:: Article

Tony White’s Sinuous Traces

By Richard Marshall.

Tony White, Missorts Volume II, Situations 2012.

Taking its title from a Post Office term used to describe letters that have become lost in the system, Missorts Volume II uses the cityscape of Bristol as the inspiration for a contemporary work of fiction. Set in the shadow of the derelict former Royal Mail sorting office that is never far from local headlines, Missorts Volume II is a timely reflection on how the city impacts on the imaginative life of its residents. Milton writes that on the 6th day of Creation insects and worms come out of the earth ‘streaking the ground with sinuous traces.’ These traces are pre-Fall but buckled in Milton’s imagination, four lines later, to ‘snaky folds’ and therefore carry an immense threat and imminent tragic momentum. White’s analogy of the missorts carries with it a similar freight of meanings. It’s characters are light and largely portrayed in bright weightlessness. Their to-ing and fro-ing problems hint of good times to come. Bristol is pictured as a shadowed dome of pleasures and richness. There is much enjoyment to be had in White’s use of the geographic locations to root his characters and their imaginations. His use of the city revives and refreshes, but it is a complex pleasure.

The criss-crossing ‘sinuous tracings’ of the intertwined, wriggling narratives shadow something else as well. This is a novella that is based on vast reading and reminds me of Coleridge before he went tory. In a stunning reading of Coleridges’ ‘Kubla Khan’ Tom Paulin imagines the dead city of the poem as a ‘pleasure garden, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden’ but one that ‘… appears planted on top of Minatour’s Labyrinth, a system of subterranean jails.’ White’s Bristol seems similarly precarious and dangerous. The meditations of state power and the individual’s imagination in opposition to that state power is never far away here in White, just as it is in Coleridge. The off-centre knowledge of the margins and byways that White brings to everything he does is, as hinted at above, similarly like Coleridge. When John Livingston Lowes wrote of Coleridge in his ‘The Road to Xanadu’ what he wrote could equally be written of White: ‘We set out long ago, through a glimmering chaos across which lingered, faintly luminous, like the tracks of shining creatures in the sea, the trace of the adventuring imagination. And by strange and devious ways that glimmering track has led us into the trodden highway of the creative energy.’

Bristol, then, serves as White’s unifying city just as the historical Kubla Khan re-established the unity of China with his. White’s Bristol is one that carries undercurrents of its marvelous industrial history as well as the content of contemporary political struggles. The great chasm and its iconic Brunel suspension Bridge across the depths ‘measureless to man’ is an image of a triumphant state power and the revolutionary voices that exult in the disruption of despotic whims in the rocks and waters below. Those missorts about which he writes capture all this and pick up Cromwell’s revolutionary voice when he writes that ‘he took the free way not the formal.’ This is a republican shaded writing where English revolutionary imaginings are glimpsed through the French Revolution, through the Industrial revolution, through the European pre-revolutions of the last few decades.

The wall in Berlin fell and new ‘uncouth’ formations begin to be traced. ‘Uncouth’ here is Milton’s word, and contains the meaning of Cromwell’s ‘free way not formal.’ Cromwell’s men were chosen for ability as soldiers irrespective of rank and family privilege. Bristol is White’s Minataurean labyrinth, the other submerged emblem of White’s imagination here, connecting it with earlier identifications of the state with monstrosity such as Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein that turns the modern nation state into a myth of monstrousness.’ She wrote into the time of nation-building. Chris Baldick says the creature ‘is the offspring of Hobbes’s image of the state as an ‘Artificial man.’ The Minotaur is symbolic of the repressive state. The Cretan myth of the Minotaur is one that works through ‘an occult relationship between art and the state’, as Paulin says. The great political writer Cortázar identified the minotaur myth with state oppression as he started writing. So too White.

As with Cortázar’s, White’s is a trans-national imagination. What he does next is always a surprise. Throughout the last two decades or so he has been involved in working in this treacherous, dangerous ground: his cv is itself a fascinating audit of his own sinuous tracings. His Wikepedia entry has a section that gives us a feel for his imaginative project to track the spirit of the age in all its historical, political and imaginative post Soviet Europe:

‘In 2006 White’s ‘Another Fool in the Balkans: In the Footsteps of Rebecca West’ (Cadogan, 2006) was published; a travelogue ‘from Belgrade to Split, reporting the words of a people confused by shame, pride and hope, trying to make sense of brutal murder and hatred, managing to create something universally valuable from their lives and their history’ in the post-Yugoslav republics.[12]

White has been writer in residence at the Science Museum, from which came the story Albertopolis Disparu (Science Museum, 2009), and the Leverhulme Trust writer in residence at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. In 2010 he collaborated with Blast Theory to write Ivy4evr, an SMS-based, interactive drama for young people broadcast by Channel 4 in October 2010, which was nominated for a British Interactive Media Association(BIMA)award in 2011.

