Tag Archives: Will Self

John Peel didn’t mean shit to me: my radio education

I’ve been thinking a lot about radio recently. It’s partly to do with the launch of Apple’s new radio station but really began when I read London’s Pirate Pioneers by Stephen Hebditch, and continued when I started Bob Stanley’s excellent history of pop music, Yeah Yeah Yeah, which has some interesting thoughts on the way Radio One has shaped British music tastes and the roles played in this by different controllers and their chosen DJs. As ever, Stanley talks a lot about John Peel, who for many music fans was a lifeline to new, exciting music. For much of the 1980s, this was the only place you could hear music that other DJs might deem difficult or unpopular. Get a bunch of music fans of a certain age together, and they’ll soon talk about the important of Peel in their musical education.

It’s at this point I usually look at my shoes and hope the discussion moves on. Peel was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me. That’s because when I was starting to seeking out music – a little later than most, I was in my late-teens before I discovered any music that really spoke to me – Peel was barely to be found on Radio One. He occupied a tea-time shift on Saturday afternoons when I was usually coming back from watching football. I’d listen when I could because the elder guardians of the NME/Melody Maker said I should, and I remember avidly listening to the Festive Fifty at Christmas despite the protestations of my parents. But my heart wasn’t in it no matter how much I adored Strange Fruit’s wonderful budget collection of Peel Sessions LPs.

Instead, I was a devoted listener to Mark Radcliffe, whose show ran from 10pm-midnight four nights a week (and before that, weekly on Radio 5, which I also listened to). Radcliffe was given the sort of freedom that was highly unusual in national radio. He could play pretty much anything he liked, and happily mixed old with new. It was here that I first heard bands like The Leaves, The Sonics and Paul Revere & The Raiders, and discovered I really liked garage rock. He played a fair amount of indie just as the genre went massive, but gave it some context by playing it alongside records from the 1960s and 1970s, largely guitar-based but not entirely.

This was important, there was no streaming then, no internet at all, and oldies stations like Capital Gold generally stuck to the standards, so the only way to hear this kind of marginal music was by tracking it down in record shops and taking the risk of the purchase, or hearing it on the radio.

But the other thing he did was place the music within a wider cultural context. Guests came in to talk at length about films and books. He even did poetry. And the guests were immaculately selected: Will Self did a weekly slot on cult books, his unsettling drone of a voice perfectly suiting portentous, absorbing discussions of Kafka, Hesse, Burroughs and Huxley. In contrast to the regal Self, Mark Kermode would enthuse about cult films like a woolly teenager. He usually manged to slip in a mention of The Exorcist but, like Self, would cover a range of genres and era, showing how the dots connected. He’d also, I think, point out interesting films being screened at 2am on C4 so you could set the video. Every week, this pair gave me suggestions for something new to get from the library, or at least talk about knowledgeably, as if I’d read or watched them myself.

Simon Armitage and John Hegley would recite poems, which even then I didn’t much like but hell, just think about that for a minute, weird northern poets on national radio talking to teenagers. There were other guests too, comedians, journalists, mates of Radcliffe and his sidekick Riley, who joined in with the daft quizzes and silly set-pieces, but it was the mix of old and new music, spiced with literature and cinema that I was listening for.

You see, I loved music, but it wasn’t the centre of my life, which is how John Peel always seemed to present it, with deathless, off-putting, intensity. Radcliffe in contrast used music as a crucial flavouring in a cultural casserole. It felt mind-expanding, and was a massive influence on my education, on how I perceive music even today.

I don’t know if Radcliffe’s show stands up now, I don’t really want to know, but here’s a link to a fan’s website and some clips from one of the shows.

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New London writing, or What the fuck is psychogeography anyway?

I don’t think anybody, with the possible exception of Will Self, really knows what psychogeography means but that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of it about. For years, the London writing landscape has been dominated by three masters of the genre, the Ackroyd-Sinclair-Self trinity (in this interview, Self distinguishes between their different approaches) – it’s hard to find a book in the Museum Of London bookshop that doesn’t have an intro penned by one of them – but that is starting to change. In the past year or so, three books have been written by debutant writers that take a broadly psychogeographical approach – you can tell this by the use of words like ‘palimpsest’ and liminal’ –  to the city or patches thereof but are happy to present it in a more approachable, less LRB-approved style.

