The Defiant Prose of Stewart Home
By Richard Marshall.
Stewart Home is out to cause trouble. The works of Pierre Bourdieu, especially Distinction: A Social Critique Of The Judgement Of Taste (1), alongside that of Marx and the European avant-garde have given him the rhetorical and cultural capital to launch his assaults. His is a defiant pose from an explicitly Red London-English working-class position that aims to do serious damage to the chic aristocracy of culture. It wants to mess-up those symbolic systems and power relations in which distinctions of taste become the basis for social judgement. His use of pornography, skinhead violence and extreme politics in his novels, journals and pranks challenge the powerful ruling bourgeois who organise their radicalism in the chic tasteful habitus of bouillabaisse, thinness, authenticity, angst, relativism and Salman Rushdie. Home can be seen as a contemporary working-class dissenter rooted in a tradition that requires intellectuals to reconstitute what it means to be a thinker. This is a radical, absurdist project in a time of cultural and economic globalisation. What he does is as offensive to the intelligentsia as a Pentecostal from the foothills of the Chautauqua Mountains (2) at the dinner table of Bourdieu’s ‘Truly Classical’ University Teacher of ‘sobriety’ and ‘discretion’! (3) But it would be wrong to see Home as a one-off, eccentric crank. We can hear his rude-boy voice in, for example, the seething London cabals of radical dissenters of the early nineteenth century which in turn links him to an old and important dissenting tradition.
In the 1830’s print worker Hetherington’s Poor Man’s Guardian had the motto ‘Knowledge is power’ and the heading ‘Published contrary to ‘Law’ to try the power of ‘Might’ against ‘Right’.” EP Thompson reports that Hetherington, in his opening address of The Poor Man’s Guardian “. . . quoted clause by clause the laws he intended to defy. . . to excite hatred and contempt of the Government and Constitution of. . . this country, as BY LAW established. . . to vilify the ABUSES of religion. . . or any other acts whatsoever and despite the ‘laws’ or the will and pleasure of any tyrant or body of tyrants whatsoever, any thing herein-before, or any-where-else. . . to the contrary notwithstanding” (4). A radical dissenting working-class voice was in those years a force to be reckoned with in literary circles. This should be understood not just in terms of the ideas about the working class, but in terms of the production of those ideas. The Chartist press, as Thompson reminds us, came at the point where the working class was “no longer in the making but already made. The point we must note is the degree to which the fight for press liberties was a central formative influence upon the shaping movement” (5).The working class was in charge of the production and distribution of its own culture, as well as its consumption.
In presenting views that contested the authority of the ruling classes the hundreds of news vendors, hawkers and voluntary agents were constantly under threat from the law. Many were thrown into prison, flogged, put under police surveillance, chained and fettered. Being poor, the consequences of such persecution would often have terrible consequences for the individuals concerned. Thompson quotes Wickwar’s “Second Trial Of William Hone” (1818) which cites the case of one “. . . Robert Swindels, confined in Chester castle, while his wife and baby died from neglect, and his remaining child was placed in the poorhouse” (6). This world of the radicalised publishing working-class milieu is known well enough.
Something else to note about this world is the timidity, hypocrisy and commercial greed of literary ‘star-turns’ such as Southey, Poet Laureate, who turned against his radical youth to “seek an injunction against Sherwin for infringement of copyright.” Sherwin, to the delight of radical England had resurrected “Watt Tyler”, Southey’s republican indiscretion. Hazlitt writes: “Is it not a little strange that while this gentleman is getting an injunction against himself as the author of Watt Tyler, he is recommending gagging bills against us, and thus making up by force for his deficiency in argument” (7).
Another element of this culture is the use of ridicule. Hone, Cruikshank, Carlisle, Davidson, Benbow are examples of piss-takers, pranksters and jokers who used their slapstick rhetoric and parodic works to entertain, incite, educate and instruct a huge radicalised readership. As Thompson remarks ‘This was the culture–with its eager disputations around the bookseller’s stalls, in the taverns, workshops and coffee houses–which Shelley saluted in his ‘Song to the Men of England’ and within which the genius of Dickens matured” (8).
English dissenting culture’s cosmopolitan and multi-disciplinary roots are other defining features. The example of Hazlitt is instructive: Hazlitt’s father was an Irish Unitarian from Co. Tipperary, a friend of Welsh Presbyterian Priestly and American Benjamin Franklin, supporter of the French Revolution and a man whose support for American rebels against the English Crown forced him to Ireland and after the American War Of Independence went out to the USA. As Paulin notes, “Intellectually, they [The Hazlitts] . . . were the descendants of the Commonwealth men who briefly made England a republic in the middle of the seventeenth century. . . in a line of descent from Milton, Harrington, and Algernon Sidney” (9). Hazlitt began as a philosopher and painter before becoming a brilliant essayist in his early thirties. He even wrote a novel. Paulin writes that “Hazlitt combined aesthetics with an implicit invocation of Whig political action–bold, turbulent, risk-taking, decisively intelligent” (10). He was anything but a specialist and what Paulin reconnects us with is the idea of craft journalism and prose as being vital, vernacular, radicalised aesthetic forces equal to poetry and painting.
