Z by Jim Lawrence

Source: Z by Jim Lawrence

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HERE COMES THE SCIENCE BIT – Einstein’s Masterwork: 1915 and the General Theory of Relativity, by John Gribbin

This is a typically well written and clear exposition of its subject by John Gribbin, one of our finest popular-science authors and a professional astronomer to boot. Einstein’s Masterwork: 1915 and the General Theory of Relativity explains in everyday language how Einstein accounted for gravity’s effects on spacetime summed up in an equation which is far less famous than the E=MC2 of his ‘annus mirabilis‘ in 1905 (his Nobel Prize-winning paper on Brownian motion, his doctoral thesis for the University of Zurich on calculating the sizes of molecules and atoms suspended in a fluid, his paper on the photoelectic effect that explained black-body radiation and proved that light and matter behave in fundamentally the same ways, establishing the reality of light quanta, and the now famous paper on the Special Theory of relativity) but no less important: gμν (gee mu nu).

The possibility that the universe is curved had been posited earlier and independently by the mathematicians Riemann and Clifford. Minkowski had elaborated on the Special Theory, which applies to a notional flat spacetime, with his spacetime diagram, describing how a vector moves along its own timeline relative to constant spacetime. It is a pictorial representation of how inertial frames of reference in uniform motion relate to each other in the Special Theory. The General Theory goes much further by accounting for the acceleration in 4-dimensional curved spacetime of tensors (the non-Euclidean version of the vector). The difference is that the presence of matter creates the curvature of spacetime, and the tensors, of which there may be as many as 16, describe this curvature. Fortunately for the curious general reader, such as myself, who has no background in higher mathematics or cosmology, this is all laid out in a refreshingly straightforward scheme that requires no headache-inducing attempts to grasp equations. Indeed, it is almost tempting to wonder what is so terribly difficult about all this stuff about spacetime curvature, gravitational lensing and all the rest of it, so lucid is Gribbin’s treatment of the material.

There is an illuminating though necessarily not comprehensive account of Einstein’s personal life as it related to his work (after all, the book is about a specific aspect of his work, not a full-blown biography), enough to show the real human being behind the image of the secular saint and omniscient genius. It shows how Einstein’s theories, brilliantly conceived though they are, did not emerge ex nihilo; his great predecessors such as Maxwell, Boltzmann, Planck, Minkowski, et al were working in a scientific culture that grows out of the ingenuity of many minds. However, the singular genius of Albert Einstein shines through. It has been said that the Special Theory would have been developed by somebody around that time if Einstein had not done so; but the General Theory could probably only have been produced by his uniquely fertile imagination. The book ends with an account of the scientific legacy of the General Theory (black holes, time dilation, wormholes, etc) and Einstein’s final years.

This book is pitched at a level which the non-specialist can appreciate without being condescending or irritatingly chummy. It deals with complex ideas that have profoundly changed our understanding of the universe’s structure and workings, ideas which will continue to affect humanity’s future in ways we can only guess at. If you want to get Einstein’s work, get this book.

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An Anarchist’s Declaration by Jim Lawrence

I am not a silent poet

All governments will be disappeared
Being as useless as a spandex tea tray
Nation states will be deported, dragging their discredited boundaries with them
Armies, navies, air forces, cops and spies will become Buddhist monks
Money will be no longer relevant as we all work from love of creation

The laws of physics will seem to be suspended
As miracles that confound description
Turn the streets into blazing visions of shadows and fire

Widows will beat their carpets for gold dust
CEOs will throw themselves at the feet of Gina Lollabrigida
Helicopters will buzz overhead in Busby Berklee formations
Dropping leaflets for propaganda by ballet
Drag queens will be in charge of the economy, redistributing fabulousness
And donkey sanctuaries will become places of secular worship

Everyone will be a legend and deserve the honour of being legendary
Trees will finally be understood
The Great Work will sort everything out and…

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HYPERREALITY FLUX – Twentysix Psychogeography Stations, by Darrant Hinisco

Earlier in 2015 the photographer Darrant Hinisco was browsing in a secondhand bookshop when his interest was piqued by STEPZ, a recently published zine devoted to psychogeography and urban aesthetics. Somehow this copy had found its way in very short order from Yorkshire, where Tina Richardson, the publisher of STEPZ, resides, to this obscure Portugese emporium.  Hinisco contacted her with a view to creating an edition of his photographs, wishing to re-imagine them as psychogeographical praxis. Well, we are living in the era of globalisation, so this may not seem so curious.

What is perhaps a little more curious is this. I know Tina via social media and an interest in psychogeography and architecture, and contributed a piece to STEPZ, but I did not know she had published a new text under her Urban Gerbil imprint. That text is Darrant Hinisco’s Twentysix Psychogeography Stations.