The man above is Nick Papadimitriou, and his Scarp is the most Sinclairian of the three, written by a man obsessed with a small parcel of land on the city’s northern border. ‘I’m trying to get below the surface into something that’s moving in my mind as much as in the landscape,’ he says, which doesn’t say a great deal and is therefore as neat a summary of his obscure methodology as you are likely to find. Scarp is a wonderful book, a brilliantly obsessive and beautifully observed celebration of the meditative quality of what Papadimitriou calls deep topography and the rest of us know as walking. It’s also classic psychogeography in that you read it in the knowledge that a significant proportion of the theorising is total codswallop, but at least it is entertaining codswallop, an intriguing combination of the occult and broad generalisations about place drawn from a tiny physical space.

Next up in This Other London by John Rogers, a lighter but similarly intentioned account of ten walks – ‘a plunge into the unknown’ – around fairly random parts of London that were previously just strange names on old maps to the author, a film-maker and good egg. Rogers has none of the astonishing familiarity with his territory as Papadimitriou and he makes a virtue of this, imbuing the book with the joy of new discovery. It is, as a friend noted, a salute to the rewards of simple rambling, of going somewhere unusual and just strolling, or flaneuring to use the specific vernacular of psychogeography. As an alternative guide to London walks – or an inspiration to do the same yourself – it is a marvel.

Finally, came Gareth Rees‘s Marshland, hallucinatory, speculative non-fiction about the marshes of Hackney and Walthamstow that combines Scarp‘s deep knowledge about a specific locality with the dry wit and accessibility of This Other Land. Again, Rees is fond of that psychogeographical turn of phrase – ‘There is no final draft of London’, being a particularly fine example – but laces it with humour as he explores this odd landscape of rave holes, filter beds, football pitches and reservoirs (and a fascinating landscape it is too), mixing in a bit of fiction and even offering an audio soundtrack. Rees has a tremendous, natural, written voice and the book fairly skips along. I loved it.

All three books are a lot of fun and that is the great, dirty, secret of psychogeographical writing – it is hilariously fun to do as you train your brain to make grandiose statements about people, place and history that you are fairly sure won’t stand up to any great inquisition but look fucking brilliant on paper. Bill Drummond’s neat summary of psychogeography is perfect – ‘An intellectual justification for what I have been doing most of my life’.

I do not consider myself to be a psychogeographical writer (and here I express some of my dislike of it), but that’s not to say I’ve never indulged in it myself of occasion (as here, when writing about Wappingness), particularly when asked to do so by property developers, who seem to love this style of writing as a way to signify their deeper engagement with the city they are hoping to exploit.

By my experience then, psychogeography is used as much to shift property as it is to expand and combine the frontiers of space and mind, which is perhaps inevitable in London, where any amount of folklore and fauna only really has any value if it can be seen to have a positive effect on land prices. I’m not entirely sure that this is what Guy Debord was hoping for when he first conceived his theory, but given that he’s long gone there’s not a great deal he can do about it.

Situationists at the Sailors' Society in London during the 4th Conference of the Situationist International. Those assembled included (from l. to r.): Attila Kotányi, Hans-Peter Zimmer, Heimrad Prem, Asger Jorn (covered), Jørgen Nash (front), Maurice Wyckaert, Guy Debord, Helmut Sturm, and Jacqueline de Jong. To ensure that the proceedings were kept away from any contact with artistic circles or London newspapers, the conference took place in Limehouse, "a district renowned for its criminals."

Guy Debord’s Situationists in Limehouse, in search of Wappingness and investment opportunities.

Five fictional Londons

For more on London Fiction, see the latest issue of the wonderful Curiocity map-magazine. 

Nú Lundun

The Book Of Dave (2006)

Will Self’s phonetic and splenetic Mockney masterpiece imagines a future London buried beneath flooded waters. It is set on the island of Ham, all that remains of Hampstead Heath, where the inhabitants worship a psychotic taxi driver, so take a cab up to Parliament Hill and imagine yourself looking down upon a lagoon. The book ends in Nú Lundun, rebuilt near Nottingham.

MAP

Un Lun Dun

Un Lun Dun (2007)

China Mieville’s underground fantasy city populated with things that people in real London throw away and accessed through a door in an estate in Kilburn. If you stand in the right part of Charing Cross Road and stare through a grille in the pavement, you can see a subterranean sign for a long-lost London street – perhaps this is how we can enter Un Lun Dun?

 

Brit-Cit

2000AD (1980s-present)

A post-apocalyptic city of giant towers and rage imagined by the creators of Judge Dredd, this megalopolis has distinctive landmarks like the New Old Bailey, Bigga Ben and the Battersea Mutants Home. The closest you can get to it today is by walking around Canary Wharf in a motorcycle helmet shouting ‘Drokk’ at passing bankers.

