from Mixed-Race Superman

To celebrate the publication of Mixed-Race Superman on 2 July by Melville House in the United States, this is an extract from the opening section of the essay.

I used to say that, in the film of my life, Keanu Reeves would play the starring role. Most people don’t realize he’s mixed race.

Keanu’s father is Hawaiian-Chinese—hence his name, Hawaiian for “cool breeze over the mountains”—but since he passes as white that’s how people think of him.

An old friend, Tirzah Lea Tward, is quoted in Sheila Johnston’s biography of Keanu as saying that “if you asked him where he came from or what his roots were, he was anything you wanted him to be.” I like to think that, not quite white and not wanting to constantly explain his “roots,” he was trying to get his friends to see race differently: not as a fixed sign but as a fluid signifier. Like a cool breeze, he turned his shapelessness into a form of resistance.

When I was at school I wanted my roots to be mysterious too, but unlike Keanu I don’t pass as white. As soon as a conversation turned toward the Orient—Chinese food in the cafeteria, a new Jet Li movie, the other Chinese kid in our year (who was actually Korean)—I’d get these sidelong glances. Asked where I was from, I’d hide behind my mixedness.

I’m one quarter Dutch; most of my family live in Indonesia; my great-great-grandma was from Hokkien; my granddad was a French teacher; I’ve lived in London my whole life . . .

Keanu could choose whether or not to wear the cape of whiteness: an accepted outsider, different and the same, he was capable of spanning the contradictions within himself. Though it now seems shameful to admit, his was the sinuous and racially unmarked version of the face that I wanted to present to the world.

Recently, an elderly woman in a café asked where I was from, or where I was really from. “Gosh,” she said, “those Chinese genes are powerful.”

“I don’t think it works like that,” I said, and started saying something about genetics and race—how they have almost nothing in common—before trailing off. She wasn’t listening. “Have you heard of Keanu Reeves?” I asked.


A mixed-race superhero is a contradiction in terms. A superhero might start out like any other confused child, but that confusion soon gives way. The would-be superhero will be injured, taken prisoner, or exposed to cosmic radiation and, later, after a dark night of the soul, they’ll emerge into the bright field of self-knowing.

Their voice will change in pitch and their punches will carry more heft, now having behind them the weight of conviction, of an assured identity. Even with his superpowers, Peter Parker couldn’t save his uncle from being killed because he wasn’t yet Spider-Man. He didn’t know himself.

As a child, I was confused. I believed myself to be white. At the barber’s, I’d ask for hair like Michael Owen or Peter Parker and nobody said anything. Then one day people started asking me where I was from. How long had I been in the country? Could I speak Chinese? My Western name provoked raised eyebrows. My British accent came as a surprise. I could no longer look in the mirror and believe myself to be white, but what was I?

Had I been a superhero, my confusion might have given way to the discovery of some transcendent new identity. But I remained confused, unable to square my experience with the way the world saw me. If mixed-race superheroes do exist, maybe they’re people who have found a way to know themselves in spite of themselves. They’ve worked out how to make their confusion heroic, to embody contradiction.


Consider that game where you have to describe a thing without saying the word for it. The quickest way is by naming its opposite—black if you want someone to think white, or man for woman. Though black isn’t the opposite of white nor man the opposite of woman, the mind falls easily into the simplest of patterns: either/or.

In A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway talks about the pervasiveness of certain dualisms in the West: mind/body, culture/nature, active/passive. Whether or not these concepts are opposed, they’ve been hitched together for so long that they’ve come to prop up—and to depend on—one another’s meaning.

The category of the Other, Simone de Beauvoir suggested, is “as original as consciousness itself.”

In other words, we have a habit of defining ourselves by what we’re not. For Haraway, the dualism between Self and Other is essential to how we as non-cyborgs think about ourselves: The Self dominates while the Other is dominated; the Self is active, while the Other is passive; the Self is associated with mind and culture, the Other with nature and the body; the Self is pure and white, the Other black, brown, yellow, or otherwise tainted.

Haraway concludes sadly that “one is too few and two is too many”—no single idea can make sense on its own, but no two ideas can be grasped simultaneously.

The mixed-race person embodies this. With too many heritages or too few, too white or not white enough, the mixed-race person grows up to see the self as something strange and shifting—a shadow on the roadside—shaped around a lack. Whereas most superheroes build their identity around a clearly established sense of Self (buttressed by its opposition to an evil Other), the mixed-race superhero must forge their identity in the confusing space between.

The Ethics of Perspective

This essay was originally published in Issue 92 of Poetry London (Spring 2019). 

‘Perspective’ makes me think of the art class in which we were taught to draw a tree-lined path. I had to pick a point on the horizon and then draw a series of wonky lines radiating off it, in between which I fitted my stick trees. The path was pyramid-shaped, which seemed wrong, but I followed instructions. As the trees got smaller, they looked further away.

I can see that, in hindsight, we were being made to enact one of the major shifts in Western art – being drilled in a certain aesthetic logic. Karsten Harries argues that, with the popular growth of linear perspective in fifteenth-century Italy, a ‘God-centred art gives way to a human-centred art’. Or you could say, human perspective in art becomes God-like.

In earlier tapestries and altarpieces, heaven nestles in the crook of a bishop’s arm, or several scenes – crucifixion and ascension, birth and death – occur at once. A two-dimensional plate holds a 3-D fish. Medieval art is full of multiple, impossible perspectives.

Art conceived under the sign of linear perspective is different, and not just because it makes things seem more real. Its shock derives from the viewer’s sudden awareness of themselves as a seeing subject, an ‘I’. Look at the background – a row of pine trees, a mountain range – and space takes on a magical depth. The world is transforming itself around the viewer’s gaze.

‘You said “I” has so much power; it’s insane,’ writes Claudia Rankine in Citizen. Even as I write ‘I’, I feel its power. I’m arranging the world around a point of view. These thoughts, without meaning to, trace out the radial lines of my experience. I might quote other writers, echo different voices, splinter my text, avoid saying ‘I’ (using ‘you’, ‘we’, concrete images only), but something coheres. That expectation of coherence changes what I see. In the chaos of the stars, the plume of milk in my coffee, a unifying shape emerges. A reflection. An implicated ‘I’.


There’s a tradition that sees the poet, in Emerson’s terms, as ‘the sayer, the namer’. This amplifies the role of nouns and adjectives – naming words. It also feeds into the Adamic idea of the poet as someone who points at a green fuzzy blob and says tree, thereby coming ‘nearer to it than any other’ (Emerson again). Maybe this is what’s led to the popular but mistaken idea that the poem’s job is just to describe things well – an idea that lurks behind the meme, ‘We get it poets: things are like other things.’

I imagine poems arising not out of an effort to describe the world but to communicate with a person. Rather than asserting control over an object – the imperial fantasy of ownership through naming – poems express a relationship between subjects.

In ‘The Constructed Space’, the Scottish poet W S Graham presents a landscape uncluttered by description: ‘I say / This silence here for in it I might hear you.’ These lines have always felt sad and true to me. For all the poet says, they say nothing. Or paradoxically, they say silence, unrolling it like a prayer mat to sit down on and wait for the impossible ‘you’ to respond. ‘I’ has so much power, up to a point. It can’t compel a response.

Pronouns (‘I’ and ‘you’) may map out the co-ordinates of a relationship but are useless to traverse the silent space between two real persons. Worse still, the ‘I’ in a poem is not like a window. ‘I’ and ‘you’ bear a complicated relationship to the poet’s biography, to the society in which that poet’s biography was formed, to the historical forces which formed that society. The ‘I’ is a marked, scarred object.

In thinking about how to discuss this, three things come to mind:

1) I once watched a documentary that explained the way large planets distort the gravitational field around them. A presenter placed a heavy ball at the centre of a trampoline and took out a small cork ball, rolling it across the surface of the trampoline several times. Either it bent its path around the heavy ball and continued to the other side, or it rolled too near and was sucked into its orbit.