In 1994 White founded artist’s book imprint Piece of Paper Press, and has invited artists and writers, (including Liliane Lijn, Pavel Büchler, Tim Etchells, Elizabeth Magill, and Alison Turnbull) to create books made from a single sheet of A4 paper, folded three times, stapled and cut to produce an A7, 16-page, photocopied edition. Several of these artists’ books are included within Arnolfini’s collection of artists’ books held at Bristol Record Office.[13] He was Arts Council England Interdisciplinary Arts Officer between 1999 and 2007, overseeing the Pioneers in Art and Science DVD series, working particularly closely with UK film director Ken McMullen and the artist Gustav Metzger. Between 1998 and 2007 White was literary editor of The Idler magazine.’ He ‘.. co-edited the short story collection Croatian Nights (Serpent’s Tail, 2005), with Borivoj Radaković[10] and Matt Thorne, which featured both British, Croatian and Serbian authors, and Britpulp! (Sceptre, 1999). His own short stories have appeared in various periodicals, exhibition catalogues and collections including All Hail the New Puritans (4th Estate), edited by Nicholas Blincoe and Matt Thorne.’

It’s as if White is zooming in on an image in Miroslav Holub in ‘The Minotaur’s Thoughts on Poetry’ where he writes:

‘Certainly this thing exists. For
on dark nights when, unseen,
I walk through the snail like windings of the street
The sound of my own roar reaches me
From a great distance’.

This is an image that captures the disconcerting notion that the state puzzles and plays with poetry, respects it, works it into a coded survival language in the underground of a Minotaurean state surveillance system. White’s novella understands this. Fellow avant-pulpist Stewart Home ironises Icarus in the myth, an Icarus who represents disinterestedness and complete aesthetic autonomy, by designing anti-novels and anti-art appropriate to post-war Europe. White’s strategy has been to interrogate the obstinate integrity of individuals whose imaginations refuse to be fused with the Minotaur and also those who take the Icarus stance of craved transcendence to escape from the historical and present threats. In White there are no ‘arrow showers sent out of sight’ but rather an earnest involvement with the vast movement of minds roving around under the radar of the state. His is a hide and seek sensibility that knows that the shadows are safer but daylight necessary. White is our nimblest political novelist.

He has always known the dangers of print. Like Rousseau he knows that it is the speeching voice that carries the vivacity of life. Rousseau, Socrates, St Paul and Coleridge all had this thought and White’s early novels Road Rage (Low Life Books, 1997), Satan Satan Satan (Attack Books!, 1999), and Charlieunclenorfolktango (Codex, 1999) all evesdrop on speaking language rather than frozen arty-lit forms. Foxy-T toughened his linguistic resources further and moved him away from pure fixed literary shapes, again showing a resourcefulness and agility that writers from this political, republican, revolutionary imagination have always embedded. Felow novelist Toby Litt recognized this when he cited Foxy T as one of his favourite contemporary novels.

White’s writing is a deliberate disjunction from tyranny, something tougher and more disruptive than the Icarusian tones of the modern globalised style. What White is engaged in is an occult activism whereby the subconscious imagination merges the political, scientific, natural, educative and mystical through several types of process. Kelvin Everest writes of Coleridge in terms that again seem to easily transfer to White. Everest is writing about ‘Frost at Midnight’ and says, ‘ The Frost performs its secret ministry… a task that is at once lonely and isolated, introspective and wary, and yet very important, full of potential and implication; like the task of a secret agent.’ Unlike Coleridge White hasn’t shifted from the radical ground to the conservative but finds new juice in the underground rivers of radical art streams and writing that continue to roll out like a sacred river, kind of measureless.

