Art critics can look at the primitivist art of St. Ives’s Alfred Wallace and understand it as great painting even though it’s not Canaletto. Attack! Books are designed to bring about the same inclusivist approach to writing. Tommy Udo is a primitivist writer, his novel taps into a populist, inclusive and democratic context that rudely dissents from the powers that be in the language of the ale house, of bucolic spleen, of immediacy. Whereas the wonder of fellow Attack! Book writer Steven Wells’ prose is its surrealist bent, Udo’s is more the vernacular gruff of the worker’s hyperbole.
The dissenting imagination quips around for a happy ending. One version, that after fighting all great wrongs and setting them aright, it dissolves itself into unconstrained liberty. This is because it knows its end only as a return to Eden. This is what the dissenting imagination dreams up from its very inception. It structures its very being. And it can be comedic – ‘A Hibernian gentleman, when told by his nephew that he had just entered college with a view to the church, said, ‘I hope that I may live to hear you preach my funeral sermon.’ (1)
The enormous reach of this returning journey – in Biblical terms the Fall and then the travelled wilderness before the redemptive Homecoming – is also a picture of the cunning obliterative power of the joke that uses the punch-line to redeem the told tale. In a sense the humour erases the pressure of the narrative leading up to its last, fatal, finishing line. In a joke the finish is a verb, a finishing off, an execution. To come to the end of a joke is not to find a conclusion but is to possess that finality, is to ‘kill it off’.
Sometimes the punch line is the whole joke – you have to work out where the spontaneous crack of laughter, the bodily response, comes from. What story set up the line? ‘Watt ‘the fuck’ Tyler.’ (2) There’s a great joke. It’s a climax that is its own beginning and end. But it’s about finishing the thought, taking it to a final place, walking it out and then executing it. In this sense a joke is an act of violence, an offence. In such cases the question to ask is; ‘Against whom is the offence? To whom is the violence done?’ And language itself both perpetrates this violence and is its middlebrow victim.
‘Let us hope the time will come, thank God that in certain circles it has already come, when language is most efficiently misused. As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it – be it something or nothing – begins to seep through…is there any reason why that terrible materiality of the word surface should not be capable of being dissolved, like, for example the sound surface, torn by enormous pauses, of Casey Chaos’s ‘Amen’ blowing arteries as they charge through ‘We’ve Come For Your Parents’, so that we can perceive nothing but a path of sounds suspended in giddy heights, linking unfathomable abysses of silence?’ (3) asks Sam Beckett. (Of course, in the actual quote, he’s talking about Beethoven’s Seventh, not the ultra mad ‘Amen’ band, but the point remains intact.)
Beckett then was still able to possess the revolutionary sound of Beethoven and heard the democratic, republican sound in the music. Today the proliferating Classic FM approach makes it hard to imagine the stuff as being anything more than conservative, consecrated and boring, a case of over-familiarity breeding contempt. But the project is set out clearly by Beckett; to tear through the stuffy, clichéd ways of literature to open up something better.
John Milton is the poetic Godfather of this offensive imagination. His ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Absolem and Achitophel’ are its great Ur-texts, masterpieces of the dissenting imagination – republican, libertarian and anti-hierarchical. Milton is a writer of whom David Norbrook writes [his] ‘…uncompromising republicanism places his views even today outside the conventional framework of political discussion in England. Eliot and Leavis did not flinch from a drastic solution: Milton must be declared to have been a bad poet, and dislodged from the canon.’ (4) The snake-oil magic of a monarchical, hierarchical, orderly and anti-democratic writing has held its spell in the canonical towers of English literature ever since TS Eliot conjured it up and rendered all else beyond the pale.
Eliot’s influential anti-republicanism, coupled with his foul racist attitudes, mark him out as the Pope of the establishment literati. When Anthony Julius, the top lawyer used by Lady Diane to get a divorce from Prince Charles, wrote a book about the racism of Eliot (5) there was a very slow and reluctant response. Most of the people who would normally be clamouring to write reviews were silent, as were the organs carrying this kind of posh literary review.
Tom Paulin, the top dissenting poet and critic, started the ball rolling when he finally broke the news in the esteemed journal the ‘London Review Of Books.’ His cutting essay ‘TS Eliot and Anti-Semitism’ gives a brief outline of this scandalous cover-up attempt and provided a scathing analysis of the situation to belatedly kick-start a furious subsequent discussion about the book and its argument. In that essay he not only pointed out the silence of the press when the book came out but also the fact that three so-called quality publishing houses (6) had rejected the book. The point here is that the chattering classes found it difficult to accept that the high priest of quality art writing was a racist in the very writing they esteemed. Eliot was being accused of having anti-Semite views solidly embedded in his poetry. The dissenters were pointing this out and asking how it was possible to call such a loathsome body of work “Great Art.’ To have overtly dissenting politics gate-crashing the ‘High Art’ party was an anathema.
