Don’t Let Him Steal It Away

On Saturday night I heard that Chuck Berry had died, aged 90. This was a passing I had often thought about in advance. I had often reflected on how someone as momentous, crucial and venerable as Berry was still alive. He had toured to a late age – it wasn’t as though he had quit upon turning 40 or even 65 – and I had to reflect that I should have tried to see him play when I had the chance. I had often thought: when Chuck Berry dies, all the obvious scripts will appear: The father of rock & roll … Johnny B. Goode … made it cool to play a red guitar … duck-walked and dived through a segregated world full of traps for an African-American. All true. People would play the songs and say they had loved them. I just always thought: can’t we do this while he’s still alive?

The same remains true, now, of Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and even Burt Bacharach – who is only two years younger than Chuck Berry!

I watched a clip from the concert video Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll (1987), of Chuck Berry and Keith Richards rehearsing ‘Carol’. I watch it over and over. It’s tremendously entertaining: partly because the music is exciting; partly because of the rawness of hearing electric guitar sounds collide in a room; partly because of the comedy of Berry telling Richards he’s playing it wrong. My recollection is that in the rest of the film, this happens again in various other ways, Berry pulling rank on Richards perhaps because he had heard someone say ‘Keith Richards plays Chuck Berry better than Chuck Berry’. But I’ll stick to this clip for now. Here are a few elements and moments that strike me.

  • Why is KR playing the lead intro anyway? Some kind of deliberate delegation from CB.
  • KR at this point is a very good guitar player: a stinging lead player as well as producer of chunky chords (in fact there are no chunky chords here and come to think of it none of the unusual tunings that KR is always said to rely on: this is clearly standard tuning). I note this because 30 years later, I’m doubtful that KR can still play this way; on stage now he can appear to be going through the motions, his hands no longer up to it.
  • CB stops KR with the claim that he isn’t correctly playing a phrase of woozy bent notes at the end of the lead intro riff. So you get to hear them both bending these notes, several times, with their different guitars. Around 0:28 you can hear them both doing it at once.
  • At this point in history, CB can’t be bothered to sing ‘Don’t let him steal your heart away’. He sings: ‘Don’t let him steal it away’.
  • Nor can he bothered to sing ‘I’m gonna learn to dance if it takes me all night and day’. He sings: ‘I’m gonna learn to dance if it takes me night and day’. The loss of the word curiously reminds me of the verbal awkwardness cultivated by late (as in 2000s) Bob Dylan.
  • Around 0:51 the drummer looks worried and stops playing. CB seems unsatisfied.
  • 0:54: KR’s face as he demonstrates ‘chugging rock’. CB looks cool and silent in response. I think this must be what CB is unsatisfied with. There is something plaintive about KR’s comic demonstration of his approach.
  • 0:58: CB so serene in response, as though silently disdainful.
  • The different sounds of their two guitars: KR’s brittler and sharper. Well, that’s what I think till I realize perhaps I can’t always tell them apart.
  • Between 1:06 and 1:22 CB twice stops KR in full flow. He doesn’t yell, but uses silence for authority; even a quiet menace. At 1:20 KR does a terrific take and CB stops him: ‘You wanna get it right, let’s get working‘.
  • 1:33: KR’s face with a slight lemon-sour exasperated expression, hidden from CB, as though becoming exasperated yet unable to voice any resistance.
  • 1:46: super brief burst of lead playing from CB who is mostly quiet during this performance.
  • The regular cuts to band members, like the piano player at 2:00, looking anxious yet familiar with the stop-start scene and CB’s authority.
  • 2:10: KR still has energy to throw expressive poses into the lead intro riff.
  • 2:17: CB throws in the bent-notes climax he has been complaining about as though to patch up KR’s performance. He does the same at 3:12.
  • 2:30 – 2:40: squalls of lead playing in response to CB’s vocal … all turn out to be played by CB!
  • 3:07: the discordant garage sound of the two electric guitar noises colliding, with unwanted notes leaking out.
  • KR’s solo at 3:30 gets CB’s approval even though he misses a phrase. The passage descending from the high notes feels not like heavy blues rock but more the slightly dainty 60s sound from the time of the first Stones LP.
  • 3:57: the expressiveness and force of CB’s voice – and then the amused face he makes as he stands back from the mic, showing how much he is in control of his pantomime vocal effects.
  • 4:30: You can see CB enjoying the performance, after all.
  • 4:43: confirmation as he says Yeah … Yeah over the lead riff’s latest iteration.

I could still watch this a few more times.

