Life – for about a billion out of the eight billion people on the planet - is really fucked up. (That’s a conservative estimate) So how come most of the writers we read don’t catch this? Worse than that – how come the writers considered great at the moment don’t seem to be affected by this fact – they don’t write about it, they don’t address the things that make this all happen, they don’t seem at all moved? They lack sensibility – they’re frightened of strong feelings and seem to have to wait until every thought and feeling has been decided before they dare commit themselves. That’s why so many writers in the 1990’s were writing about the Great European War of 1914-18, and the second one which ended over half a century ago rather than getting down on paper their feelings about present day conflicts, stuff happening in their own time, their own world. Too scared to commit, too confused without notes, without guides, without agreed contours – they’re intellectual and emotional pigmies needing someone to tell them what to feel and think before they get going,
In the eighteenth century the idea of Sensibility became a fashion and a cult and Romanticism got started – Goethe’s ‘Young Werther’ felt so much that he had to kill himself, same as the wimmin in the novels of Richardson. Jane Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’ takes the piss out of this tendency to make feelings count for everything – an excess which thus leads to its self-destructive element, as well as Enthusiasms, extremisms, madness and so on – and suggested that a little bit of rational thinking would balance things out. But she wasn’t saying that you shouldn’t feel strongly, she was just being grown up. Richard Hell in his latest brilliant book Hot and Cold seems to be wrestling with the same issue – he survived the trash hot Romantic genius of his punk youth, kicked out fantastic stuff but didn’t die. Many of his contemporaries did. He wonders whether somehow they were more authentic than he is because of this – but ends up resisting the idea of glamorising death and being fucked up. He too, like Jane Austen, is just saying you’ve got to grow up a little. But what Hell is addressing is the problem of having too much feeling – the mad, brilliant, orgiastic overflow of the Punk time he was part of, feeling’s surplus, - of letting them take over everything, every judgement you make. It’s not the problem of most writers these days. The problem with the contemporary literary novel is that they don’t feel enough – its as if the need to button up all emotions, keep not just your underwear on but your filthy mack as well, is the dominant feature of what seems to win literary prizes.
Steven Wells seethes with passion and feeling – his Attack! Book line was his attempt to promote more buzz, more life, into the anaesthetised, boring and stiff corpse of the book world. Tony White’s book, ‘Satan, Satan, Satan’ is an attempt, through comedy of the roughest sort, to both display the attractions of enthusiasms – he embodies the madness of such Enthusiasm in the books’ three central figures – Bilko, an insatiable demon worshipping sex maniac, Jeremiah Jones, an insatiable sex maniacal Non-conformist Evangelical Christian preacher and Vlad the Inhaler, death metal rock God and insatiable death worshipper – and imagines a scenario of total world Armageddon brought about on the back of these hilariously spinning-eyed nutters – but obviously at the same time as letting rip with the demonic power of such extremists he also shows us the uselessness of such Sensibilities if left without restraint. Useless in the sense that you tend to die and people all around you tend to die too. He daringly uses the words of a real Religious Enthusiast nutter, Jim Jones, who of course killed himself and all his followers, to drive home the point.
The greatest imitation of nature is the power of imitating expression – where imagination is part of nature – so thus imitation presumes psychological understanding granted to a far reaching sympathy – where sympathy begins at home. So any writing that has to grind out truth must judge itself against what we feel, against what we know we feel and need to communicate. Communication that’s trustworthy must be conversant with the world of thought and feeling within us – with what we know, and see, and feel intimately. There is a strength in the imagination that must stand on these things. So if a billion people are really having a crap time, and you know this, then that’s got to make a difference to the kind of story you want to tell.
White and Swells are thus right to try and jump start sensibility in the lit world and their work as authors and editors has seen them both bringing on writers whose work seems to sympathise, loosely, with this aim. White is literary editor of the brilliant ‘Idler’ magazine and the authors he has selected there are largely the authors he collected together in his impressive ‘Britpulp’ collection of fictions in 1998.