I was browsing in Orbis Books, an antiquarian bookshop in a little-visited Southampton sidestreet. Among the stark shadows, surprising angles and dusty grey light that make the shop’s interior resemble a German Expressionist film set I noticed Hinisco’s little artist’s book. Being a longtime admirer of Ed Ruscha, the pop artist after whose groundbreaking Twentysix Gasoline Stations Hinisco’s work is patterned, I picked it up from Mr. Orbis’s desk. He peered at me and told me he had perused Twentysix Psychogeography Stations. ‘It has something of the hauntological about its images,’ he said in a cracked and ancient voice. He looked at me meaningfully over the rims of his half-moon spectacles. ‘It appeals to me as a believer in the importance of synchronicity in human affairs.’ I had heard Mr Orbis’s gnomic pronouncements on many an occasion, being a regular customer of his peculiar little shop, and therefore expected something weird. I opened the book to find that my friend Tina had produced it. I must have given away my surprise, for Mr Orbis chuckled and said, ‘Perhaps there is even something magical about it.’ Coincidence or a visitation from the weird? Either way, you couldn’t make it up.

In 1963 the pop artist Ed Ruscha created Twentysix Gasoline Stations, a pioneering artist’s book documenting his journey across the United States from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City. During the trip he photographed 26 service stations, beginning in L.A. and finishing in Groom, Texas. Each monochrome image is captioned with its location and brand; there is no other text.


Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Ed Ruscha

Twentysix Psychogeography Stations is a playfully complicated reincarnation of Ruscha’s piece. Where his images are a desolate yet romantic record of a single journey, a drift of the automotive rather than ambulatory kind, simultaneously a literal and toneless reproduction of mass culture imagery and a downbeat celebration of Americana, Hinisco’s collection of images spans several decades and two continents, and problematises artistic representation.

Twentysix Psychogeography Stations is not clearly autobiographical. Indeed the author of the photographs seems to be absent, non-existent. The camera’s eye is detached from the physical, bereft of exterior context. Defamiliarisation is sharpened by the manipulation of photographic effects. Each station is captured within the lens’s paradigm, a percept floating between being and becoming, finally set adrift in a stream of conceptual possibilities within each observer’s imagination. The photographer is not there; only the eye of the beholder’s mind has an ontological status, however numinous.

Yet interpretation is possible. Each station has a caption: not a bald label of surface description but a suggestion, a joke here, a pointed comment there. Brownfield, Somewhere Near You 2015 implies a politics and economy tied up with the problems of new builds, environmental complications, homelessness, property bubbles. The Lack, Leeds 2012 is a fragment of a deconstructed brick archway through which a scrubby bit of heath is visible; but who can say what this represents? There is no metaphysics of presence, simply an unanchored set of signs divorced from any diachronic or synchronic context. Next to it is The Supplement, Leeds 2012. Again the image, a bit of broken wall encircling a pipe outlet, is adrift, but the caption invites comparison with The Lack, functioning as a trace in a possible binary of ‘anywhere/here’.  Some images are labelled simply as ‘the North’, making a joke about regional stereotyping recognisable to anybody steeped in British culture, invoking clichés of whippets, rickets and trouble at t’mill. Two lomographically inspired photographs, The Tourist’s Gaze 1, Halifax 2014 and The Tourist’s Gaze 2, Istanbul 2013 mirror each other in ironic commentary on the psychogeographical critique of tourism and heritage. Fun and games with signs and wonders.

There is another significant difference – or rather I should say différance – between the two books. Gasoline Stations constructs a syntagm of images that support each other in the production of meaning. The observer feels that these pictures are representations of a physical reality out there somewhere, even though the photographs are clearly arranged for artistic purposes  – indeed because they are arranged. Meaning is presented as more or less stable. Psychogeography Stations is the supplement to it, upsetting its ontological stability, usurping its ‘reality’ by functioning as its binary in a representation/simulacrum opposition. Psychogeography Stations, by destabilising interpretation, presents a simulacrum of its predecessor (this is reinforced by the identical cover design), making uncertain the concept of journey by reflecting the underlying form of Gasoline Stations, and subverts its own representation of ‘reality’ via the precession of signs. Meaning is thus deferred endlessly through the mutual simulacricity of the two books as they reciprocally unmake-remake themselves through indissoluable deconstructions. Twentysix Psychogeography Stations is a representation of a simulacrum, a travel in hyper-hyperreality, as real and unreal as anything in the postmodern hall of infinitely reflecting mirrors.


Twentysix Gasoline Stations – original cover design

Humour and seriousness play off against each other in this manner throughout the book. Are we supposed to read these images in particular ways? Should we or should we not take the captions seriously?  Is this art or polemic? Is it consciously presented as an undecidable, inviting us to deconstruct our interpretations, or is it just a random collocation of interesting photographs? Maybe Twentysix Psychogeography Stations is all of these things.

