing.'

The grotesque is an open wound, a denial of catharsis, a refusal of what Lara Glenum calls 'the aesthetics of the pure. “Catharsis” is from the Greek verb “to purify”. It is a coercive cleaner-upper of pain, which means, for the working-class artist, a cleaner-upper or banisher of class identity. 'What the public wants from the working-class female artist is a Pygmalion transformation', writes Cruz. 'They want to see the poor working-class girl with her crooked accent, her bad skin, and poor taste traded in for a clean, sleek, aspirational version of her true self.' Cruz points to the tragic trajectory of Amy Winehouse as an example of ways in which the working-class subject who does not buy into this trade-off is hated, hounded and punished.

Cruz Picture22 Amy

When Winehouse died her image was everywhere, finally purged of her grotesque, troubling identity, emptied into pure surface, absolute myth. They prefer you dead, those people. They make a fetish out of music's doomed heroes because in their world doom itself is exceptional and exciting, so much so that it confers a kind of status. And being dead, these figures are freed from their difficult contexts, subsumed into a textureless meld with others superficially like themselves. The dead are safe, ready to be packaged, repackaged, re-written, written-over, claimed and reclaimed by discourse: there's a white middle-class discourse for every working-class subculture you care to name. Mediation, intervention. The white middle class create the archive, the archive becomes the crypt. We cannot win. It is only inside of the work that all we are asked to carry and contain briefly spills into life, touches the edges of a complacent middle-class culture, our auditors, our readers. We manifest “too muchness”, excess, not as indulgence, but absolute negation. We supply rather than receive the shock. To work is to wake, to be at our most vulnerable and most conscious, inside of writing, music, inside of our art, if nowhere else.

Cruz Picture23 Amy graffiti Camden

        .3

The heat over the last week has been stifling. I have carried The Melancholia of Class from room to room with me, looking for a cold spot, privately stewing. The weather broils me, heat-sealing me inside of my own skin, but the general slow grinding unfairness of things broils me too, and I am tired. I do not aim to collect grievances, but they accumulate nonetheless, and there is nowhere for them to go. I try to explain to my friends why it is that I am so wound-up: being long-listed for yet another poetry prize is like being picked to play the sheep in the school nativity play, you're acknowledged, but not really. You're included, but only to the extent that your obtrusive presence has made inclusion absolutely necessary. If you so much as suggest that class and race might have anything to do with your inability to ascend, then you're “paranoid” and “chippy”, excusing your own lack of talent by playing a “card”.

One of the unique joys of being a “white, other” is that you present an opportunity for white middle-class people to comfortably indulge both their racism and their classism without ever having to admit to the existence of either. They don't “see” your class, either because you do not present to them like a “typical” working-class person according to the tropes they themselves invented, or because they do not believe that the class system really exists. They filter class out of their world-view in ways that remove (as Cruz also notes) the experience of class-based oppression from black and minority ethnic working-class people, while refusing to acknowledge the roll racism plays in the perception and treatment of working-class white others. My friends make sympathetic noises, but in the main, they don't get it. I want to explain that it isn't the endless barrage of rejections or disappoints in themselves, it's the overwhelming sense of stuckness and delay they feed into, of constantly striving but never arriving, of doing the work but wasting my time.

Time again. For us it is always pressured and constraining. After ostensibly accepting two of my poems for publication and soliciting another, I have now been kept waiting for one year and six months by a “respected” (middle-class) literary journal. I notice that in the interim, the editor has been teaching my book as part of their course on “working-class poetics”, so that we are now in the unusual position that they are able to profit from my work and indeed from my class identity, while I, the actual working-class person who produced the work, hover in limbo. Precarity of this kind is not merely inconsiderate, it is, after a certain point, re-traumatising, inscribing over again the lessons learnt while sitting in Job Centre waiting rooms: that my time and energy not valued, that they do not – that I do not – matter. Hierarchy is etched into this interaction. Their treatment of me is only possible because of the power differential that exists between us.

On days like these Cruz' book is both a comfort and a provocation; when she writes of her alienation inside the academy, and of: 'the voices of teachers and classmates, colleagues and students, who make it clear to me, on a regular basis, that I do not belong in the world in which I now find myself', I am stupidly close to tears. I am crying for and in solidarity with Cruz. I am crying for all of us. I am crying, more selfishly, for me. Throughout the book, Cruz' perceptive essays on working-class creatives are interwoven with strands of memoir, a hybrid form that demonstrates just how entwined is our class with our creativity, performing an ethics of fusion and remix. The Melancholia of Class is a genre-blurring, border-stepping text. Intellectually rigorous and probing, but also tenderly embodied within lived experience. Reading the book, I have come to especially relish Cruz' intelligent and attentive writing about music and musicians; she speaks with such loving precision about the working-class bands (especially The Jam) whose music shaped her formative notions of class solidarity. Equally, I have come to feel a familiar queasy gut-punch each time she writes about encountering a middle-class cultural gatekeeper; each time somebody tells her “no”, sets out to dismiss or diminish her. These dismissals and diminishments are also my own. Life is long, and sometimes I feel them rising up around me until I am immobilised, until only my head is visible: like Winnie in fucking Happy Days, buried up to her neck. Assimilate or die. Assimilate and die. In the end, what's the difference? I feel hopeless, and I am angry at myself for this hopelessness. My life is good. I have work, and finally after many, many years in a south London shit-hole, a beautiful place to live. I am loved. And taken individually each slight or barb or block is easy to dismiss as trivial, petty or imagined, or both. But they are real, and they build and build.

Cruz Picture14

On days like these I miss Marty. Marty was my best friend. He understood. He understood too well. He chose annihilation over assimilation. Marty had fought a daily battle with depression, and addiction. We had lived together for such a long time that I had become intimately familiar with this battle; in many ways I had taken it on as my own. Most days he'd struggle, and most days he lost, but he fought with so much heart. There was courage there, often outwardly obscured by the fuck-ups, busts, and general drama that attends any crippling addiction. When he died, my sense of failure was total, a molten mixture of anger, sadness and guilt. Marty and I were so similar in so many ways. Outwardly, we cultivated the same look, an Irish- squat-punk aesthetic we referred to as “croppy-core”: combining the scrapyard audacities of early punk with pro-Irish Republican and kitschy Catholic signifiers. When we could get hold of the materials, we also incorporated elements of “low-Irish” Victoriana: a dirty and much battered silk topper, a badly dyed black tails shirt. I made, or he shoplifted, most of the clothes we wore. We traded outfits. Seen from behind, with our matching mohawks and anorexic frames, we were often mistaken for each other. We were not the same. Our difference was the distance I had travelled in terms of articulacy, literacy, education, but a number of the things that had scarred him marked me too. We joked that we were, in fact, two halves of the same person, divided by some cosmic quick of fate. We joked that if we could smush ourselves back together, we might make a functioning human being.