‘britpulp! Is not an attempt to define a generation of writers…While the reader may be forgiven for assuming that ‘pulp’ is synonymous with sex and violence, and indeed authors like Stewart Home have confessed to using these devices in order to ‘keep the reader happy’, there is a lot more here on offer than the ‘shagging ‘n fighting story … they are in fact jammed with gratuitous storytelling…it is the plot-lines which are brutal and break-neck.’
Thus wrote Tony White as editor of britpulp! in December 1998. It offered a serious agenda, or field of enquiry, where what White was doing was trying to assert – or reassert - some of the features of British fictional writing that were perhaps last seen during the days of the New English Library. It’s an agenda that explicitly makes excitement and plot-line primary – but there’s also a subterranean agenda which wants to register a disgust with the social, economic, political and cultural context out of which their thoughts and feelings are made – and out of which the writing ultimately comes. So these are writers who are generally pissed off!
It’s a body of writing that contains a vernacular honesty, that presumes at some level a direct complicity with its own feelings. It’s something American writers have a big back-logged tradition to draw on - but its not just America. The trail to Tony White’s Attack! Book classic ‘Satan! Satan! Satan!’ is a sex/mad/gore splattered masterclass of some of the best writing and writers of the last century, writers who draw upon a directed extremism and an extreme ‘whatever it takes’ to release their stories from their grim context and register discontent. It’s a list that might hop around to...
…Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s ‘Cogwheel’ which was finished on the day Akutagawa killed himself – it’s a diary about an artist who fears he might lose his mind. The imagination loses control, there is no way to distinguish fantasy from madness.
Or it might pick up on Apollinaire. Guillaume Apollinaire tricked people into arresting him for the theft of the Mona Lisa – he didn’t do it guv, honest!! – and was one of dada’s boys – he touched on the proto fascist Futurism of the time too – so he was fucked over politically – but did write erotic and disturbing poetry where again the derangement of the senses is its point .
Antonin Artaud wrote ‘ All writing is pigshit’ and ‘ every dream is a piece of suffering torn out of us by other beings, by chance, with the monkey paw they throw upon me every night, the cinder in repose to myself, which isn’t a cinder but a machine-gunning as if the blood were scrap-iron and the self the ferruginous one.’ Susan Sontag, top feminist and literary critic, writes that Artaud is ‘… the artist as pure victim of his consciousness….[where] .. thinking and using language become a perpetual Calvary.’ Out of this shit, the writer had to dismantle the whole fucked over noise of art, artist, of the ghoulish vampire totalitarianism of the suffering male white identity without losing the derangements, the pure season of hell that Artaud, Apponinaire, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Poe and others introduced. And its funny because its all so out of humour!
Instead of universalising the white male consciousness, therefore, there remained the project of destroying the white male perspective as a universal, natural given, of destroying its language and its social proprieties and bringing out instead a writing with an excruciating, magical relationship to reality and danger, one that could be black, could be woman, could be anti-human, inhuman, animal…whatever you liked.
That most despised of philosophers Jean Paul Sartre offers us this on Genet’s ‘Our Lady Of The Flowers’ – ‘one is bored in a cell: boredom makes for amorousness. Genet masturbates: this is an act of defiance, a wilful perversion of the sex act; it is also, quite simply, an idiosyncrasy… The reader will open ‘Our Lady Of The Flowers’ as one might open the cabinet of a fetishist, and find there, laid out on the shelves, like shoes that have been sniffed at and kissed and bitten hundreds of times, the damp and evil words that gleam with the excitement which they arouse in another person and which we cannot feel.’ It is ‘perversity’ itself that is enabled by Genet’s prose, where his central figures are sailors, thieves, assassins, opium dealers, gays and traitors – he opens up possibilities that we recognise fully developed in, say, Billy Childish’s ‘Bernadette’ story in the britpulp! collection which begins ‘ Ughh! Look at me, I’m coming! I mustn’t, I must save it! Dear God, I swear on my mother’s life never to wank myself off over the vile pornography of my fellow human beings ever again!’