Is any of this real? Is it all just a joke? Don’t ask me.

In the tradition of Dieter Roth, Fluxus, the Russian Formalists and the Futurists, Twentysix Psychogeography Stations extends the codex form, creating an artefact  beyond literature and photography, by introducing further material in the form of a short explanatory note by Hinisco on the publisher’s blog. I must say, though, that why this was done is a puzzle.


So this is a postmodern take on a central form of modernist cultural intervention, possibly a ludibrium, possibly a serious exposition of Derridean and Deleuzean theoretical tropes, possibly an interrogation of simulacricity or possibly a confusing and amusing play of absence and presence and jumbled graphemes.

Oh, and the pictures are nice too.


Twentysix Psychogeography Stations is published by Urban Gerbil:


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WALKING INSIDE AND OUT: Contemporary British Psychogeography, edited by Tina Richardson

Mervyn Coverley’s classic primer Psychogeography, published in 2006, is the essential guide to the history of psychogeography from its precursors in the 19th century via the Lettrists and the Situationist International to currents of drift in the 1990s (Stewart Home, the London Psychogeographical Association) and the literary meanderings of Papadimitriou, Ackroyd, Sinclair and Self. It’s a book you need to read if you want to get an understanding of how psychogeography got to where it was, generally standing about and not doing very much on some lost conceptual street corner, at the time of its publication. But what has been happening in the subsequent near-decade?  Evidently it was time for a new overview of where psychogeography is going now and in the future; where Coverley’s book left off, a new and equally essential account of today’s psychogeographical doers and thinkers would have to take up the story.

Dr. Tina Richardson, a leading practitioner and promulgator of psychogeography and the progenitor of her own Deleuze-and-Guattari-inspired theory Schizocartography, has stepped with her fashionably shod feet into this historical gap and brought to light the various paths being trod by today’s psychogeographers. Hence Walking Inside and Out, a volume of essays exploring theory and praxis, interrogating psychogeography’s history and methodologies from perspectives hitherto not understood or given voice in the field. This is a collection of writings that span a range from the light-hearted and ironic to the politically engaged, taking in aesthetics, tourism, feminism, disability politics, therapy (psychogeography as a tool for treating Alzheimer’s patients), the urban, suburban and rural. The contributions are from prominent psychogeographers working in academia and nowhere near it, presenting a complicated picture of psychogeography as a thing of shifting paradigms and new social potentials.

So being a psychogeographer (if you so choose to call yourself while you drift through the  urban extended phenotype) is being a pavement Pope of Discord or a street-corner preacher in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, an ambulatory ludibrium, a conceptual art joke, a psychoactive trip down Memory Lane via Letsby Avenue, a twerk beneath the cold glare of the CCTV’s lens, looning about in the city’s open spaces, an art praxis mashing up dancing and strolling, vogueing and rambling,  joie de vivre in stout walking-boots. It is sole music.

Or it’s a politically fuelled act as serious as having fun is serious (see the above paragraph), as fun as seriousness should be,  a redrawing of your psychic maps as you walk with conscious purpose but undirected desire and the intention to unearth mystery hiding inside the machinery. You can be a revolutionary of the numinous and noetic, a visionary poet-wanderer, a songline walker, a dawn treader, a twilight loper, a leyline botherer, a hard-headed anticapitalist theory-monger or the girl dancing through the Twining’s Tea advert. All these wonders and more will be revealed if you read Walking Inside and Out with the right kind of eyes.

Walking Inside and Out takes you by the hand and leads you through the streets of late capitalism, gently wandering with the reader around inside the multicoloured and many-faceted mindscape of contemporary psychogeography. The spirit of this collection of essays reflects Richardson’s vision for the new psychogeography: open, forward-looking, refusing dogmas and simplistic categorisations. This book gathers together so many different ways of doing psychogeography, so many possibilities for being a psychogeographer, giving them all their due and celebrating the complex, joyous and challenging nature of the discipline. This book will surely become a classic of psychogeographical literature, a must-read for everyone who would stride confidently and subversively into tomorrow.

Walking Inside and Out is published by Rowman & Littlefield International http://www.rowmaninternational.com/books/walking-inside-out

Tina Richardson blogs at Particulations http://particulations.blogspot.co.uk and

Urbancune http://www.urbancune.co.uk

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AMBULATORY ANARCHISM: On Walking, by Phil Smith

Illumination is most likely to be found where things are everyday and modest.

Reading On Walking is like falling into a dream, into mystery, into the revolution of everyday life. It is a handbook on the practice of mythogeography, Smith’s multifaceted take on psychogeography, an epic poem about the real and unreal, about the science of rational empiricism and the ‘damned data’ of Forteana.


not a finished model. It is a general approach which emphasises hybridity and multiplicity, but does not attempt to limit this to any single combination of elements or homogenous model of diversity.

