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Alive and Sane: An Interview with Alex Niven

Alex Niven interviewed by Oscar Mardell.

Alex Niven is an editor at Repeater Books, an English Lecturer at Newcastle University, and the author of Folk Opposition and Definitely Maybe 33 1/3. His latest book, New Model Island, is a critical dismantling of the very idea of England. For Niven, England doesn’t really exist — or at least, hasn’t done in any meaningful sense since at least as far back as the Seventeenth Century, when local idiosyncrasy was ironed out in the name of globalised capital and empire. Via countless examples from literature and history, from music and from his own life, Niven makes the compelling case that the vogue for unearthing some essential “Englishness” is not only wrongheaded but politically dangerous. Instead, New Model Island advocates for a radical version of regionalism — “bringing together the best features of leftist anti-nationalism and anti-imperialism on the one hand, and left populism and communitarianism on the other”. We caught up to talk about writing and the future.

3:AM Magazine: One of the great things about New Model Island is the scope of its approach — the way it infuses political tract with cultural criticism, personal memoir, and even poetry. Why was it important to combine these modes?

Alex Niven: Partly this was just a synthesis that happened naturally because these are the modes of writing that I’m familiar with. I suppose I also think it’s important to experiment with different generic approaches, because a lot of the standard vehicles for critical writing these days (in particular the academic monograph) are very staid and tend to have a scandalously negligible readership. I was trying to bridge the gap between a book which people might actually buy and enjoy on the one hand, and an academic essay on the other — which meant going for a range of different styles and registers. I was also very lucky that Repeater Books is the sort of publisher that allows for, and actively encourages this sort of approach.

3:AM: You say that art, music and poetry “invariably lead the way when it comes to changes in how we perceive apparently monolithic national and spatial entities”. What might these things have to look like in the future if they are to facilitate New Model Island’s vision of radical regionalism?

AN: There’s a sense in which that was just me trying to justify my own approach, as someone who writes about art, music and poetry rather than the more fine-grained practical stuff which tends to guide discussions of nationalism and regionalism. But I also think it’s true that when it comes to actually persuading people to get behind an idea like the nation or the region, you really have to look to culture rather than bureaucratic planning if you want it to have mass appeal. In terms of the argument for a radical regionalism in New Model Island, I think that means replacing the emphasis on a bogus “Englishness” we’ve seen in recent years, with forms of cultural identity that are slightly smaller in scale and less in thrall to the conservative, quasi-imperial myths which tend to frame discussions of English identity. So for example, in the case of my native North East, that would mean emphasising things like its modernist history and outgoing social atmosphere — two things which contrast quite radically with traditional stereotypes of Englishness.

3:AM: The book describes an experience you shared with fellow Repeater author Joe Kennedy. The two of you have had a few beers, are mildly stoned, and are trying to get through an episode of the 1993 BBC children’s TV series Century Falls. At some point, you stop the programme and find yourselves watching Brendan O’Carrol’s Mrs Brown’s Boys: “Neither of us had encountered this singular sitcom before, but it struck us with blinding clarity at that moment as the funniest, strangest, most life-affirming thing we’d ever seen, as we collapsed in stoned laughter”. Was it just the dope, or does Mrs Brown’s Boys contain the seeds of a new culture?

AN: This is a very good question. I’ve thought a lot about this. On balance, I’d have to say that it might have just been the drugs. But at the very least Mrs Brown’s Boys is much less bad than many people make out. I’d watch it over Fleabag or Curb Your Enthusiasm any day of the week.

3:AM: You also speak fondly of the blogging scene which proliferated between 2003 and 2009, writing “The anarchic, immature nature of the online world in this period allowed for a good deal of radical discussion…in stark contrast to the 2010s Twitterscape, with its trolling, takedown and calling out, the blogosphere tended to revolve around collective debate rather than individual smirks and quirks”. Can the internet still be a space for meaningful commentary?