2) Gwendolyn Brooks wrote that black poets in America are ‘twice-tried’. ‘They have to write poetry,’ she said, ‘and they have to remember that they are Negroes.’ They might write sonnets and villanelles about ‘the transience of a raindrop or the gold stuff of the sun’, which seem beautiful and consoling to white readers. To the poet themselves, the ‘golden sun might remind them that they are burning’.

3) Friedrich Engels wrote a letter to Franz Mehring on 14 July 1893: ‘Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker, but with a false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process.’

The ‘I’ through which we see the world is partial, violently constricted by forces of race, class and history. But though none of us are capable of fully construing the motive forces that impel us, we can acknowledge their existence. The golden sun, beautiful to you, might be burning someone else.


The work of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, a mixed-race poet born in Beijing and raised in the US, can seem coldly serene. ‘The Reservoir’ and ‘Alakanak Break-Up’ revolve around images of freezing tundra and ice floes. In ‘Forms of Politeness’, the ice abates, but the language is purposely frozen. This has the effect, as in ‘The Constructed Space’, of drawing attention to little words like pronouns and to the poem’s subtler shifts in syntax.

Where Graham works with a stable ‘I’ and ‘you’, Berssenbrugge often switches between perspectives in the same line, or over the same attenuated sentence. Desire, for example, is described as ‘the landscape in which herself and what she expected from you in the way of support coincide, / so that I and you resemble each other, now.’ To me, what’s confusing about these lines is also what’s so beautiful about them. Confused speech often lapses into a series of pronouns – ‘I – no, we – didn’t it? – yes, she – I did!’ – signalling intimacy as much as awkwardness. Language garbles itself in the presence of desire. And in Berssenbrugge’s attempt to merge the first with the second person, to make them ‘resemble’ each other, language is charged with awkward desire.

Beneath the languid surface of her syntax, there’s a recurrent sense of suppressed hurt or an urge to unify the split self. But hostile to any critical impulse that would connect her life and work in a linear fashion, she writes:

To live another person’s biography is not the same as to live his or her life.
She constructs a story line or cluster of anecdotal details, like clothes around the body,
instruments of both defense and expansion […]

Instead of the constructed ‘biography’ or the life exposed, she gives the strained relationship between the two. Anecdotal details are ‘instruments of both defense and expansion’. They guard against deeper intrusion into the life, while building something new (Philip Sidney: the poet ‘doth grow, in effect, into another nature’).

As with much of Berssenbrugge’s work, I feel like I understand ‘Forms of Politeness’ less in the manner of a bucket – Seamus Heaney’s poems, however mysterious, make good buckets – than a spray of ‘yellow light’ (an image from the poem). It makes me think about perspective – my own and hers. Both of us are racialised subjects, our views on the world distorted by the way the world sees us. Her distorted use of perspective flows naturally from this experience.


The artist, wrote Flaubert in a letter of 1857, ‘must be in his work as God is in creation, invisible and all-powerful’. Though invisible, I’d guess that most people have a broadly similar idea of what God looks like: burly, white, very much He/Him. Likewise the writer, though expected to be invisible in Flaubert’s formula, invariably assumes a white, masculine form too. In how many poems can we follow the lines of perspective back to the same ‘I’ – the same disappointed, desiring, white male gaze?

Writers of colour who display their difference commit two sins: they corrupt the sacred image of the writer-as-white-father, and they show the threads, which should remain invisible, between the writer and their work. This second argument comes up more often; the first, more shameful to the touch, simmers angrily beneath the surface.

Attacks on writers of colour are likely to adopt a defensive posture. Art, and the imaginative freedom it represents, must be defended at all costs. To align the perspective of the writer with that of their work – to show the threads – risks sacrificing imagination to experience. It limits possibilities, turns art into reportage. Such work, say critics, can’t be judged by the usual aesthetic measure, only by authenticity or virtue – where virtue signals the level of trauma disclosed.

William Logan’s review of the US-Vietnamese poet Ocean Vuong is a case in point. Logan attacks Vuong for making the ‘still-raw oppressions of biography […] the whole sales-pitch’ and also for not fully conveying ‘the immigrant’s wrenching dislocation or permanent sense of loss’. He compares Vuong’s ‘still-raw’ poems to the ‘fraught psychology’ of Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell – the main difference being, as far as I can tell, that those poets are white. They were able to make art out of their ‘fraught’ biography.

‘I don’t have a problem with the identity or the politics,’ says Logan, ‘but a lot of bad poetry has been written in the name of putting them together.’ Rather than getting fully into this – what does it mean to divide identity from politics? What does it mean to put them together? – maybe I should just say: the idea that art is, or can be, anything other than identity is ridiculous. The imagination, so far from being opposed to identity, is the sum of our experiences, recollected and rendered in legible form – it is identity. This should be self-evident, tautological.


I had this realisation three or four years ago. I’d spent most of my conscious life trying to avoid my reflection in the mirror. From a young age I wanted to write. Writing, like reading, was a form of escape. It let me occupy a place outside of myself which, though brittle, was less exposed. It kept me from myself.

In 2011, after working as a teaching assistant at a comprehensive school in Hounslow, a time during which I wrote nothing, I decided to enrol on a Masters course in poetry at St Andrews, on the east coast of Fife. I’d have been too embarrassed to say it, but here was where I hoped to find myself as a writer. At the edge of a new town – one which, unlike London, had an edge – was endless coastline. I imagined walking for hours and returning inspired, exhausted, to a large desk where I would pen my masterpieces.

When I arrived at my flat share, the downstairs corridor was lined with empty packets of thrush tablets and mangled bicycles. Upstairs, the kitchen windows were piled high with pizza boxes so that only a monastic slit of light made it through. My room, as it turned out, was desk-less, and my laptop broke within a week.

About a month into the course, I was struggling with an unfinished poem when I came upon this advice from Ludwig Wittgenstein: ‘If you are unwilling to know what you are, your writing will be a form of deceit.’ It rung in my head for days, but however true it sounded I had no idea what to do with it. Not who you are, but what you are… What was I? Did that mean I had to choose one thing and run with it? I decided Wittgenstein was an idiot.

After St Andrews, I moved back to London more confused than ever. Most of the poets I’d read and been taught were old and white. At times I thought I could imitate their voice and authority, ignoring my own background – picturing instead the shifting columns of T S Eliot’s ‘ideal order’ – but even the best stuff I wrote felt thin and insubstantial. I stopped writing altogether.


In between shifts at a call centre near Oxford Circus, less burdened with a sense of what I should be doing, I started reading more widely. Over lunch, I sat in a nearby McDonalds and read books on politics, economics and race – stuff I’d previously deemed irrelevant to being a poet. Looking into Indonesia’s bloody colonial history and post-independence years, I began to question my mum about her – my – family for the first time.

I found out that my granddad, who died when my mum was in her late teens, had been caught up in the events of 1965. After the failure of a supposed communist coup, General Suharto had seized control of the government and, in a bid to consolidate power, launched a countrywide purge. Chinese Indonesians, ghettoised and persecuted for hundreds of years, became the main target. They were slaughtered in the thousands – some say hundreds of thousands. My mum, living in a small city in Sumatra, was about five years old when her dad was arrested on suspicion of anti-government activities. Sometimes my grandma would say he was in jail for six months, sometimes two years. She took him fruit and clean water every day, and my mum says she screamed at the guards if they hurried her.

It was hard to think of my grandma living like that. I grew up in London, where I don’t stand out and rarely feel threatened. Sometimes a drunk guy at a bar will tell me to fuck off back home, or I’ll get called a ‘chink’ and asked if my ‘slitty’ eyes make it harder to see, but these are insults I can put aside. Talking to my mum, I realised why she’d been so worried about my education, about doing well. Education was a way out of the swirl of terror that had engulfed her early life. It was no coincidence, I realised, that in my early twenties I wanted to disappear, to have no reflection: it was how I’d been taught to survive.