Marty went missing and then he destroyed himself. Missingness and ambiguous loss run through my work because of Marty. Not merely because he “went” missing, but because missingness adhered to him like a positive quality throughout his life. Cruz writes at length about the melancholia that besets the working-class subject who leaves their community and yet finds no future to escape into. This feels intimately familiar to me, but there is also this other, related pain, what I have called an exile of spatial dysphoria: a feeling of being bound to a place, but of moving within it disregarded or misunderstood, objected from public cartographies; edged out or spoken over whenever the story of your native place is told.

As I have come to understand it, by the time he was old enough to meaningfully grieve the trauma of his childhood, the sites and settlements of that shared experience no longer existed. His past was not meaningfully registered upon public space, was written over by an iconography of grieving from which he felt excluded. His experience of loss was unaccommodated by Ireland’s nationalistic, religious, and sectarian scripts. If grief and the act of remembrance are experienced in and through physical spaces both public and private, then what should it mean for those of us with a vexed relationship to such spaces? Ireland devours her dead, folding them into her own mythology, inscribing their presence onto civic space. Unless they are not the “right kind” of dead, the dead who do not fit the narrow arc of Ireland's nationally determined story. Traveller dead. Queer dead. Brown dead. Junkie dead.

Cruz Picture11

Within settled communities the legacy of sectarian violence is explicit and readily legible, inscribed upon public space through acts of myriad vandalism and memorialisation; the demolition of buildings, the securitisation of streets. For sedentary communities buildings capture the continuity of collective experience, they stage and reemphasise a shared cultural heritage. In the North of Ireland in particular, public artwork interacts with personal histories; mediates and facilitates the uncanny experience of memory between individuals and their wider communities, between these communities and the wider world. Traveller or homeless communities, whose settlements are, by their very nature, transitory, leave no corresponding trace or wound on the physical landscape. If public space is a container for cultural heritage, then those with no stake in that space, their histories, and their memories, remain uninscribed, are excluded from the mapping of that heritage. To grieve is to grieve inwardly, invisibly. It is to find no place of recognition for your pain.

The hierarchies of grief

Towards the end of The Melancholia of Class, Cruz writes movingly about the ways in which gentrification erases both the past and the future for all poor and working-class communities. There are, as Jahan Ramazani notes, distinct 'hierarchies of grievability', kinds of grief, and grieved-for subjects it is not acceptable to speak of or to mourn. Gentrification is both a denial of persons and a refusal of their pain, and so we are blocked, at every turn, on every level, from releasing this pain: how and where are we to mourn our lost, whose lives are characterised by the provisional, the precarious, the marginal and impermanent? How do we grieve poor, queer, vulnerably housed and homeless subjects? And how do we reckon with the trauma of that grief, when trauma, by its very definition, renders problematic the possibility of representation? How is trauma to be told when, through contact with traumatic experience, individuals lose their ability to fully apprehend or integrate the memories of those experiences; when they are unable to give a coherent or consistent account of those experiences to others?

Cruz Picture19

How is grief to be rendered visible when the trauma of that grief is itself entangled in acts, official and unofficial, of forcible removal, denigration and erasure? Ultimately, where do we even go to grieve once our landscapes are concreted over, our sites broken up, our communities dispersed, our squats torn down, our bars closed down, our dancehalls gentrified, our districts socially cleansed? We can exist nowhere, in our native place nor our chosen home. From Ireland to a council flat in London, forced out of the flat when his mother died; squatting in Camden, moved on by security goons in black bomber jackets so that the area could be “renovated”, “renovated around”, subsisting, existing, becoming thinner and thinner, drinking harder, with skills he cannot use rotting in his hands because to work these days you must be documented, accounted for. In the end, only able to answer rejection with rejection, Marty ghosted, was gone.

Cruz Picture20

There was no place for him in this world. For a while we had punk and punk made a place, a way of life that acknowledged and valued the skills we had: our creativity, our savvy habits of scavenging, our skip-diving resourcefulness, our pressured invention, our shoe-string flair. We would wear our second-hand, customised clothes to death: our battle jackets and boots accumulated and stored lived experience, a tactile repository, an archive of our own. Something we could carry, who did not have the security of solid walls around us. Punk was dead, but that was half the point. As Cruz writes 'this insistence on the past drags it into the present, creating a glitch in the system', and this is also form of resistance: to a homogeneous and disposable culture, to what Rachael Blau DuPlessis describes as the 'malignant rapidity' of capitalism. We opened for ourselves and each other a parallel time-line. Punk's aims had never been realised, its demands never met, our lives had never improved for all of its thrashing and screaming. And so we rededicated ourselves. In Camden we made a last anachronistic redoubt, and briefly we were glorious and annoying.

       .4

In recent years the “retro look” has been frigging everywhere, a stylistic expression of the weaponised nostalgia mobilized by the Tories during Brexit and the last general election. Retro is not the same as the anachronistic borrowings made by the rockers and mods Cruz writes about, or the punks of my own misspent youth. Retro is neoliberal culture's way of reabsorbing and recolonising the past, of forcing our avenues of exploration and adventure back into an inescapable circuit with a rotten present. Retro narrows the past into a series of easily identifiable, consumer-friendly images; these images are then ripe for mass production. Retro is copy-paste and shop-bought. It removes any element of archaeology or investigation from the process of creating style. It replaces style with a shallow array of disembodied and impersonal “looks”. All surface, taken in at a glance. Retro shears the past of its textures, subtleties, and secrets. It does not use words like “second-hand”. If clothes are not new, they are “vintage”, that is endorsed by and welcomed into the new, with a price tag to match. In the world of retro there are no human beings. We don't have to think about the bodies that previously occupied these clothes; we don't have to acknowledge the working-class invention that created the style. In the world of retro there are no classes. Retro is for those who have the luxury of forgetting the past, their own past and that of the world. Retro is a past without accessing memory. The working-class subject is tied to their past. We drag it behind us like a withered limb.