Donald Goines wrote ‘Black Gangster’, ‘Black Girl Lost’ where ‘Sandra took to the streets… And then she met Chink, and she discovered love and affection… and rape and murder!’ In ‘Daddy Cool’ we are introduced to Larry Jackson, a black hit-man. In ‘Dopefiend’ there’s heroin, smack, junk, snow, stuff, poison, horse – ‘…to all the dope-fiends in the Detroit ghetto – it was slow death.’ In all Goines’ work there’s violence, drugs, sex, rape, racism and black on black violence. In ‘Swamp Man’ George, a young black guy living in the swamps of Mississippi has never had an easy life but he learns to live with the evils of the southern swamps – the deadly water moccasin and the KKK and seems to be coping ok until his sister returns and turns the plot to rape and murder.
What Goines can do is work through the misogynist longings of mammals in heat, returning to their own shit the art projects of, for example, Alfred Jarry who, in ‘Messalina,’ asks ‘ Has anyone ever smelled the odour of a statue in heat? But this monster returning to her lair is more insatiable and infamous, yet lovelier, than the metallic female: for this is the only woman to incarnate absolutely that word which, since the foundation of the City and since Latin was first spoken, has been cast in the face of prostitutes as an insult or a kiss: Lupa.’
Same as can Chester Himes too, where, for example, in ‘Pink Toes’ – ‘Pinktoes is the term of indulgent affection applied to white women by black men and sometimes conversely by black women to white men’, and in ‘A Rage In Harlem’ where an overdrive of plot denses up the whole thing so that the idea of a single plot disappears -Himes turns to horseshit any thoughts of a settled, white male universality. But in Himes we have Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, a sister called Sugartit and plots where we have Harlem rallies getting hijacked by white gunmen, we have preachers falling out of windows, we have a guy called Valentine stabbed through the heart, we have sex maniac white girls in plush mid-town apartments drooling with black boys on the skids, we have eels in the Hudson River stuffed full of $3 million worth of heroin, , we have Greeks and street Moslems, Los Angeles walks and factory shop floors, we have rape and murder, cons and thefts, tables being turned and racial antagonism exploding al over the place.
Then you might flip to Ishmael Reed where you get, for example, the story of Ian Ball, a black playwright who has been ‘sex-listed’ and who is trying to get back into favour with theatrical power brokers by writing a militant play for women. But his backer is murdered by white southerners and he ends up at the mercy of Becky French, a feared feminist producer who would rather put her efforts into a new play by and about Eva Braun. That’s in ‘Reckless Eyeballing.’ In other books you get the fate of the world dependent upon a jolly old St Nicholas and a Risto-rasta dwarf named Black Peter, you get HooDoo detectives Private Eye Papa LaBas and Black Herman where they investigate problems such as ‘Was Warren Harding a member of a hated cult whose rites are still practiced? Why did Freud call America a mistake? And why is Moses called the Bob Dylan of the Ancient world in some HooDoo texts? This is funny, mad and entertaining stuff.
Then there’s Valerie Taylor who gets you to this , in ‘Journey to Fulfilment’ about a Jewish girl from out of the nazi concentration camps – ‘Judy reached for the front of her blouse and began to unbutton it with shaking fingers that keep slipping off the buttons. ‘Then love me right here. Never mind the bed, just show me if you love me’ She pulled Erika down on the floor, and held her with fingers that hurt. ‘Now, quick, right away.’ Fast and efficient writing without purple, without cloyed up, failing, irrelevant metaphor. Like the lady says it – its writing that’s quick, right away.