In St Andrews, on the few occasions I walked along the coast, I’d stare out at the sea’s many layers of grey and try to work out where the sky began. I imagined myself flying out into that view, refining myself out of existence. I wanted a voice at once voiceless and authoritative. What would my subject be? Everything. What would I be? Nothing.

I’d read Edward Said’s critique of imperial thinking where he says: ‘no one can be purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American, are not more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind.’ This seemed like a command for me to leave behind the labels which others might try to pin to me: male, Indonesian, Chinese, English.

I couldn’t see that Said’s argument was about more than that. Rejecting labels wasn’t the point. How can you reject a culture of masculinity which, so long as you’ve been conscious, has shaped the way you see (and are seen in) the world? Likewise, the East Asian features that condition how shop owners talk to me and how strangers hear me. But, as Said says, these are only ‘starting-points’. When followed into ‘actual experience’ – into conversations and friendships – they blur.

Poetry is not mere experience or ‘biography’. Maybe, instead, it’s an attempt to convey actual experience. This means doing justice to those relationships that construct the self, and to the world as seen through the blundering, blinding haze of a particular ‘I’. In one poem, Edmond Jabès writes:

the basic racist is the man who refuses himself as he is. Being oneself means being alone. Getting used to this solitude. Growing, working within one’s natural contradictions. ‘I’ is not the other. He is ‘I’. To explore this ‘I’ is our task.

‘I’ has so much power; it’s insane. But it’s also weak. Or else why would it need the buttress of the other – a ‘you’ or ‘them’ to love or hate? For Jabès, as for Graham and Berssenbrugge, the ‘I’ is alone and contradictory. It’s never whole.

‘You look into someone’s eyes as if you were seeing through the face,’ writes Berssenbrugge. I wish I could have read and understood a line like that when I was teaching myself to write, or learning how to draw. If she’d written ‘their face’ it would suggest looking through someone, struggling to connect with them. That definite article turns it into a line about the difficulty of connecting with yourself. How do you connect with others when you can’t – or don’t want to – recognise your own face in the mirror? You’re never just looking at another human, but looking through ‘the face’.

In a similar manner, Vahni Capildeo writes about being ‘too accustomed to people who varied between unseeing and unseen’. I used to think I was the vanishing point on that tree-lined path. If I mastered technique and craft, I could be as ‘unseeing and unseen’ as my white friends. But whether on the page or out on the street, each of us sees the world through a different face, from a different perspective. History has its limits. And however hard I’ve tried to rub myself out, my perspective is implicated in everything I do. Even when I’ve said nothing, when I’ve sat silently and waited, or imagined us surrounded by white fields, I’ve been myself. ‘Whether you speak up or scarcely whisper,’ writes Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘you speak with all you are.’

Some thoughts on bubbles

As a follow-up to that last post in which Andrew O’Hagan invokes the terrifying spectre of The Echo Chamber, I thought I’d post some thoughts on bubbles (which I wrote after a discussion with a friend on a post from a while back on the “Westminster bubble” and the way that “real people” are used to prop up bigoted views).

– bubbles imply closed groupings. You can’t be in several bubbles at once. That’s just not how bubbles work – have you tried being in several bubbles at once? They pop immediately, soapy water gets everywhere, and the floor gets slippy.

– when you say ‘bubble’ you’re referring to a set of (vague, shifting) socio-cultural attitudes held by a closed grouping of people. Not one attitude or belief, but several. Well, you might argue, they’re likely to be linked – contained within the bubble’s soapy, self-reflective membrane. But how? by what? Education, geography, income, etc. Oh I see… by a large number of other (themselves shifting) variables…

– if a bubble referred to a single attitude (say, ‘public flogging is good’) held by a single group of people – born, bred and living in the same place, shut off from the rest of the world – that might make sense. But, of course, it doesn’t make sense. I don’t know any group whose circumstances are identical and who share the exact same view on a particular topic (unless interpreted so generally as to be meaningless). And even if I could conceive of that hypothetically, it seems crazy to assume – on so bubble-thin a basis – that the inhabitants of this closed bubble would necessarily agree on anything else.

– the language of bubbles may not cause loosely defined social groupings to become more insular but it definitely reinforces the idea they already are, or that social attitudes are uniform across groupings defined by, say, geography, which only leads to crass generalisations. So now people – when they’re trying to be aware of their own bubble-enclosedness – will say things like: “Oh, but have you actually been to Derby? Public flogging is very popular there. You need to get out of your bubble.”

– say you think an article in the Daily Mail (“migrants are worse than otters”, etc) is execrable and offensive, and you have a right-wing friend who thinks you live in a left-wing bubble. Part of his justification for posting that article on twitter and defending its right to be written/exist might be that it comes from outside the sphere of your bubble. This is the bubble’s (appropriately) circular logic: it always justifies itself. Either, a) you disagree with someone, it’s because they live in a different bubble to you. Or, b) If you agree with them, it’s because you’re living in the same bubble.

– but our experiences are also linked by a hundred other threads and, anyway, a lot of us have access to the same words or language or internet, etc.

– the language/logic of the bubble/echo chamber is empty and destructive in part because it contains a shred of something true-feeling. It taps into an intuitive sense we have about social relations – that we want to hear our own views reflected back at us, that our opinions become more fixed over time – but as with all sloppy uses of language/clichés it closes down rather than opens up discussion. Its use is invidious, usually in the service of power, and its rhetorical function is to shut down argument and to parody the marginalised.

– we need to stop talking about bubbles and echo chambers. We need to call out people who use its language unthinkingly. We need to be more open to the world and to others. We need analogies which do better justice to the ways in which we look to confirm our biases and assumptions while being intricately and implicitly linked to one another, across all manner of seemingly closed groupings.

– I’m imagining pieces of coloured string or some kind of vegetable stew or maybe a Tibetan sand mandala.

My name is Andrew and I understand

Two weeks ago, a 60,000-word essay (its length has been mentioned in almost every account of it, so I’m just keeping up that tradition) was published about the Grenfell fire by friendly-faced, award-winning novelist Andrew O’Hagan.

In the London Review of Books letters page this week, Melanie Coles, a teacher and resident of Kensington and Chelsea, writes that her account (quoted from in the essay) was obtained under false premises and that she was misquoted. She feels that the essay is offensive to still-traumatised members of the community, and she wants her contribution removed and for O’Hagan to apologise.

Rather than going into the accuracy or otherwise of the essay (something which more knowledgable people have discussed here, here and here) I was interested in the way O’Hagan responded to Coles. As you might expect of an award-winning novelist, his letter – published just after hers – rewards close reading.

O’Hagan makes clear that he’s someone who understands things. “I understand Melanie Coles’s position,” he says. “In a story of some 60,000 words [how many?] she appears only for a few sentences, and she wants to take them back, and right herself with the Grenfell community.”

O’Hagan understands this very well and though he isn’t angry he is disappointed. Well, maybe a little a bit angry. After all, Coles gave evidence and now wants him “to censor it, and censure me for having taken delivery of them with a friendly face.” A friendly face! “There are complicated freedoms involved,” he adds gravely, “of speech, certainly, but also to do with the freedoms we give away when we share images and evidence with reporters.”

When I read this kind of sentence, I imagine a man in a penguin suit solemnly placing a pineapple at the centre of a table. The issues involved are fantastically “complicated”, and certainly abstract, and unfortunately can’t be discussed here. Suffice to say, if Coles was misquoted it was only in the service of Freedom, or numerous “complicated freedoms”. Just look at that pineapple.

One inaccuracy Coles points to is O’Hagan’s description of Fethia (a student of hers, four years old, killed in the fire) who had lost a white flower the day before. O’Hagan says that Coles thought: “Fethia gets herself all churned up about such things”. Coles says, “I do not think I have ever used the term ‘churned up’ about anything”. The reason she’s hurt by this authorial intrusion – aside from the obvious pain of seeing her words mangled when speaking about something traumatic – is that it’s in the service of an argument which (as she sees it) attacks members of the community and seeks to exonerate the council of blame.