With Tony White’s fiction there is always an engaging lightness of touch, a deft abilty to wind out stories that carry a freightload of edgy material with a beguiling ease. Missorts II is no exception to this. It steps briskly out and quickly brings the reader the sorts of pleasures that only a writer at ease with his material and form can deliver, a series of voices that can hold the geographic and historical action together without any sense of forced engagement. ‘Paul is a postman working nights at Bristol Temple Meads, whilst Ronnie does the Missorts duty on the late shift. Oliver is a lecturer who makes an unexpected discovery about William Blake – and himself – in the archives. Jessica is a young woman seeking a kind of peace with the father who walked out on her when she was a child. Four Bristol lives that barely connect, but they have all been shaped by loves lost and letters found, and now they must each find their own way to write a reply.’ That’s the blurb. The novella started life as a free e-book to accompany his immersive soundwork produced by Situations which was delivered to your smartphone as a mobile app. That alone tells you something about White, about how his career trajectory as a creative force in the UK has been one of unpredictability and risk. As we’ve already noted, he’s been writer in residence at London’s Science Museum, a Leverhulme trust writer in residence at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, worked for the Arts Council of England, a postman in the London NW1 and N1 sorting offices, written science fiction response on the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster and worked on various multi-modal projects to limn out a serious and creative engagement. His novels and shorter fictions are zippy, fluid and warm-hearted wearing a formidable knowledge and erudition with light zeal. He’s found a way to negotiate the pitfalls of modern fiction, foregrounding our messy political landscape alongside the cultural and personal by working at a level of interest that never lapses into Parnassian Icarusian authoritarianism nor fey quietistic chump. He’s the sort of left field guy who keeps working on ground level so that his writing doesn’t forget the sods.

Which is not to say that he’s not always spinning ideas that are corrosive of received wisdoms. His psychogeographic novelistic fictionalist approach is to show how all the huge mind-bending changes, events, histories that are building at speed all around us get filtered, shaped, absorbed and transformed through lives being lived at a different pace, level and reality. This is how he manages to connect ordinary voices with exceptional ones, how he shows how the smallness of each individual adds and adds until at some moment, from some perspective, everything changes. His characters are more than the sum of their parts and more than the parts that add up and more than the impressions that occur to us as we read or drift off to make a connection that White’s just implied or nudged into view – & he does that a lot. His characters never seem to be listening in on themselves but are always nevertheless speaking inwardly to themselves as well as to us – or that’s how it always seems to me – so we’re always circling around in the heads of these interesting little guys with their hearts on our sleeves, so to speak, and their intimate obsessions and interests, their fears and concerns which are always, somehow, heading in our direction in one way or another.

That’s the key to White: he intuits what we’re concerned with, what worries us, what is driving us to the existential panic and silent fears that haunt our modern souls, and he carefully exposes these things so we know that we’re not alone with these concerns. He energises everything however, by resisting the lazy, quietistic idea that everything is panic and silent fears, as if we’re all crawling around on our hands and knees in a monochrome wail and there’s nothing to be done. He has a knack for getting the zeitgeisty stuff down to our level, off the front pages and out of the opinion pieces so to speak. He brings them all much closer to home, a home which is always interesting and quirky and where we recognize stuff as it unfolds and occasionally think ‘Oh God, that’s right. That’s just what I’d feel’ whilst celebrating the fact caught in the metaphor that we’re alive when language unfreezes and recaptures the zest and flow of lived speech. An ice age has befallen our culture. Liberty is frozen and power language everywhere seems official, centralized and deadening. Paulin calls the poet Clare’s speechy poetics ‘… like a soodling stream… caught in the blow-back of an immense historical suffering [that]… glimpses what happens when an oral culture is destroyed by the institutions of law, order, printed texts.’ White is in this tradition of fending off the instrumentalist frost of official written language, the bad artificiality of the dead speeches of career politics such as, back in day, Pitt who, for Coleridge;

‘… built up his periods, as usual, in all the stately order of rhetoric architecture, but they fell away at once before that true eloquence of commonsense and natural feeling which sanctifies, and renders human, the genius of Mr Fox. Like some good genius, he approached in indignation to the spell-built palace of the state-magician, and at the first touch of his wand, it sunk into a ruinous and sordid hovel, tumbling in upon the head of the wizard that had reared it.’ Again the palace image of Kubla Khan is here, one that becomes the trope of White’s Bristol, and the artificial, stately order is revealed as sordid and ruinous. In this drama, White is Mr Fox with that magical wand of ‘commonsense and natural feeling’ who uses knowy talk and the historical memories that stay alive in living speech.