Attempts to discredit and repress this tradition of English culture have been all-pervasive and successful for much of the time. T.S. Eliot represents this hegemonic anti-dissenting, anti-republican, anti-vernacular vision of Englishness. The fetishised nature of Eliotic values within the current education debate, expertly dissected in B Marshall’s English Teachers, The Unofficial Guide (11), reflects the dispute between Eliot’s tradition of Monarchical, Anglo-Catholic, hierarchical culture and an engaged democracy which at one point she says “Christopher Hitchens identifies as ‘. . . that strain of oratory, pamphleteering and prose that runs through Milton, Bunyan, Burns and Blake. . . what the common folk like to call the Liberty Tree. This stream as charted by EP Thompson and others often flows underground for long periods. In England it disappeared for a long time” (12).
On a bad evening it’s possible to imagine an England where the disappearance of the English working class from the production and readership of philosophy, art, novels and journalism is largely accepted and found acceptable by those journalists, novelists, fine artists and cultural critics who have noticed this situation and who have access to placing their work with publishers, galleries, newspapers and so on. The institutional base of all current art, journalism and fiction is not sympathetic to the idea of working-class culture, nor is there room for a working-class dissenting tradition to flourish and elaborate itself. The Eliotic cultural hegemony ensures that any democratic, egalitarian, militant cultural work is largely gagged. Something deadening and hopelessly hierarchical strangles the vernacular voices. All that remains are commodified careerists and deferential sybarites who play at being ‘radical’ but who are merely lap-dancers on Capitalism’s’ table. On a bad evening this doesn’t seem so hard to imagine.
So out of this dystopian, totalitarian gloom only the excluded could possibly begin to make things better. For some, this is the definition of avant garde. If art is but a sub set of writing, painting, reviewing, making crafts and is part of the trap rather than an escape route for the poor, then an assault on art itself is the heretical position to adopt. The logic of this is important: heresy works from within its own censure. Christ the rebel Jew. Luther the rebel Roman Catholic. Marx the rebel Hegelian.
It is out of that context that the most impressive single contemporary contribution to the production, control and consumption of art culture both about and for the English working class is found. Routing himself along a strictly anti-authoritarian, cosmopolitan (mainly European), multi-disciplinary and anti-careerist trajectory of journalism, installation art shows, videos, pamphlets, festivals, piss-takes, music gigs, stand-up routines, lectures, debates, CDs, experimental radio and novels, is found the London prole worker Stewart Home.
The dissenting tradition he lines up to work out of is original and twists received ideas about English working-class culture into something much more provocative, difficult and inspiring than is usually presented, even by those mining a dissenting tradition. He writes that “it is easy enough to perceive a tradition running from the Free Spirit through the writings of Winstanley, Coppe, Sade, Fourier, Lautreamont, William Morris, Alfred Jarry, and on into Futurism and Dada–then via Surrealism into Lettrism, the various Situationist movements, Fluxus, ‘Mail Art’, Punk Rock, Neoism and contemporary anarchist cults” (13). He argues: “If the term ‘art’ took on its modern meaning in the eighteenth century, then any opposition to it must date from this period–or later. . . . Art has taken over the function of religion, not simply as the ultimate–and ultimately unknowable–form of knowledge, but also as the legitimised form of male emotionality. The ‘male’ artist is treated as a ‘genius’ for expressing feelings that are ‘traditionally’ considered ‘feminine’. ‘He’ constructs a world in which the male is heroicised by displaying ‘female’ traits; and the female is reduced to an incipid subordinate role. ‘Bohemia’ is colonised by bourgeois men–a few of whom are ‘possessed’ by genius, the majority of whom are ‘eccentric’. Bourgeois wimmin whose behaviour resembles that of the ‘male genius’ are dismissed as being ‘hysterical’–while proletarians of either sex who behave in such a manner are simply branded as ‘mental’. Although its apologists claim ‘art is a universal category’, this simply isn’t true. Every survey of attendances at art galleries and museums demonstrates that an ‘appreciation’ of ‘art’ is something restricted almost exclusively to individuals belonging to higher income groups” (14).
