Archive | December, 2012

The Great Earl’s Court Novel

17 Dec

P1060685I’d say on balance that most people would like to romanticise the place they live in. I, of course, am no exception to this, and have spent (wasted?) countless hours trying to establish literary and cinematic connections with my corner of the Smoke. In all honesty, I can state with authority that knowing the myths that come with the territory hasn’t really got me very far, but it has- and this is a big ‘but’- made trips to the shops that little bit more exciting.

My locale is hardly the most “vibrant” of urban settings, but it is surprisingly rich in cultural connotations. From the block of flats where Catherine Deneuve has her meltdown in Polanski’s Repulsion to the bric à brac shop where Nicola Six holds down a brief job in Martin Amis’ London Fields, this part of West London has enough micro-landmarks to fill an Iain Sinclair anthology. The other night, I was preparing to get off the Tube at Earl’s Court station when I reached a page of the book I was reading that placed me just metres away from where the narrator was standing:

Our basement flat was in a side street not far from the Earl’s Court Road, just a few minutes’ walk from the tube station. It was a lively area, a little overcrowded, a little seedy; its restless bustle and activity could sometimes be a little overwhelming, but this afternoon it really lifted my spirits. Suddenly, I began to feel, for the very first time, that I might be setting out on a great adventure.

My eyes lit up at this passage from Jonathan Coe’s Thatcher-era roman-not-quite-à-clef What a Carve Up!. Better still, he goes on to describe precisely the journey I had just made in reverse:

Getting from Earl’s Court to St Pancras required a tedious journey of twenty minutes on the Picadilly Line. As usual, I had a book open in my hands, but I couldn’t concentrate on it.

Wow! He was, like, on the same train as me, just going the opposite direction! In 1982! I had a book I hadn’t been concentrating on, too- and it was this book! Of all the coincidences, etc, etc… you see my point. It’s all quite fun, if a bit… aimless. Regular readers should by now expect nothing else.

Anyway, Jonathan Coe is far from the first novelist to transcribe Earl’s Court and its environs into literary narrative. As far as my limited knowledge strecthes, the first truly great Earl’s Court novel is probably Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square, published in 1941 and set several years before, when Moseleyite blackshirts pranced up and down the already-congested thoroughfares of SW5. I was explaining to someone today that I read it shortly after arriving in the area, and immediately identified with its aimless, alcoholic protagonist George Harvey Bone. If you’ve read the novel, you’ll realise that this was probably rather unhelpful. Hanging around the pubs of the Earl’s Court Road- The Prince of Teck, The King’s Arms, Ashbee’s- looking a bit sad started to feel like a grim duty. Then somebody told me that it was stupid to blindly take messages from books. I blindly took the message from them and started hanging around the pubs of Soho looking a bit sad instead.

This is incidental, though; magnificent as Hangover Square is, it is not the great Earl’s Court novel. That mantle falls to another work written about an area unrecognisable from Hangover Square’s SW5 in all but its bedsitting transience, a London book as demanding and subtle as any I have ever read.

I was idling an afternoon away in the Trinity Hospice Bookshop on Kensington Church Street early this Summer when I chanced upon the spine of Maureen Duffy’s Londoners. I recognised neither the author’s name nor her style as I flicked through its pages. What I did recognise, though, was the bus that goes past my house on the jacket illustration. The 74 in a novel? Blimey…

I looked harder and saw the Earl’s Court Road branch of McDonald’s, the now-closed branch of Bestway where I used to buy two-fingered KitKats for 15p… and the book itself wasn’t going for that much more. I handed over my small change to the perpetually pissed-off shopkeeper and headed out to the park to make a start on it.

The writing threw me a bit at first, I must admit; Duffy writes from the perspective of ultra-anti hero Al, a fiftysomething failure of an academic with a corrosive passion for the work of Medieval Parisian poet François Villon. Al lives in a room in one of the mansion blocks up from the junction between the Earl’s Court and Old Brompton Roads, and scrapes by on hack work commissioned by soon-to-be-defunct periodicals and rues everything from the decline of English Socialism in the wake of stage-one Thatcherism to his own, utterly directionless existence. He’s not so much an unreliable narrator as a completely unmotivated one- so much so, in fact, that there is little reason to disbelieve what he tells us. Little happens, yet he draws the reader in with highly-stylised prose and pithy observations on his neighbours, flat beer, and, of course, Villon, the ‘Frank master’ whom he often addresses directly. He is a pathetic figure, a fatalist, a bovarist and, it soon becomes clear, a self-deluding alcoholic; and yet, despite his affectations, he remains an extremely sympathetic and very funny guide through the petty crime, abandoned ambitions and interweaving homosexual passions of Earl’s Court circa 1983.