Water pours in through the skylight

'It seems she was given an ultimatum', Cruz writes of Chan Marshall, whose sparse, blues-inflected music was co-opted over time into bland and heavily mastered pop, 'forsake your past and survive, or remain with your past and be destroyed. Given the option of two deaths – to die in the past or forsake your past, which is to say to forsake yourself, but survive – which death do you choose?' This is not an idle question. For any of us. The weather broke last night. The dog cowered in the corner, water poured in through a skylight I had neglected to close. It seems a marvel to me that I am able to type the sentence “water poured in through a skylight”, the skylight in my house, my house has a skylight, I have a house. It is a kind of miracle. But a hedged one. Jammed up, allowed to go no further, unable to inhabit this house as if I truly belong there, I rock on the bed in a baggy t-shirt, weighed down with depression and survivor's guilt. I am afraid of forgetting, and exhausted by the impossibility of forgetting. If I push the past down inside of me, it resurfaces time and again in symptomatic and performative traces, little “ghostsings” of syntax and structure; words and images, a sound, a smell.

The latter section of The Melancholia of Class is, in many ways, the most difficult to read. Cruz writes about Freud's notion of the death drive through the slow dissolution and ultimate destruction of various working-class creatives, from Jason Molina to Clarice Lispector. Here Cruz writes about 'The Undead', that is the doubled, the split, the hopelessly divided working-class subject, who tries desperately to become someone or something else, yet reaches, as she always must, an irreconcilable impasse. Cruz writes not just with empathy but with understanding about the addictions and debilities of others. I find myself vigorously underlining the following passage: 'when we have nothing, we have nothing to lose, and it makes sense to want to push through the bottom of the bottom, as if on the other side there might exist a clean slate and the chance to begin again.' Cruz is talking about Jason Molina. But she could just as well have been talking about Marty, or any of those boys from the bridge in the Camden.

Cruz Melancholia Durer 1513

Melancholia by Dürer, 1513

None of this is to say that The Melancholia of Class is a hopeless book, even necessarily a melancholy one. What it provides – for myself at least – is a space in which melancholia may be encountered and probed, a place to initiate and access memory. This is perhaps the strangest and most important aspect of Cruz' “manifesto”: that the collective action she proposes is a kind of mass memory work, the “undoing” of the coerced amnesia of neoliberal culture. Melancholia, writes Cruz, will not leave us: 'Our collective melancholia is a humming, it is constant. And it will not go away. And although it will not leave us, we can allow it to guide us.' We can – and must – also guide each other, and to accomplish this task we must first recognise ourselves and what besets us. The Melancholia of Class is a node of affective solidarity. It is a link in the chain and a light to see by.

In defence of the cultivated imagination: An appreciation of Tommy Jackson
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Saturday, 15 May 2021 12:46

In defence of the cultivated imagination: An appreciation of Tommy Jackson

Written by

Mike Sanders presents an appreciation of Tommy Jackson

Thomas Alfred “Tommy” Jackson (1879 – 1955) has been described as “the most brilliant proletarian intellectual to come out of the British Communist Party”. Born into a working-class family in London, he followed his father into the printing trade, but after completing his apprenticeship as a compositor he became increasingly involved with the socialist movement. In 1900 he joined the Social Democratic Federation, in 1904 he was one of the founder members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (serving briefly as its General Secretary in 1906), but in 1909 he joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) for whom he became a paid speaker until 1911, when he left the ILP to become a paid lecturer for the National Secular Society and then a freelance lecturer.

In 1917 he joined the Socialist Labour Party and also became a lecturer for the North East Labour College Committee. In 1920 he was a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), a delegate to the Comintern, a member of the Central Committee from 1924 to 1929 and editor of The Communist and The Sunday Worker. Jackson opposed the ‘Bolshevisation’ of the CPGB in 1924 and was a leading critic of the ‘class-against-class’ strategy and this led to his removal from the Party’s leadership. However, it is important to note that despite his disagreements with the Party’s leadership, Jackson never became a renegade and continued to work as a journalist for the Daily Worker and after the Second World War as a lecturer for the Party’s Education Department. In addition, to his journalism, Jackson published a number of important works of Marxist theory, criticism and history including: Dialectics: The Logic of Marxism and its critics (1936), Charles Dickens: The Progress of a Radical (1938), Ireland Her Own (1946), as well as a collection of his literary journalism for the Daily Worker entitled, Old Friends to Keep: Studies of English Novels and Novelists (1950) and his autobiography, Solo Trumpet (1953).

TJ book

In his introductory essay to Old Friends to Keep, Jackson writes of his “unshakeable conviction of the indispensability of a cultivated imagination as a condition precedent for revolutionary class struggle, and of the high worth of classic fiction as a means of stimulating and developing that imagination.” Jackson returns to this themes in his closing pages where he writes, “I regard the systematic cultivation of the imagination – especially among the militant vanguard of working-class struggle – as the most fundamentally revolutionary work that there is to be done.” In effect, Jackson insists on the importance of “a cultivated imagination”, identifies “classic fiction” as one of the best means of producing such an imagination and, finally, contends that such an imagination is an ‘indispensable’ precondition for “revolutionary class-struggle”. These are large claims indeed; but as they are made by a Marxist after fifty years of practical experience of the class struggle, perhaps we would do well to take them seriously.

Certain aspects of Jackson’s thinking, for example his defence of literature both as an enlargement and enrichment of life and as a repository of trans-historical value, can be located within an emerging Marxist tradition of cultural theory. A more distinctive element in Jackson’s thought is his insistence on the immediate, practical value of literature as literature (i.e. not as propaganda) to the working-class movement. The crucial questions, identified by Jackson, are these; how precisely does the engagement with literature assist the “systematic cultivation of the imagination” and why is this of value to “the militant vanguard’?

Jackson provides the following answer to the first question:

The more profoundly the imagination penetrates into the essence of social reality, the more surely the artist reveals that most universal of truths – that motion is the essential characteristic of reality. “Things have just this value – they are transitory.” Fixity, immobility, finality, static indifference – these are attributes of the veil of illusion it is the function of great art to strip away. That which abides eternally is and can be nothing but motion; and the function of art is to so quicken feeling that it sets the intelligence searching and urges the will to action (OFTK 19-20)

Literature, therefore, promotes heuristic activity on the part of both the author and the reader. In this formulation, the author does not convey truth to a passive reader, rather the result of the author’s active enquiry into social reality provokes a corresponding enquiry on the part of the reader. In short, literature teaches a particular mode of thinking and promotes a particular form of consciousness, both of which are recognisably ‘dialectical’. In short, it is not that a given work of literature instructs its reader what to think, rather it teaches its reader how to think. It is also worth noting the sequence identified by Jackson, first feeling, then thought and, finally, conscious action.

Jackson’s focus on the active, empowering potential of literature is a valuable and necessary corrective to those forms of cultural theory (frequently originating in post-structuralism) which emphasise the difficulty (even the impossibility) of thinking outside existing social forms. These have given rise to pernicious forms of cultural criticism in which no cultural artefact is ever good enough because it is ‘always-already’ compromised by, or implicated in, various extant forms of oppression. Adorno was alert to this problem in the 1940s warning, in Minima Moralia, that the danger of denying the affirmative potential of art helps to “bring about directly the barbarism that culture is reproached with furthering indirectly”.