The tradition he lists becomes explicable in terms of these heretical views. For Milton , read Coppe, for Kant, Sade, and so on. And the vernacular, no-nonsense style is part of the story. He’ll cite Distinction: A Social Critique Of The Judgement Of Taste by Pierre Bourdieu just to show he’s overqualified in making this observation. This is a working-class voice that is cosmopolitan, clever and intellectually alert. Anyone who works in a comprehensive school knows about this state secret.
This is a tradition he constructed in 1988, a year before Greil Marcus, the American cultural critic, published his Lipstick Traces: a Secret History Of The Twentieth Century (15), a book which covered much of the same ground. The difference between the two books is instructive. Not only did Home get there first but Home wrote a slimmer, more urgent and demystified outline than Marcus. Home’s was an anti-establishment tract working without any institutional academic backing. Marcus refused to review it even though he was asked to. The secrecy in his title becomes ironical once you realise that Marcus conspired to keep it so until he was ready to reveal it. Whereas Marcus’s book was out on a major American publishing house with good distribution and publicity organisation, Homes’ slimmer, more brutalising text was first published by ‘Aporia Press and Unpopular Books’. ‘Nuff said! It was unable to muster the same institutional support. Marcus’s review would have been welcome oxygen in a world where the good review is crucial to a book’s life. It didn’t happen.
Not only that, but whereas Marcus’s book trembles with atmospherics , so that the experience is obscurantic, operatic and religious, Home goes at the avant-garde movements and groups with a fierce, defiant stylistic economy which allows no pity, no reverence. Marcus knows that what he’s writing about is ‘art’ and obscure genius. Why else would he be bothering with it? Home knows that its more important than that. And nowhere near as important either. What Home is sure about is that each of the movements described soon disintegrated into ‘art’, or wanting to be ‘art’ and are put to one side as utterly finished and bankrupt. This no-nonsense approach can be gleaned from just reading the chapter headings. Each movement is given a chapter. We then move on. Mercilessly. From Cobra and the Lettriste Movement through to Class War, in seventeen chapters and less than a hundred pages.
Out of this Home walks from London suburban punk to President Of The Western World, Neoist, Neoist renegade, Festival Of Plagiarism / Art Strike avatar, annalist and undertaker, anarchist spanker and fascist baiter. What makes Home interesting is the street-fighter quality of what he is doing, the urgency and vernacular muscle that structures and informs his moves. The thinking takes place on the hoof, moving restlessly like a method actor or boxer, jabbing and hooking away at some unfinished, unfinishable project: “While the contemporary avant-garde shares its precursor’s desire to attack the institution of art, it also differs fundamentally from its classical predecessor. If Futurism, Dada and Surrealism wanted to integrate art and life, today’s avant-garde wants to consign the former category to oblivion. This is the return at a higher level of Islamic-cum-Protestant iconoclasm. Whilst the classical avant-garde was ultimately Deist in its attitude towards art, its progeny has taken up a stance of intransigent atheism in its antagonistic relationship to the dominant culture” (16).
Home is therefore found deadpan and rough in his scandalous handling of art, the artists and the academics and critics who perpetuate it: “What Duchamp and the artists who followed in his wake realised was that they lived in societies based on fraud, They set out to expose social hypocrisy and had a lot of fun while they were at it. In the 1950’s it was the Italian artists who pulled the most outrageous stunts. Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio . . . Piero Manzoni canned his excrement and flogged it as ‘Artist’s Shit’. . . . In the sixties Andy Warhol found his own fame so tiresome that he once sent a lookalike to take his place on a lecture tour. During the seventies , English feminist Cosey fanni Tutti managed to get paid twice for making her art works. She posed for pornographic magazines and then exhibited the published results as part of the Prostitution show at the prestigious Institute of Contemporary Arts. . . .” (17). His routines are serious provocations. The joke is in the response. Slick satire or cynicism is just part of the society he is attacking, posh boys showing off before they get their film, tv and book deals. Disputations On Art, Anarchy and Assholism by Stewart Home and “friends” (Sabotage Editions BM Senior, 1997), Out-takes (1998), Analecta (Sabotage Editions, 1996) are examples of his wind-up pranks. Iain Sinclair on the back of Analecta is quoted as thinking these works offer “A survey more accurate, on every level, than the fact-checked responses of telephone journalist.”
Home writes all his prose like a journalist. It is urgent, to the present moment, has the momentum of deadlines and the cut and thrust zest of current argument. It also bristles with quotes and references, useful in pulling the wool over reader’s eyes as well as making them sit up and sweat. (Although he writes in an essay (18) that “My attitude to journalism has always been to follow my own interests and wait for people to approach–it always struck me as a waste of time to go out and undersell myself”.) Reading this, we detect the tongue-in-cheek dig against the work ethic and a nod towards Idling, yet another twisting of the knife in the class war. You can hear the collective grinding of teeth and the dark mutterings–working class , shirking class more like!