Stewart Home’s avant-garde take on this general situation (7) is one example of a powerful contemporary response. His Attack! Book (8) is just one of literally hundreds of Swiftian satirical anti-Art gestures Home has organised all designed to destabilise the confident structures of this Eliotic cultural hegemony. His latest is to produce a surreal e-book type of cut and paste essay ‘The Psychogeography Of Zeros and Ones’, commissioned by the Collaborative Unit at the Arts Council (9), where again the conditions and presuppositions of the cultural hegemonic field are tested and exposed. For Home, it comes as no surprise that racism and anti-democratic ideology structures high art discourse because for Home the whole High Art world is about middle class power.
The Attack! Book project itself, directed by its energetic general editor Steven Wells, recognises this context into which current English novelists must write. The Attack! Book response has been to take up the proposal of Beckett and work at tearing at the word surface of the novel to expose something beyond the dull, a-political snob texts produced by the current literary writers. What this project has looked like in the past is what John Carey has attacked, an esoteric, elitist and ‘difficult for difficult’s’ sake high modernism. Another crashing irrelevant boredom. Wells shifts to a different place to work his project and avoid the elitist cul-de-sac.
He goes into a more popular, vernacular context. This context has a traditional line that in literature is almost killed off. Its line would take in the Leveller John Lilburne, Andrew Marvell, Arthur Clough, John Clare and the Sheffield based Chartist Ebenezer Elliot through to Linton Kwesi Johnson and John Cooper Clarke. In prose you still find it in Viz comics, political cartoonist Steve Bell and in the numerous reviews and ‘Bangin’ On’ pieces by Steven Wells in the NME. But in the high art literature of the contemporary novel it isn’t easy to find. (Irvine Welsh would be the greatest contemporary writer in this line!)
What this tradition has is that burst of spontaneous humour used to ridicule the foolish arrogance and pride of leaders and power itself. What Attack! Books has done is to try and take this rude oik joker and the associated insolent laughter of the angry and the powerless to develop it into an assault on the high citadels of cultural writing. It is an attempt to use the scandal of the joke to reconfigure the program of the cultural czars.
The joke can pull in the tough, idealistic egalitarianism of the dissenting dream; it discloses the dream and mocks the trials. The prelapsarian image of Adam and Eve is its central discourse; it bombs into view the stupidity of the present, and clears the ground for a full view of the lost Eden, to which we are thus, ideally, restored. Its baggy, dirty vernacular pulse and vision is that of the Luddite historical imagination, the humane bodily material understanding that is found in every fart, dump, piss and fuck of James Joyce’s anti-colonialist, dissenting masterpiece ‘Ulysses’.
In that incomparable dissenting novel the political expression of oppression and lack of freedom are threaded all the way through like a despised snob necklace. And the great life affirming ‘yes’ (10) of the masturbating, fucking, farting incontestably beautiful Molly Bloom, where that ‘yes’ is the very last word, is sincere and flushed full with a great unfinishable appetite that severs the bondage to that necklace. It is an appetite that vanquishes the oppressors (of English imperialism, sentimental nationalism and martyrology) on a punctuated momentum of deflationary joking. A great cosmic anti-authoritarian laugh!
These are pre-verbal yawps, the rasping noise of someone blowing off in the face of pomposity and tyrannical power. (11) Tom Paulin draws attention to this feature of Joyce’s masterpiece; ‘Joyce had an intense dislike of Patrick Pearse, the leader of the 1916 uprising, and Bloom’s flatulent ‘I have done’ echoes Pearse’s echo of Emmet’s last words. Like the pok-pok of the corks in ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’, Bloom’s fart belongs to a beery mock-heroic world.’ (12) That world of the mock heroic, which not only Bloom inhabits but also Hasek’s Good Soldier , Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Cervantes Quixote, is the vulgar, life-affirming world of the picaresque. Here the writings of Richardson, Sterne, Swift and Defoe, the pictures of Hogarth, Gilray and our own contemporaries such as Ralph Steadman and Steve Bell do their work. The hard-headed, vernacular prose and images that journalists, jokers and cartoonists turn into indecent, rude, cavorting, wild stuff is the incendiary blow-off of anti-authoritarian, dissenting, antinomian spirits.