 

London Below

Neverwhere (1996)

Neil Gaiman’s TV series about a magical subterranean London where many of London’s evocative place names – Angel, Earl’s Court, Knightsbridge – have come to life: there’s a real angel, a real earl and the Night’s Bridge is an ominous stone bridge. Recreate the experience by going to Catford shopping centre with a tin of Whiskas and trying to entice the giant cat down for a cuddle.

Londongrad

Comrade Dad (1986)

Short-lived sitcom starring George Cole and set in London in 1999 after a Communist invasion – the opening credits feature the Red Army marching through Trafalgar Square while a revolving red star sits atop Nelson’s Column. Recreate the experience by living in a tiny London bedsit struggling to pay the heating bills while the government and their cronies bathe in diamonds and caviar and listen to your phone calls.

Know London

City-lit London

This is an edited extract of an introduction I wrote for City-Lit London, a superb anthology of London writing, from 2009.

I don’t really know London. This despite having lived and worked within the collar of the M25 for my entire life, something that is simultaneously a source of great pride and creeping shame. I’ve explored it, sure. I’ve gazed down at dawn on drowsy Londoners from atop a thirteenth-century church tower in Hackney. I’ve listened to the hum of traffic passing overhead from deep within the buried Fleet River beneath Holborn Circus. I’ve walked the Thames one Sunday afternoon from St Paul’s to Hampton Court, been to the end of more than half the tube lines, sniffed Billingsgate Market’s early-morning buzz and fed the black-tongued giraffes at London Zoo. I’ve even travelled every bus from 1 to 50 in numerical order, a task that’s taken me to every point of the compass from Debden in the north-east to Fullwell in the south-west (no, I’d never heard of them before I started, either). But I still don’t know London. Not really. There are vast tracts of its urban geography that are a total mystery to me, a no-man’s land, vacant lots, blank space in my internal A-Z.

This is not an unusual condition. Indeed, it might even be a necessity for living a sane, balanced London life because most of the city’s residents seem to suffer from it, some quite contentedly, perfectly happy to stay within the few square miles where they live and the West End where they work. This could be because there is simply too much London to handle ― too many streets, too many people, too much history, too many inconsistencies. The London cabby, scientists say, has developed a larger-than-average hippocampus ― the part of the brain that processes navigation – simply to cope with all the information. One of them, Fred Housego, even won ‘Mastermind’ in 1980.

Most of us don’t even try to deal with all this geographical sludge. In Soft City, Jonathan Raban’s charismatic study of the modern city from 1974, he noted: ‘The Greater London Council is responsible for a sprawl shaped like a rugby ball about twenty-five miles long and twenty miles wide; my London is a concise kidney-shaped patch within that space, in which no point is more than seven miles from any other… I hardly ever trespass beyond those limits, and when I do, I feel I’m in foreign territory, a landscape of hazard and rumour. Like any tribesman hedging himself in behind a stockade of taboos, I mark my boundaries with graveyards, terminal transportation points and wildernesses. Beyond them, nothing is to be trusted and anything might happen.’

This is a common way of behaving, retreating within self-imposed borders and putting up the fences to the darkness on the other side. It’s captured by Tarquin Hall’s passage from Salaam Brick Lane and the stark single-line confession: ‘Most of London, the city of my birth, was as foreign to me as Prague’. The bard of Cricklewood, Alan Coren, explored a related theme in typically whimsical fashion in which he imagined his intended tour of all the London landmarks he has never actually visited – the Tower of London the Monument and the Serpentine — having decided to leave that sort of thing to the tourists.

No wonder and no shame. If you’re born in Harrow, what should you understand of Harlow? If you live near Crystal Palace park, why would you need to know Hampstead Heath? How many Londoners have ever toured the Houses of Parliament or been into the Whispering Gallery of St Paul’s? The greatest area of neglect is the City — if you don’t work within that glorious square mile that contains all history from the Romans to the Credit Crunch why would you ever have a reason to go there? Londoners leave it to tourists and bankers.

And then there are the contradictions. This is the city that features some of the wealthiest real estate within some of the most deprived boroughs in the United Kingdom; the city whose ships helped spread English around the world but is now home to more than 250 different languages and has schools where the native tongue is barely spoken; the city that when called upon to appoint a new mayor, replaced a left-wing, working-class, car-hating socialist with a right-wing, public-school educated, neo-Thatcherite motoring correspondent, two iconoclasts who seemed to have nothing in common bar a quick wit and mutual contempt for orthodoxy. Who can get their head round that?