AN: Yes I think it can, it’s just that you don’t have the same spirit of openness, friendliness and collaboration that was at the heart of the ’00s blogging scene. There was brief period of time when a genuine and tight-knit avant-garde was able to develop around critical theory and pop-cultural analysis, with Mark Fisher acting as the main focal point and driving force. Like all avant-gardes, it faded and scattered over time, but that doesn’t mean that the internet is now devoid of good writing and commentary. As I say in the book, writing these days is more overtly political, which is generally a good thing. And in many ways websites like TribuneNew Socialist and Novara are a positive outcome of the older, smaller-scale blogging culture — they’re doing similar things but in a more coherent (dare I say respectable) format, even if they’re not open to instamatic contribution like blogs.

3:AM: New Model Island is profoundly sensitive to the intersection between physical landscapes, their histories, and the interior lives of their inhabitants — in this respect, it seems to take no small cue from psychogeography. And yet the book is critical of the version of that practice which has taken place in the British Isles, pointing out that it has been “smothered in foreboding and melancholy, and underpinned by a sometimes exaggerated sense of historical curse bordering on conspiracy theory”. Can we imagine an anglophone heir to the Situationists’ legacy that rises above the “oppressive atmosphere of blokey psychogeographic doom”?

AN: I think so, I just think we need to be very wary of the ways in which the radical Situationist basis of psychogeography has been replaced with a sort of middlebrow travelogue aesthetic over the last couple of decades. Robert Macfarlane does this sort of thing better than most, but there’s a lot of sub-Macfarlane writing out there which is basically just middle-class people going for walks in the countryside and getting spooky kicks (and high sales) when they write it up as a sort of diary entry. And this often dovetails with spurious claims about rediscovering the essence of Englishness and so on. Someone like Owen Hatherley is a more positive heir to the Situationists, because his urban wanderings are more constructive about the potential of our cities to be reshaped and improved.

3:AM: Do you foresee the book having an impact outside of the British Isles? Or, to put it a slightly different way — does there need to be an overhaul of the images of Englishness entertained in other parts of the globe?

AN: A lot of the book is necessarily Anglocentric, because the argument is specifically about the void at the heart of England and the need for a regionalist culture and politics to counteract the quasi-imperial dynamic that persists in the British Isles. I’m not knowledgeable enough about other places to be able to say whether the same argument applies elsewhere. But I would think it holds true for any country in which you have an overly dominant centre at the expense of broad equality throughout its regions. And I think the argument against narrow forms of nationalism applies throughout the world.

3:AM: Inspired by the upstart of the 2017 general election, New Model Island ends on a note of triumphant optimism. What hope can we retain for culture after the Tory victory of 2019? Or are we in for another deluge of Downton Abbey and Spice Girls reunions?

AN: I think unfortunately it may be a lot worse than that. In the short term it’s looking like mainstream popular culture in the British Isles might be more or less wiped out, if the Tories get their way and destroy the BBC. I think we’re in for a very difficult few years, with the culture wars intensifying in increasingly nasty ways. But then you’ve got to hope that there will be a counter movement to this eventually. There’s a sense in which the infrastructure of late-twentieth-century pop culture needs to be cleaned out to make way for something new in any case. I’m generally very encouraged by the radical energy of millennial and Gen Z culture, and I think that when it finally manages to break through and establish itself in lieu of the older institutions that are still dominated by the over 45s, we will get a genuinely revolutionary cultural moment — perhaps some time in the late 2020s or early 2030s. But in the meantime it’s going to take a lot of effort just to stay alive and sane.



Oscar Mardell

Oscar Mardell was born in London and raised in South Wales. He currently lives in an urban commune in Auckland, New Zealand where he brews beer and practices Aikido. He teaches in the English Department at St Mary’s College, and volunteers for English Language Partners NZ. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in War, Literature & the Arts, The Literary London Journal, and DIAGRAM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 5th, 2020.