Electric Garden

Image-9.-Paolozzi-Horizon-of-Expectations-Screen-print-1967

The artist Sir Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005), Edinburgh-born of Italian descent, was a pioneer of Pop Art. The Whitechapel Gallery is exhibiting his work (February to May 2017) in a major retrospective showing over 250 items.

Paolozzi’s early works, from Paris and London in the 1940s, include heavy, rugged bronze sculptures and drawings that don’t disguise their flatness. Picasso is an influence; the metal sculptures of distorted figures perhaps belong to the same world as the different shapes, in a similar period, repeatedly produced by Henry Moore and Giacometti. Paolozzi is then shown to move closer to commercial design, with his company Hammer Prints in the mid-1950s. Patterns take intriguing titles from place names. A big Collage Mural (1952) of geometric lines hung on the walls of an architectural practice. A cocktail dress is decorated in Paolozzi’s patterns. Pop Art is something else again. In 1952 Paolozzi presented a lecture called ‘Bunk’ consisting of no words, just a series of projected images taken from mass-cultural sources. The images are on show again here: adverts, popular science magazines, science fiction. In a lot of cases, Paolozzi seems to have done little with the materials. The artwork of publications like Thrilling Wonder Stories retain great charm, but here Paolozzi’s contribution is not so much any manual skill, rather a way of looking anew at such material.

Paolozzi goes on to intervene more with his Pop materials. General Dynamic F.U.N. (1970) is a box set of individual screenprints and photolithographs from press, advertising and cinematic images, treated in strange colours and mixed with abstract patterns. The viewer can’t get at the box, only watch a video in which the exhibition’s curator and two Paolozzi enthusiasts handle and discuss it. Their talk of a ‘syntax’ of the images and of the viewer becoming a co-creator, simply because the individual sheets lack an order, is overegged. I wasn’t convinced that these disparate pages innately tended to demand or imply any sequence as (presumably a relevant comparison) the prose of B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969) might, as a function of its medium, be said to do. But we get to see J.G. Ballard’s note on the work – ‘a unique guidebook to the electric garden of our minds’ – pointing up his interest in Paolozzi’s art which dated back to the 1956 exhibition This is Tomorrow. A wall in the same room holds As Is When (1965), a sequence of twelve large prints in which bold colours and patterns are annotated with cut-out fragments from the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and from Norman Malcolm’s memoir of the philosopher. Silhouetted soldiers, stripes, squares, skyscrapers, the shape of Mickey Mouse, combine with sentences like ‘Is belief a kind of experience?’ and ‘A picture is a model of reality’. I’m not sure how far Paolozzi’s understanding of Wittgenstein (who also recurs later in the exhibition) was deep or merely opportunistic or intuitive. But here words and image create an intriguing collision. Both elements bring something that they would not have alone.

Paolozzi persistently uses images of machines and mechanical parts, sometimes seeming to stage them as buildings in landscape in a way that provocatively suggests Brutalism or totalitarian architecture. On the second floor of the exhibition we also see his work of the 1970s take a more sardonic and parodic relation to the art world itself; a late sequence of busts; information about his ‘primitivist’ work with materials from the British Museum in the mid-1980s; and a reminder of his 1982 mosaic designs for Tottenham Court Road station, most of which was preserved and reassembled when the station was reconstructed in the mid-2010s. The single most striking development, seeming quite different from the more expressionist earliest work, is the way that Paolozzi’s art takes on the flavour of the computer. In cheerfully lurid colours the patterns of his prints comprise grids, circles, rectangles. They suggest ideas of electronic networks and systems, or more simply the actual inside of electrical items and circuitboards. Thomas Pynchon’s fictional character Oedipa Maas, circa 1964, looks down on the ‘ordered swirl’ of urban sprawl and is reminded of the ‘unexpected, astonishing clarity’ of a printed circuit. Paolozzi’s imagination here suggests a related instinct for seeing the world through electronic patterns that, in these later decades of the twentieth century, are becoming pervasively influential on everyday life. We can readily see Pop Art as enduringly pertinent to our world of received images; but perhaps Paolozzi’s fascination with circuits and networks is still more distinctively prescient, suggesting the very technology on which his art can now be instantly viewed and transmitted.

Crisis? Which Crisis?

Nicola-Sturgeon-SNP-Scottish-independence-referendum-273692

On Monday 13th March 2017, a day before UK PM Theresa May had been expected by some to begin the process of UK withdrawal from the European Union, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced her intention to seek a new referendum on Scotland’s membership of the UK.