He also argues that the function of literature is to “quicken feeling”, prompt intellectual enquiry and motivate action. As Marx’s final thesis on Feuerbach reminds us, this is the vital stage. However, as Tommy Jackson knew from his own experience, the passage between the three stages is neither inevitable or necessary. In some cases excessive sensation precludes thought, while in others the combination of sensation and thought negates the need for action. In both cases, it might be argued that action is prevented or negated by an excess of identification – with “sensuous form” on the one hand and with “rational content” on the other.

This, perhaps, provides us with a clue as to the nature of the “cultivated imagination” which is the lynch-pin of Jackson’s theoretical model. The “cultivated imagination” signifies not only the optimum combination of feeling and thought, but more importantly, suggests the need to move beyond an ‘aesthetics of identification’. In this respect, Jackson resembles the great Marxist playwright Brecht, who also sought to theorise and develop an artistic practice capable of jolting its audience into real historical consciousness.

Five Books for May Days
Wednesday, 12 May 2021 15:46

Five Books for May Days

Written by

Mark Perryman presents five books on culture and politics for a month full of May Days

May Day was obviously this year circumscribed by all things lockdown. But in all honesty for decades now there has been precious little imagination and reinvention to preserve it, let alone grow it.

Compared to International Women’s Day, LGBT Pride or Black History Month, May Day as a much-needed celebration has ben replaced by a going-through-the-motions at best, abandonment at worst.  So to cheer myself up I went in search of some May Day reading that might have the answer to not simply revival but reinvention, because in their different ways they take culture matters (sic) seriously.   

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Mark Fisher was a writer who single-handedly expanded the intellectual horizons of an entire new generation of left thinkers, and at the core of his work  was the connection between politics and culture. The posthumous collection Post Capitalist Desire, edited by Matt Colquhoun, consists of Mark Fisher’s final lectures and provides a real insight into his contribution, and our loss. Ranging over capitalism, revolution, consciousness and Marxism, the themes may seem familiar yet Mark’s approach, using theoretical tools to interrogate the terrain of the popular, was entirely original and shines through on every page of this magnificent, if tragic, epitaph of a book. Of course he had predecessors taking culture seriously, including Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, but the difference now is that there is an ever-increasing generational urgency for this ‘taking seriously’ to become our dominant mood of thinking and acting, because the alternative is defeat and irrelevance.         

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Testament to this is  Capitalism’s Conscience, edited by Des Freedman, not quite a funeral notice on the occasion of the Guardian’s 200th anniversary, though not far short. Never mind the technological, cultural and economic challenges to all versions, but particularly newspapers, of ‘legacy media’. The argument here of the contributors, across a diverse range of themes, is that the daily house journal of the liberal left has simply failed to keep up with how those two labels,  liberal ideals combined with left-wing politics, have changed.

Again the key signifier of this is generational, what the writer Keir Milburn terms ‘Generation Left’. Being anti-Corbyn politically is perhaps forgivable, we can live with differences of opinion, or at least should be able to. But it’s not forgivable to woefully misunderstand and then purposefully misrepresent what motivated those tens of thousands who became part of the Corbyn wave and in 2017 voted for Corbyn’s Labour in their millions, the uptick in Labour’s vote the first since 1997. 

Only the most dogged defender of the paper would disagree that the paper has veered out of touch, struggling to maintain the loyalty of its core readership, failing to attract younger readers. Yet many of us cannot resist it as a daily read, a reference point for our agreement, and disagreement, although who knows whether such loyalty will be enough to sustain the paper, and for how long. A bit like the current Labour Party, eh? 

At its best the Guardian remains peerless as an investigative and campaigning newspaper.  This has absolutely been the case throughout the pandemic, day after day, edition after edition, revealing the truly horrific threat of a deadly disease, exposing the lethal and corrupt incompetence of the Tory government’s handling of the crisis, and offering a range of positively radical  routes towards a post-pandemic politics. All very necessary and most welcome, yet if politics is reduced simply to the rhetoric of condemnation and detailed policy formulation it is surely missing something – emotional literacy.

Moving, angry and idealistic

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The Right, currently, are immeasurably better at this than the Left, or to put it another way we underestimate Boris Johnson at our peril.  There’s a reason he’s Boris, and Thatcher was Maggie, in a way Sir Keir Starmer simply isn’t ‘Keir’ to most of us. For a textbook example of connecting emotional literacy to a radical political message have a read of Many Different Kinds of Love by poet, author and socialist Michael Rosen. What Michael effortlessly achieves is to mix the personal and the political, as finally we escape from  the immediacy of the disease to engage with what comes next. Written in Michael’s inimitable style, it is a book that is moving, angry and idealistic. Oh for a Labour politics we could describe in the same way!

Part of what comes next, or at least should come next, must be a renewed commitment by both governments and social movements to reverse the climate emergency. However bad the scale of the Coronavirus crisis, it pales into insignificance compared to the pain, suffering and deaths the climate crisis threatens to inflict on the globe.

What is encouraging is the breadth of informed concern and dedicated desire for change that this is provoking. Much of this exists outside the spaces of traditional left politics, or a politics of whatever tradition. Is this a strength or a weakness?  Only time will tell but all the evidence of previous social movements requiring the scale of changes the climate emergency demands is that they only succeed when they become as much a popular cultural force as a political one.

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A measure of how far the climate emergency movement has travelled in this very necessary direction already is the Teen Vogue collection No Planet B edited by the magazine’s politics editor Lucy Diavolo. No, this is not a misprint – the teenage edition of Vogue has a politics editor and has filled a book with chapters on the climate emergency. Almost all of them have been written by young women aged 10-25 years, and make the connections between the environment, migration and inequality with an imperative for action that prime minsters and party leaders – almost all male and aged 50-65 years – could well do with reading.  A book from a new generation for readers of all ages. 

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And my number one pick of five books for you to read in May Days? Jeremy Gilbert’s Twenty-First Century Socialism. Jeremy is one of those writers who seamlessly mixes the cultural and the political, refuting the very idea the two are divisible. It combines high theory with popular idiom, shamelessly polemical yet attentively open-minded.  His new book is a short read, almost a manifesto, so can be polished off in one May Day, thereby interpreting the world and leaving the rest of the month to change it. It covers The meaning of capitalism, the promise of socialism,  the ideas for a programme of transformational politics and a strategy for how to achieve them.

If books in the right hands really are weapons, this one’s thermonuclear. 