Always understanding that class war cannot be separated from snobbery, and intellectual snobbery in the world of the arts is part of its structure, no accidental adjunct, Home mobilises the very texts usually used to codify and reinforce the attitudes he denounces. Clearly delighting in his role of provocateur, the idea of out theorising the theorists is yet another prank in the Home repertoire. The spontaneous violence of his style, its realised determination to avoid respectability, where “respectability” defines a finished middle class of an earlier age, brings to mind what an admiring Hazlitt had to say about Burke’s prose, his political opponent.
Burke’s Reflections were for Hazlitt full of flashy images, dirty tricks and inspired declamation; “I have tried half a dozen times to describe Burke’s style without ever succeeding–its severe extravagance; its literal boldness; its matter-of-fact hyperboles; its running away with a subject, and from it at the same time–but there is no making it out, for there is no example of the same thing anywhere else. We have no common measure to refer to; and his qualities contradict even themselves” (19). This list is a good description of the bewildering torso of Home’s writing oeuvre rather than his style. Yet Home’s deliberately unpolished, non-classical prose sometimes confounds with the object representing it the very ideas he seems to discourse. At other times he works through an elaborate, understated double-bluff whereby he uses the English Hegelian torture-prose of certain academic sociological and cultural critics in order to deconstruct the sluggish moronism of, say, Heideggerian or Debordian totalitarianism.
Home masters his materials without falling foul of style slavery. This crucial distinction between the poet and the prose writer is made by Hazlitt. Immediacy, suddenness and excitement are the thing, as Hazlitt writes in his essay “The Fight”: “There was little cautious sparring, no half hits, no tapping and trifling, none of the petit maitreship of the art–they were almost all knock-down blows.’ Home aims to write with the same effect. He aims to wind up his readers, wants to imagine them reacting, gives them things that they have to grapple with. To write in a style that is punchy and unambiguous, he jumps about like a real voice, creates the urgent noise of the insolent street-wise wise-cracker, the throughput of the nabbed street blagger faced by the heavy fist of the plod.
His use of deceit and plagiarism is a light-hearted prank, a thrust against the fetish of originality and genius that he sees as being part of the structure of modern notions of art, especially perhaps in fiction writing that draws attention to the power of such ideas. Similarly, the use of shared names, such as Karen Elliot, Luthor Blissett, Monty Cantsin are equally prankster routines designed to reveal modern art’s need for the genius. The unsettling of these ideas–of drawing attention to the fact that ‘Art’ is structured around concepts of genius, of originality, of creativity by producing things that look like art but don’t involve them–is of course what these routines are about. But such work can have surprisingly violent effects and what is interesting about Home is the way he continues to direct his writing through the present age and its canonical authors, philosophers and artists towards a different kind of future.
Home’s is a prose that works against the Eliotic idea of “A people without history/Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern/ Of timeless moments’ (Eliot “Little Gidding”). In a fascinating essay, Malcolm Bull writes that for Eliot “The equation of ending, apocalypse and fiction is founded on the assumption that ‘an end will bestow upon the whole duration and meaning’” (20). He goes on to assert that, contrary to Eliot, “human time is not made out of chronological time but is, as in Ecclesiastes, ‘a time for this and a time for that.’ Such times are defined by their purpose rather than their ending” (21). Home is not working to bring about apocalypse. Rather he is the grub-street hack, keeping to the purpose of the time, which is oppositional, disaffected and class conscious . The fertility of Home is that of overworked, pressurised thinking action, a sharp, sweet imagination without a trace of bigotry, intolerance, or exclusivity in its thrust and amplifications.
If Eliotic cultural critics try to keep the republican imagination restrained within the literary canon, Home denounces the relativists while stating that “saying that all positions are not equal does not necessarily entail a defence of ‘canonical literature’” (22). His novels are more of the same; he plays around, he pranks, takes the piss, using signs that he knows will confuse, upset and outrage anyone with an interest (usually vested) in literature. As he writes in the same essay: “My ‘novel’ Slow Death, and a number of my other ‘works’, feature ‘characters’ who adhere to the fashions of the skinhead youth cult. . . . English reviewers often experience difficulty in distinguishing a ‘novelist’ from the ‘fictional’ characters that populate his or her books. . . . The notions I utilise–which include ‘skinheads’, ‘pornographic sex’, and ‘avant-gardism’–should not be viewed as arbitrary but as self-contained signs. Everything done with these signs immediately affects what they are supposed to represent” (23).