I don’t want Scotland to leave the UK. But I admire Nicola Sturgeon for being the only person able to stand up to Theresa May and the ghastly Brexit people and have any actual effect or clout. The annoyance and confusion of the Brexit people – who ‘warn’ Parliament to vote in a certain way and seek to intimidate the judiciary – pierces the hideous juggernaut of their of arrogance for the first time. Their incoherence and folly, which have become increasingly normalized, are suddenly exposed anew. I really admire Scotland, or the SNP, or Sturgeon, whichever you like, for being the only force to have this effect on this disgusting and destructive mob.

You can’t really say ‘Scotland’ is doing this, as Scotland as such didn’t prompt Sturgeon to make her intervention. But Scotland as a political force is involved. The Scottish mandate is central. The situation highlights Sturgeon’s peculiar position compared to every English person (Jeremy Corbyn, Tim Farron, the House of Lords, Gina Miller, the judiciary) who tries to get involved, as well as her character and persona. Every one of the above (Michael Heseltine is the closest to being an exception) essentially spends most of their time bowing to the will of the people, respecting Brexit and promising that their amendment will be unimportant and won’t get in the way.

Sturgeon is the only person with a big enough constituency (small though Scotland is in population), mandate and distinctive radical constitutional project of her own (that is, of a scale almost to rival Brexit). She is the only one who doesn’t frame everything in terms of ‘Of course the British people have spoken’, having no interest in ‘the British people’ – only in ‘the people of Scotland’. On that basis, she has the guts and the chutzpah to stand up to everyone, as almost no English politician does – further, in the knowledge that the more she is rebuffed by people in London, the more it actually strengthens her own cause. I agree with the Guardian leader article that says that Theresa May’s dire handling of the situation, careless of Scotland’s wishes and status as a country, has precipitated this latest crisis.

It’s also that Sturgeon’s project (breaking up the Union), while popular with many sensible and progressive people and a number of pop singers from the late 1980s, is also so big, radical, risky and unprecedented that it presents a kind of estranging mirror to the Brexit people. For a rare moment, confronted by this scary, risky plan, it’s exposed how scary and risky their own plan is. Perhaps they are confronted by it and are scared, feeling themselves on the precipice for once. If it does not have this effect on them, fanatics that they are, then at least it can have this effect on the rest of us, who have become increasingly ground down into normalization of the current insanity. I admire Nicola Sturgeon for responding to one crisis in the one peculiarly creative way available to her: creating another crisis.

Norwich City 1-0 Derby County

The Guardian has run an interview with Barry Davies – greatest of all the football commentators, though it’s true there is much competition for that title. In the interview’s wake, discussion of commentators brought up the name Gerry Harrison. Hard, for a moment, to disentangle from Gerry Anderson, or Jerry Harrison, but yes: Gerry Harrison. An extensive Wikipedia entry says b.1942, leading football commentator. I had to look him up to remember his voice. I clicked on one of the first, shortest videos that came up. It’s above: 30 seconds of Norwich City 1-0 Derby County.

Norwich in yellow and green scuff and pass their way up the rough pitch against Derby in black and white. The move is fluent, helped by a simple incisive pass from Townsend. Can that be Andy Townsend? It can!

I hear Harrison’s voice, it clicks, I know him – from my video of ESPANA ’82, written and presented by Brian Moore but full of commentary from John Helm (describing ‘your Brazilian blend’ as Junior and Zico pile up goals) and, I am now reminded, from Harrison. He it was who said ‘Kupseivicz, gonna have a try’ (or was it drive?) before the Pole cracked a long-range shot against a post in, I think, the semi-final of that World Cup. Tremendous soccer memories on film.

But wait.  I look again at the match above, which I’d picked purely for illustrative purposes. Norwich City 1-0 Derby County? … 11th February 1989? … I was at this match!

My brother was living in Norwich as a student, in the residences at Fifers’ Lane, a former RAF base. This was my first visit to him. I travelled up by coach on Friday 10th February. We went, I think, to the Fruiterers pub on White Lion Street near the market. The next day we travelled again by bus into the city. In HMV I bought the Darling Buds’ first LP Pop Said … for £5.99. These moments, these places, that record, have remained vital memories for me. I still play the LP every year. In the afternoon, I went to the match alone. I’m not sure now when I decided to do that. Aged 15, it was probably the first time I had done this. I must have walked to Carrow Road, bought a ticket, found my place in a stand, been glad  of Norwich’s winner. Then by 5 o’clock darkness came down. I walked all the way back to Fifers’ Lane, far to the North on the other side of the city. An online search now suggests it’s 6 miles. Perhaps it took me about 90 minutes. I must have followed signs. At one point I stopped and asked someone the way and they – imagine this kindly Norfolk local – sympathetically told me it. The directions, I’m certain, included a pub as a landmark. I think when I arrived at the old RAF compound my brother was relieved. He would not have wanted to explain my disappearance to my parents. We went out to the Fifer’s Lane bar (I don’t believe it had a more specific name). I imagine that beer was about £1 a pint. The jukebox played ‘John Kettley is a Weatherman’. What else might it have played: ‘Buffalo Stance’? Fuzzbox? ‘She Drives Me Crazy’? ‘How Soon Is Now?’?