Jim Thompson does the laconic, straight talk well and true too. ‘I’ve loafed around the streets sometimes, leaned against a store front with my hat pushed back and one boot hooked around the other – hell, you’ve probably seen me if you’ve ever been out this way – I’ve stood like that, looking nice and friendly and stupid, like I wouldn’t piss if my pants were on fire. And all the time I’m laughing myself sick inside. Just watching the people.’ That’s from ‘The Killer Inside Of Me’ but in Thompson we get the swift, satirical plot-driven gabba gabba of the street-wise killer pulpman – ‘The Kill-Off’, ‘Bad Boy’, ‘The Nothing Man’, ‘The Rip-Off- and so on – the titles do a job on you and the rest just keeps it coming through from moment to moment, developing stories out of rank growths that flourish into miniscule jungles, trade-journal sewers of pitch dark hearts, writing that tramps itself, a hooker writing full of committed trinkets of tooled up words. All of it soaked in feelings.
Cornell Woolrich too – here’s writing that parades its self like a jaguar on a leash, graceful, powerful but reeking with the loneliness that was Woolrich’s own life – he lived with his mother until she died in 1957 and then was a self-imposed prisoner in a series of hotel rooms until he himself died in 1968 – ‘She looked at the gun, she looked at the pencil, she looked at the page between the two of them that was still blank. She sat there for long moments, motionless. So still the ticking from her travelling clock on the bureau could be plainly heard in the hush of her heart and mind, the debating hush. Once she wrote, she must obey, follow it through to the end, for she was that way, and nothing could make her other than what she was. Suddenly, the pencil struck the paper, rippled along in a quick, staccato line, rolled free and unfingered two or three times over. It was done. 1. To get even with a woman. 2. To kill a man.’ This is in ‘Into The Night, joint written by Woolrich and Lawrence Block. Clever, self-aware scripting that works writing and suspense together, doesn’t play the doomed universalising Artist game and is all the more profound – doomed even - and all the better for that too – but still, so damned emotional.
These are texts that snap back in your face like rubber bands – they contain their own gestures to such a pitch something explodes. It’s a kind of terrorism, none of them working alone – a group of dodgy geezas and marked gals with thirsty evil gibberish fresh from the grave of dead duck Literature. Donald Westlake, Alexander Trocchi, B. Traven’s ‘Assembly Line’, Michel Tournier’s ‘The fetishist,’ Iceberg Slim’s ‘…two cockroaches fornicating on Mars in the sledgehammer silence…’, Hubert Selby, Jr – ‘The Demon’ as well as ‘Last Exit To Brooklyn,’ and his idler classic ‘The Room’ … ‘the only reason for time. To squeeze you. Crush you. To tie you up in knots and make you fucking miserable…’, Octave Mirbeau’s “Diary Of A Chambermaid’, the eerie delinquency of lesbian writer Patricia Highsmith, especially ‘The Price Of Salt’ written under the pen name Claire Morgan, - bright, fanged prose that bites without solace and tons of truthfulness, Philip Jose Farmer’s ‘The Image Of The Beast – An Exorcism – Ritual One’ where supernatural beasts, sex, and science fiction gut the flash techno-exploits of sci fi and leaves it in the same dismal line of, say, Alfred Doblin’s Franz Biberkopf - gangsters, prostitutes, petty thieves, neophyte nazis and so on….
Of course there’s Chandler where the constant idea of the writing is that ‘Twenty four hours a day someone is running, somebody else is trying to catch him…[in] … a city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness..’ – Chandler who despite himself knows that that in this kind of writing there is ‘… a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…’
Chandler, who lays it on a bit thick but nevertheless you get the penetration of the writing, it’s justified attack on the malignant idiocy of modern civilisation and which therefore has feelings that connect it up with Burroughs and his research writing Burroughs was using to free the human spirit from being monopolised by paltry intellects in the name of national security, its cultural hygiene and its white identity politics. Killer Capitalism. Ask – ‘What are you getting out of National Security?’ – a question that keeps these writers moving towards seeing personality as a function of situation and sympathy merely in terms of the fast talk’s devouring vastness – writing that multiplies itself in fugitive impostures, corpse writing – cliché as art, like plagiarism, like disputation, like rave – here book titles give clues as to the approach to the writing itself – writing as ‘Homicide Sanatorium’, as ‘Without Stopping,’ as ‘The Damnation Game’, as ‘Low-Flying Aircraft’ and ‘Atrocity Exhibition,’ as ‘Neon Wilderness’ and ‘Red Laugh’. Read Spillane and Lovecraft and be moved to tears of laughter, fear and despair.