Please note no links in this review are to Amazon, if buying from corporate tax dodgers can be avoided, please do so.              

May Day 2021: The150th anniversary of the Paris Commune
Tuesday, 27 April 2021 14:55

May Day 2021: The150th anniversary of the Paris Commune

Written by

Dennis Broe celebrates the 1871 Paris Commune, an example for Marx of 'communal labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart', and its representation in photos, novels, films and paintings, 

Here in Paris we are now living through the 150th anniversary of the Commune, identified by Karl Marx as perhaps the first workers’ republic established in the history of humanity. The Commune lasted 71 days, beginning on March 18, 1871 and ended in a violent repression during what was called the time of the cherries, of the budding of the cherry blossoms, in the bloody week of May 21 to 28.

The Commune is represented in novels, films and non-fiction though in general representation is sparse. Aesthetic recounting of this rebellion is limited, as this history of a workers’ republic remains contested and repressed in France.

The Commune was a response by the Parisians to the end of an ill-fated war waged by the emperor Louis-Napoleon to distract the French from the corruption and negligence that characterized the latter stage of his Second Empire. It ended up by uniting the German states under Bismarck as the French military, also hollowed out by years of corruption, was quickly defeated. The delusion of the emperor, his ignoble defeat and the shattering of the imperial dream are recounted in the penultimate novel in Zola’s epic chronicling of the rise and fall of Louis Napoleon’s Second Empire in the Rougan-Macquart series, titled appropriately La Débâcle .

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Upon its victory, the German army then became an occupying army and laid siege to Paris, figuring to starve the city into submission. The French ruling class, industrialists and remnants of the old aristocracy led by the emperor’s minister Adolphe Thiers, left the city and fled to the former palace of the king at Versailles, where they would soon collaborate with the Germans to crush the commune.

Inside the city a new form of government appeared, a direct democracy with elements of the National Guard on its side and with the working people of the city behind it and engaged directly in carrying out reforms in health, education and an equal status for women. Indeed, the face of the commune that has come down though history is that of the feminist Louise Michel, in the forefront of many of these reforms and, upon the downfall of the Commune, exiled from France.

The Commune is not well represented in the cinema, but its most shining moment makes up for that lack of coverage. Peter Watkins’ La Commune from 2003 is an almost six-hour faux documentary, with a filmmaker interviewing the ordinary working people who took part in the moment. Each of these non-professional actors, many researching their characters on their own and including many Africans, detail their involvement in a way that also allows us to see the continuity between these worker-actors of today and their character of 150 years ago. One critic labelled La Commune as the best film in a 15-year span.

The Commune defied the industrialists and issued proclamation after proclamation that pushed the government of Paris toward a workers’ state. Thiers and the German collaborators he represented were furious and finally with the aid of the German army annihilated the rebellion, in the bloodiest week of state terrorism in French history since the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of the Huguenots.

Communards Wall resized

Row after row of these working people were lined up and shot. The most sacred place commemorating the Commune is the Mur des Federales, the wall of these victims inside the famous cemetery Père Lachaise.

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 With the Commune in ruins, its proponents either dead or exiled, Thiers then proclaimed the birth of the French Republic, ending forever the attempts to re-establish the monarchy, which had been overthrown in the French Revolution. Indeed, French Republicans now proclaim the Commune as a founding moment in the establishing of a representative parliamentary democracy. However, that bourgeois democracy, with the industrialists now firmly back in power, was erected on the bones and coffins of the Parisian citizens who had instituted a direct democracy in which the people made decisions together.

Battles over the memory of the Commune continue to be waged. Adolphe Thiers is commemorated in the traditional French manner by having streets and squares named after him in many French cities and towns. However, there is no street or square that bears his name in Paris, the site of his bloody executions.

The Catholic Church, attacked for its corruption by the Commune as it was in the French Revolution, allied with the state to anoint the Church of Sacre Coeur, of the Sacred Heart, which overlooks the city and stands as a symbol of the triumph of the bourgeoise. However, just below the Church, in a way that suggests the old spectre of revolution is not dead, sits Louise Michele square, with its commemoration of the Commune’s leading spirit.

 Released to coincide with the 150th anniversary is a work by the French historian Michele Audin, The Bloody Week, which claims that Thiers’ accounting of the dead is vastly understated. The official figure is over 6,000 casualties but by checking cemetery records this new book claims the figure is at least 15,000 and may have been as high as 20,000. Underground mass graves of the communards were still being discovered in the 1920s, while building a line of the Paris subway.

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Audin is a renowned mathematician who has also written two novels about the Commune, the lastest of which is Jose Meunier: 19 rue des Juifs. In it a sex worker, a dressmaker, a janitor and a hairdresser aid the lead character Jose, a miller, to escape the clutches of the secret police as the Commune is overwhelmed. Jose then goes into exile in London where he dreams of returning to Paris.

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Les Halles by Leon Lhermitte, 1895 

The subject of repatriation of exiled revolutionaries also featured in another novel by Zola, The Belly of Paris, where an exile from a failed attempt in 1851 to overthrow the second Napoleon returns to the huge outdoor marketplace in the centre of the city that was Les Halles and attempts to shelter himself amid the bounty of the market.

In France this year, the March 18th date was celebrated with great fanfare but that celebration quickly gave way to its opposite as the country readies itself for the 200th anniversary in May of the death of Napoleon. He is a symbol of empire and conquest beloved by the right and no friend of democracy. It was his nephew, founder of the second empire named in honour of his uncle’s self-proclaimed first empire, that started the war that brought on the siege of Paris.

Marx’s valuing of the experiment of the Commune as a spirit that is yet to be realized explains why it remains at the same time a moment of hope for working people. It is also a moment of fear for their new digital overlords, whether they be Jeff Bezos’ Amazon, Elon Musk’s Tesla or Emmanuel Macron’s start-up nation. Here's what Marx said about the Commune:

The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters; that to bear fruit, the means of labour need not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the labouring man [and woman]…; and that, like slave labour, like serf labour, hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated or communal labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart.

Bring it on!

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Radical, subversive circus and cultural change
Monday, 08 February 2021 09:28

Radical, subversive circus and cultural change

Written by

Kimberley Reynolds describes how radical and transgressive circuses in twentieth-century children’s literature make the case for social and personal transformation. Above image: Family of Saltimbanques by Pablo Picasso, 1905

The circus has been a consistently popular setting, theme, metaphor and space in publishing for children from at least the nineteenth century, and writers, illustrators and readers are attracted to it for a variety of reasons. Foremost among these is the fact that the circus world is exotic, international, polyglot, excessive and carnivalesque. They combine animals from distant lands (in line with concerns about animal welfare, few circuses now have animal acts), astonishing illusions, gravity-defying aerialists and acrobats, the antic behaviour of adults in the roles of clowns, and sideshows featuring what were traditionally known as ‘freaks’. These features are all related to the identification of the circus by the first wave of modernist and avant-garde artists and authors as a quintessentially radical aesthetic space: a space where themes and ideas are explored with a view to challenging and changing how the everyday world is perceived and organised.