O’Hagan chooses not to deal with this larger argument. His concern – except for making sure everyone understands he understands – is that Coles disagrees with his choice of words. You see, O’Hagan is an award-wining novelist and nothing churns him up more than people criticising his use of the phrase “churned up”.

So despite understanding perfectly that Coles wants her contribution removed from his essay, he spends 1,000 words quoting directly from (friendly) interview transcripts with her. Apparently Coles gestured to her stomach while talking to him. “I felt ‘churned up’ was the exactly right rendering of Melanie’s movement of her hands,” he says. “I can’t say any more than that. I think I made the right decision.”

Understand this – the friendliness muscles around O’Hagan’s mouth are twitching by this point, nine paragraphs in – he wouldn’t have said “churned up” unless they were absolutely the best words in the best order. If you have time, he could reel off a list of other equally exquisite turns of phrase.

Take this, from the same essay, about local residents in the weeks after the fire: “they seemed to be throwing accusations into the air like confetti at a whore’s wedding.” I’m sure O’Hagan could draw on pages of interview transcripts which would demonstrate exactly why these were the right words to use too (“15.34: David, while talking about the council, throws his arms in the air in a distinctly whore-at-a-wedding fashion”).

In paragraph 10 of his response, O’Hagan gets closest to confessing he doesn’t understand everything: “I find it hard to understand those who see my motives quite differently.” But then – a pattern is emerging – he goes on to offer a theory anyway: people just can’t take that he has compassion for the accused as well as for the victims. They have a problem with his friendly face, his compassion, his novelist’s power of empathy. And he’s disappointed. “I think it’s a shame,” he says, “but I understand it.”

He concludes by writing that the Grenfell Action Group, though “admirable” and eloquent in advocating on behalf of residents, lives in “an echo chamber… a festival of Them and Us.” He’s disappointed, not angry. As passionate as they may be, they can’t speak or see beyond themselves; they are incapable of translating the suffering of their friends and family members into poetry.

Luckily, my name is Andrew and I understand. I’m an award-winning novelist – please, don’t be intimidated. There’s such a thing as an echo chamber. It means that however loud you scream no one will hear you. But I have this ability – let’s call it understanding – which allows me to see beyond it. So take me at my word when I say it’s not Them and Us, but – read my lips – Me and You. People often say I have a friendly face. Would you agree? Listen, I understand. Now look at this pineapple. Isn’t it pretty? Are they normally so big? Like a hundred pointy-hatted gnomes dancing on a Russian satellite. Yes, it’s true. I’m a writer.

All this is implied: the interview

Thanks to the ghost of Hartley Coleridge for assuming bodily form to conduct this interview. It took place in my attic, with Hartley seated by a round window sucking on a pipe. I perched on an old beanbag in the corner of the room, trying not to show my nerves. 

HC: I imagine things have changed somewhat since my day, but I’m sure I won’t be the only reader curious as to how you found someone to publish your poems?

WH: I sent poems to Helena Nelson at HappenStance for years – possibly since 2013, though not consistently. There was a two-and-a-half-year gap where, after finishing a Masters in poetry, the last thing I wanted to do was write poetry. 

The muse deserted you? 

My dad is English and my mum Chinese Indonesian. For a long time I’d thought of Indonesia’s culture and history as basically cut off from me, or from the literary “tradition” I thought I wanted to be part of (writers like you and your dad). I had a minor crisis when I realised I couldn’t – for various reasons – write like that.

So what did you do?

I started reading into Indonesia’s history, and thinking more about my own family. But I also went to the library and tried to read as widely and randomly as possible – the short stories of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, but also Grundrisse, or Robin Blackburn’s Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848.

A programme of self-improvement?

I didn’t get very far. But eventually I reached the point where I could look back on the mountain village of poetry from a distance. It had once felt claustrophobic and restrictive. Now the surrounding white wilderness was visible, along with a ski-lift, and a patch of grass where a goat and small child clonked along a muddy path. I could see myself.

As a goat and child? This mountain village analogy reminds me of that James Baldwin essay, where he moves to the Alps and the local children think he’s the devil. Do you know it?

Yes. Do you?

Books occasionally break through to the after-life.

Then you must remember Baldwin’s brilliant insight? “Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious”. People turn a blind eye to the legacy of slavery or to grinding exploitation not because they’re cruel but because it’s easy. Or, at least, it’s harder not to. In general, we’re less motivated by spite than a desire for simplicity. 

How does this relate to writing?

Choosing simplicity means not questioning your vantage-point; it means mistaking your own perspective for a universal one. It took me years of not-writing to realise I couldn’t write from an invisible, vantage-less perspective. I had to write out of my own confused, mimicking, mixed experience.

And how did the poems come together?

The pamphlet came together because of Helena at HappenStance, really. She’s an amazing person, editor and writer, and even at my lowest ebb she gave me the kind of sensitive, critical feedback that made me think there was still some point in writing. As far as I’m concerned, the fact people like Helena exist – people who organise their lives around a belief in the importance of poetry – is the only thing that makes poetry important. 

Do you imagine this interview will be of use to someone putting their poems into – what do you call it? – a “pamphlet”? 

Probably not. But, since you’re here, could I take a moment to say how much I love your sonnet Long time a child. It makes me choke up every time – that bit where you say ‘I’ve lost the race I never ran’.

Thank you. That seems to be the poem people remember, if they remember any.

Do you wish you were more widely read? Or that you’d written more and been more read in your lifetime? I mean, when you call yourself the ‘living spectre of [your] father dead’ that’s pretty dark. It makes it sound as if you saw yourself as a ghost – the shadow of your father – even while you were living?

To be born with the urge to write while also being the son of a great beloved poet was hard. But we’re all spectres. We work with the light cast by our predecessors. Writing is an extension of who you are. Who you are is an extension of who they were. 

You were happy with your career then?

I was happy.

Which is what counts, I guess? I’m just reading over your sonnet again. Maybe it’s not as depressing as I thought. I’d like to live out my years in a ‘lagging May’, rather than with a constant awareness of time’s ‘rathe’ blade. And if you can write what matters to you – what only you can write – maybe it doesn’t matter who reads it. If you can find a few readers who care, then maybe… – wait, Hartley, where are you?

A few beans sputtered out of a rip on the side of my beanbag. I stood up. Hartley was gone, his spirit off to wander like a breeze by lakes and sandy shores.

On Nature Poetry

I wrote this a few years ago when I was running a workshop on nature poetry. I stand by it, kind of, but it’s open to discussion.

The term nature poetry is surprisingly recent, its first entry in the OED not coming until well into the nineteenth-century. Though we might think of William Wordsworth’s 1802 lyrics (‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, ‘To the Daisy’, etc.) as classics of ‘nature poetry’ they weren’t described as such until two decades after Wordsworth’s death, in the 1870 issue of Boston-based periodical Littel’s Living Age. At the time, they would have simply been regarded as pastoral poems. To make this clear, Wordsworth went so far as to subtitle five of his poems ‘A Pastoral’.

Before nature poetry, then, was the pastoral, a form going back to the ancient Greece of Theocritus (315-260 BC). Theocritus took the folk songs and ballads of his native Sicily and adapted them for an urban audience in Athens, Alexandria and beyond. The Idylls, his most famous work, are a series of bucolic poems (from the Greek βουκόλος for herdsman) which have almost nothing to do with the actual herding of animals. The natural environment instead provides an ideal backdrop on which to project his goatherds’ alternately jubilant and suicidal songs as they fall in love and argue with the gods. Virgil (70-19 BC) would later plough this same imaginative furrow, seeking to expand the pastoral’s technical and emotional range in Latin. He developed the eclogue, a dialogue between shepherds, and the georgic, which in a more didactic tone celebrates the work of farmers.

By the time of the Renaissance, when English poets began imitating Theocritus and Virgil, the pastoral had acquired the status of a purer, more primitive form of poetic expression. It made a certain sense that the muses would have handed the pipe of poetry to shepherds first, that poetry would have started not in the towns but in the hills and dales of a lost Arcadia.