The eighteen volume skinhead Bildungsroman written by James Moffatt under the name of Richard Allen and published by the New English Library in the seventies have long been the disreputable bastard father of Home. Clearly, the interest generated by these books for Home works through several of the concerns Home has been investigating and critiquing over the last two decades. The disreputable nature of these pulp trash volumes is clearly attractive to anyone wanting to cause maximum offence to lovers of art writing, those who would assert that they read literature. James Moffatt/Richard Allen is an example of a writer who doesn’t write literature. It’s against this kind of division that Home is warring. Writing as art, transmitting the eternal, universal load of the author’s genius to his/her adoring bourgeois public, is the kind of totalitarian ideology from which Home is dissenting.
The subject matter as well as the style of these books also attracts Home. Violence is a key motif in all the novels, but it isn’t just the violence of the soccer hooligan but a violence which extends into the realms of society and sex. Home writes of it as, in an interesting essay “Gender Sexuality and Control: Richard Allen Reconsidered” (24): “. . . a violence with a dualistic nature. It is simultaneously mechanical and mystical. It is beyond the control of those who vent it, but it is destined to be neutralised by some outside authority, usually the police, at the conclusion of the story. . . .” (p 18).
Home is clearly not endorsing the sexism and racism of the tropes in the Moffatt oeuvre, indeed he is explicitly rejecting them, both in the context of essays and his own novels. One way of reading Home’s novels is in relation to the Ur-texts of Moffatt. Home is weeding out in his own works those elements of Moffatt which he finds objectionable whilst holding on to and developing those elements which he finds worthy and constructive. So we find him writing that “The heterosexist manner in which Allen depicts adolescent sexuality IS objectionable, but the fact that such sexuality gets depicted at all IS worthy of note” (25). He also argues that because the majority of people reading these novels when they came out were aged between the ages of eleven to sixteen the books’ presentation of conflicts with parental authority were of great value. The presentation of deviant values, as a reaction to the failures of do-gooder liberal authority figures such as social workers, teachers and psychiatrists results in a violent, hetrosexualised primitivism and a counter-cultural undercurrent that gives the books their pulse. The reactionary nature of Moffatt’s ideological beliefs–his characters are always looking for an authority figure, or some totalitarian tradition to take them in hand–veers very close to being explicitly fascist. These are not the manoeuvrings of some Swiftian satirical imagination: he believed in the stupid stuff. For Home, that “belief” is the enemy. But Moffatt’s racy pulp style is undersigned by a detonated, sincere prose and vernacular eloquence. Its fast, energetic readability and the sense of closure attracts Home. They cut against the modern artist’s scandalous use of ambiguity and openness which, for Home, are signs of double-think, an inability to communicate, a fetishisation of “difficulty” designed to keep out all but the initiated middle-classes!
What collides in Home’s fiction is the brutal efficiency of the pulp prose of Moffatt and the class-conscious sophistication of his own dissenting imagination. The racist, homophobic, sexist, right-wing hierarchical energies of Moffatt are transformed into more socially decent tropes but the style retains its peculiarly angular, knuckly swiftness. Characterisation and the inner life are ejected. Plagiarising Moffatt’s books and others, cutting in passages of Schopenhauer, what Home produces is something jumped-up, negligent, seriously funny and funnily serious:
“’You’ll never defeat me,’ Smith spat. ‘You don’t even have a theoretical grasp of how to apply the hammer-blow of putsch, let alone the ability to attempt a practical realisation of this deadly tactic. I’m expelling the pair of you from Cockney Nation. And be warned, I’ll have you hanged on the day I lead the glorious forces of nationalism to victory. You’re just a pair of loonies. Launching an independence movement to liberate Newham is gonna make you a laughing-stock among sincere patriots.’ ‘Fuck off!’ Pat swore as he slammed down his receiver. Brian was exhilarated by this clash of wills. He was rightly proud of the ease with which he’d put down the opposition. . . .” (26).
The comedy comes from the brute jamming of the cliched, lefty prose into the mouths of the two speakers. Its deadpan anti-naturalism gives Home the chance to make fun of his character types, but also takes a pot shot at the expectations of the dedicated follower of literature (27). Every feature of the writing is pulled into the joke, including the imagined reader.
It’s clear that this is not writing that simply observes or registers, it demands participation. The usual type of reader exists separately and autonomously in a private space. Reading in that sense is bourgeois, with its structured privacy and individualism. But this writing is dynamic, and demands not a private reader but an audience. In this sense it is erotic writing. And the reader, as pitched in to the drama of the writing, is no longer the middle-class private individual but part of a group. To the decorous, this group might be described unsympathetically as a “mob”. Much of the scandal of Home is constructed in the same terms as tabloids writing about groups of strikers.