It think it’s a Pataphysics of slow movement, a Discordianism of spacetime being, a gaming of the Spectacle both joyous and serious.


There is a season, détourne, détourne, détourne!

The mindfulness of magic, the magic of mindfulness, a spiritual discipline, playing to (re)awaken the world in your head.

No maps here, cartography is the artistic medium of spatial ideology.

A  wormhole whirls me back via mystical whorls of manga myth to visions of infinite gyres, circles within circles, worlds within worlds, back to the universes of old drifts (the Epiphany of the Gravel Train last thing at night on North Acton station, all that infinity in a grain of aggregate…those winter evening walks with my mother when I was about fifteen…crossing The Iron Bridge with a primary school friend and his mum…lone drunken wanderings from pubs to home at three in the morning through darkness visible…)

Reading this book is a kind of dérive, I drift through its pages, my brain wandering between thoughts of revolutionary praxis of the consciousness, the New Mind needed for a New Humanity, the shadow of Sebald’s East Anglian journey in the author’s reconstruction of it (it becomes its own thing, of course, not Saturnine), photographs of towers, prettily painted mass-death aeroplanes, a phallic stone monument, alleyways…

Was I a psychogeographer as a boy, playing with neighbourhood kids on the Western Shore (through another wormhole I go)…?

The map is not the territory, I am the territory. You are the territory.


This book is a meditation, a revolutionary pamphlet, a philosophy of being in the spatial realm, a Chymical Wedding of tarmac and shoe leather, a broadside against the alienated images we see through capitalist-tinted Spectacles.

It is beautiful.


On Walking is published by Triarchy Press: http://www.triarchypress.net

Phil Smith is Mythogeography: http://www.mythogeography.com/


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ONE MAN AND HIS DOG ON THE EDGELANDS – Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London, by Gareth E. Rees, Illustrated by Ada Jusic  

I assumed I lived in a totalitarian city. London’s green spaces were prescribed by municipal entities, landscaped by committees, furnished with bollards and swings. There was no wilderness. There was no escape. You couldn’t simply decide to wander off plan. Or so I thought.

In Marshland psychogeographer Gareth Rees, who writes and blogs under the name Hackneymarshman, is documenting a process of deep mapping: a methodology towards engaging the subject’s intellectual, emotional and aesthetic relationships with the built environment and understanding how they evolve in the light of interior experience affected by exterior change. These relationships form a complex perspective, one founded on personal and public history interweaving and changing each other, on the desire to take on the constructed environment and re-imagine it politically rather than passively be guided, taught, shunted hither-and-thither and organised into a state of manufactured consent.

So what is Marshland?

It’s psychogeography in an accessible, non-academic form. It takes the subject out of the lecture hall and applies it to the everyday world beyond the campus. This book is an undecidable: is it memoir, popular history, official history, a story cycle, a novel, a comic, a prose poem or a handbook for the dériviste on the subject of transfiguring the environment? Well it’s all of these but none of them.

So what is Marshland not?

It isn’t obviously Situationist, at least not in the sense of directly conforming to its ideology or continuing its programme of revolutionary praxis. The Ackroydian strain of post-Blake English romanticism is entirely absent, as is Sinclair’s post-Sebald take on the dérive and the urban encounter. Surprisingly, perhaps, given the form of the book, it is not interested in the Earth Mysteries variant of psychogeography. There is nary a ley line to be seen on the marshes, their weirdness notwithstanding.

Rees’s territory encompasses Hackney, Walthamstow and Leyton marshes, bounded by Homerton, Lower and Upper Clapham, Wick Woodland and Walthamstow. This is a place where moribund pubs, secret rave hideouts, cruising grounds, benches for the relief of inveterate drinkers, a church associated with a 19th century religious cult, Victorian filter beds memorialised with piscine statuary, a post-war trading estate, an island bird sanctuary, the River Lea and the Lea Navigation are circumscribed within the author’s reconfigured version of the locale.

This strange land, somewhere between the bucolic and the urban, between the rural past and the metropolitan future, survives as a residual form: slowly dying yet defiantly alive, almost hidden yet irrupting like a dream of a forgotten past into the neurotically ordered present. It is a wild zone where the elements of human motivation thrive outside of the official narratives.