For Edmund Spenser, the pastoral gave aspiring poets the perfect opportunity ‘to proue theyr tender wyngs, before they make a greater flyght’. Like Virgil, he thus launched his writing career with a series of pastoral poems, The Shepheardes Calendar (1579), before taking flight with the epic Faeire Queene (1590-6).

Aware as Spenser no doubt was of its artificiality, it’s against this idea of pastoral that George Puttenham writes in his Arte of English Poesie (1589):

The Poet devised the Eglogue long after the other drammatick poems, not of purpose to counterfait or represent the rusticall manner of loves and communication: but under the vaile of homely persons and in rude speeches to insinuate and glaunce at greater matters.

He stresses that the eclogue did not come before but ‘long after the other drammatick poems’. His issue is not with counterfeiting – for him, in fact, the word carries no more sinister a meaning than ‘to represent’ – but with the pastoral being entirely taken up with counterfeiting a ‘rusticall manner’. This manner, as he makes clear, should never be the purpose of a poem, only the self-consciously worn ‘vaile’ through which the poet addresses his true subject.

The End of Days

In the Penguin Book of English Pastoral Verse (1974), John Barrell and John Bull (names weirdly appropriate to their interests) argue that the pastoral vision is ‘now almost devoid of any meaning’, with industrial and technological progress having rendered the English countryside little more than an extension of the town. A strange conclusion, which, true as it might be, falls back on the hoariest of pastoral clichés: the myth of Old England and the horror of living in the end of days. F.R. Leavis and Denys Thompson, for example, in Culture and Environment (1930), loudly bemoaned the loss of England’s pre-Industrial ‘organic community’.

Barrell and Bull surely miss the point that their anthology strives so hard to make: the pastoral, from the beginning, was a self-sustaining set of conventions which reflected the desires and frustrations of the poet and his or her time. (I say his or her as though Barrell/Bull actually included any female poets but, for further reference, see Aphra Behn, Mary Hutchinson, Katherine Phillips and others.)

So the Penguin Book of English Pastoral Verse ends just before Rupert Brooke picked up his pen. Before, in May 1912, he sat down at the Café des Westens in Berlin and started work on a new poem, later to be titled ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester‘.

ειθε γενοιμην … would I were
In Grantchester, in Grantchester!—
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, or Earth, or such.
And clever modern men have seen
A Faun a-peeping through the green,
And felt the Classics were not dead,
To glimpse a Naiad’s reedy head,
Or hear the Goat-foot piping low…
But these are things I do not know.
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester…

What points to this being written in 1912 and not 1812, or 42 BC? For a start, there’s the epigraph which signals this was written abroad and in a café – very chic. Elsewhere in the poem are bits of German and a reference to taking the train back to England, hinting at a more modern, well-connected Europe. But what’s most striking is his assertion that the Grantchester of his memory is a place where ‘the Classics were not dead’. As evidence, he cites fauns, naiads, and goat-footed Pan. This is not ‘Nature… or Earth, or such’, this is the world of pastoral.

It could be argued that there is a kind of modern irony at play here, in the conspicuous deployment of pastoral references and, just after this section, in the roll call of dead poets: Byron, Chaucer, Tennyson. The form of the poem also echoes the rhyming couplets of Ben Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’, which uses the same cast of characters – dryads, fauns and ‘ruddy Satyres’ – to praise the abundance, ‘hospitalitie’ and proportion of another ‘flower-lulled’ part of England.

In this way, Brooke makes the ‘centuries blend and blur’, but if this is ironic it’s only as ironic as any other poem in the pastoral tradition which, as always, must address its reader through a self-conscious ‘vaile’. As much as this poem is a product of 1912 it’s clearly been harvested from the same fields as Virgil and Wordsworth visited.

The “Thing”

‘The Old Vicarage’ was published in Georgian Poetry 1911-12, the first in a popular series of anthologies which together sold around 70,000 copies. The acclaim these poems – poems that in conventional forms dealt with mainly conventional subjects – so antagonised the young Ezra Pound that, two years later, he decided to set up his own anthology, Des Imagistes.

In a statement that was to have a lasting influence on the development of Modernism – not least for its impact on ‘nature poetry’ in the twentieth-century – Pound told F.S. Flint that what defined his movement (Imagism) was its ‘direct treatment of the “thing”, whether subjective or objective.’ This, apart from anything else, should be seen as a calculated attack on Georgian poetry, the kind of minimalist poetry it’s suggesting – see Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro‘ and H.D.’s ‘Oread‘ – being completely at odds with the rhetorical flamboyance of poems like Brooke’s ‘Old Vicarage’.

Behind his command to treat the “thing” directly is also the more radical assumption of a reality separate from that of the poet and his work. Though this might not seem so drastic a statement, Pound’s extreme realism – when applied to the writing of poems – gives a significantly altered picture of the relationship between the poet and the natural world.

The poet’s task now becomes one of waiting and observing, attempting to find the right words to describe the “thing” in question. A great number of early Imagiste poems, liberated by this task, attempt little more than that. Rather than naming names, I’d prefer to look at a more recent poem which could be seen as taking Pound’s position to its logical conclusion, while still managing to do something entirely successful on its own terms, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s ‘Estuary’:


One of the things this poem does so well is to parody a narrowly structuralist view of language, whereby the signifier (word) and the signified (idea) exist in static relation to one another. By reducing his ‘estuary’ to a sequence of 15 caps-locked proper nouns, Finlay challenges the reader to consider whether these are anything more than blank, interchangeable signifiers. So presented, what makes MARRAM different from TERN or EXXON?

In normal speech, the place a word occupies in a sentence tells us a great deal about it: whether it’s a subject or object; who’s doing what to whom. Here, instead, we’re drawn to read the three lines as arranged roughly by type: five plants, five birds and five oil companies. As if to say, this is the ‘Nature… or Earth’ such as it is, copied out from the first-hand jottings of a twitcher’s notebook.

But what if we swapped around a few of the words? If SEDGE was moved to the second line, for example, perhaps it would connote a sedge warbler, and if CURLEW was on the line above it might make us think of a rhododendron ‘curlew’ (a small evergreen shrub with bell-shaped flowers). SHELL, if it didn’t follow on from BP and EXXON, would mean something quite different. In each case, what’s being signified alters by its placement. It was pointed out in a workshop I ran on this poem that the text could also be read downwards, with each of the five three-line columns constituting its own mini-poem, so opening up an even wider range of reference.

The point, ultimately, is that words exert a greater pressure than their mere signification. However we choose to read these 15 words there is an emotional resonance that will be, to some extent, separate from what each refers to.

In poetry, unlike most normal speech, the goal is not only the transmission of the message but the message itself. Language is not so much understood as interrogated. But Pound chooses to ignore how the words in a poem are changed by their context. He posits the poet and natural world as two distinct entities when, in fact, they exist within the much larger context of what we might call ‘literary convention’. Rupert Brooke, though by no means a superior poet, at least self-consciously acknowledges the role of convention or tradition.