In Publishing News, on 9th April 1999, the story is of 30 printers refusing to print a Home novel (28), WH Smith and John Menzies refusing to stock it were it to be printed, Scotland Yard’s Obscene Publications Squad seizing art work, computer disks and a manuscript and a later story in the same organ of the 7th May explaining that the title would be suppressed from the cover of the book. When finally the book did appear on the Do Not Press imprint, it being too much for the publisher of Home’s previous three novels Serpent’s Tail (29), stickers were provided with the title on them which could be stuck on the spine if people wanted. The fact that the supposedly “risk-taking” radical independent publisher Serpent’s Tail refused to publish the book is an eloquent example of the commodification of radicalism Home’s work confronts.
Home’s writing is creating a space to enable understanding and empathy with certain ideas, those concerning the inequalities of the social life as seen from a class perspective, an understanding and empathy usually blocked by the expanding reach of gentility and radical chic. The commodification of dissent, leading to the failure of radicalism to unsettle the dominant discourses, is again and always the issue in the writing. When discussing, for example, talk about a “Scottish literary renaissance” Home astutely points out that even though novelists like Kelman and Welsh would not wish it, in readings of their novels “the notion of the ‘street’ can be projected into their work and then substituted for the ‘peasant’ croft as a repository of the ‘authentic’ and ‘earthy wisdom’ . . . (30). The reductive pastoral discourses remain intact. “In style journalism, these reductive literary conventions are often blithely rewritten to fit a hackneyed ‘pop’ agenda. Instead of being identified with the city, corruption is seen as emanating from those who are fat and old. In this barely revised scheme of things, youth is substituted for the countryside as a repository of ‘truth’ and ‘innocence’” (31).
Home’s novels are attempts to write against this process. They are novels of ideas. As he says somewhere, the process of transformation demands not merely action but also understanding. When he quotes someone saying “Comedy is to slapstick what Literature is to philosophy” he draws the opposite conclusion from that wished for by the writer: slapstick over comedy, and philosophy over literature! In Whips And Furs: My Life As A Bon Vivant, Gambler And Love Rat By Jesus H Christ Edited And Introduced By Stewart Home (32), he mimics the antics of the James Moffatt of Satan’s Slaves, working as a photographic negative where the literal meanings are reversed and so gain prophetic infallibility. He’s dealing with automatic writing, table tapping, ouija boards, misheard rumours matured into full-blown truth, pub whispers that infiltrated gossip columns then fed back to State Controllers. This is more scandalous than Rushdie’s take on Islam; it’s a novel where recycled, plagiarised Victorian porn can be substituted for a new take on the life of Jesus. The scandal is about working out just who is been taken for a ride, who is being ridiculed.
The novel is a shock for many reasons, not least because of all the books out on the Attack! Books imprint it is by far the most toned-down and conventionally “literary”. Steven Wells, the general editor of Attack! Books, as well as being one of its authors (33), set up his imprint to challenge the literary establishment from the perspective of left-wing youth . As the star writer for the British music magazine the New Musical Express Wells single-handedly campaigns against racism, sexism, homophobia and other issues, entering into frenzied, hilarious and knock-about debates and rants with the demented glee of a drug-crazed preacher. Paulin’s description of Browning’s and Hazlitt’s prose style could equally describe Wells’s: “Nourished in English Dissent, both artists are drawn to an infinitely flexible vernacular expressiveness. . . . They dramatise consciousness in process, and for this they need a syntax and a system of punctuation in which gaps, breaks, shifts, and unexpected changes in vocal texture fluidly embody thinking, feeling, and speaking” (34). Wells’s Attack! Books have all exemplified this feature of the English radical dissenting writer, except for Home’s book.
Whereas Wells’ monumental ranting, beefed-up prose is that of a muscular left-wing Ian Paisley demanding participation, nay communion, from the readership through the fleshy spirit of that language, Home writes in a prose that gains momentum and power from the ideas jammed into unlikely packages and from the jarring contradictions set up between the actual text and the reader’s expectations. The excess and the extravagantly lush, roaring prose of Wells burns with all its heart on its rancid sleeve. It’s the pugnacious, robust, destructive emotional style of a cranked-up Burke, where eloquence is taken to an insane pitch, abusive, stormy, pregnant with a mass of elements that seem to burst forth into a flux of mental spleen. His writing is, in his own words, like “. . . James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake read like Janet and John dumbed down for dyslexics. On Crack.” When asked about authenticity, Wells’ response was an emphatic, “We’re against it.”