I don’t suppose I ever saw any highlights of the match. The idea of it has always remained in my head: the colours of the teams, the darkness coming down and floodlights coming on in the second half. It had never occurred to me to look for confirmation of it on film. But the cameras were there all along. And so was Gerry Harrison.

In and Around Llewyn Davis

Carey Mulligan

You can have historical drama, costume drama – so every woman in your Jane Austen adaptation has to wear a bonnet, and every exterior scene in London has to be filmed in Bedford Square where no traffic disturb the horse and carriage you’ve parked outside the Regency houses. But I feel there’s another category, beyond this, where the drama feels self-conscious without becoming meta-drama and breaking the fourth wall: where what’s presented is something like an idea of a historical time and place which the audience is primed to recognize. One example: Mad Men where I don’t just feel ‘this is historically accurate’ but more ‘this is playing on what it knows I think I know about that time and place’. A sign of this is specific elements appearing as tokens of that knowledge: here’s the Greenwich Village bohemian, here’s the Black secretary facing adversity. It can go sideways too by introducing elements you’d forgotten would be relevant: here’s the checked sports jacket the businessman wears on weekends, playing records on his long wood-panelled hi-fi. Another example: Life on Mars, because it is plainly all about a deliberately framed ‘idea of the 1970s’, to the point where the setting seems literally to result from the comatose, hallucinating protagonist’s idea of the 1970s.

One more clear case: the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (2016), which centres on such recognition of the Hollywood studio system. Catching up with their earlier Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) I felt that it also belonged in this category, playing off our idea of the Greenwich Village folk scene c.1961. It might be relevant that Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home (2005) had reminded many potential viewers what that scene was like, including some extensive interviews with Dave Van Ronk who is said to be a model for Llewyn Davis and who sings over the closing credits here. The overall image of Inside Llewyn Davis is a washed-out rendition of that austere, elegant world of old fire escapes and old subways (many of them still extant, as in the shot of subway stops as Davis travels downtown); pallid for a week in winter, pallid like moody, disappointed, unforgiving Jean (Carey Mulligan). The uptown scenes for me belong in the same category of recognition: the Columbia Professor and his wife, their guests with hornrimmed glasses, not the grotesques that I think are one part of the Coen schtick but rather the earnest oddballs that I take it are another. Troy Nelson, the folk-singing soldier in an early scene, would be another example, earnest in his out-of-town accent and correct deportment.

Yet – if this film is so deeply involved in our shared perceptions of a time and place, why doesn’t it do more with those? I suppose a series of scenes do fit, like the early encounter with the manager and his secretary. And the music: Jim, Jean and Troy performing ‘Five Hundred Miles’ (this is as immersive as the music gets, the camera panning close around the singers, even as I sense that we’re meant to feel a bit sceptical of the performance and find it too saccharine); the Irish singers at the end bringing the Clancy Brothers dimension (again, the four-part harmony is a thrill but I don’t feel that I’m asked to take this at face value). But still: no Sing Out! Magazine, no debates about the politics of the music or its relation to the mainstream; the whole record business element feeling sketchy (boxes of unsold records; a recording session of a comedy space-age song). I feel as though the film invites us to this world that’s an agreed piece of cultural memory, then somewhat swerves away from it. Underlying story elements don’t seem historically specific, but much more generally applicable: the hapless picaresque of Davis’s life in which everything goes awry; Jean’s unwanted pregnancy and the bitterness between her and Davis; even Davis’s grief about his lost partner and his visit to his silent father. And the trip to Chicago is another strange warp: taking us out of the Greenwich Village scene that we think this is all about, but not replacing it with a recognizable Chicago scene. Davis is only in Chicago briefly, auditioning for promoter Bud Grossman (who doesn’t seem much like Al Grossman) at the Gate of Horn club, and flatly rejecting the one compromise offer Grossman does give him. The trip seems almost as pointless, or as much a matter of ‘travelling rather than arriving’, as those in On the Road – which is relevant as the other driver on the trip is not only a Beat poet but is played by Garret Hedlund who’d played Dean Moriarty in On the Road a year or so earlier. As the new Beat, Johnny Five, is not taken very seriously, this intertextuality is peculiarly naughty.