I  made these slightly fuzzy diagrams to express what I’m saying. This is Ezra Pound:

Modernist nature poetry diagram

And this is Rupert Brooke:

Pastoral diagram

Through a thin veil…

From the winter of 1799 to the autumn of 1800, Wordsworth worked intermittently on a set of new poems to be included in the second, expanded edition of The Lyrical Ballads, published later that year. He called them Poems on the Naming of Places. They were attempts to describe in blank verse the particular significance of certain spots around Grasmere. This is the fourth, written after a walk with Dorothy (Wordsworth’s sister) and Samuel Coleridge:

A narrow girdle of rough stones and crags,
A rude and natural causeway, interposed
Between the water and a winding slope
Of copse and thicket, leaves the eastern shore
Of Grasmere safe in its own privacy:
And there myself and two beloved Friends,
One calm September morning, ere the mist
Had altogether yielded to the sun,
Sauntered on this retired and difficult way.
Ill suits the road with one in haste; but we
Played with our time; and, as we strolled along,
It was our occupation to observe
Such objects as the waves had tossed ashore––
Feather, or leaf, or weed, or withered bough,
Each on the other heaped, along the line
Of the dry wreck. And, in our vacant mood,
Not seldom did we stop to watch some tuft
Of dandelion seed or thistle’s beard,
That skimmed the surface of the dead calm lake,
Suddenly halting now––a lifeless stand!
And starting off again with freak as sudden;
In all its sportive wanderings, all the while,
Making report of an invisible breeze
That was its wings, its chariot, and its horse,
Its playmate, rather say, its moving soul.
And often, trifling with a privilege
Alike indulged to all, we paused, one now,
And now the other, to point out, perchance
To pluck, some flower or water-weed, too fair
Either to be divided from the place
On which it grew, or to be left alone
To its own beauty. Many such there are,
Fair ferns and flowers, and chiefly that tall fern,
So stately, of the queen Osmunda named;
Plant lovelier, in its own retired abode
On Grasmere’s beach, than Naiad by the side
Of Grecian brook, or Lady of the Mere,
Sole-sitting by the shores of old romance.
So fared we that bright morning: from the fields
Meanwhile, a noise was heard, the busy mirth
Of reapers, men and women, boys and girls.
Delighted much to listen to those sounds,
And feeding thus our fancies, we advanced
Along the indented shore; when suddenly,
Through a thin veil of glittering haze was seen
Before us, on a point of jutting land,
The tall and upright figure of a Man
Attired in peasant’s garb, who stood alone,
Angling beside the margin of the lake.
‘Improvident and reckless,’ we exclaimed,
‘The Man must be, who thus can lose a day
Of the mid harvest, when the labourer’s hire
Is ample, and some little might be stored
Wherewith to cheer him in the winter time.’
Thus talking of that Peasant, we approached
Close to the spot where with his rod and line
He stood alone; whereat he turned his head
To greet us–and we saw a Man worn down
By sickness, gaunt and lean, with sunken cheeks
And wasted limbs, his legs so long and lean
That for my single self I looked at them,
Forgetful of the body they sustained.
Too weak to labour in the harvest field,
The Man was using his best skill to gain
A pittance from the dead unfeeling lake
That knew not of his wants. I will not say
What thoughts immediately were ours, nor how
The happy idleness of that sweet morn,
With all its lovely images, was changed
To serious musing and to self-reproach.
Nor did we fail to see within ourselves
What need there is to be reserved in speech,
And temper all our thoughts with charity.
Therefore, unwilling to forget that day,
My Friend, Myself, and She who then received
The same admonishment, have called the place
By a memorial name, uncouth indeed
As e’er by mariner was given to bay
Or foreland, on a new-discovered coast;
And POINT RASH-JUDGMENT is the name it bears.

From the off, we have a clear sense of where we are (on the eastern shore of Grasmere) and when (a calm September morning). Though written in the past tense there is no lingering on the myth of an idyllic past or a distant landscape. The interest lies in what is most present, what is as ‘rude and natural’ as the causeway they follow. A friend of mine, the poet Richard Osmond, has discussed how ‘the contemporary poet… when in descriptive mode, is concerned with nature, the chance beauty of wild things and personal epiphanies brought on more by coincidence than by heroism.’ This is where we see Wordsworth laying down that groundwork for contemporary poetry, turning his attention not to grand arguments but to the weeds and withered boughs beneath his feet.

Though strikingly immediate, his pastoral vision is still embedded in the conventions of its genre. After describing in somewhat twee fashion the beauty of various plants and flowers, he comes across the Osmunda plant, a sight lovelier than ‘Naiad by the side/ Of Grecian brook, or Lady of the Mere,/ Sole-sitting by the shores of old Romance’. Naiads and other Grecian nymphs lurk just beneath the surface of his wind-blown flora, but whereas for Brooke and Jonson overt references to the classical and chivalric worlds are intended to flatter the thing described, they do the opposite here. Wordsworth invokes pastoral convention only in order to say how little justice it does to the natural world.

The issue, he realises, is that he isn’t just describing the world as seen on a walk with his sister and close friend. The simplicity of Pound’s Imagism, reducing poetry to the direct treatment of things, would never have appealed to him because he is all too aware of a larger epistemological truth at stake: the act of description itself draws a discreet veil between viewer and object. The world as he describes it is one seen ‘through a thin veil of glittering haze’. This is shown most obviously in the encounter with the peasant.

When they first see the peasant from a glittering distance they assume, like Daily Mail sub-editors desperate for a new story, that he is another ‘idle man’ frittering away his time by the lake instead of doing his bit to harvest the remaining fields before winter. Though previously keen to reject pastoral clichés, Wordsworth now attacks this man for little other than that he doesn’t quite fit his idea of an industrious labourer (as praised by Virgil in the Georgics). It turns out, of course, that this peasant isn’t simply a skiving farmer but ‘a Man worn down/ By sickness, gaunt and lean’ attempting to fish a pittance from the lake. All three friends feel terrible. The only thing to do, they decide, is to christen the place ‘POINT RASH JUDGMENT’.

The question is, at which point does the ‘rash judgment’ really occur? Is it when Wordsworth mistakenly has a go at the peasant or beforehand, when he is describing their walk down to the lake? Wordsworth extends the pastoral genre, as Virgil once did, by trying to describe the world as he sees it – dandelion seeds, thistle’s beard, infirm peasants and all – but with a constant awareness of the artificiality of this enterprise: he recognises that, as always with pastoral or nature poetry, he’s not experiencing the world but writing a poem about it.

Why Do We Hate the Poor? (Review)

Review of Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London by Matthew Beaumont (Verso, 2015), originally published in The Oxonian Review (Issue 28.4).

By the end of the 16th century, England was scarcely recognisable: the countryside was being divvied up by private landowners and the customary rights of those who had farmed there for centuries abolished. Real wages dropped while food prices and rent soared. Those who could fled to the city to find work, but London—a maze of cramped medieval streets—was hardly fit to accommodate them. In fifty years, its plague-ravaged population had doubled to 140,000. Unscrupulous property developers, seeing an opportunity, partitioned old houses and quickly constructed new ones. Many, though, were forced on to the streets and became nightwalkers, homeless and destitute, the victims of a new kind of poverty and a new attitude to the poor.

In 1572, the Punishment of Vagabonds Act made “vagrants” the responsibility of local authorities or “bridewells”—so named after London’s notorious Bridewell prison. These were “houses of correction” that, as Matthew Beaumont puts it, treated the poor as criminals “to be punished, reformed through labour, and even transported.” But who were the poor? George Rudé, in his book on Hanoverian London, gives a swift, depressing rundown of “the unemployed and unemployable, the indigent, the aged, the poorest of the immigrant Irish and Jews” who were together classed as vagabonds—or worse—and discarded.

Such disdain for the poor was frowned upon, if not condemned, in early medieval England, where poverty was still regarded as a “holy state” and charity seen as essential to the attainment of salvation; then, churches not “bridewells” cared for the poor. In the late medieval period, says Christopher Hill, this state of affairs was reversed: idleness became next to sinfulness and poverty “presumptive evidence of wickedness.” From the 16th century onwards a new lexicon of moral approbation and mistrust arose: the poor were palliards, rascals, courtesy-men, clewners, eavesdroppers, dummerers, clapperdudgeons. A number of these abusive terms refer to beggars pretending to a worse condition than they were in: palliards carried self-inflicted injuries, dummerers acted at being dumb, and courtesy-men took on the role of ex-soldiers. As now, the idea that the poor were just pretending—conniving at people’s sympathy—made their suffering easier to dismiss.

Beaumont, in his new book on the history of the London night—which is more about the people who were forced to take refuge there—does not exactly have to overreach himself to bring out the contemporary resonances. He links the Vagabonds Act and nightwalker statutes—which gave watchmen “warrantless arrest authority”—to the Vagrancy Act of 1824 (known as the “Sus” law) that allowed police to stop, search and arrest anyone they suspected of criminal intent. During Margaret Thatcher’s first term, the indiscriminate use of this law—though highly discriminate in other respects—caused an outbreak of anti-police rioting across the country. It was repealed in 1981, though Theresa May has since pushed to have it reinstated.