So, how can you learn to master this metropolis, the first great city of the modern age and still the world leader in art and commerce? Well, you could follow in the footsteps of Phyllis Pearsall, the creator of the single greatest London book – and one that is understandably omitted from this anthology – the A-Z. In the 1930s, Pearsall claimed to have walked every one of London’s 23,000 streets – that’s around 3,000 miles of serious perambulation – in her determination to produce the most comprehensive map of London that is humanly possible. It’s almost certainly an urban myth, but the conceit is admirable.

Alternatively, you could save on leatherwear and consult some of the other classics of London literature, those writers who have made it their business to understand the city, or at least their particular patch of it. After all, will anybody ever show off Soho like Colin McInnes, or capture Camden like David Thomson? Virginia Woolf’s West End is so beautifully developed, so perfectly drawn, so hyper-real, it almost dwarfs the genuine article. And Monica Ali’s Brick Lane places it as firmly on the tourist map as Big Ben and the Wheel, so you can tell yourself that there really isn’t any need to check it out for yourself.

London books allow you to travel in time as well as space. McInnes’s Soho is the good one, the one we’ve all heard about from the 1950s, when it was still raw, neon-lit, jazz-fuelled and edgy rather than a shallow cluster of over-priced restaurants and drunken daytrippers wondering where all the loucheness has gone (it’s still there, just, in secret drinking clubs and members’ bars hidden behind nameless Georgian façades). And Thomson’s Camden is one on the verge of massive change, a working-class district of pubs and markets that is about to experience the first invasion by the middle-classes that will recondition the area beyond all recognition, setting off a chain reaction of gentrification around London’s inner suburbs from Notting Hill to Islington. For those of us who only know these places in their current incarnation, this stuff has an extraordinary archaeological value that their authors could never have intended, like the background of family photographs that show furniture and fittings everybody forgot about long ago because they never bothered to record them.

But that’s not to say things were so much better in the old says. Indeed, one of the most important things about this volume is that it emphasises the current prodigious strength of London writing. Yes, there’s Dickens and Woolf and Conrad and Wilde and Conan Doyle – as there should be – but there’s also Ackroyd and Sinclair and Self, the titanic trinity of contemporary London writing. Since the 1980s they have done more to resurrect the concept of London writing as a standalone genre than anybody since the Victorians, when London, the New Jerusalem, was seen to embody the contradictory values of Empire and became a rich source of fiction and journalism. They have encouraged the rediscovery of some of the lost classics of London literature and fostered the climate in which anthologies like this one can flourish. In their wake, modern classics have followed, from Justin Cartwright’s snappy satirical novel Look At It This Way to Sukhdev Sandhu’s invaluable nocturnal jaunts into the belly of sleeping London in Night Haunts. This regained respect for London writing also allows the voice of the new Londoner to be heard — the 27.1 per cent of the population that the 2001 census considered to be non-native-born ― through authors such as Xiaolu Guo, with her faux-naïve extracts from A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. In Rebecca Taylor’s ‘London Lives’ we even meet one of these recent arrivals in the form of a young brother and sister who travel to London from Poland to begin their new lives, part of the huge wave of Eastern European immigration that has transformed the city in recent years.

It is authors from this final category who could provide some of the finest and boldest London writing of the twenty-first century, because they will come to the city with a fresh mind and open eye, prepared to live and work in those parts of London that are closed by personal choice to most natives. None of them, of course, will ever really get on top of London, even if they choose to stay here for the rest of their lives — but every little bit helps. And if you put all the fragments together, you may one day get something close to the full picture, the London that we all love, even if it’s not the one we know.

Cockney Visions: Writing Britain at the British Library

The British Library’s new exhibition Writing Britain, which runs until 25 September 2012, has big ambitions. It aims to study place and landscape in British literature, looking at how writers and poets have been informed by the land around them, and how their writing has transformed the way we view these spaces.

Phew!

The exhibition is divided into different thematic sections, and includes one on Cockney Visions about London writing, and another on the suburbs, which also has considerable London content.

It’s a remarkably bold concept, but the BL does not shy from a challenge – its exhibition on Liberty a few years ago was one of the most intellectually intense I have ever seen, while the one on Language was similarly involved.

This time, it doesn’t quite pull it off. The problem is the same that blighted last year’s science fiction exhibition – too many books. Entering a BL exhibition is like visiting a first rate antiquarian bookshop, but one were you can’t touch the books and none of them are for sale. It’s great to see these rare and beautiful books, but it’s also incredibly frustrating that you can’t pick them up, feel the pages, smell the history.