A sense of the radical appeal of the circus can be established with a few examples. For instance, during his Rose or ‘circus’ period, Pablo Picasso used images of circus performers as metaphors for the socially and economically precarious position of artists. Like circus performers, he suggests, innovative, challenging artists in early twentieth-century Europe and America were regarded as unimportant outliers by those in positions of power. Henri Matisse had a life-long interest in circuses and what they said about movement, freedom and creativity. This interest is documented in his book Jazz (1947), which was originally titled The Circus. More than half of the images it contains are of circus performances. Fernand Léger and Marc Chagall were fascinated by the way circuses liberated bodies and minds from convention. Their paintings often focus on the way circus acts create a sense of mental and physical liberation from the constraints of everyday life.

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The Acrobat and His Partner by Fernand Léger

Circuses also offered artists new perspectives (from above and below) and celebrated speed, flight and simultaneity, as when multiple acts are taking place on the ground and in the air at the same moment. Circus rings and the contorted body shapes made by acrobats and aerialists lent themselves well to abstraction, while the transitions from acts featuring spangled, gravity-defying artists to lumbering elephants, ferocious big cats, bizarre clowns and the exceptional bodies found in circus sideshows gave a surreal, dreamlike quality to the circus experience. Perhaps most importantly, the inter-artistic nature of circus acts spoke to avant-garde interests in ‘Total Art’, meaning the combining of words, music, lighting, movement, and the plastic arts to provoke new sensations and perceptions.

Mikhail Bakhtin has shown how, by inducing new outlooks on the world, carnival, of which circus is one form, feeds cultural change. This understanding points to the subversive potential of circuses. In Ant-Nazi Modernism, Mia Spiro points to the way that the decades which witnessed the rise of fascism and Nazism saw the deliberate use of circuses to challenge the world view they promulgated. This deployment works well since circus life and circus acts stood for everything such regimes sought to suppress. They were ethnically, socially, and sexually diverse; they mixed levels of discourse; they displayed fluidity, eroticism, exoticism, and hybridity. The peripatetic nature of circuses means they were also free from geographical and nationalistic boundaries. This was as true on the page as under the Big Top or on the canvas. For instance, in Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood (1936), the circus is the only place where lesbian, transgender and other characters who struggle to fit into life in 1930s Paris and America can be at ease. Barnes makes the circus a space where, ‘no one is “alien” because everyone realizes that social positions, race, [and] sexuality are performances’ (Spiro 73).

Understanding the performative nature of all aspects of social life – not least in political displays – undermines the kind of mass spectacles by which totalitarianism asserts its power. So, for instance, performance theories relating to audience response compare the different effects on spectators of circuses and the huge, highly choreographed rallies favoured by Nazi propagandists. These mass spectacles were a deliberately hypnotic, homogenising and coercive kind of event. Their effect was to make most participants and observers unquestioning and conformist. Circuses, by contrast, are energising and individualistic; performances are not designed to lull audiences, but to provoke them. Their astonishing and often dangerous acts make audiences ask, ‘how do they do that?’ In this way, spectators are encouraged to recognise that they are watching tricks and illusions and to think about and deconstruct them – exactly the opposite effect of the Nazi rallies.

Circuses offered abundant metaphoric potential for celebrating freedom of thought, movement and interaction at a time when all of these were under threat. This made them valuable subjects for those artists and writers who were opposed to the divisive, hierarchical, nationalistic, and militaristic politics of the far right. In their hands, the circus was simultaneously offered as a site of intellectual and cultural provocation and a place of delight that appealed not just to a cultural elite but to large and mixed audiences. Children have always been part of the circus audience, and in circus stories, children are present as both performers and spectators. This does not mean that circuses are good places for the young. The experiences of real child circus performers have often been brutally abusive, and many of the first circus stories for children concentrated on this aspect of circus life. Stories about the sufferings of young circus performers make up a complete subgenre, but here my focus is on the way the circus setting was used by children’s writers and illustrators to introduce to their readers some of the artistic experiments and political critiques found in arts and letters from the first half of the last century.

Transformation and transgression in juvenile circus stories

Soviet writer Yuri Olesha’s The Three Fat Men (1928) overtly uses the circus to criticise oppressive rule and to celebrate imagination, creativity and intellectual freedom. This is a story about revolution: in it the oppressed people in an unnamed town rise up against the ‘Three Fat Men’ who rule their land and literally consume all its resources. Though it is not geographically or chronologically anchored in a particular time or place, because its author was living in the new Soviet republic and the story was completed just one year after the series of revolutions that saw the old imperial Russian rule replaced by the world’s first communist society, it is difficult not to link the book to those events. The revolution is led by members of a circus. One of these is Tibbulus the Tightrope walker and the other Suok, the girl acrobat, but even before they begin to take control of the events, a circus act has been encouraging the people to disrespect their three fat leaders. For instance, the three are represented on a stage by a trio of fat, hairy apes while a clown sings:

Like three great sacks of wheat,
The Three Fat Men abed!
For all they do is eat
And watch their bellies spread!
Hey you Fat Men, beware:
Your final days are here! (17)                      

The clown is right. The surreal plot, which includes separated twins, kangaroo trials and arbitrary sentences, a living doll, a talking parrot with a beard and a great many extravagant banquets, culminates in the overthrow of the Three Fat Men. The people are inspired  to liberate themselves by those with courage, creativity, education and morals. All of the provocateurs are connected to the circus.

The Three Fat Men is aimed at able readers, and Olesha’s use of the circus is deliberately political. But books for younger readers also celebrate the internationalism, category mixing, simultaneity and Total Art found in modernist painting and writing. One of these is Samuil Marshak and Vladimir Lebedev’s The Circus (1925). This belongs to the outpouring of much-admired books produced in the first decades of Soviet rule, often by avant-garde writers and artists who hoped that they were helping to build society anew. For its original readers the book’s internationalism mirrored the drive to unite the many countries and peoples, with their different languages, eye shapes, skin tones, hair colours and fashions, that made up the new Soviet Union. It also supports the work of transforming an illiterate peasant culture into one which was both literate and ready to welcome, rather than fear or resent, modern technology.

