The Rest is Noise
By Raymond Anderson.
These Silences experimental literary symposium, 11-14 August, Edinburgh 2011
I wondered if Stewart Home was serious about asking me to review the These Silences weekend he was curating at Summerhall, Edinburgh for 3:AM but I decided to take up the cudgel. We had met earlier in the summer in Edinburgh after a screenplay conference which I didn’t actually see. I asked Stewart Home what his next visit to Edinburgh was about and he told me it was something to do with “avant-garde writing”. I wasn’t optimistic thinking it would be some “arty” thing but decided to go for the whole weekend ticket when I saw Iain Sinclair was speaking on the Friday.
As someone who suffers panic attacks in enclosed public situations the idea of small lecture theatres gave me a certain edge. The words nervous breakdown and putting the psycho in the blurbs just stirred the mix. And what a mix it was. The weekend was becoming a self absorbed cognitive behavioural therapy or maybe an exercise in Mindfulness. When I arrived at the venue it was an old Veterinary College clinical in both design and echoing memory. The door crew were wearing white lab coats taking names on boards. The Lecture Theatre was as advertised Red. The Thursday night was a quiet intro to the event with a half full theatre. The lure for me had been the insertion of the words psychedelia and afro-futurism into the first event on the programme. Iphgenia Baal was nervy but ballsy and settled me right down with her manner and projection. At first I wanted to take photos of her pulling her hair up above her head in a hangman’s noose. The shadows behind her were beguiling as she read from her book The Hardy Tree. Being someone of a mild genealogical bent I particularly liked the reading of gravestone memorials. Anthony Joseph was very musical in his three tiered sci-fi exploration of identity The African Origins of UFOs. I dug a lot of his afro-futurist references and later Stewart Home would ask him in discussion about influences. Earlier Joseph had mentioned the Black Culture/Consciousness canon that a young black man can assimilate. I read later he has a performing music group and a long career in writing. These were no amateurs. Afterwards Stewart Home and I checked out the bar and mulled over the event and the implications of the next night and a fuller theatre.
The Friday evening had a later start and was quite full. I managed to get my usual safe seat on the edge of a row by the door and with bottle of water in hand sat back to forget the day and hear a great influence. We were putting the Psycho back into Psychogeography. Iain Sinclair was introduced by journalist Stuart Kelly who brought up the fact that Sinclair from his writings and life in Hackney had predicted the recent London Riots of August 2011. Sinclair read from his current novel Ghost Milk, the earlier White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings and a few others. What impressed me was what erupted from sheer memory and was applied in conversation. He brought along John Clare out of the ether, the man I had been reading may have been a prime example of a working class autodidact. It was the usual Sinclair tour de force of ideas dragging De Quincey into the event to explain elements of triangulation of psychic experience. Sinclair’s portrait of De Quincey as a furtive inhabitant of hidden Edinburgh’s graveyards and debt sanctuaries, huddled in some narcotic underworld out of sight of officials and reappearing to meet deadlines with publishers, fleshed out my previous investigations into this City character. I once became that furtive figure when visiting De Quincey’s memorial near the railway line in the city centre as I bumped into a drinker talking and laughing with spirits near the Vaults.
Sinclair answered my unuttered question about the first concept word used by himself and his countercultural milieu before his use of the term psychogeography. It was Allen Ginsberg‘s ideas relating a “psychopolitics”. As I drifted away in his reveries I began to seriously admire his footwear. I think these things are important when considering art predicated to a great extent on pedestrian movement.
Stewart Home himself was fictionalised in a passage read from one of Iain Sinclair’s books and later when I asked Stewart about this he said that they had just met accidentally and Iain Sinclair had used the meeting in his book with some added colour to expand a train of thought. I began to wonder if the whole weekend was a self-referencing literary exercise and any one us could become a character in a number of different works. This was when I told Stewart Home I was superimposing grid references over the text of this weekend. Sinclair had me thinking that events could be seen through various literary prisms; as if relating a walking scene to a memorised text. It may be that as Sinclair was intimating, things have been so psychogeographically and psychopolitically circumscribed and redrawn as to be gasping for breath and existence. We have to maybe superimpose new maps…
Saturday arrived and I had a letter demanding my attendance at Jury Service. This was a whole new conundrum I might have to write myself out of and it was not lost on me how this weekend was preparing me for some form of trial. I was listening to evidence and would have to make some form of judgement of guilt in a group vote. Back at Summerhall it was Semina writers afternoon where the novel was having a nervous breakdown and Stewart Home set things rolling reading from his Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie while standing on his head. Bridget Penney‘s work was very soothing even at its most demanding. Her delivery was measured and seemed to work in tandem with the restless creaking of the lecture hall’s writing desks: a communicating audience, fidgeting and registering the mystery of silent voices needing contact through this uncomfortable rite. It all became rather ghostly as I was drawn back from my reveries by the bracketed grammar definitions Penney was reading after certain words in her sentences.