Random gunfire is a faint reverberation of the Blitz. The discarded heads of bears are tragic analogues of prehistoric bear fossils supposedly unearthed in the Lea Valley, possible victims of circus turf wars. Stranger still is The Beast of Hackney Marshes (one of John A. Keel’s Strange Creatures from Time and Space?) – a huge bearlike creature spotted on the marshes numerous times, even as recently as 2009 if the blogs are to be believed. This is typical of all those half-forgotten tales of fell beasts roaming open spaces, ravening hell-hounds on the trail of doomed souls, Alien Big Cats dropped off in the middle of nowhere by UFOs. These fascinations of Forteans and cryptozoologists are for the rest of us just more lumber to be stored in the lightless basements of our collective psyche: not labelled legibly, not organised into clear categories by some rational internal curator. All kinds of cultural detritus build up down there, every urban legend, folk devil, chimera and mass hallucination floating about in the great meme-engine of the human imagination. Marshland is a trapdoor to that basement.

Other denizens of this almost preternatural edgeland seem equally exotic and unlikely. Brown-skinned men indulge in arborially suspended fellatio: a superficially surprising image, given the popular tropes of the middle class white man nipping into the local cottaging venue after work before going home to domestic conformity; the ageing, raddled roué cruising for rent boys in Piccadilly; or the seedy aristocratic remittance man buying Arab street boys in Tangier. Such an encounter upsets all our received wisdoms about ethnicity, religion, class, gender and morality that limit ‘acceptable’ gay modes of being to a safe dominant bourgeois ideology of metropolitan lifestyle choice and domesticated bohemianism. Arab refugees and migrant workers meeting for athletic sexual pursuits in a semi-urban wood are not part of this picture. Hoodies, boozers, ravers and a Rastaman with a wayward dog that drags Hendrix, the writer’s dog, into the river inhabit this domain of dumped safes, floating footballs, windblown carrier bags and thriving riverine wildlife.

The eternal difficulties of the male-female relationship are echoed in the power structures of the factory and the still-taboo interracial sexual encounter. Childhood nostalgia, evoked by the old Lesney factory where Matchbox toys were manufactured, is tied to the realities of worker redundancies. A hapless, pathetic outsider reacts to his unkind treatment at the hands of a small-minded world by transforming himself into a man/bear hybrid and running for refuge to the marshes: the same marshes where a Victorian waterworks engineer and his nemesis, an otherworldly Decadent and flaneur, find themselves pulled out of their time and wander bewilderedly among urban youth with puffa jackets and mp3 players and are terrified by pylons, interpreting these appalling phenomena through the only frames of reference they have. Local myths and local history blur into one, the semi-militarised Olympic Park ironically mocks the old grass-roots struggles over land ownership, public art is subverted by its shadow the graffiti tag, and the animal and the human become the supernatural.

Time and space collapse and intermingle, mutating into an interzone where the post-apocalyptic near-future dystopia disintegrates into the Stone Age, where the Blitz and contemporary gentrification simultaneously create their respective kinds of damage, where the documented history of the local people is focalised through the tropes of Magical Realism, Urban Fantasy, the New Weird and the disorientation of psychedelicised perspectives. The merry misrule of the carnivalesque and the heart of reality’s darkness dance an eternal dialectical tango.

Rees creates his personal marshland out of his own life-story, turning tale into history and history into tale, bringing together the domestic and the civic, in a convincing microcosm of late-capitalist Britain.

But I wasn’t the observer. I’d become one of those people you see doing inexplicable things when you come to the marshes. I’d been exploring the place only a matter of months, and already I had been assimilated into the weirdness. For this reason – being dragged back over the ledge with Hendrix, soaking wet – I saw it as a kind of baptism.

Led every time by his wayward hound into the Mysterium, he drifts through his psychic and actual landscape in response to the messages of his personal vision, becoming part of the story, lighting out for the territory as restructured in his imagination. This parallel realm seems at once real and unreal, one which maps onto real space and warps it into transcendent placetime. This marshland is Rees’s Otherland, my Otherland and your Otherland, re-imagined for you and me.


Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London is published by Influx Press: http://influxpress.com

Gareth E. Rees blogs at www.UnofficialBritain.com

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‘England My England: Anglophilia Explained’ , ‘All the Young Dudes: Why Glam Matters’ by Mark Dery

England My England and All the Young Dudes are long-form essays, recently published online, by the internet’s favourite polymath and cultural critic Mark Dery in which he explores with his customary forensic analysis and Menckenesque wit two formative experiences: his adolescence as an outsider looking in with a mixture of horror and disdain at the banality of contemporary American culture which he suffered as a small-town kid with a hungry intellect who found solace in subversive aspects of Englishness; and as that same adolescent and mascara-eyed Bowie acolyte struggling against rigid heteronormativity and tedium in that very same small-town USA environment. The two essays are of a piece, being thematically connected, and therefore deserve to be discussed in tandem.