This is the writing that never starts innocently enough but is tied up with the proletarian possibility of freedom, the revolutionary possibility of Marxist avant-garde anti-gravity. Prole pulp, white wine’n’teckno avant-pulp, whatever, it’s a wish to build a new culture, to get to a place where you can live in a world of growing ecstasy, impeccable taste and dirty dog humour. Tony White slits open the sealed envelope of the prize-junket literary establishment and spills this genetic seed all over the crisp award cards inside.
‘Satan! Satan! Satan!’ tells the deranged story of Satanic rocker Bilko who has ‘…his whole body tattooed with strange occult drawings in a desperate attempt to woo horny Goth chick Deb. Bilko then follows Deb to the ‘Festival Of The Night’ in Whitby, determined to win her heart. But the spirits have other ideas….
Headlining the festival are death-metal band ‘Dogs Of Thor’ whose asthmatic singer – Vlad the Inhaler – decides to recreate Count Dracula’s arrival in the sleepy seaside resort in a plague-rat ridden sailing ship.
Meanwhile, Jeremiah Jones – lust-crazed albino psychopath and born-again Christian cult leader – is planning to destroy the festival with a blitzkrieg of righteous Christian violence that’ll make Sodom and Gomorrah look like a vicar’s tea party on valium.
But the orgy of church burning, crucifixion and chaotic sex that follows is nowt but a taster for the mind shattering Armageddon of senseless spiritual horror that follows as the cosmic forces of Good and Evil clash in the mother and father of all battles in the desecrated ruins of Whitby Abbey.’ That’s editor Steven Well’s blurb description on the back of this, one of the first wave of Attack! Titles he managed to storm out of Creation books at the end of the last Millennium.
Chapter 20 has the entire Jim Jones suicide speech woven into its vile gussety texture – but the whole of the book’s cranked up, merciless plot twists itself over mad, often invisible, near subliminal – no, definitely subliminal - connections between Black popes, the sex magic of Eulis, a magical order which experimented with sexuality and drugs and influenced the early O.T.O, the Fraternitas saturni, Franz Bardon and the Golden Dawn, Jackchick comic books with their inspired illustrations of virulent sins and implacable Christian vengeance, where butch born-again do-gooders fight evil in the name of Jesus Christ in stories such as ‘Exorcists’, ‘The Broken Cross’, ‘Chaos’, ‘Operation Bucharest’, ‘Scar face’, ‘Are Roman Catholics Christians?”, ‘Bad Bob!’, ‘Creator or Liar?’ and ‘Primal Man’, the donkey mad ravings of Eliphas Levi – his ‘Book Of Splendours,’ which contains the Judaic Sun, the Christian Glory and the Flaming Star and the origins of freemasonry – and there’s the ‘Forbidden Knowledge Comic’ routine – like the graphic sex porn of, say, Mad Magazine’s suicidal Wallace Wood’s ‘Gang Bang’ comic books with stories such as ‘Sally Forth’, ‘So White and the Six Dorks,’ ‘The Farmers daughter,’ and ‘Flasher Gordon’, alongside ‘The Legion Of Charlies’ by Tom Veitch and Greg Irons, where Charlie Manson with ‘Rusty Kali’ (read Lt. Calley) runs with the Family throughout the world butchering everything in sight – Spiro Agnew, the Pope, Chairman Mao – until he finally meets his match in Richard Nixon. And of course the whole load of Manga commix, and Frank Miller, and George Herriman’s Kat, plus ‘Sleazy Scandals of the Silver Screen’ edited by Art Spiegelman, Dean Mullaney’s ‘Teen-Aged Dope Slaves and Reform School Girls’ etc etc etc.