Home’s performance is no less robust and corrosive, but the idiom is yet again of the double-take, the prank, the lie working at the level of an exposure. When, in his mock introduction to the Attack! Book , he ventriloquises himself writing as an editor of the text he claims to have discovered on the Internet, which itself purports to be the autobiography of Christ the bluff, double bluff, triple bluff continues to multiply within the idiomatic prose of the mock-scholar. This playing around with a phoney scholarship which he then takes for a walk over the length of the novel, cutting in plagiarised porn, Critical Theory and scathing political comment, generates the book’s momentum. It’s interesting that the sex, violence and anarcho-sadism of his earlier books are beginning to give way to an emphasis on what he calls “eating, fucking and occultism” and that Home’s continuous delight in imposing new rules on himself for each book he writes, deciding on the exact length of paragraphs or chapters he uses for instance, is part of his interest in rhetoric, especially that of extremist political discourse and art as a form of ideology . His interest in occultism stems from his understanding that occultism has been an important part of the dominant Eliotic cultural hegemony. He cites Eliot’s use of the occult in his writing of The Wasteland to begin an argument in this area (35).
Home is clear that the remit of mainstream commercial publishers is narrow. It refuses to publish a great deal of material. His deconstruction of various forms of genre writing, particularly youthspolitation, pornography and hard-boiled crime enables him to test out limits. The literary establishment, by which I mean the main publishing houses and the critics who service their output, dismisses Home without really engaging with his inversion of the codes used in real hardcore writing. For instance, in his novel Slow Death the man becomes the sex object. As Home himself puts it, “Instead of a woman with curves in all the right places, here’s a man with bulges in all the right places.”
His latest book, 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess finds Home writing for the first time in the first person as a woman. The sex and the occult are all in place, but there’s more to do with travel and place names than food here. This psychogeographical treatment seems to have been a particular feature of his last three novels. The essay by Iain Sinclair about Home and his battle with the artist Whiteread in Lights Out For The Territory (36) offers some interesting insights into this particular Home routine. Its a book about books, about a fictional non-fiction text called 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess by K.L. Callan, about truth and lies and the whole trade. The usual comedy that comes from the immense variety of sex acts in a Home novel is coupled to the immense variety of text acts; page after page of the novel route out, describe, detourne and detonate the intimate ways of readers, writers, publishers and critics.
In it Home can ventriloquise a curiously tender and evocative critical note about eighties novelist Michael Bracewell, which includes the swift, brilliant insight about this bewitching talent: “The eighties ended in economic depression and while Bracewell’s early work was marketed as satire, it was ultimately a celebration of middle-class consumerism. Everything had gone wrong and, as St Rachel documented, it ended in prozac. Bracewell’s flaw was being more intelligent than Cyril Connolly. He knew from the beginning that he was a bad patriot, that the England he lusted after never had and never would exist. . . ” (37). But you also find snide, brief, cutting put-downs of literary star turns such as JG Ballard’s Cocaine Nights, a novel that “. . . bristled with middle-brow clichés including an opening sequence that did little more than establish the narrator as a travel writer. . . . No wonder the book had been short-listed for the 1996 Whitbread novel Award” (38).
The sex, the books, the scandal of the dead princess at the heart of the novel’s quest (the book of the book is supposed to claim “that Princess Diana’s death in Paris was faked and that she’s actually been strangled to death Thuggee-style at Balmoral by an unknown assailant” 39) ensures that we are taken on the usual highly idiosyncratic tour of Home’s cultural prejudices and comic routines. The experimental ending, where repetition and indexing predominate , bringing a rumour of closure to a novel that ends with “&c. &c. &c.” is as good a joke as any Home has yet played. Home knows that his novel has more ideas in it than the so-called “difficult”, “serious” “literary” writers whom the cultural establishment lionise.
The genre-bending, the sex and death efficiency of the plot and its prose ensure that once again Home is unsettling preconceived notions of what a novel should be doing. He mouths the words of others in an order that will give them sense. If the truth is unitary–a puritan Protestant conceit perhaps–then its many speakers will all be saying the same thing if they are speaking the truth. To take cognisance of the speaker rather than the thing said is part of the Home joke here. So is the embedded voodoo of a ventriloquist’s dummy which is linked in a spooky, tongue-in-cheek hex through the quote from Coleridge at the beginning of the novel : “I regard truth as a divine ventriloquist. I care not from whose mouth the sounds are supposed to proceed, if only the words are audible and intelligible,” and the line from a letter from Marx to his daughter Laura dated 11th April 1868, “I am a machine condemned to devour books,” to one of the organising themes of the book, which involves truth and access to the truth.