Milan Kundera, that artful, right wing intellectual writer understands this scatological, messy, stirred up and downright passionate crew, writing about it in an extended essay, ‘The Art Of The Novel’ (13) as the dominant impulse behind the novel form itself. He even wrote a novel of his own, ‘The Joke,’ to illustrate his understanding of humour’s ability to deflate and destroy power. But the writing was lame. It was trying to be decent, rational, it laid out all the elements so that they could be visible, so that they could be tamed and understood. He was merely exploring them, standing outside of the wild circus in true Parnassian style. The writing wasn’t fierce enough. And so it ended up, like all his novels, trite and sexist. Of course, Kundera is considered by the High Art crowd a wonder. It surely won’t be long before he gets the Nobel.
The popular feel of this stuff that Kundera so enjoys but lamentably cannot enact is found in current dissenting journalism and the satirical media generally. Attack! Book’s own Steven Wells writes out of this caustic, combative place in his critical reviews for ‘The New Musical Express’ , the top radical writer for that top British music journal. Christopher Hitchens is another example of the master of this sort of polemical rage. Attacking the ugly right wing Paul Johnson’s useless book ‘The Intellectuals’ in the quality quarterly magazine ‘Critical Quarterly’, Hitchens ended with an hilarious description of Johnson himself, where Hitchens quotes Jonathan Miller saying of Johnson : ‘ “He looks ,” said Jonathan Miller after witnessing one of his many exhibitions of dementia, “he looks – like an explosion in a pubic hair factory.’ (14) This brief rude scuddy image packs up Johnson’s pretensions with a Viz-like humour the high art set sadly don’t often put into their high art objects of desire. Magazines like ‘Viz’ and ‘Private Eye’ and tv shows such as ‘The Paul Thomas Experience’, ‘The Day Today’ and Rory Bremner all use satirical jokes to attack powerful groups and individuals. But novels tend not to do this kind of thing. Which is where the Attack! Book project gains distinction.
Tommy Udo comes out of this lived-in offensively vernacular place. His Attack! Book novel ‘Vatican Bloodbath’ takes as its central conceit ‘The 500 year long struggle between the Vatican and the Royal Family for control of the world’s drug trade.’ It’s a good joke, turning the twin institutions of authority and power, the British monarchy and The Catholic Church, literally into monsters. It’s a very funny book; its not about jokes, it is jokes. Lots of them.
But the revved –up, restless and over-the-top quality of the writing is focused and full-on in its destructive take on the forces that are mainstays of the hierarchical, mystical tradition of writing. Its not just what it is saying but also how it is saying it. This language uses the coarse, bodied language of real speech – it sounds like you’re overhearing a tanked up splenetic lefty republican giving it large in the pub after ten pints. It is a language that has let itself loose, it cracks on with an explosion of laughter and outrage. It demands that the cause of the humour be recognised, it assumes the utter bankruptcy of the Monarch and the Pope and can do so because its centre of gravity is republican and egalitarian.
I sense that the kicked up response the book brought out in me is to do with Udo expressing his vision in such earthy, available and fluxed-up terms. To be able to relish the words ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ and in the context of these two massive controlling authority figures too – just say the sentence ‘tell that cunt Pope to Fuck off!’ – there’s something liberating in saying that, in writing it down, in reading it – if you feel the pressure of the Pope’s presence it’s irresistible, you have to laugh. This is in a sense outlaw language, even if ‘fuck’ is by now pretty tame. But inside the cover of a novel, and talking about the Pope, it can still carry the effect of a fart in the presence of something revered. It is that flatulent closure recalled earlier in Joyce.
The book is crammed with that sort of stupidly powerful affective moment. It appeals to a puerile, clean and direct thought. Its tough in that respect, it doesn’t make any concessions to ‘polite society’. After all, decorum and sophistication are the mannered restrictive forces working out of the middle class elitist position that reviles this sort of writing. As Steven Wells wrote in one of the many publicity manifestos he put out for Attack! Books, ‘Subtlety is found in the dictionary between ‘shit’ and ‘syphilis’.
Udo runs his language with the Wells stream-of-mental language to a point, but his novel, unlike Well’s own ‘Tits Out Teenage Terror Totty,’ (15) is leaner and relies more than Wells does on a fairly conventional plot line . This makes it a different kind of read to the Wells book. Whereas Wells conceded nothing and produced the closest of all the Attack! Books to a genuine surrealist novel, Udo is content to keep the frame simple and let the fireworks crack at another level. With Wells it would be interesting to see how fruitful a comparison with Beckett’s ‘Watt’ would be; the fact that this doesn’t seem totally preposterous is an indication of what Wells has tapped into and achieved in his novel.
Once you confront the absurdist repetition in ‘Watt’ – ‘And the poor old lousy old earth, my earth and my father’s and my mother’s and my father’s father’s and my mother’s mother’s and my father’s mother’s and my mother’s father’s …’ (16) which continues for a whole page or more and ends with the word ‘excrement’ just in case you don’t get the joke, then the same mental junk-fest that structures the Wells novel becomes even more suggestive than it might have initially seemed.