The Jeremiah Jones character is a cross between Jim Jones and Spike from Buffy The Vampire Slayer – but with all his characters White has fun making the whole Enthusiastical Nutter trip – from dorks who tap tables and think they receive messages from the other world to stary eyed religious bigots to Goth-type bangheads which all seem to insist on ‘confessional’ experience – you know the kind of thing – religion’s preachers going all spin eyed on you with foam and hieratic chants blathering out of their mouths, or twats doing the trance wack in a state of receptivity to the beyond on your settee blah blah blah - there’s trickery in this, trickery of others and self-trickery as well – we need to proceed without this kind of gobbledygook into an end of sovereignty without partition – these are the targets White takes the piss out of. He’s taking the piss out of the excess that leads to fuck-up, not Sensibility per se.
So you get loads of gratuitous sex with the language of the porn industry co-opted to drive home the joke – and then you get the violence – but all of it fierce and abrupt as the book races towards its climax, and all of it nonsensical, numbing and torridly hilarious. This is a fast fuck read. What does it do? It’s the opposite to people moving flabbily about like squid in tepid smelly water. It’s the exposed terrifying nature of white guys who, exasperated, freed from constraint, absolutely unbuttoned, their true nature calling instincts out of the European cold, grey skied, puritanical northern sky, get released into a tattoo gore fest as gripping as Charles Gatewood’s banned ‘Painless Steel’ video where the ‘Crimes Against Nature’ that got it banned in Britain involved pierced clits, nipples, cocks and recall Celtic bodywork by Micky Sharpz, Lal Hardy’s Tattooed punks and Mr Sebastian’s body piercing jamborees. It’s a kind of biological confession – humour that relaxes the grip on work and cold weather – this is set in the Northern lands – Leeds, Doncaster, Barrow, Whitby, Glasgow all get name-checks, so the rough vernacular narrating voice White uses to run his story is also one of his most appealing characters. No. His only appealing character!
Of course, to catch the vitality of this kind of prose you need to widen out from the scumble of the resources suggested here – Steve Beard quite rightly reminds us that other scenes collide in with this one – such as Stewart Home sampling ‘… speed and aggression to make the link between Blake and Burroughs,’ and Victor Headley using ‘a few riffs to draw a map of the Black Atlantic in London.’ And of course its clear that the Black Atlantic is a deep field of influence in what Home’s up to in creating his attitudinising avant-bard writings too.
Steven Wells was staking out a territory when he set up his Attack! Book imprint. By bringing Tony White, literary editor of the Idler magazine and author of cult classic Road Rage – as much fun as you can have without a puppy and a sharp stick’ was Melody maker’s comment about it at the time – by bringing him into the list right from the start he was recognising an operator who understood the deed required. The assault on ‘mainstream’ publishing is necessary and is taking al sorts of odd routes – Attack! Books is one route, New Puritans, for example is another – and White had interesting things to say about the literary scene in 1998 – ‘Contemporary themes, whether they be ‘youth cults’ or anything else, are no longer exploited as, or even before, they become news. Witness the recent spate of club-inspired writing that has dominated the paperback sales charts over the last few years. Rather than exploiting a trend or an era-defining movement like the late-eighties ecstasy culture as it was happening, there has been effectively been a seven-to-ten year gap, during which time the culture has been assimilated and re-packaged as nostalgia or personal reminiscence.’
There’s an interesting parallel with what Robert Rauschenberg says about paintings and White’s on writing. In a conversation with David Sylvester recently published in Sylvester’s posthumous Interviews With American Artists, he seems to be arguing for the kind of brief, hot life of pulp – for a pulp art even – when he says that you ‘…can rationalise any kind of relationship between two things…’ and he has to stop himself doing this because ‘… seeing the relationships between things… those relationships are the ones we already know. I think paintings have a limited life anyway. I think they more and more become the way we remember them. And when that happens the painting is dead.’ This seems to help uncover a strand of White’s approach to writing – he wants to mint it fresh, without anyone having a clue, so that you really do get to discover something new in the writing.