Beaumont makes clear the extent to which capitalism, agrarian or otherwise, has always relied on “accumulation by dispossession” and the criminalization of the dispossessed. As E.P. Thompson remarks, “The greatest offence against property was to have none.” So property-less migrants, along with the poor, elderly and infirm, became offensive to public decency and to the state, their social vilification going hand in hand with their official criminalization. Beaumont cites as evidence the 49,000 offences that were tried at the Old Bailey in the 18th century, 95% of which were property-related. This was a “war against the poor”, he says, and the respectable classes were not just complicit but willing combatants. John Gore, foaming at the mouth, called the poor “the very Sodomites of the land, children of Belial,” while Samuel Johnson—despite himself being an occasional houseless nightwalker—defined the proletarian as “men; wretched, vile, vulgar.”

In the 1770s, though some way from the dream of 24/7 capitalism, London began a series of more radical transformations: morphed by “processes of capital accumulation,” old slums were demolished and shopping districts built in their place. A leaden curtain fell between the lamp-lit West End and the dank, unlit East End, where gangs of proto-Bullingdon boys ventured out after dark to terrorise the proletariat or get dosed up in Covent Garden’s red light district. The poor were ghettoised, made to feel ashamed, alone and, as John Clare said of himself, “homeless at home.”

It was this psychological and social stigmatization—expertly realised—that paved the way for the working class’s later assimilation into the 19th century “industrial army”. Beaumont borrows this phrase from Marx, who used it to describe the new world of commodified labour where workers were “organized like soldiers.” But these soldiers were lucky, in a sense. They were shadowed by the still more desperate ranks of the “industrial reserve army,” made up of those same floating workers displaced at the end of the 16th century. In the late-18th and 19th centuries, the interplay of these active and reserve armies performed a decisive role in the industrial-capitalist system: the reserve force competed with the active one for jobs during stagnant periods, quelled dissent in booms and, ultimately, came to justify the immiseration of both. Even now, despite the advances of the labour movement, a similar illogic justifies the West’s continued reliance on structural unemployment, zero-hours contracts and unpaid labour, concerns about which are brushed aside because, at root, the unemployed are seen as lazy scroungers until otherwise proven.

It is in the Victorian period—with capital in full ascendance—that Beaumont’s book draws to a close. The final image is of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Man of the Crowd”, a composite of the nightwalker’s various guises—”petty criminal, detective, bohemian outcast, stalker, homeless vagrant and, finally, Satan himself.” He observes passers-by, restless and flushed, talking and gesticulating to themselves, “feeling in solitude on account of the very denseness of the company around.” Alone among others, turned out onto the streets and driven further into the dark, Poe’s narrator becomes—even at the centre of a booming megalopolis—”terminally marginal.”


Beaumont is a protégée of Terry Eagleton—who returns the favour by dubbing Beaumont “one of the most brilliant of the younger generation of English critics”—and both balance a reverence for the canon of English literature alongside a deep engagement in Marxist theory. Nightwalking could have easily taken shape as a non-partisan study of the London night and the literature surrounding it, but, attentive as it is to both base and superstructure, it achieves something more timely and, in a sense, timeless.

It is not, though, as Will Self calls it, “a grand narrative of the counter-Enlightenment.” Nor is it, as its more modest subtitle suggests, just “A Nocturnal History of London.” The first is too “grand”, while the second sounds more like a coffee table book. Beaumont, influenced by Louis Althusser’s “pluralist” approach, sets out a range of multiple, often conflicting histories, which are reflected in the book’s layout: it divides into four parts of fourteen chapters, each splitting into further sub-sections (titles include “Witty Extravagants”, “Knight Errant of Hell”, “Paddington Frisk”) of varying length and tone. The past is unpicked, entangled, made into a series of conjunctures—points of crisis and conflict—so as to be woven together again to form what Eagleton calls a “tradition of the dispossessed.” The result is not so much “grand narrative” or capital h “History” as a more readable, pleasurable mix of Althusser and Foucault, with added close reading and humanism thrown in.

The Enlightenment, in Beaumont’s eyes, brought about less illumination than it did benightment. Keats was keenly aware that, underlying the surface improvements made to the commercial centre of London and the new valorisation of scientific progress, was a deeper, encroaching sense of moral darkness. To talk about Keats’s “dreamy, sensuous” prosopopoeia (as Beaumont does) without looking at the underlying shift in the mode and relations of production (as Beaumont also does) would be to limit the work, to shorten its aesthetic stakes. This, perhaps, could define twee: the love of a past without context. “The goblin is driven from the heath,” said Keats, “and the rainbow is robbed of its mystery!” This lament, if not seen in the context of the countryside’s rapid despoliation and disenchantment, is all twee.

Most of the poets Beaumont discusses—like Richard Savage, Oliver Goldsmith and Keats—channel a form of dispossessed, dissident poetics, but it is William Blake who occupies the pivotal role. Early on, Blake saw the darkness at the heart of the Enlightenment project and pitted himself against its “instrumental logic”—one that sought to justify, in rational terms, colonial exploitation abroad and violent repression at home. One image remains a constant, haunting presence in his work, though it disappeared behind the walls of Newgate Prison in his early-twenties: the gallows at Tyburn. For him, as Beaumont suggests, it was “an unescapable symbol of the oppressiveness of Britain’s ruling elite.” William Ryland, an artist to whom Blake was almost apprenticed aged 14, was hanged there along with at least 1,200 other Londoners over the course of the 18th century. Most of the executed were poor men and women—”apprentices, ill-paid servants, unemployed labourers and vagrants”—whose crimes were ones of desperation.

By the turn of the 19th century the Bishop of London, whose land it was, had begun building an expensive new development—with the gruesome name of Tyburnia—over the former execution site. In a song dedicated “To the Jews” from Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Blake asks:

What are those golden Builders doing
Near mournful ever-weeping Paddington
Standing above that mighty Ruin
Where Satan the first victory won.

Those poor “Builders” (mainly migrant Irish labourers), forced to squat in huts, living off potatoes tilled nearby, were trying to redeem the land, to purge it of its evil spirit. This, says Beaumont, is why they are “golden”. But, in return, Charles Knight and others derided them as “squatters of the lowest community.” They were given a hateful task and hated for it. Their plight draws out a paradox: capitalism is fuelled by the twin-desire to erase all trace of origin while ingraining the myth of constant progress (Pascal said “The truth about the usurpation must not be made apparent; it came about originally without reason and has become reasonable”).

Capitalism’s “ideal state,” in Eagleton’s words, is a state of “eternal motion without source or telos.” The sinister result is dirt-poor labourers building over the bones of the executed poor, “elegant remains… sunk in earth enriched by the remains of brutalized bodies.” Civilisation and barbarism go side by side as the “mournful ever-weeping” cycle of crime and punishment rolls on.

There are numerous ways to approach Nightwalking, but running beneath them all is an account of how London’s urban elite turned against the poor. The writers Beaumont focuses on—themselves often on the dark fringes of society—give a depressing portrait of the city, but it is one whose very bleakness suggests a utopian lining. In a real dystopia, after all, injustice would pass without comment, everything being taken at its dark face-value.

But Blake sees through it, his prophetic outrage animated by the kind of radical Christianity preached at the Sermon on the Mount. There, Jesus’s argument hinges on the impossibility of anyone serving two masters, God and mammon, “for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24) Cyril Connolly updates this maxim for a secular age: “you cannot serve both beauty and power.” Holding to a love of power will lead to despising beauty; holding to a love of beauty will lead to despising power. Against all better reason, faced with the civilised barbarity of the Hanoverian state, Blake would have us put our faith in beauty.