England My England centres on an Anglo-Proustian evocation of the writer’s exposure to a kind of Englishness in the shape of The Children’s Wonder Book of Colour, an encyclopaedia aimed at the kids of middle-class parents that came out after the War. It seems to have been a strangely Arthur Ransome-esque potpourri (Dery compares it to his beloved Wunderkammerer) of mildly racist colonialist propaganda, Boy’s Own Paper stories, ornithology, flower pressing and other ‘suitable’ interests for the genteel offspring of the bourgeoisie. I picture an amalgam of Swallows and Amazons, The Dangerous Book for Boys, a Stanley Gibbons catalogue and Kirstie Allsopp exhorting the impressionable little reader to make do and mend and adopt the shabby-chic aesthetic as a viable lifestyle option. Beginning with a disquisition on America’s version of Anglophilia (apparently a subject little considered by our old colony’s Theory types) and its roots in nostalgia for a more blatantly rigid class system, Dery goes into questions of postcolonial angst, racial politics and the televisual offerings from BBC America. Those US fans of Downton Abbey are aching for a simpler time and a simpler hierarchy, alienated as they are from a bewildering social situation created out of multiculturalism, the multiplicity of images generated by the mass media and the cross-border depredations of Neoliberal economics: processes that in different ways and for different reasons destabilise notions of an essential American identity, presumably one based on the WASP template.

The essay examines England´s own notions of Englishness and the ambivalence about it on the left, displaying an impressive awareness of the current debates (I had completely forgotten about Gordon Brown’s speech on reappropriating the Union Jack from the far right, which is cited). A surprising revelation is the influence of the esoteric joys of Progressive Rock on Dery. Prog was a doorway into a world of erudite rebellion, of deep pondering over lyrics and analysis of album sleeves, the antithesis of the leaden stoner subculture that surrounded him. Jethro Tull in particular illuminated his teenage intellectual’s fantasy England, with Ian Anderson´s literate evocations of such exotica as the Church of England and the Blackpool Tower. Thick as a Brick proved to be a key text for rabbinical feats of interpretation, offering visions of a strange otherworld as baroque as any dreamt up by Edward Lear or Mervyn Peake.

This multifariously overdetermined fictional England (but then all nations are fictional, are they not?), this Marmite-and-PG Tips teatime of second-order signs, is happily free of any essentialist taint. Mark Dery is well aware of the unreality of his England, that it is a metadiegetic concoction created out of happenstance encounters with a seductive Other. If only the same could be said of the American – and indeed much of the English – Downton Abbey set. It is as unreal and as fascinating as the 60 million numinous Americas that we British carry around in our mythbound minds.

The Dery cabinet of wonders reveals yet more exhibits in All the Young Dudes. Again English countercultural eccentricity expands the youthful rebel’s dandyfied consciousness via Glam Rock, heralded by the classic Mott the Hoople hit referenced in the essay’s title. Teenage Mark was eager to escape the narrow bonds of dudeness and jockism that were the only ways of being male in his world. For this neophyte aesthete and dandy these options would simply not do, being far from commensurate with his self-described heteroflexible identity. All the Young Dudes was lauded as an anthem for outsiders in general, when it was released in 1973 and topped the UK charts, and was also seen by some critics as a paean to the gay subculture. Dery sees this as erroneous, quoting Lester Bangs’s observations on the place of music in the gay scene – disco, R ‘n’ B, Latino dance, Broadway show tunes, definitely nothing to do with transatlantic pop-rock. There follows an overview of the etymology of ‘dude’, a point of contention between British and American lexicographers (it’s probably connected to the Aesthetic movement in vogue in the 1880s and Oscar Wilde’s lectures in the US), the hidden-in-plain-sight homoeroticism in Saturday Post illustrations and its possible influence on the sleeve art of the single. An interview with the photographer, the legendary Mick Rock, divulges something of the process of the sleeve design. The image chosen is considered an ambiguous one, hinting at dudeness in both the senses of effete dandyism and of blokeish bonhomie. For Dery this locates the record, and Glam as a cultural phenomenon, in a free space that does not stiffly signify a ‘straightforward’ Queerness or simply function as a generalised vehicle for the expression of a Iiberatory teen identity. Rather it is a wild zone where anyone can be gay, straight, bi, heteroflexible, weird, nerdy, dandyish, femme, butch, whatever. Bowie, the song’s composer, is the ‘leper messiah’ who represents all his pretty things as their queeny king totem, but also the revisionist who later deplored his probably commercially motivated coming-out in the early 70s and dismissed any Queer interpretation of All the Young Dudes as misguided. His account of the lyric as a rather siIIy SF plot is unconvincing.

Mark Dery deploys his customary strategy in these engaging essays. He uses his personal experiences as microcosmic takes on the larger questions of American life, showing how the individual and the wider culture make each other. This isn’t some mere writer’s shtick but a technique for structuring cultural criticism in a way that is relevant to the reader. It is a discursive form that blends the pleasures of evocatively written memoir with the intellectual zing of sharply observed analysis. These two essays are  tours de force of Deriana.