He has somewhere stated that he no longer reads novels for serious stuff, he reads philosophers for that, but here he has written a book which combines a democratic urge to be accessible with an irrepressible appetite for ideas about truth and fiction. It is a novel which lacks the dominant classes’ patronising attitude towards working class readers, an attitude which seems to think that the working class is incapable and unwilling to find interest and engagement in anything beyond action. Home’s novel is a fierce, violent, unsettling quest for truth. This in itself is a peculiarly old-fashioned quest–so many thinkers have given up epistemology and find quests for “meaning” far more satisfying. His offensiveness is heuristic, well in line with the Lucanian and Machiavellian belief in free speech and turbulent iconoclasm. He’s out to provoke a reaction with instincts that are totally opposed to that of the British literary theme park. And of course those who are most aggrieved by this rude-boy are those who would no doubt call the victims of the Peterloo Massacre a yobbish mob and pray for the canonisation of Charles 1.
Home’s novel 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess is published by Rebel Inc. Interestingly, this is a publisher that no longer operates. Home’s novels seem to exist in the margins of repression. He manages to play the regicidal wide-boy and just about escapes serious obloquy through obscurity and oblivion. He rides the small-publishing track, working his disputes into a vast and obscure literature that takes shape in the lurid landscape of the cult imagination. His own brief take on his last novel to date has the “body of a dead princess as a metaphor for literature. Works of condensation and displacement. Living out the death of these fantasies in blasted and blistered night, we were consumed by the turning of a page. . .” (40). Iain Sinclair called Home a serious wind-up merchant. I think “serious” is just about right. He’s one of the few novelists writing today seriously trying to reorganise what a novel could and should be doing, knowing with Milton that “fear of change perplexes monarchs” in all spheres of discourse.
1. P Bourdieu Distinction : A Social Critique Of The Judgement Of Taste (Les Editions de Minuit, 1979 ; 1st English translation in GB 1984 by Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd).
2. See Joyce Carol Oates Son Of The Morning (1978).
3. P. Bourdieu, ibid. p 288-290.
4. EP Thompson Making of the English Working Class, 1963, quotes from Pelican ed. 1980 p 800.
5. ibid. p 801
6. ibid. p801
7. Hazlitt, Works VII quoted by Thompson ibid. p 794.
8. ibid. p 7909. Tom Paulin The Day Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt’s Radical Style (Faber and Faber 1998), p 4.
9. ibid. p 5
10. English Teachers : The Unofficial Guide. Researching The Philosophies Of English Teachers RoutledgeFalmer 2000.
11. C Hitchens, ‘For The Sake Of Argument’ 1988, p16, in B Marshall English Teachers: The Unofficial Guide p40.
12. S Home, The Assault On Culture: Utopian Currents From Lettrisme To Class War (A.K. Press 1988), p4.
13. ibid. p4.
14. Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces : A Secret History Of The Twentieth Century (Harvard University Press, 1990).
15. S Home, Repetitions : A Collection of Proletarian Pleasures Ranging From Rodent Worship to Ethical Relativism Appended With a Critique of Unicursal Reason (Sabotage Editions BM Senior, 1999) p 21.
16. ibid. p4.
17. S Home, ‘Unused Introduction To Confusion Incorporated: A Collection Of Lies, Hoaxes And Hidden Truths’ p 31 in Repetitions.
18. Hazlitt in Tom Paulin, ibid. p160
19. Bull, ‘Tick-Tock’ LRB 9th December 1999, p 9.
20. ibid. p9.
21. ‘Introduction To The French Edition Of Slow Death’ in Repetitions p 25.
22. ibid. p 25
23. S Home, Analecta p 18.
24. ibid. p 21.
25. S Home, Defiant Pose (Peter Owen Publishers 1989), p 111.
26. It’s the sort of joke refined and perfected in the hilarious ‘Brute’ fictions of Malcolm Bennett. See, for example, Brute! 6 ed. Malcolm Bennett & Aiden Hughes, Titan Books and e publications December 1988
27. S Home, Cunt (Do Not Press, 1999).
28. Blow Job 1997, Come Before Christ And Murder Love 1998, Slow Death 1996.
31. Stewart Home ‘Introduction To ‘Lovely Biscuits’ by Grant Morrison’ in Repetitions p 28.
32. Repetitions, p 28.
33. Attack! Books, 2000.
34. S Wells, Tits Out Teenage Terror Totty, Attack! Books 1999
34. Paulin, Day Star Of Liberty p 151.
35. S Home and ‘friends’ ‘Out-Takes’ Sabotage Editions, BM Senior, 1998 p 67, where Home cites Jessie Weston’s From Ritual To Romance (Cambridge University Press, 1920, Ch. 13.)
36. I Sinclair, Lights Out For The Territory (Granta 1997), p 211 – 241
37. S Home, 69 Things to do with a Dead Princess (Rebel Inc. 2001), p 14
38. ibid. p 37.
39. ibid. p 53.
40. ibid. p 129.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is one of the Editors of 3:AM Magazine, a job he got following the magazine’s decision to publish this piece on Stewart Home. Marshall is a bereft doppelganger.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 9th, 2001.