Sometimes it’s the sense of joy and possibility and hope that comes to the surface of White’s works. No matter how awesomely nightmarish the situation – post-Chernobyl amnesia, global warming, religious wars, betrayal of politics & the annihilation of any remnant scintilla of social responsibility by neo-liberal selfish philistine wannabees and gagster-rich social climbing bastards – White’s fictions are all about celebrating a republican collective generosity that knows beauty in life, a chance of a love, a good pint, a good song, a memory, a hope, a family, a joke, a value, a book, a poem, art, an event, a party, a conversation, a place, a protest, a win and then hundreds of all these things and more. White’s perspective is ‘from the vague world where pride and folly taunts’, as John Clare puts it, and from there White muses and ‘looks above’ and by doing so shows this alternative where the ‘… heart warms into higher moods and dignifying dreams.’ That word ‘vague’ makes the connection with White explicit: ‘Missorts – or sometimes ‘Vague’ – was the forty-eighth selection on both letter and packet frames, all the way down the line. Missorts was a way of putting things that had been wrongly sorted back into the mainstream; setting them right.’ It sets out the radical hope and catches its dilemma in a breezy contemporary symbol that’s both verb and noun.

White is passionate about the kind of radical politics that works in a prouder and more dignified, steadier and refined mode than supposed by the ‘sordid’, frosty journalists who write our front pages. He’s more in line with the kind of radicals that knocked around with John Keats and his bunch, John and Leigh Hunt and their weekly journal ‘The Examiner’. White works across a dazzling range to ensure that he finds a platform for his radical left politics that is shut out from the mainstream. His voice is part of the fragmented jigsaw of radicalism that prefers to duck and dive in the stew of our new urban and digital context. It is history that swells the gourd of his work and the subtle anxiety and discomfort of his characters communicates his complex relationship to the State. Working as an internationalist border-crossing combo White reminds us of Milton speaking of the ‘mists and intricacies of state’ where Satan is a mist and power is always associated with bending, of fruit rotten to the core, of bent coppers and the clammy stink of cells.

So White is in this tradition of the radical writer, of Keats’s ‘Ode To Autumn’ – as Tom Paulin reminds us – a tradition of rebellion, republican anti-state power and progressiveness. In this light Keats is no moony Romantic dreamer but a hard nut London tough radical writing disguised rebel yell poems using deft brilliant pastoral tropes and forms. Just before he wrote ‘Autumn’ he’d been in a 300,000 strong crowd in London protesting the tyranny of his government and ‘Autumn’ was a protest poem against the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester where a march against Manchester sweat shops, repressive bosses and the tyranical government ended in forces of the state murdering wimmin and kids. It’s certain that the recent poppy madness outside the Tower of London, symbolic state fortress of the police state, is something Keats would have had something harsh to say. In Ireland bonfire is still ‘bone fire’, as it was in Shakespeare’s day, picking up ideas of catholic martyrdom and of lonely and loveless dying. As Paulin says; ‘Keats loathed the British Army, and associated its redcoats with poppy blossom. The ‘hook’ in the poem is both the grim reaper’s sickle and a cavalryman’s sword… The ‘fume of poppies’ suggests both an opiate and the reek of gunpowder, because this is also a battlefield, stained red with blood.’ Yet Keats poem disguises its radicalism. It works as a code to protect its insiders as well as keep the supporters of tyrants at bay. It is a kind of parable.

White’s deceptively even-handed voice is similarly artful and cunning. Keats wrote in the pastoral form partly because the bloody forces of state power needed to be outwitted and deceived. His times, as ever, were dangerous times for radicalism. Keats and White both reach back and forward to radical histories and prophecies in order to ripen and protect a vision constantly threatened by power. ‘And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs.’ It’s part of this radical tradition that the book and word speak to the radical cause and here the Biblical tropes flow like arterial blood into Keats’ poem and into White’s occult finesse.

It’s no stretch to say that Elvis Costello’s ‘Oliver’s Army’ is an explicit soundtrack in White’s novella, a coded invocation of Keats’ hatred of the English army streamed via contemporary London Irish Catholic republican punk eyes. It’s possible to see Cromwell as radical republican hero in that he led the regicide of Charles 1st in England, but his genocidal politics in Ireland betrayed radical hopes just as later Napoleon would be seen to betray his earlier republican triumphs. This just reveals the subtlety , precision and complex sophistication of White. The complicated relationship between radical Protestantism, Unitarianism and Republican Catholicism is one that runs through all UKan histories and makes the nationalisms of English, Scots, Irish and Welsh fissile along class, linguistic, religious, ethnic and cultural fissures that are deep, sometimes hidden but always ready to crack. Milton, supporter of Cromwell, was himself aware of the dangers of power and is ‘uneasy, coded, evasive’ when writing out his own radical beliefs after the Restoration. He saved the founder of English Unitarianism John Biddle from death – converting his sentence of execution to exile to the Scilly Isles – but held the same theological belief that had condemned Biddle. Throughout ‘Paradise Lost’ Milton hedges and his evasions are the price he pays for being bold in times of tyranny. And of course White’s work in the central and eastern European bloc alerts us to the changing identities of our liquid urban mixes which brings refreshment and new energies to these places and their radical histories.