Everything Al sees takes on a literary significance; he is at times extremely pompous, a character simply too well-read to function outside of the small circuit of drinking hubs and libraries around his lodgings:

They all come to London, not England. That’s what they call it; that’s the allure. I remember an Australian returned for a sentimental trip reliving: ‘I loved London but the poverty and the cold made me go back.’ At once the city is Dickensian… I go out into the street again where the rain’s stopped; starless, unmooned, the sky is a cloudrace. I conjure pathetic fallacies all the time: the adult version of not treading on the black lines to hold off bad luck I suppose.

As a local, one of the great pleasures comes from Al’s often bathetic descriptions of his haunts. For anyone who’s ever exited the Underground onto the Earl’s Court Road on an unsympathetic November evening, the following passage may not read quite so absurdly as at first its language might suggest:

…by the time I come out of the tube at the other end, a worm of meat extruded by the mincer, the cloud has thickened and towers over the rush hour street a chill wind funnels down, blowing wrappers, hurriers-home with turned-up collars, dogends, plastic cups along the traffic stream. The wind at my back, I’m bowled along too. On the corner flower stall freesias freeze in their cellophane jackets , daffodils tremble in their buckets. The seller stands massive in a lit doorway waiting for anyone  brave enough to stop and be whipped cold... Hopper, for instance, could have caught her there as she stands, forever. I need a great figurative to hold this city now. Perhaps I should advertise in Creative & Media Appointments: destitute writer wants mad painter for hopeless project.

Elsewhere, the traffic on the Earl’s Court Road is ‘surrendered completely to traffic. Great congers, hammerheads, bluefins of pantechnicons and artics full-bellied shudder and deafen the walkers going south in a shoal of minnow cars for the river crossings’; a walk to a debate at Kensington Town Hall in Campden Hill Square takes him ‘beyond the tube station where the stream grows quieter and we wait to cross the dusty veldt of the Cromwell Road, whose plane trees pattern the air with their still lifeless tracery.’; at night, ‘the air is aromatic with fish and chips, roast meat from the great turning drums of Kebabed flesh, curry in battered samosa triangles, glossy with grease, and from the stainless steel vats of hot chick peas, mutton, ladies’ fingers, saffron rice’, much as it still is on any given night of the week round here.

The novel is one the funniest, most painfully accurate articulations of detrimentally literate male stasis I know of. Identify yourself as a character in a novel, with all the pseudo-intellectual trappings and imagery that entails, and cyclical fatalism is all but inevitable. I’ve searched long and hard for other novels by Duffy, but so far haven’t had any luck. She is chiefly known as the great lesbian author of the 1960s, but her first-person male narrative in Londoners is up there with the best I’ve ever read- and I’ve read a lot of first-person male narratives. More relevant to this post, though, is the fundamental importance of existing local boundaries to the novel’s structure; Al rarely leaves Earl’s Court, and treats his rare excursions into London as perilous treks. 1980s Earl’s Court is to him, he has decided, what 15th Century Paris was to Villon.

Other areas have their latter-day myths and legends, too, of course; as the aforementioned Iain Sinclair writes in his essay X Marks the Spot (collected in Lights out for the Territory):

We are all welcome to divide London according to our own anthologies: JG Ballard at Shepperton; Michael Moorcock at Notting Hill; Angela Carter- south of the river, Battersea to Brixton, where she hands over to the poet Alan Fisher; Eric Mottram at Herne Hill; Robin Cook’s youthful self at Chelsea, while his fetch minicabs between Soho and the suburbs (meeting Christopher Petit who is making the reverse journey); John Healy sparring down Caledonian Road towards the “grass arenas” of Euston; Peter Ackroyd dowsing Clerkenwell; James Curtis in Shepherd’s Bush; Alexander Baron in Golders Green; Emanuel Litvinoff and Bernard Kops disputing Whitechapel and Stepney Green with the poets Bill Griffiths and Lee Harwood; Stewart Home commanding the desert around the northern entrance to Blackwall Tunnel; Gerald Kersh drinking in Fleet Street; Arthur Machen composing The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering…