EngIand My EngIand: Anglophilia Explained and All the Young Dudes: Why Glam Matters are available as Kindle e­books.

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BOMBSHELL: A NOVEL, by James Reich

The political thriller is a traditionally conservative genre, both ideologically and structurally: it rarely, if ever, ventures into questioning the sociopolitical status quo or exploring character and plot with any other literary technique than third-person realist linear narrative couched in unseasoned meat-and-potatoes prose. All those macho guys like Jack Higgins and Robert Ludlum would never mess with anything fancy like interior monologue or liberalism. Such popular fiction is mostly on the right, presenting unproblematised goodies and baddies: the good guys on the side of God, Queen (or President) and Country, the bad guys out to destroy Everything Decent People Hold Dear, and to hell with mixed motives and complicated moral perspectives.

Well James Reich has come to the rescue for those of us who enjoy suspenseful stories where huge stakes are in play but would rather read Don Delillo’s Libra than the Jason Bourne novels (the films are far superior, by the way). Bombshell: A Novel is a countercultural feminist thriller that pitches two complicated, driven antagonists against each other in a chapter-by-chapter countdown to showdown, a nuclear climax and an atomic anatomising of our collective death-wish embodied in the risk of our addiction to nuclear power in its bellicose and peaceful modes.

Varyushka Cash is a child of the meltdown at Chernobyl, born in that dreadful conflagration and marked for life by its literal and metaphorical fallout. She plans to cause the downfall of America’s nuclear power industry by a series of terrorist attacks culminating in the destruction of the power plant at Indian Point, near New York City. Robert Dresner is the CIA operative, skilled in the totalitarian arts of rendition and summary execution, who is burdened with the task of stopping Varyushka before she sets off her fantasy Big Bang. Varyushka and Dresner are mirrors of each other, both psychopathically motivated to serve a big idea – radical feminist liberation born of violence, a beautiful New Jerusalem constructed from the imagery of the SCUM Manifesto and Riot Grrl riff-rage, in Cash’s case; American power and its metonym the Agency in Dresner’s – but diametrically opposed in terms of sensitivity (Varyushka can love, Dresner can only fuck and possess) and sympathetic potential. Such is Reich’s skill in exposing the psychology of his characters that he can convincingly make the reader side with Cash, however ambivalently, and long for the fall of Dresner. Yet both are killers, leaving behind them the corpses of innocent people caught up in their schemes; both are able and willing to take human life in a cold, rational calculation of ends and means.

This is a brilliant trick to pull off. The author leaves the reader in no doubt as to the critical moral structure of the story, which draws in the major cultural and political developments that grew out of post-Los Alamos/Hiroshima MADness, examines the reformed-radicalism situation of 90s feminists who in one way or another have made compromises with the mainstream world (Reich isn’t judgemental about this, rather showing such realities as understandable if not necessarily inevitable), which uses dreamscapes, stream-of-consciousness passages and tour de force set-pieces to create character and make the reader anxious to know what happens next. But the emotional and intellectual development of Cash and Dresner (also of the heroic but tragic figure of transgender Vietnam vet Molly and various members of the feminist gang who raised Cash from a baby) is persuasively delineated so that the reader understands there is no clear-cut good-guy/bad-guy polarity here, knows Varyushka and Dresner down to the bone, down to the molecules, knows that in some ways they are both the preordained products of their specific circumstances and of 20th century America.

I invoked Delillo earlier, and his angle on modern American history is a useful comparison. This dazzling, absorbing book is working in the same area, taking on the big movements in postwar US society and joining them up with personal destinies, finding the continuities between the two, closing the gap between mass culture and the radical margins, overhauling the great machinery of modernity in a highly personal style.

Bombshell: A Novel is published by Soft Skull Press.


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Ballardian Man and His Symbols – Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard, 1967-2008

A user’s guide to the Ballardennium, Extreme Metaphors is a collection of forensic analyses of the ambiguous, liberating, nightmarish 20th/21st century, a Freudo-Nietzscho-Jungio-rightist-leftist-libertarian hymn to the extremity of our obsessions. We inhabit the dreamworld we have made for ourselves, projected it onto external reality, and we doze happily in our consumerist, media-generated miracle of life while we harbour dreams of flying away, of atavistic immersion in a pre-human state of atemporality, of smashing the whole edifice and finding jouissance in the liberating, empowering destruction of life, limb and the screens of The Great Simulacrum. Ballard doesn’t hide flinchingly behind liberal progressivism and fairytales of inherent human decency; with the scalpel of his own obsessions, which are the same as yours and mine, he dissects the post-war corpse of the bright technological future the western world fantasised about before Hiroshima blew the illusion to bits in a mushroom cloud of pure death-instinct. He knows we are animals evolved just enough to cope with the needs of anthropoids that stalked the East African plains 4,000,000 years ago but who didn’t quite become smart enough to cope with the creations that language and its concomitant, civilisation with its necessary discontents, made possible for the modern ape, homo ballardiensis.