This brings us to the heart of the matter – where both he and Swells are insisting that the division of deep and superficial writing is purely context dependent. You can ask – what is depth, what is superficiality in the same way as Hazlitt did, and the answer is the same – a tenacity of memory, of conscious feelings demonstrated in one continuous act. This may be the elusive, allusive ‘tradition’ called up - be it Black-Atlantic, Avant-bardic, Prole pulp – whatever - but a depth of understandings are explained to mean that there is a pile of implicit distinctions analysed from a great variety of facts and observations, each supporting the other, and that the mind, instead of being led away by the last or first object or detached of the subject that occurs, connects all these into a whole from the top to the bottom, and by its ultimate sympathy with the most obscure and random impressions that tend to the same results, evolves a principle of abstract truth.
White is using the train of pulp-consciousness to translate abstract notions into a picture language which is itself nothing but an abstraction from objects of the senses understood in the defining terms of the socially mediated relationship between things. Energy and excitement are key abstractions White and Wells are putting forward to slap the boredom of the repressive, prison-like capitalist grip we live inside. It takes the key taboos of the day and begins to laugh, a liquid, fluid air writing that shocks like an accident shocks and on which authority can’t weigh down upon. The obscene joker is clogged by no dull system of realities ordered by money and ambition, no caput mortuum of worn out, thread-bare experience to serve as a ballast to the mind; it is a volatile intellectual salt of tartar that refuses to combine its evanescent, inflammable essence with anything solid or anything lasting. Big, insolent, fuck-you laughter is the only proper category of the brainy mind where a person in knowledge is a child of feeling.
Present writers don’t do the deed, don’t walk the talk – they pose as iconoclasts but live in retrospect. They accumulate a heritage, wonder at the height it has reached and never attempt to climb or add to it. What is the use of doing anything unless we could do it better than those who went before us? Swells and White are setting out to get things done better – Wells somewhere asks us to start putting away the dumbed down books of Rushdie and Amiss who represent for him those who have done the least and who are incapable of ever doing anything for the future – which is periodical criticism.
This is the work of their kind of writing – it contributes to its own improvement and its cultivation proves not only that it suits the spirit of its time, but advances it. If this kind of writing has taken a decided turn into a critical channel – and with Swells and White it most surely has – then there’s a presumptive proof in that fact that it ought to be. Most things find their own level and if there’s a preponderance of criticism at any one period this can only be because it is the time for it. Swells’ Attack! Book project is arguing this – we complain that this is the Critical age because no works of genius appear, because so much is written and said about them; while we ought to reverse the argument, and say, that it is because so many works are discussed as if they are genius that we don’t see the great stuff. We are not critical enough in this critical age of ours. What seems to be the case is that rather than critical we are in the age of refinement – and refinement as seen in terms of being merely the reverse of vulgarity – but this reverse of vulgarity of theirs is but fastidiousness and affectation.
There’s a moment in White’s book when Whitby becomes the metaphor for the dead land of high art , a place that used to be great with giants but is now finished and pathetic. ‘Fishing boats were dwarfed by the scale of the vessel, conjuring images of Whitby’s past. The glory days when Captain Cook had set sail from this very harbour. The days when the biggest whaling fleets in Europe had once operated out of this village. The days when tall ships would have crowded into the harbour, when enormous carcasses would have been hacked at the quaysides, when whores had promenaded and the town had rung to the noise of sailors roaring from tavern to tavern. The days when the brawling and the boasting would spill off the boats and onto the narrow streets.’ (p119-120)
Here we have a lament for the days past. And the looming, destructive shadow of Sensibility Unbound, unrestrained by Sense through neglect, fear and general dumbness, in the shape of the hell boat of Vlad Vargstrom, shows us the result of this decline – the rise of implacable, extreme and destructive Enthusiasms that in the end are merely the other side of the equation. Through humour and imagination White has produced our time’s Northanger Abbey – but thankfully White’s has more gratuitous sex and violence than Austen’s original. But I’m sure if she’d been alive today it’s the book she’d have written.