By the end of the film I can’t tell whether Davis, needing more money to purchase a new union card, will go back to sea after all. And frankly I didn’t realize that the beating he receives at the end from a mysterious man in an alley was the same beating he receives at the beginning: in other words that everything since that scene has been a 90-minute flashback. I think it must be the same beating, not just as the dialogue’s identical but because online sources tell me that the assailant is doing this on behalf of his wife whom we’ve now seen Davis heckle. (In truth, having failed to get who the assailant was from watching the film, I’d started to assume it was an intertextual link with some character from another Coen Brothers film, and to wonder if that was fair on viewers unaware of that precursor.) But then – at the end, the beating is administered while Bob Dylan is playing ‘#13 Farewell’, which I don’t remember being audible at the start. Logically it seems the beating must be a flashback, but could it be meant more as a repetition, signalling a Sisyphean world in which effort brings the protagonist back to the same place with a difference?

One more puzzle: in certain ways historical authenticity and fidelity are important to the effect. Yet Davis’s own music doesn’t sound historically authentic! When he plays ‘The Death of Queen Jane’ to Grossman it’s impressive, perhaps confounding our sense of his haplessness; but this vocal performance and for that matter his closing ‘If I Had Wings’ don’t sound to me like 1961: in their moody expressiveness, more like, say, Ryan Adams in 2013. Surely the film-makers realized this? It’s a conundrum that in a film that seems to centre on historical familiarity and fidelity, the real centre – Davis’s singing – is an anachronism.

 

Garden City

LGC PARADISE IS

White clouds against blue sky above little red brick station: scene for a renewed Powell & Pressburger. Only my second time in Letchworth Garden City. Leys Avenue and main drag with the improbably Falstaffian name Eastcheap. Here David’s Books, no new place as I’d imagined but going since 1980s and earlier. Out the front knockdown clearout of 00s CDs like Keane: inside music books: Bowie (did Penman have a point?), Marr (‘you can read in an afternoon’), Boss (takes me 3 months); and shelves of literature, displays of SF, Fantasy that makes me wonder whether adults should really be into Fantasy (partly because it’s what I liked as a child); beautiful vivid painted cards showing squirrels and foxes. The shop has expanded premises sideways over time, become a café also. On Eastcheap corner an Art Deco Cinema owned by Heritage Foundation now in charge of town: cavernous bright foyer. Letchworth Town Hall opposite: and round it curious signage, like real road signs but in an imaginary zone, saying PARADISE IS / A PROMISE / AS WELL AS / A MEMORY.

LGC station

Big green here Broadway Gardens: ST says Owen Hatherley visited and pointed out the failure of the square, not surrounded by buildings as hoped: like Marx-Engels-Forum then? Modernist church near us, Harvey W territory. Across the long municipal rectangle of green a lovely spurting fountain.

LGC fountain

Broadway leads on South but ST leads us back: East along Pixmore Way debating slack Hatherley’s modernism vs the nice suburban architecture here: looks good to me. Green gardens, little chapels. I can see substance in political arguments for modernist architecture, like the ecological benefits of high-density living, and indeed the case for social rather than private ownership of land perhaps tending to favour smaller apartments. But so much of the aesthetic critique seems mere prejudice and contrarianism, and little to do with the pleasure and peace of the little front lawns, greenery and broad streets here.

LGC A PROMISE

On Norton Way (South) the International Garden Cities Exhibition. Thatched building set back from road in its own lawn of mauve crocuses: inside in quiet hall a bearded young fellow at computer nods us in. Circular room at South end holds history of Letchworth: Ebenezer Howard in Chicago; the town from 1903; Shaw’s praise of him; rent ploughed back into town. Key to the Garden City then not the number of trees and flowers, impressive though they are, but the rational approach to land ownership fostering sustainability. It seems simple enough, too sensible for this world perhaps; all the more a great achievement in modern Britain. Objects like a cup won by one local team against another, a bell from an old Letchworth school. More garden cities (not many); new towns post-WWII; Abercrombie Plan for London; examples round the world. Down a wooden corridor free postcards showing map or town from above; library room with books on garden cities, computer, you could walk in and read here for hours. Stained glass in North wall signals Spring. Through windows gardens ready to bloom.