All of Ballard’s concerns and riffs – his ambivalent connections to SF; the collusive emptiness of the English post-war novel; The Atrocity Exhibition and the fractured consciousness of the individual in the mediascape; Crash! and the question of smashing through the illusion of society in a welter of blood, spunk and twisted metal on a real and metaphorical motorway; the insurrectionary potential of a terminally bored suburban bourgeoisie – are scrutinised and explored by and with an impressive roster of astute interlocutors (Ballard saw the interview process as creative and collaborative, a kind of temporary laboratory for his ideas). The terrible and astonishing truths of the modern world are laid bare with visionary perceptiveness and sly humour – something often missed in JGB’s work.

Rich with an exhaustively aphoristic collection of quotable gems, Extreme Metaphors catalogues Ballard’s philosophical interests and salient biographical circumstances (the sources of all those empty hotels and drained swimming pools) from the early 60s up to his final interview in 2008, a moving valedictory to all of us who have admired his work for so long. This collection is essential for all Ballardians, SF fans and anybody who wants to engage with the thought of one of the 20th century’s most important and original social critics.

And yet there is something of a lacuna here, a missing conceptual layer. Ballard’s interviewers, and Ballard himself, concentrate on the two works generally regarded as his most important. The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash! are the books most perspicuously reflective of Ballard’s philosophical perspective and the most cathartic. The former is a struggle, through the decentred prism of his avatar, Travis/Traven, to make sense of reality after the sudden death of his wife, a profoundly traumatic experience that served to confirm and magnify his sense that reality is utterly contingent. The complex, multilayered structure (forget the Naked Lunch comparisons, this is JGB’s anguished counterpart to The Waste Land) and the controversial subject matter that caused the US edition to be pulped would inevitably be the focus of intelligent – and not so intelligent – criticism (TAE is one of the most subversive ‘novels’ ever published). With Crash! Ballard arguably went even further into an alternative consciousness, a world like our ‘real’ one yet so utterly beyond it, a kind of negative (?) fantasy world where a technologised sexuality is divorced from its ‘natural’ object and transferred to a fetishised externality.  And this is the point I’m leading to: JGB rightly insisted on the need to transform reality through the power of the imagination, averring that his fictional situations are guides, however ambivalent in exposition, to a new way of being. Our obsessions become our central motivations, and those motivations build the extended phenotype of the mediated world.  But really he goes beyond this, time and again, throughout his work.  He posits a reality beyond culture, beyond all limits of time and space.  I have always suspected him to be a kind of mystic, a psychic escape-artist, scattering his overwhelming waters and deserts, launching his protagonists into the sky, not only breaking from the repressions that underpin our shaky social contract (Freudian Ballard) but releasing himself into a floating otherworld of nebulous Animas (think of all those strange, ungraspable women in his stories) and slowly shifting sands and engulfing lagoons (Jungian Ballard). When we read Ballard we swim alongside him in the great ocean of the collective unconscious.

Reading the interviews in Extreme Metaphors brought this mystical aspect into stark focus, and sometimes Ballard’s own words indicate that he is conscious of this interpretation of his sensibility and his writing. This is why, for me, Ballard’s most radical, most downright weird book is The Unlimited Dream Company. This is the work that has had the least attention from critics and the one that Ballard seems to have talked about the least. Maybe he wrote even weirder than he realised.  His only story set in his sleepy Ur-Suburbia, Shepperton, it tells of an apparently dead pilot who becomes a psychedelic shaman-guide transfiguring the dozing denizens of the little town and bringing them with him as they spontaneously take to the heavens, dropping the earthly burdens of their shopping onto the street. This is the book which, I strongly suspect, is the one most fully informed by his single LSD trip, which he took in the late 60s with seemingly hellish consequences; for there is so much in TUDC that is analogous to the alteration of perception and understanding undergone by the tripper. While I believe Ballard when he says that he tried acid some years after writing The Crystal World, citing this as proof of the latent potential of the creative imagination (after all, Flann O’Brien didn’t use psychotropics to create his own unsettling, comic Purgatory, The Third Policeman), the undoubted magnification of that warped, beautiful, horrific potential is certainly the inspiration of this uniquely strange book.

Elsewhere Ballard has talked of his appreciation of the pictures of Stanley Spencer, England’s greatest mystic painter alongside Blake. I believe this is no diversion from his attachment to Ernst, Dali and Delvaux but a central explanation of his project and his understanding of life. Just as Spencer made Cookham, his ‘village in Heaven’, a zone beyond the mundane, so Ballard did with Shepperton, a suburb in that very same place.

(Extreme Metaphors is edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara and published by Fourth Estate)

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