It’s a sort of linguistic suicide, a semantic topping! When Neil Hertz writes , ‘When, in Beyond The Pleasure Principle’, Freud developed his more abstract conception of a compulsion to repeat and argued for the existence of ‘death instincts’…it eluded perception except ( he added in Civilisation and its Discontents) when it was ‘tinged’ or coloured’ by sexuality,’ (17) it occurs to me that he opens up another line of enquiry into Wells’ claim that the Attack! Project is a surreal one.
What Udo is doing, however, is joking at the level of dramatic/symbolic hyperbole rather than the Beckettian/Wellsian absurd repeat. This makes it a matter of a kind of primitivism, so ‘Vatican Blood Bath’ becomes the equivalent of graffiti on the bog walls – if you want to get everyone understanding what’s really going on, then get down there and read it. It’s a crude but direct form of communication, urgent and with that weird magic of such things. The last page is blank with the guidance – ‘This page is left blank so you can use your crayons to draw a picture of the inevitable triumph of the proletariat’ (18) The whole Beavis and Butthead snigger links up with Charles Dickens’Pip in ‘Great Expectations’ where printed language becomes the enemy, the signifier of the ruling class where free, lived-in speech is downgraded. Tom Paulin writes that in a certain context, ‘Print is a form of violence, its signs are like that ‘curious T’ which Pip’s brain-damaged sister chalks on her slate in Great Expectations. In Dickens novel, the letter T, a leg-iron and a hammer are identified – the T signifies Orlick who has felled Mrs Gargery with the leg-iron that clamped Magwitch’s ankle. Dickens shows how the oral community which Mrs Gargerey, Joe, Magwitch and initially Pip belong to is powerless before the force of print, the legal system, male violence and gentility.’ (19) The Attack! Book project aims to draw these alienated groups back in from the cold force of those four oppressive powers by animating their own tongues against their silencers.
The sense that the book is to be discounted, indeed that the whole Attack! Books project is to be discounted, because it lacks the right kind of language to handle its themes of tinderbox politics , national identity and language is rather like those art critics who would attack primitivist painters for their crudeness and inability to use a single vanishing point. They are criticised for being what they are and not being something else. And in the final analysis it’s a political, conservative stance.
Udo is stomping around in the language used by his contemporaries. He is writing with the fast paced humour of the social critic buckled to the stand-up comic. His book is a meaty fart in the presence of anti-democratic forces symbolised as the British monarch and the Pope. And yet it is also delicate like a child’s drawing is delicate because it writes out in its bold, unrefined lines the mute sanctity of the oppressed and the uncultured, their voices and desires in a kind of Molly Bloomian ‘Yes’.
1- Bombaugh ‘Oddities and Curiosities’ ed Gardner p 256-257
2- Tommy Udo ‘Vatican Bloodbath’ Attack! Books 2000 p150
3- Samuel Beckett ‘Disjecta’ - actually ‘… for example the sound surface, torn by enormous pauses, of Beethoven’s seventh Symphony, so that…’
4- David Norbrook ‘Poetry And Politics In The English Renaissance.’
5- Anthony Julius ‘TS Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form.’ Cambridge University Press
6- ‘Hamish Hamilton, Fourth Estate and Harvard …sent the author letters of rejection – rejections that now seem compounded by the lack of attention which literary editors have given the book.’ – from Tom Paulin ‘T.S. Eliot and Anti-Semitism’ in ‘Writing To The Moment . Selected Critical Essay. 1980-1996. Faber and Faber 1996
7- ‘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”’. From R Marshall ‘The Defiant Pose Of Stewart Home’ 3a.m. publishing.com 2001
8- Stewart Home ‘Whips and Furs: My Life As A Bon Vivant, gambler And Love Rat By Jesus H Christ edited And Introduced By Stewart Home.’ Attack! Books 2000
9- Stewart Home ACE Publishing developed by Proboscis at http://www.proboscis.org.uk
10- ‘and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going mad and yes I said yes I will Yes’ James Joyce ‘Ulysses.’
11- See Dominic Manganiello ‘Joyce’s Politics.’
12- Tom Paulin ‘The British Presence In Ulysses’ in Paulin op cit p 24
13- Milan Kundera ‘The Art Of The Novel’ Faber and Faber
14- ‘Critical Quarterly’ 1989
15- Steven Wells ‘Tits Out Teenage Terror Totty’ Attack! Books 1999
16- Sam Beckett ‘Watt’
17- Neil Hertz ‘The End Of The Line’ 1985 p 100
18- Tommy Udo 2000 op cit p 153
19- Tom Paulin ‘Faber Anthology of Vernacular Verse’