LGC lawn

North past Howard Garden Social Centre where children come to play; North-West up Leys Avenue which reminds me more of the quaint worthy suburban amenities of Bexleyheath High Street near Morris’s Red House. Excellent Nails (American style), Rock’s Fryer (feels like a pun I don’t get, as though Rock’s Back Pages, Rock Family Trees), a closed white box that holds a public synthesizer. Down a backstreet bad for business, lack of desire lines, till the arrival of the Garden City Brewery. Town that first had beer-free pub The Skittles: then pubs allowed from 1960s: now quenched by a microbrewery. Good service from good staff, last one who serves me one of the owners, so scrupulously advising me on beer and taking care over the cloudy outcome of a new barrel. True North Golden Ale; Banjax Porter; Armitage Ale; excellent Release the Chimps. Talk: Sinister generations; geezaesthetics revisited. 6music 1994 day as here ‘I Am The Resurrection’ plays: Radcliffe & Maconie ST thinks are underachieving, bright people who could try a bit harder.

LGC AS WELL AS

North-west again past station, over bridge, up Bridge Road, here Spirella Building: early factory, big windows, Port Sunlight philanthropy. Dusk coming c.5:30: 1992 (don’t believe the hype) housing estate. Spotify playing new Ride with its Pinefox guitar line, old House of Love. How Ride played Letchworth, HoL played Ipswich. BT Sport: Liverpool 3-1 Arsenal who never look likely. Glenn summarising; Stevie G in studio so modest always, accent intact.

LGC Brookside

ToTP 1983 on iPlayer: astounding juxtapositions, Style Council, Tracie, Tracey Ullman, Thompson Twins, ‘Keep Feeling Fascination’ vs ‘Tempation’, and Bowie #1 both times, beaming in from a bigger world. Even though the rest of the programme is tremendous, ‘Let’s Dance’ still seems better: which you wouldn’t grasp from just listening to it on a David Bowie radio day. ST’s best simple idea: that Spandau Ballet playing ‘True’ on this programme is the end of the early 1980s, the start of the mid-1980s. Take your seaside arms and write the next line.

LGC A MEMORY

 

The Limits of Estrangement

Resist

This is a slightly revised version of the introduction to a panel discussion hosted by the Centre for Contemporary Literature, 2nd March 2017, in which I was joined by colleagues who took these themes further. This brief document summarises some thoughts I’ve recently had about literature and the contemporary, and is presented as the opening of a critical conversation: an invitation for others to develop, substantiate and improve on these ideas. Image by Lorie Shaull, used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.

1: Politics

We are used to the idea of a contemporary era characterised by change and challenge, but in the world of society and politics the last year or two have presented more surprises than usual; even shocks. Just to stick to the most evident and pressing: the surprise of the vote for the UK to leave the European Union last June, and its ongoing effects; and the surprise victory of Donald Trump in the US election in November, and the ongoing effects of that event. (We can bracket, for now, Leicester City’s dismissal of manager Claudio Ranieri, which Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp considered an equally shocking and inexplicable event.) Both these events currently seem endless in their capacity to produce effects: in other words there hasn’t been a day that they haven’t dominated the news agenda in some new or continuing way. The night before this panel took place offered, in the UK, another controversial vote in the Upper House of Parliament, followed by Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address.

The effects of the Brexit vote are large and controversial, and will not be addressed further here. It is the US situation that I think has more to do with the mood announced in our title. Put succinctly, my main prompt for this panel was the idea that the new political situation in the US has advanced us into a position where reality seems closer than it did before to science fiction, or to dystopia, or to surrealism, or some other kind of dark fantasy. In one way, when written down in black and white, that proposition looks excessive and itself unrealistic. Yet the idea has been pervasive for some 3 months now.

Here are just three instances to illustrate that point. On election day itself, in November 2017, Sophie Gilbert wrote in The Atlantic that ‘many […] writers have been compelled to sketch out their visions of a Trump presidency, and while their scenarios have differed when it comes to specifics, all of them fit neatly into the category of dystopian fiction. From mass deportations to child soldiers fighting wars with Mexico to a nation whose only news source is the Trump Network, these speculative portraits of the future take the candidate’s documented policy proposals and consider what they might actually look like if enacted.’ In late December, Tom Engelhardt in Salon responded to Trump’s choice of senior officials with the question: ‘Can you doubt that we’re in a dystopian age, even if we’re still four weeks from Donald Trump entering the Oval Office?’ And shortly after Trump’s Inauguration a month later, the Guardian assembled a panel of commentators to comment on the following scenario: ‘Since Kellyanne Conway spoke of ‘alternative facts’, Nineteen Eighty-Four has hit the No 1 spot in Amazon’s book sales chart. So, is the age of Newspeak here?’