White reminds us that historic tyrannical times are our times too, where tyranny has made bold radicalism largely invisible in public discourse. This is why White is rooted in a deep and pleasurable vernacular which honours some of the great songs of his times, songs that carry uniquely, humanly beautiful sparks of the radical imagination, a modern tradition that stays in touch with the genius of common tongue, rooted in the living springyness of speech, in the imagination of folk, songs that refresh and renew the stock of what echoes back the vitality of common life.

So at one point White has one of his character sing ‘Natty Rebel’ by U-Roy and White’s own enthusiasm and love for the song is caught in a spry, swift summary: ‘ The Gladiators on the vocal, bettering the Marley original. Man, those Gladiators. Albert Griffiths, what a voice? When was it he saw them live? ’85?’86? It might have been the ‘erb, but man, they were hard, electric! There was nothing soft about some tough and roosty reggae…’ And on he goes, his character ‘ Working for the man, but taking a moment of rebellious pleasure from being up with the sun and seeing a robin singing in the tree.’ This last line picks up what runs through White, his swift, bold combination of Miltonic sincerity and anxiety likening seeing the early sun as an escape from tyranny that recalls a blind Oedipus feeling the sun on his blind eyes. Radicalism in the land of the tyrant composes at night (think of blind Milton again, when in Book seven of Paradise Lost he asks Urania to ‘… drive off the barbarous dissonance/Of Baccus and his revelers, the race/Of that wild rout that tour the Thracian bard/In Rhodope’… and in so doing reminds us that, as Paulin explains, ‘ The executed regicides were hanged, drawn and quartered on the scaffold, their hearts ripped by the executioner from their still living, conscious bodies. This is the fate he must have expected.’) So sunlight is hopeful yet at the same time reminds us of the ‘darkling’ of powerless opposition, a word that Paulin again explains carries ‘an instinct for tragedy’. But the scene also mentions the robin, a reference to the ‘cock-robbin’ children’s rhyme that codes a radical discontent (used by Bob Dylan to call out the death of Davey Moore for example) and a reminder that White is haunted by the echoes of new rhythms and subject matter submerged in subterranean hidden voices. Children’s nursery rhymes resist the wearying ingenuity and artificiality of versification. Gerald Manley Hopkins explains how it’s outside the cloistered and rule governed that writing and song becomes a liberation: ‘ I had long haunting my ear the echo of a new rhyme which now I realized on paper… it consists in scanning by accents or stresses alone, without any account of the number of syllables, so that a foot may be one strong syllable or it may be many light and one strong … there are hints of it in music, in nursery rhymes and popular jingles, in the poets themselves… here are instances ‘Ding dong, bell pussy’s in the well. Who put here in? Little Jonny Thin. Who pulled her out? Little Jonny Stout.’ For if each line has three stresses or feet it follows that some of the feet are of one syllable only.’ White is chasing down these echoes, is finding them in the music of his own past and knows that writing of passion and intensity must be fused with this kind of spontaneous vernacular impulse. Again this reminds us that Dylan has been following a similar line for decades; his ‘Cat’s in the Well’ explicitly links to this, but the use of nursery song has long inveigled themselves into his work.

White’s writing has the deep rhythmic structure of speech, the sprightly fizz of common urban knowy talk. Burns, Clare, Hopkins, Rossetti, Hardy et al are all White’s partners – as was Mallarme who was horrifying French school’s inspectors back in the day when they found him teaching his pupil’s English nursery rhymes and concluded that he must be sick. White has recently dismissed the current UK education secretary for being as philistine as those long dead French school’s inspectors for saying that the humanities are irrelevant. Of course he’s right to target her idiot remarks because he knows she knows that a sprightly juicy vernacular voice and imagination is one of the most potent enemies of any tyrannous regime.