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Cover of The Circus and Other Stories, by Lebedev

The Circus begins with a poster based not on the highly decorated traditional fairground graphics usually favoured by circuses but on modern advertisements, as seen it its use of clean lines, sharp typography and white spaces. Huge, repeated exclamation points convey that very modernist quality of energy, while the text promises eclecticism in the form of ‘A rider from Rio,/An aerial trio/…. Jacko, the famous clown… all the way from Paris.’ Inside, a black tightrope walker is used to familiarise the workings of a telephone message, showing modern technology as thrilling but unthreatening, while a green musician is introduced as the wife of a Soviet clown. In line with the modernist appreciation of speed and dynamism, many images show figures in motion, zooming this way, galloping that, balancing precariously and defying gravity.

In the British-produced The Circus Book (1935), by Wyndham Payne with illustrations by Eileen Mayo, Japanese acrobats practise on one page while a man in evening dress is shown working alongside clowns and performing horses ridden by a bear and a lion on another. All are very familiar circus images, but when considering the significance of representing the way categories were mingled under the Big Top in these books, it is important not to forget the extent to which in interwar Europe, racial and national origins, sexuality, and physical development could determine a person’s fate. From policies in Nazi Germany to fascist demonstrations in London, Jews, Romani (a group closely associated with circuses) and others deemed inferior by those in authority were vilified and often attacked. The Circus Book makes much of the internationalism and inclusiveness of circuses. It asks children to admire the ability of circus performers to speak many languages so they can work together: ‘… circuses engage artists of every nationality so you can imagine the babel of tongues behind the scenes. Some of the directors can give orders in half a dozen different languages, nearly all the artists can speak at least two or three besides their own, and a well-known clown was able to do his act in twelve languages’ (8). This short information book is not overtly provocative or revolutionary; nevertheless, readers of the book are invited to admire what elsewhere in society was being presented as suspect.

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Undoubtedly the most famous circus story for children is Dumbo, as told through the 1941 Walt Disney animated feature film. The artwork in this circus story (which began life as a children’s book and generated many spin-off picturebooks) has a modernist edge that subtly comments on, for instance, the alienation of workers and the loss of identity in modernity as in the impressionistic depiction of the roustabouts who set up the Big Top in a storm, and crowds fleeing as the huge tent collapses when Dumbo knocks over the ‘Pyramid of Pachyderms’. Expressionistically-coloured scenery conveys mood, while Freudian-inflected experimental sequences such as ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ bring in other avant-garde interests around subjectivity, interiority and the psyche. The most pointed aspect of its radicalism focuses on racist policies in the United States at the time. This occurs in the section where Dumbo and Timothy meet Jim Crow and his gang. The name ‘Jim Crow’ refers to the laws that enforced segregation the in the US up to the 1960s. The crows dress and have the mannerisms of scat/jazz musicians: jazz clubs were places where whites and blacks often mixed. Dumbo and Timothy also mix with the crows in defiance of the segregationist agenda, and it is the crows who enable Dumbo to fly and become a hero. Their knowledge of psychology leads to the ‘magic’ feather that persuades Dumbo he can fly.              

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The Circus of Adventure, by Enid Blyton

There is nothing obviously radical about Enid Blyton’s The Circus of Adventure (1952); nevertheless, when the four adventurers, Philip, Dinah, Lucy-Ann and Jack, and the young central European prince who is in their charge seek refuge in a circus as they flee from a palace coup, behaviours that would have been suspect in other settings are valued. For instance, the young prince, Gustavus Aloysius, known as Gussy, gives a bravura performance as a girl, when soldiers ransack the circus, looking for the fugitives. The four British children have also been disguised with grease paint, circus costumes and an invented language. Because this is a circus and so outside what the soldiers consider to be the real world, they see insignificant itinerant performers rather than their prince and his middle-class British minders, and soon depart. The success of the children’s performances owes everything to the help of their circus friends. Their class background, age and nationality become unimportant, and the children are valued for their skills with animals and their willingness to join in the work of keeping the circus on the road.

As in the mythology that has grown up around circuses, all the members of the circus are portrayed as a big family, though they come from many countries and speak dozens of languages (‘Ma’ is Spanish, her husband is English, and their son seems to speak every language there is). Outside hierarchies are also of little consequence to the members of the circus. When the young prince objects to his treatment by, ‘Ma’, the woman who plays his grandmother, she responds, “Pah! ...You’re just a boy. I’ve no time for princes.” The narrator reinforces her statement by observing approvingly, ‘And she hadn’t’ (148). Such a celebration of classless internationalism is highly unusual for the broadly conservative Blyton.

The transformative effects of the circus on Gussy prove permanent. His time with the performers (and, of course, the four British children) has made him a stronger, better young man with a new, more respectful, attitude to his people and those who lack his social position. Gussy, it is implied, is on his way to becoming a modern ruler and a better ally for Britain. This is arguably a convenient than a radical conclusion from a British perspective, yet for much of the book even an author known for finding foreigners suspicious turns a circus full of ‘others’ into loyal, creative, heroic friends who use their circus skills to thwart a coup. The circus setting, then, shapes the book’s message and refashions the author’s ideological assumptions.

This brief sample gives a sense of how circus stories produced during the first half of the last century shared interests, agendas and modes with the experimental arts and letters produced by some of the best known modernist artists and writers. My growing collection of circus stories shows that for many writers and illustrators, the circus continues to provide an aesthetically and politically radical space, theme and metaphor that helps them make the case for social and personal transformation.

Time to share our stories
Friday, 29 January 2021 10:39

Time to share our stories

Written by

Mike Quille interviews Gerry Murphy, President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions

Thanks for the chance to interview you on the subject of culture and the labour movement. Recently I interviewed Mark Taylor, one of the authors of Culture is Bad For You, a new book outlining how culture is riven by divisions and inequalities based on class background, ethnic origin and gender. Working-class people are much less likely to get into good jobs in the cultural industries, as actors, musicians, writers, film-makers etc., and much less likely to sustain them and make progress in them.

They are also under-represented as consumers, in audiences, visitors to galleries, concerts. In addition, there is also other research showing how literature, along with other mainstream cultural experiences, fail to represent working-class people fairly.

What is your experience and your views as a trade union leader on these issues?

Culture is a site of struggle that has huge potential to further improve our world and the lives of working people excluded from the many rich cultural experiences on offer.

I suggest that we as agents of change have yet, despite some valiant efforts, failed to fully employ the many forms of expression culture encompasses as a vehicle for change. This failure is evident in, the under-representation of the working class as contributors, instigators of and consumers of culture. It is obvious also in the subjects that populate the cultural landscape and the mediums in which they are expressed. Persons of influence in working-class communities, politics and the labour movement generally have been focused in seeking to address more pressing issues, such as ending poverty and creating a society where everyone is facilitated to reach their potential in peaceful co-existence.