Paradoxically perhaps, books are also an insufficient way of examining landscape in the way the exhibition intends. If we can’t actually sit there and read Wuthering Heights, immersing ourself in this extraordinary place the writer has created, we need other ways to make the journey. The most evocative part of the exhibition is the one on the Lake District and Highlands, purely because there are some wonderful paintings on display, which help crystallise our vision of what Wordsworth, Keats and Scott were describing. Conversely, the London section takes in the usual suspects on that well-trod wander from Blake and De Quincey to Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Will Self and Iain Sinclair  (and includes a wonderful copy of the London Psychogeographic Society newsletter from the early 90s), but fails to really plunge us into the city of our imagination.

Where the exhibition – and the BL itself – really does excel is when it can produce original manuscripts, diaries and photographs. These messy, scrappy, lovingly flawed items show the writing process in a way a beautifully bound finished book never can. And some of the best of these are to be found in the sections of the exhibition related to London. There’s a sketch by John Betjeman of Dalston Station; an unpublished poem by Evelyn Waugh about the Crystal Palace (complete with Waugh’s drawing of the building); a couple of pages from JG Ballard’s collection, including the heavily amended opening pages to Kingdom Come and Crash; and a lovely drawing by GK Chesterton to accompany his notes for The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Dalston Station by John Betjeman.

Kingdom Come manuscript

Notes for The Napoleon of Notting Hill by GK Chesterton

I loved also a letter by Conan Doyle sent to his mother from South Norwood, in which he carefully sketched the floorplan of a suburban house he was thinking of buying, and a copy of Pygmalion, which Shaw had phonetically annotated to show how he felt the cockney phrases should be pronounced.

a personal favourite was a draft of Albert Angelo by BS Johnson, showing how Johnson wished a section of one page to be cut out so it would reveal a sentence from later in the book, a brilliant way to create a  flash-forward or pre-cognition.

Best of all, though, was this photograph, which shows JM Barrie, GK Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw dressed as cowboys in 1914. For the full story, read this excellent blog post. It has very little to do with Writing Britain, but it’s bloody marvellous all the same.

Ballardian

I spent this morning at the British Library, looking at the recently acquired archive of JG Ballard. Ballard is one of those authors whose work I have devoured, absorbed, appreciated, exalted and admired but never really adored or even enjoyed, absolutely, that is without reservation.

I read him partly because I feel I should, not necessarily because it gives me the escapist satisfaction of my favourite writers. That’s not to say I read him out of dour and unwilling duty, like a GCSE student forced to confront Conrad, but it is markedly different to how I approach writers like James Ellroy, Jose Saramago or John Lanchester. With them, I know that no matter what the subject, I’m going to have a blast. With Ballard, it’s more complex. I know what I’m going to get, I’ll admire the way it is written, but I won’t be knocked off my feet, not any more anyway.

Ballard’s enthusiasts – among them Will Self and Iain Sinclair – often attribute to him extraordinary powers of insight and perspicacity, of having an almost mystic-like view of what awaits the world. There is some truth in this, as he accurately anticipated an atmosphere of suburban psychosis and predicted a society of disconnected and violent insular communities who have a paranoid fear of the ‘outsider’. But in general, it’s all a bit overstated.

His best novel is 1975’s ‘High Rise’, where he first put together a plot he then relentlessly repeated for almost 35 years – an enclosed community, a charismatic professional, a tribal awakening, a middle-class orgy of destruction.  Many of the books that followed were almost identical, just with the location changed (one of the best is ‘Super-Cannes’ from 2000).

By 2003’s ‘Millennium People’, his dire penultimate novel set in contemporary London, the methodical working through of these familiar tropes had passed firmly into the territory of self-parody. It was still ecstatically reviewed by critics, obsessed with the man rather than the novel he had written. Personally, I have more time for his early short stories, which are more or less straight science fiction and absolutely brilliant but often dismissed by those who are more interested in what he did after the seismic auto-porn ‘Crash’.

All that said, the archive acquired by the British Library is fascinating and will keep biographers busy for years. Expect many of them to mention his early school report for English, which says he ‘has remarkable ability… but with greater concentration, his work could be even better’.

What astounds when looking at the archive is the amount of revision Ballard applied to his work. His first typeset draft of ‘Crash’ is loaded with handwritten amendments, almost every word appears to be changed in a visual, violent display of self-editing. The level of self-criticism is terrifying – it’s enough to put you off the idea of ever being a novelist.

The British Library member of staff in charge of cataloguing the archive says that the most exciting part of his job is getting a new collection in from a great writer and taking the lid off the box to see their novels in draft form. ‘What’s it going to look like? How did they write?’

Those interested in the answers to those questions should get to the British Library from Friday, June 11, where two pages from ‘Crash’ will be on display at The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library.