:: Article

Love Bites

By Oscar Mardell.

Andrew Gallix, Tomoé Hill and C.D. Rose, eds, Love Bites: Fiction Inspired by Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019)

If Punk ever had a defining feature — that is, if the motley assortment of acts assigned that vague moniker did actually share something in common — then it was a propensity for disrupting boundaries: between performer and audience (think: Anyone Can Be A Sex Pistol), high and low (Patti Smith’s mid-set recitals of Rimbaud at CBGB), or public and private (fetish wear on the King’s Road). And in the North of England, Punk facilitated something approximating a free trade agreement between music and literature, with influence circulating unobstructed between the two. In Lancashire, John Cooper Clarke found success as a ‘Punk poet’, expressing in writing an ethos which had hitherto appeared only in song. In Manchester, The Fall’s Mark E. Smith plundered sources as niche as H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James, and Arthur Machen; Joy Division’s Ian Curtis drew inspiration from Gogol, Kafka, and Ballard; while Buzzcocks’ Peter McNeish adopted the stage name ‘Shelley’ in honour of the Romantic poet, and of his own literary aspirations. For which reason, it simply felt right when Peter Wild first assembled Perverted by Language: Fiction Inspired by The Fall (2007), and again, when Confingo published We Were Strangers: Stories Inspired by Unknown Pleasures (2018). And after these, it only felt like a matter of time before someone would have the good sense to put out an anthology of writing taking cue from that other powerhouse of Mancunian Punk. Dostoyevsky Wannabe have done exactly this with Love Bites — a collection of thirty-four pieces of writing inspired by none other than Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks.

In some ways, the collection is a dangerous undertaking. After the success of Perverted by Language (and before that of We Were Strangers) Peter Wild edited The Empty Page: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth (2008), and then Please: Fiction Inspired by The Smiths (2010). “Fiction Inspired by [Cult Musical Act]” is now a formula on the brink of becoming precisely the kind of cliché which Punk sought to do away with (and which, regrettably, it often became). But Love Bites is unique among its peers, for the simple fact that Buzzcocks were unique among theirs. Like the band that inspired them, the pieces collected here share an obsessive focus on the ordinary, lovingly cataloguing its mundane, glamourless, and frustrating weirdness. They document the awkwardness and the hilarity of human relationships, and of love in particular — the way it violates and completes our everyday lives, and the way it transcends the gender divisions by which those lives are often structured. The singularity of the source, in other words, has begotten wonderful issue.

But a collection like this — inspired by a band whose popularity peaked in the late-Seventies, and who are probably best known to today’s youth via that lukewarm rendition of “Ever Fallen in Love” from Shrek 2 — also risks becoming a nostalgia-fest, a rosy-tinted celebration of good ole days which never really existed in the first place. This kind of thing was despised by Shelley, who made his thoughts on the subject explicit in “Nostalgia”:

I always used to dream of the past
But like they say yesterday never comes

For Shelley, then, nostalgia is a deeply old-fashioned way of seeing, a relationship with the past which ought to be consigned to the past — not least for the fact that the very act of retrospection enforces boundaries which separate the past from the present and future, boundaries which, nowadays, feel deeply out of place. Of course, the Punk thing to do was to disrupt those boundaries: for Shelley, a more appropriate relationship with the past is one attuned to the way it seems to slip in and out of the present and the future at a moment’s notice:

And I wonder what it’ll be like in days gone by,
As I sit and bathe in the wave of nostalgia for an age yet to come

Though it was written in 1978, the lyric is uncannily close to the “nostalgia for lost futures” which, in 2006, Mark Fisher famously called “the closest thing we have to a movement, a zeitgeist” (the only difference being that in Fisher’s formulation, Shelley’s “age yet to come” is not going to come anymore). And this, as David Collard explains in ‘Sixteen Again’ — the collection’s sole essay (and by God is it a good essay) — is “what we really need”: anything purporting to be “inspired” by Buzzcocks must adhere to this displaced chronology if it’s to remain true to the spirit of its source.

Fortunately, the lyric is also a perfect summary of the spirit of Love Bites. Throughout the collection, the present is saturated with the absent; what is turns out to be disproportionately comprised of what was or what is yet to be. Or, as it’s succinctly sloganized in Germán Sierra’s ‘Some Say it All Began with the UFO Sightings in 1977’: “No present!” “The future,” meanwhile, as Lara Alonso Corona writes in ‘Nostalgia’,

makes you dream of the beautiful 1934. In your car, hotwired like in a movie, driving to the outskirts to score some among decrepit Fascist-funded buildings, this is the bit after the epilogue that says you are free.

And it’s not only time that is out of joint. Andrew Gallix’s ‘Operators Manual’ begins with the haunting passage:

I live on a trap street. One of those fictitious roads cartographers add to their maps in order to confound plagiarists. Have I confounded you now that you have found me? Found me here, of all places — a non-existent one.

Gallix’s piece is, among other things, a masterstudy in place as palimpsest, a setting defined by what is elsewhere. This sense of dis-location also forms the backdrop to C.D. Rose’s ‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’:

The picture reminded him that there’d been a world out there that he had inhabited, a world which was still here and through which he now passed on his way to meet with those who had also passed through it.

Love Bites, then, is about as far away from the linear or sentimental retrospective as you can get. This is no starry-eyed tourist guide to some bygone era; think of it as a ghost-hunting manual for The End of History.

But how does love fit into this chaos? Very naturally, as it turns out. Love Bites opens with Lee Rourke’s “Boredom”, in which the narrator reminisces on the uncanny persistence of an old romance:

Oh I loved you then I love you now yet why this feeling now that none of it is real like I’ve let it all slip away I did let you slip away and you slipped away from me and I stood there and watched you go knowing it was a bad thing knowing that it would haunt me for the rest of my days but still you came back to me.

The same idea reappears in Gerard Evans’ ‘Just Lust’, in which a desensitised assassin-for-hire is haunted by the image of an ex-lover:

I stare at the figure in the yellow window and it could be her. The pale skin. The long brown hair. The face just out of focus enough to allow the illusion. It’s not her, of course. But it could be, and that’s all that matters right now.

It turns up again in Mark Leary’s ‘Yesterday’s Not Here’:

He got away pretty quick, she heard he was in Dublin for a bit, then in the States. What made her think of it? A song on the car radio on her way to work this morning, that window of me time she loves, when the kids are safely at school, and Jim is at his own things. It would have been out around then. She remembers dancing to it.

Love, according to this collection, doesn’t just transcend the gender distinctions which structure our everyday lives, but the chronological ones too. Our attempts to consign our former lovers to the past — to ‘move on’, as it were — are rendered futile by the simple fact that love never seems to fit within the delineations with which we organise time — that it feels infinite or forever. And love, therefore, is always experienced as something transgressive or boundary-breaking — that is, as something inherently Punk. Or to put it a bit more eloquently: everyone you’ve ever fallen in love with is someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with.

Could the “Fiction inspired by [Cult Musical Act]” formula sustain another instalment? Love Bites will be a hard — perhaps impossible — act to follow. And whatever comes next is destined to look like a parody of an old routine. Is there another powerhouse of Mancunian Punk that could wear that fate? Not unless someone has good sense to publish an anthology of fiction inspired by Frank Sidebottom.

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: Sunday, October 27th, 2019.