The reasons underpinning this failure are complex. It is not simply that the middle and upper classes are better educated and possessed of incomes that permit them to indulge their cultural pretensions. It is not because the working class do not appreciate beauty or are devoid of imagination and talent. The failure, as I see it, is centred in two areas – those of opportunity and access.

Opportunity arises when circumstances allow for some of the time and energy otherwise expended on survival to be employed to communicate and share our experience and interpretation of the world around us. While access is about enabling, by overcoming the gatekeepers, to facilitate participation, creation and consumption of culture on the part of working people.

The stranglehold established on both of these areas by the middle and upper classes has permitted them a filter on all aspects of cultural life. If we are to be successful in broadening opportunity and facilitating greater access for the working class into society’s cultural life, we have to create the conditions whereby working people have the time and the energy to express themselves. That can only come about when the economic system which scaffolds our world is reshaped to bring about the necessary redistributions of power and wealth to facilitate this.

While that broader struggle continues it is important and vital that working-class experience of the world is recorded, transmitted and enjoyed by a broader audience. And for that to happen working people need to seize on the possibilities of technology and challenge the established cultural gatekeepers.

Those influencers who promote cultural mediums and expression, those who commission this work and target it at particular audiences need to be presented with authentic examples of the working-class experience. This working-class experience represents a largely unmined treasure trove of beauty, truth and joy, qualities enjoyed by audiences of all classes. I see my task, as a someone in a position of leadership, as providing encouragement to and advocacy on behalf of creatives working in whatever medium who communicate the working-class experience and interpretation of the world.

Can you give us an example of recent cultural works which in your opinion successfully communicate working-class experience?

The recent publication by the Culture Matters Co-operative of an anthology of writing by Irish working people and those of Irish descent, successfully communicates the working-class experience. This rich variety of stories from across the island of Ireland have been edited into a coherent and powerful insight to lives lived on the edge of social and economic certainty. “From the Plough to the Stars” showcases the raw talent, the humanity and honour of those that society has in many cases chosen to marginalise. The stories themselves, largely written by people unknown to the literary world, communicate with honesty both uncomfortable truths and reasons to be hopeful.

From Plough to Star cover  

Jenny Farrell, who did the editing, has alongside these writers challenged all of us as well as the established cultural elite to embrace the everyday experiences of working people. And while this book is entertaining, it is so much more, representing that challenge to wider society’s understanding of the sort off the world, we live in. This is central to what culture should do in all its forms, and this work is a fine example of it being done correctly.

Trade unions play a central role in the economic struggle to improve terms and conditions of working people; and they play an important role in the political struggle to bring progressive values of democracy, equality and justice into social life.

What can they do as part of the cultural struggle to serve their members; to ally with and support creative workers who want to focus on working-class experience in the content of their cultural work; and to influence government policies towards culture – for example the funding, accessibility, and content of state-supported culture?

I see the answer in two parts. Namely what is it trade unions can do themselves, internally, to support culture and those who participate in cultural activity as either creatives, or in the crafts and trades that bring so much of our culture to the audience. Then secondly, trade unions need to come up with a plan to persuade the gatekeepers in government and the creative industries to change their approaches and open culture and its opportunities to all.

 The whole notion of culture as a site of struggle that can effect positive change for working people needs to be addressed urgently by the trade union movement. Culture represents an opportunity to present an alternative narrative, build relationships and persuade people. Others are embracing its potential and trade unions risk being left behind. Trade unions have been focused for the last three decades on resisting the erosion of their capacity to effectively represent workers in the face of a succession of neoliberal governments and an increasingly global economic order. This struggle is essential and can be enhanced and aided by broadening the challenge to the established order into culture and the arts.

It requires a shift in mindset amongst trade union memberships that will come about with demonstrations of the power that cultural media present. Such demonstrations are becoming more popular across the world. For example: Banksy’s painting of a vigil candle burning the US flag; or the art of Ai Wei Wei are but two examples from recent times. These examples illustrate this power being exercised on a global stage but the same power on a different scale is within the reach of every individual and every community across the globe. Witness the wall at Free Derry Corner, which regularly features in various media communicating a community’s concerns, demands and solidarity with others.  

free derry 

Previously I have said that accessibility and opportunity represented the challenges working people need to be facilitated in overcoming to fully participate in cultural activities. The trade union movement has provided such access in the past – the miners’ libraries of Wales and the Socialist Sunday Schools of the mid-19th century and early 20th century are examples of what was done. Today our trade unions run extensive education programmes which could be broadened to further open up the cultural world to working people. Trade unions can choose to do this.

Efforts to organise the existing workforce in the crafts and trades which are vital to producing and showing cultural works need to be redoubled. This has to be a priority given these areas of work are riven with bogus self-employment and the zero-hours contract. These two devices are already targeted by the entire trade union movement, and extending the battle aggressively into the cultural sphere can only assist in bringing about their end. It would also attract more workers into trade union membership given the inherent financial vulnerabilities of so much cultural activity

Trade unions also possess the capacity to assist cultural workers and local communities to access the existing limited arts funding available from the government and charitable avenues. Simple things such as identifying potential funding opportunities and providing technical assistance to complete often lengthy and complicate applications are examples of practical help that could be made available.

Lessons learned by trade unions when taking industrial action are also a ready source of help. The power of the consumer could be better organised and mobilised. No one is better suited to this type of activity than trade unionists. Such activism has both the power to demand change but to also shift the cultural landscape to one more equally reflective of the experiences of everyone who shares the planet.  

What difference do you think the current pandemic is making to the cultural life of working people?

The pandemic is acting on the cultural life of working people with the same disregard as it is acting on the cultural lives of everyone. Culture is being suppressed and will continue to be suppressed, as funding and audiences will both take some time to return to pre-pandemic levels. What the post-pandemic period offers is an opportunity to manage the re-start of cultural activity in a more inclusive and equitable fashion. To do so would go some way to acknowledge the sacrifice made by the many essential frontline workers, the majority of whom are amongst the lowest paid in society, who have stood up for everyone regardless of class or whether they are fans of Milton or Rita Ora.    

Thanks very much Gerry, you have outlined a comprehensive and radical agenda for the trade union movement, cultural workers and cultural consumers. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The post-pandemic period offers is an opportunity to restart cultural activity in a more inclusive and equitable fashion. To do so would go some way to acknowledge the sacrifice made by the many essential frontline workers, the majority of whom are amongst the lowest paid in society, who have stood up for everyone regardless of class, race or gender.   

It really is time we took it back, and shared our stories.

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