In December 2016 I convened a panel of colleagues for our MA students, addressing questions of post-war and contemporary literature. There, my colleague Mpalive Msiska offered a response to this new global situation, speaking of a sense that previous forms of creative response seemed outmoded, or even seemed to have been taken on by those in power. Then, in January 2017, my colleague Mark Blacklock and I were at a conference about politics and performance, hosted by Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Theatre and taking place on the day of the Presidential Inauguration itself. A sense emerged for us that day, too, of a change in politics that might require academic critics to question some of their intellectual models. For instance, Aoife Monks of QMUL pointed out, academics since the 1990s or so had emphasised the potency and transgressive pleasures of performance, often against stability, identity and continuity. Yet it seemed suddenly as though performance and instability were the tools of those in power, rather than themes that could be used against them.

To some extent, I thought, this reprised an old debate from the 1980s, about whether, in the age of Ronald Reagan and MTV, theoretical attempts to destabilise truth, reality, chronology or teleology were subversive of the dominant order or supportive of it. It would be too ambitious to try to resolve such questions in the abstract. But it did strike me that we had entered a moment in which the questions re-emerged with a force that seemed more urgent than usual. The day after we had chewed over these propositions, they were emphatically reiterated by the controversy over ‘alternative facts’. Trump’s Press Secretary Sean Spicer addressed the media with statements that appeared to contradict the evidence of people’s eyes. People reached for their Orwell, and quoted from Nineteen Eighty-Four the passage about how 2 + 2 might equal 5. We seemed indeed to be plunging back into a time when ideas of epistemology, of the nature of truth and reality, became politically charged.

At that time, therefore, the Centre for Contemporary Literature decided to hold our panel discussion on The Limits of Estrangement, to open a conversation about how literature and criticism could fit into this scenario. Our event would of course be at the mercy of events by the time March had arrived. But I’m not sure I would say that events in the US since then have calmed down and seemed much more normal than they did in late January. Issues arising since then have included Russian hacking and collusion; the travel ban placed upon primarily Muslim countries, and the mass protests against these; the US administration’s attacks on the media as the ‘enemy of the people’; the continuing cultivation of the term ‘fake news’ to discredit news organizations, from people who, it is fair to say, have themselves been the prime beneficiaries of fake news. And that is to stick only to the US, when there is undoubtedly a lot of strangeness going on in the rest of the world. In a headline the day before the panel, Nigel Farage wanted to expel UKIP’s only MP from UKIP – an action that would reduce UKIP’s Parliamentary representation by roughly 100%. The old phrase ‘You couldn’t make it up’ applies, but someone keeps making it up.

2: Literature

Strange days, then. But let us think a little more about strangeness, and the literary term that involves it and puts it into action: estrangement. The baseline idea here is that it is beneficial for art to offer stories and images that prompt us to rethink our actual reality. More specifically, it may be posited that it is beneficial for art to depict reality itself in such a way as to prompt this rethinking. A good deal of mainstream poetry and realist fiction could sign up to this mission. Within modern literature alone, from Elizabeth Bishop to Seamus Heaney, from Elizabeth Bowen to Alan Hollinghurst, we can perceive attempts to make fictional versions of real objects, places and things which have the effect of – here is another key and loaded word –refreshing our sense of those things in actuality. Much critical value attaches to this mission in a large proportion of literary criticism. It has antecedents in Shelley’s description of poetry as making ‘familiar objects to be as if they were not familiar’ and Wordsworth’s aim to make ‘the strange familiar strange’. And the whole idea appears in tune with Viktor Shklovsky’s classic statement of the theme in ‘Art as Technique’ in 1917, where the emphasis is on literature’s capacity for the defamiliarisation of objects. Shklovsky memorably declared the mission to ‘make the stone stony’: which would mean, to bring out anew its particular character, the quality that makes it what it is rather than something else.

Shklovsky is sometimes thought to have been an influence on the socialist playwright and Bertolt Brecht, among the twentieth century’s major proponents of estrangement in literature. (In fact to talk of direct influence may not be accurate here, so much as an overlap and echo of ideas amid the sometimes intersecting radical literary cultures of Germany and the USSR.) Brecht’s famous Verfremdungseffekt, translated as alienation effect or less often as estrangement effect, was intended to distance spectators from action and stimulate reflection, through the use of elements of production including lighting, acting styles, music, and the juxtaposition of text and image. Now the reflection was politically inflected: to estrange a given social scene through aesthetic means might allow a new understanding of its real-world counterparts, an understanding which could be more critical and foster action. Thus Brecht summarised the appropriate response from a spectator.

I should never have thought so – That is not the way to do it. – This is most surprising, hardly credible. – This will have to stop. This human being’s suffering moves me, because there would have been a way out for him. This is great art: nothing here seems inevitable – I am laughing about those who weep on the stage, weeping about those who laugh.