Penney was followed by Katrina Palmer who has published a book called The Dark Object. I suddenly felt panicky when she was reading. I asked her later and she said she was nervous but during her reading she held her voice in a low register straitjacket that chilled me. As I grooved on the idea of Hegel as a skeleton chatting her up, while also getting some handy examples of his dense philosophy, her broken vocal became very moving in its intensity. It felt like this really mattered even though the matter of her characters had dematerialised. I am a sucker for a spell and I felt I was getting a contact curse. Before completing the Hegel passage she threw in an even more disorienting piece about a dark version of herself under the desk. I gripped onto my lectern and rode out the reading. I made a note to definitely buy this book. Stewart Home concluded events with some very brief anti-metaphorical jokes and we were off to buy merchandise.
Sunday, the final day, arrived and the rain had been off and on in Edinburgh but it seemed the sun was out for this afternoon’s double-bill. I didn’t really know who Tom McCarthy was prior to this event and was introduced to him before he entered the lecture hall. Stewart Home told me McCarthy had been up for the Man Booker Prize, yet I was still not getting any impression that I was with a heavy hitter. Once McCarthy got going my whole world changed. His reading was called “How to Ignore the Avant-garde is Akin to Ignoring Darwin” and I almost felt that this was directed at me; a cynical old layman out-with these hallowed literary/artistic circles and yet still somehow connected through what McCarthy called transmission and what Ed Robinson would later reflect on as the equal importance of both the Influencer and the Influenced.
Tom McCarthy began in the spirit of one of the weekend’s themes with a visual accompaniment he showed a re-enacted film of the attempted bombing of Greenwich Observatory as if it had happened; a terrorist attempt at the ending of Time. He seemed to be tying up a lot of the threads of the weekend and beyond into a singular transmission. He brought in the idea via Žižek of bones being a dead reminder/remainder within the flesh. He read a long passage from his novel Remainder which dwelt on re-enactment of events in order to decode meaning. I thought his description of a multi-take film shoot was bordering on BDSM play and wondered when someone would utter a SAFEWORD. This was confirmed in the following discussions as McCarthy noted the almost pornographic intent of this sequence as he spoke of repetition’s origins in trauma. He was even more impressive in his riffing and mixing of ideas than Iain Sinclair which certainly took me by surprise. Like Sinclair, he was an accessible and amusing guy.
The afternoon and the weekend’s events were concluded by Ed Robinson’s readings from his study of the Cut-Up method called Shift Linguals. With his text being rather pricey, his appearance here, like Iain Sinclair made this essential attendance on my part. He steadily scanned his way through the past present and future of the Cut-Up and focussed on the Burroughs quote of “writing is fifty years behind art”. The real meat was digested in the following discussion, ‘Storm The Reality Studios’ where Stewart Home and Tom McCarthy joined Robinson for a wide ranging exchange on decoding the original pre-recordings, copyright infringement in plagiarism, book deals, and ultimately in response to a question from the audience, good and bad art! I managed to have an illuminating rap with Robinson after the debate about the Burroughs’ archive and elements of Beat history which happened in the Edinburgh of the early 60s, including the early publication of Burroughs’ material in Scottish academic journals and the collaborations with Jeff Nuttall who appeared to have a social connection with Ed’s family!
All in all a great weekend and I thank all the authors and the curators Stewart Home and Rupert Thomson for a mind expanding piece of cultural therapy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Raymond Anderson is a single man leading a double life. This way even if he only thinks he is a chicken he still needs the eggs. A designated driver, gleaner, housewife, failed junkie and maven, he wants to be a weather girl again.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 28th, 2011.