White’s use of songs throughout the book is therefore strategic and coded to ensure that the devious and intricate world of the imagination is able to deceive and confuse power. Joan Armitrading, Junior Byles, Elvis Costello, Jimmy Cliff, William DeVaughn, Allen Ginsberg, The Gladiators, Morrissey, Pam Nestor, Slim Smith, The Smiths, U-Roy give room to flush out alternative depths and secrets in the text, open out secret labyrinths like smoldering one-off spoors of transgression or like halvers, half bricks chucked in riots. In this they are a convincing and necessary part of the structure of his text where the historical necessity of deceit, ambiguity and subterfuge is its central theme. There’s a tread of working boot print – it’s a book after all – but the song references spring its literacy free from the trapped, printed out, public words and fly into orality that’s exclamation and unstable. And that’s another thing, how White is about fixing up the thought that you can’t keep your private life separate from the public. His radical imagination takes his characters and in different ways shows how no matter what, the private life isn’t isolated from history.

An isolated life like that is a void and a matter of avoidance recalling Eliot’s ‘an empty face peers from an empty house’, and Yeats in ‘The Stare’s Nest’, which is about the Civil war where he writes: ‘ We had fed the heart on fantasies,/The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;/ More substance in our enmities/Than in our love; O honey-bees,/ Come live in the empty house of the stare.’ White’s fictional world is a rejection of that empty house and that empty stare. His houses thrive and fill up with ever growing sensibilities of history that is also ever growing and ever there, a presence that works to spook new resonances – hopes and fears – for each of them in each different way. White produces his effusive and rich effects by creating the right amount of tension and zip by folding the separate narratives together to create the right amount of thickness. The Missorts metaphor holds things together in an exacting and perfect right blend and so reading gets enough tug and pushback to give traction whilst moving seemingly without bad resistance, like Frost’s idea of playing tennis without a net – there’s enough of the formality to give the required impression of formalist puzzling toughness.

There’s a sort of faux fractal maths in this too: ‘ Each pickout routed a bundle of letters to another frame – either here or elsewhere in the city or country – where each of those forty-eight pickouts routed a bundle of letters to another frame where each of those forty-eight pickouts of the Outward Primary, and those that didn’t get tied off immediately would be cleared in to a particular Division (Scottish/Irish, say, or West Mids and Staffs) and be sorted down to another forty-eight pickouts, each of which would then be bundled up, chucked in the relevant bag, tied off and dispatched at the specified time, to travel by rail or road to whatever destination, where the bag would be tipped, the contents sorted through Inward Primary, and so on, until it reached the walk. It was mind boggling, a fractal sequence. You don’t have to multiply forty-eight by forty-eight for very long before you get into the millions and hundreds of millions , a near infinite number of selections or possibilities for where to put any one letter.’ It’s this notion of possibilities that runs through the narratives and which White skillfully renders as more than just a formal texture but also its content and subject. There’s an occult chameleon leap and bound in all this, a scurrying from one disguise to the next but done in the spirit of Byron whose ‘heavenly chameleon’ is ‘the air child of vapour and the sun’, a ‘rainbow, bursting through’. Byron’s energies of ‘advanced bad taste’ were directed against tyranny and its extravagance. In his day the Prince Regent was the target of his satire, and chameleon rhymed with pavilion to remind his readers of the Regent’s garish Brighton Pavilion. Later in the same poem he makes this explicit: ‘ Shut up – no, not the King, but the pavilion,/ Or else twill cost us all another million.’ White writes into our 1% world where the rich get rich at the expense of the poor and the labyrinthine, snaky foldings connect with Byron’s biting satire as well as taking us back to Milton and his ‘sinuous tracings’ that shadow the Fall from Paradise.

Missorts II is a parable about the underground republic of letters launched at a time when huge subterranean rivers of discontent and unrest roll. Anonymous marches, the international phenomenon of the Occupy movements, these are our brief eruptions but there is always the fear of state crackdown that means messages are coded, discrete and secret. Betrayals and misreadings hurt in this advanced state of suspicion. They happen at all levels. Radical heroes like Wordsworth and Coleridge betrayed their radical youth by turning reactionary. What do we do when heroes disappoint? This is the question that White’s parable addresses. It’s this ‘sordid, ruinous tumbling’ that White writes to in his dark sayings.

A letter by Blake is the crux of White’s parable. Is the shimmering godfather of occult radical letters something altogether not that after all? Like all good reads, the answer depends on reader intuition and attention. Like all good parables Missorts II unsettles certain illusions about our social existence and radical hopes, speaking to friends of liberty whilst keeping an eye on those ‘sinuous traces’ that speak to the ‘snaky folds’ of the coming Fall.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 22nd, 2014.