It was the critic Darko Suvin, in the 1960s and 1970s, who then connected Brechtian thought with science fiction (SF). One of the founders of the journal Science Fiction Studies and a pioneer in the academic field, Suvin offered an influential, impressively succinct and robust definition of SF as a literature of cognitive estrangement. Suvin suggested the way that SF might productively remove us from the normal (estrangement), while doing so in a way that seems somewhat rational and scientifically coherent (cognitive). In offering us a world radically other than the ‘empirical’ one we live in, SF could ‘estrange’ that actual world, place us at a productive distance from it on re-emergence from the capsule of the SF tale. In emphasising the ‘cognitive’, meanwhile, Suvin tried to guard a rational and materialist SF from the less rigorous modes of fantasy and Gothic – a critical gesture which has been much criticized since.

In the 1970s the critic Robert Scholes – hitherto known for his work on modernism and on metafiction or ‘fabulism’ – turned his attention to SF, and helpfully compared Suvin to Shklovsky’s earlier formulation. Thus of SF, Scholes says:

What is unique to this form of fiction is the way it defamilarizes things [my italics]. In the worlds of SF we are made to see the stoniness of a stone by watching it move and change in an accelerated time-scale, or by encountering an anti-stone with properties so unstony that we are forced to reinvestigate the true quality of stoniness. In Shklovsky’s theory it is the form of the message which restores stoniness to the stone. Because the message is complex, difficult – in a word, poetical – it prevents our habitual response and opens our eyes to the reality of the object. But in SF this estrangement is more conceptual and less verbal. It is the new idea that shocks us into perception, rather than the new language of the poetic text. [Robert Scholes, Structural Fabulation: An Essay on Fiction of the Future (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), pp.46-7.]

One further passage from Scholes is helpful, and I thus wish to place it on the table for our discussion. He is proposing the idea that fictions, even when they traffic in strange figures unknown in the empirical world, can aim to comment on that real world from which they have taken their distance. Thus:

The difference can be used to get a more vigorous purchase on certain aspects of that very reality which has been set aside in order to generate a romantic cosmos [for ‘romantic’ here we can substitute a term like ‘speculative’ or ‘fantastic’]. […] Fabulation, then, is fiction that offers us a world clearly and radically discontinuous from the one we know, yet returns to confront that known world in some cognitive way.(p.29)

The suggestion so far is of fiction undertaking speculation, extrapolation, distanciation, all in order to gain purchase on the real. This seems to cohere. The question that continued to puzzle me, though, was: Does this sound like a good vocation for art in the present political era sketched above?

Why wouldn’t it? The short answer must be: because reality is already so strange that it doesn’t bear further estrangement. In a time when you wake up each day to ever more bizarre headlines, does it make sense to turn to fantastic narratives for an estrangement of the real – when the news is doing that?

Here is a way of putting it. Go back to Brecht’s lines and imagine them as a response, not to a play, but to a broadcast from the White House:

I should never have thought so – That is not the way to do it. – This is most surprising, hardly credible. – This will have to stop. This human being’s suffering moves me, because there would have been a way out for him. This is great art: nothing here seems inevitable – I am laughing about those who weep on the stage, weeping about those who laugh.

The logic of the juxtaposition is that reality itself would produce the estrangement, without the need for theatre’s intervention.

In closing, I posit two possibilities.

1: Current social reality is strange enough that fictional estrangement, though valuable in many ways, is not needed to estrange it further. In an estranged world, the one kind of estrangement that might help you is, in effect, the opposite of SF: something like a reassertion of domestic realism, or even a wider social canvas, produced or set before the estrangement of the real world started. To be confronted with that homely domesticity or portrait of society from the recent past will itself function as an estrangement, a powerful reminder of what has been lost.

2: Remember the slogan that many people have used about Trump’s administration: ‘This is not normal’. The slogan, like most things online nowadays, has been controversial in various ways. For one thing, some people say that it is unrealistic to spend the next four years declaring things to be abnormal; in effect, they say that these things are normal or will become normal, like it or not. (The phrase ‘the new normal’ is relevant here and, as something of a paradox, would bear some reflection.) For another thing, people say that ‘this is not normal’ implies that a normality applied before Trump, in a way that is politically naive. After all, many destructive processes have been going on a long time, and we should not now falsely ‘normalise’ those as belonging to a lost period of sanity and stability.

Nonetheless, I think that ‘This is not normal’ is a relevant phrase to keep in mind when thinking about the relation between speculative fiction and the unfolding present. The role of fiction in relation to that world could be to find a way to keep the thought meaningful: to give us a way to appreciate the idea of the contemporary as abnormal, rather than dropping into a docile sense that things have always been this way. That might be a way for the various forms of contemporary fiction to reawaken something of the vocation that Brecht imagined for art.