… Not to mention Colin McKinnes in W10, Roland Camberton in Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia, Zadie Smith in Willesden, Sinclair himself in Hackney… there would be a great psychogeographical map to be made of all this, were the list not so long and the territory so disputed. If you know of any such thing, I’d very much like to hear…

How Critical Theory Ruined my Life

7 Dec

Photo on 2012-12-07 at 22.09

Sometimes a phrase pops into your head that won’t leave you alone, that you find so bizarrely satisfying that you just have to get the slogan T-shirt printed. Well, almost. The title of this post is one such zinger, doubtless melodramatic and over-zealously wacky to anyone else who sees it, but mildly amusing to me. It’s actually not entirely a joke, either; Critical Theory, or at least the few semi-understood ideas I gleaned from my reading of it, has on occasion made my skull a rather unpleasant place to be.

In my last year at University, I took a course in Post-Structuralist thought. As a preamble, we learned about Structuralism itself, and of how it was ripe to be hijacked by altogether more prescient bunch of wankers in polonecks. While Barthes, Foucault et al remain more fun than, say, disgraced Belgian academic Paul de Man or the inscrutable Jacques Lacan (the man who famously attempted to express his reaction to having his dick sucked as an algebraic equation), reading their work was a minefield for me.

The premise of Structuralism, as I understand it, rests on the idea that no word has any meaning without its complex system of allusions. The word “dog”, for example, is a shorthand signifier for the image of what we call a dog. There is nothing wrong with this- it just saves the effort of getting down on all fours and miming a bark. What it does imply, though, is that there is no such thing as inherent “meaning”; without the language and obvious connotations surrounding an idea, it simply can’t function. Thus, there is no whole without a labyrinthine series of culturally inherited parts.

After reading- and unquestioningly swallowing- a lot of the theory behind this, I accidentally started applying it to myself; I involuntarily began to monitor the regularity of my vital organs. I was suddenly unable to ignore listening to my heartbeat as I lay in bed, and the slightest irregularity in pace started to scare me. Before I knew it, I was getting severe panic attacks and not sleeping for three days on end. I once ended up in hospital for the best part of a day, deaf to rationality. I turned up at A&E on a bright Sunday morning, shaking like a pneumatic drill with Parkinson’s. I lurched my way towards reception and practically keeled over on top of the receptionist.

‘S-s-s-s-orry to t-t-t-rouble you, b-b-b-but I think I’m having a heart at-at-at-attack’

‘Oh. Have you ever had a heart attack before?’ She said, rolling her eyes,

‘N-n-n-no…’

‘Right. Take a seat, please, sir, and we’ll call you as soon as we can’

‘B-b-b-b-ut…’

‘TAKE A SEAT PLEASE SIR’

I did as I was told, taking no comfort from the gloriously (and quite rightly) indifferent attitude of my interlocutor. I sat there trembling for the entire afternoon. Of course, when I was seen to, I was told that I was just having an anxiety attack. I felt a mixture of extreme terror at my undiagnosed impending death and violent embarrassment at having wasted the NHS’s time. I demanded more tests, which they very kindly provided and used to confirm that I was not, in fact, on death’s door. I left the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital morbidly ashamed but still convinced I was about to perish. For the next two weeks, I had to go out of my way to forget about my phantom heart attack lest I end up soaking up any more valuable National Health hours. Have you ever actively attempted to forget something? You might as well attempt to give birth to a Ford Mondeo through your ear.

Looking back on it, it was a more than faintly risible episode; I think- in my panic- I even told the doctor that my troubles had begun with Roland Barthes’ Le mort de l’auteur: can you imagine how that must’ve gone down in the staff canteen? ‘Yeah, we once had a guy in here who was so fucking pseudo-intellectual that he ended getting an ECG scan’.

Whether or not the human body can be considered a “Text” (it can’t, whatever my neurosis might tell me), I hang my head in non-liminal shame.

Necropolitan Sophistication

2 Dec

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