Just one of these options poses an existential threat to state power, though, so it is no wonder that, right now, the Conservative government is looking to make further cuts to arts funding (Culture Minister Ed Vaizey says we need to find “new and imaginative ways of supporting the arts”) at the same time as it seeks more “imaginative ways” to slash benefits—again—and essential services for the poor, disabled and elderly; its rhetoric on economic migrants has, unsurprisingly, grown ever more hostile. Without a politicised, active arts sector that might act as a counterweight—and offer a range of utopian possibilities—this course has been made to feel inevitable, the past re-aligned to block out all glimmer of hope.

Beaumont’s book stops short of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries for a reason. Why go any further? Here is what he might have said: nightwalkers and nightsleepers still rove the backstreets of London; a new generation of nightworkers—drawn from the old “reserve army”—service the craven needs of 24/7 capital; property speculators continue to build empty offices and luxury apartments; the poor, meanwhile, are as despised and immiserated as ever; mammon is unchallenged and beauty has been priced out of the market.

George Steiner’s Night Words, 50 Years On

I wrote this essay almost two years ago, tried meekly to get it published, failed and moved it to a large dropbox folder called “abandoned”. It turns out the world wasn’t ready for/doesn’t want/definitely doesn’t need a Marxist reappraisal of a George Steiner essay about literary pornography from the mid-60s. Who’d have thought? I should say that it’s an unfortunate product of its time – in my life – in that it reflects an overly narrow, random range of reading. Since then, I’ve come embarrassingly late to writers like Rebecca Sullivan, Andrea Dworkin, Sallie Tisdale, Susan Griffin, Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak who have changed and enriched my thinking on sex, the body, and its representation. I’m not an academic, or even particularly rigorous-minded person, so my thoughts are still narrow, limited and all-too-rubbish. But a lot of these undigested ideas have kept coming back to me and, in often horrible ways, seemed relevant.

Last year, during the burkini ban in Nice and elsewhere, France’s then-PM Manuel Valls claimed that “Marianne [the leading figure in this Delacroix painting] has a naked breast because she is feeding the people! She is not veiled, because she is free! That is the republic!” I couldn’t believe, grimly believable though it is, that the old equation of nakedness and freedom had empowered police officers to strip a woman, effectively at gun-point, in a public place. And that so many politicians and members of the public had openly supported it. Then, of course, there’s the lunatic fringe (or toupee) that has steadily moved to the centre of power in Washington, its depraved actions and utterances at every turn defended by the so-called “alt-right” under the strange banner of free speech. Now that so many of us have the equivalent of Gutenberg’s printing press in our back-pockets (and, which is more revolutionary, the means to disseminate our words/ideas/emojis at a touch), it seems more important than ever to interrogate what free speech means. The freedom to say what exactly? And what responsibilities might that entail?

When I came across George Steiner’s ‘Night Words’ two years ago, I thought its attitude to pornography was absurd, prudish and reactionary (and, yeah, it pretty much is). I was going to write a short, jokey piece riffing on it. But then, the more I thought about it the more struck I was by its weird sincerity, its guileless commitment to the act of writing and to the moral responsibility inherent in the use of words. The other night I read through what I ended up writing and thought maybe it was worth sharing on this blog. It makes a lot of shallow digressions – the point about the real violence that often lies behind the epistemic violence of pornographic writing/imagery (the Marquis de Sade didn’t just write kinky literature – he was a rapist and murderer) needs further development. The tone can also get a bit… wayward – I was experimenting with a looser and more associative style. But I hope that it might encourage some of the innumerable people better informed than me on this and related subjects to get in touch and better inform me about stuff. It is 6,500 words, though. So I won’t take it personally if I don’t hear from you.

Reading George Steiner on sex it’s impossible not to imagine the words ‘he opined’ or ‘he harrumphed’ after every sentence. As in,

“The notion that one can double one’s ecstasy by engaging in coitus while being at the same time deftly sodomized is sheer nonsense,” he opined.

“There just aren’t that many orifices,” he harrumphed.

These pearls of wisdom are offered up in Steiner’s famous essay, ‘Night Words: High Pornography and Human Privacy’, published in the October 1965 issue of Encounter.

Given its timing, the reaction to Steiner’s purse-lipped screed against permissiveness was unsurprisingly hostile. Not content with dismissing pulp-fiction, Steiner takes aim at the whole ‘world of erotica’, from the trashiest mass-produced porno to Swinburne’s ballades and the ‘high pornography’ of Norman Mailer and Mary McCarthy:

What distinguishes the ‘forbidden classic’ from under-the-counter delights on Frith Street, is, essentially a matter of semantics, of the level of vocabulary and rhetorical device used to provoke erection. It is not fundamental.

Steiner opines thus because, as always with him, there are fundamental distinctions to be made. Getting one’s rocks off to a ‘forbidden classic’ is no better than enjoying the titillations of Sweet Lash or The Silken Thighs because they differ only in degree: neither ‘adds anything new to the potential of human emotion; both add to the waste.’ Ending the paragraph on this note Steiner allows the reader to appreciate—in all its onanism—the waste implied.

Being curious, I looked up the two Mills and Boon-esque ‘delights’ Steiner refers to—Sweet Lash and The Silken Thighs—assuming they’d been singled out for a reason, but could only find links to websites specialising in eyelash extension and tights. Perhaps, though he claims that all erotic fantasies have an ‘unutterable monotony’, he wants to keep his own private. In Steiner’s fantasy world, a work of art should carry itself with dignity. When it stoops to the cupidinous—’hardening nipples’ and ‘softly opening thighs’—the result is masturbatory for author and reader alike. In such fiction, nothing new or ennobling is being passed on.

It’s too easy, in a sense, to mock this kind of self-seriousness, its way of addressing itself so completely—without any qualms—to other like-minded, serious men of culture. As time passes, Steiner seems less a monolithic figure from another age than a swotty character from a Mills and Boon novel. Just read up on his early years: educated at the universities of Chicago and Harvard, a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, on the editorial staff of the Economist, member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton—and all by the age of 26! What would you expect him to think of pornography (or to say he thought of pornography)?

Maybe treating Steiner as a fictional character is the way forward. Imagine him not as the august figure he is, but as the protagonist of a racy new work of erotic fiction: as George “Danger” Steiner, the bespectacled young ‘Square’ whose conference paper goes awry when he finds himself drawn to a silken-thighed young academic in the back row; seeking her out over coffee and biscuits, he thrills her with his long publication record and, naturally, asks if she wants to see the galleys of his new book; they retire to an unused basement room where, uninhibited at last, he shows her Sweet Lash, a lacerating study of high-brow porno through the ages, and, removing his tweeds, turns to the chapter on sodomy; “There just aren’t that many orifices,” he begins…

Now I can return to ‘Night Words’, mind refreshed. All harrumphing aside, Steiner’s pronouncements make a sudden sense. When he talks about the vivid ‘motif of female onanism’ or the ‘fairly repetitive joys’ of fellatio and buggery (italicizing fellatio, of course, to emphasise its Latinity), how ‘sexual heat compresses and erodes our uses of language’, it’s clear what he’s doing, what he’s using language for: to seduce the reader.


This year is the 50th anniversary of ‘Night Words’. Obscured by Steiner’s variable reputation and often lost in a sea of polemics—before and since—about pornography and censorship, its historical importance needs to be made clear. Written after the end of the “Chatterley” ban and the Beatles’ first LP, ‘Night Words’ attests to a shift in the study of the humanities. Following World War II, literature had struggled to regain what Steiner calls its civilizing purpose. There was a feeling—brought vividly to life in Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man—that though books may not have caused the Holocaust, if they were to be of value they’d need to mitigate against its recurrence.

In 1965, though, big discussions about the nature of man (mostly by men) were going out of fashion. Rather than turning toward old-style humanism—which many thought had been the problem in the first place—a raft of new social movements (anti-war, pro-civil rights, women’s lib and LGBT rights) looked instead to undermine the supposedly humanising basis of art and “high” culture. In 1964, Richard Hoggart, key player in the “Chatterley” trial, opened the first Centre for Cultural Studies in Birmingham and began a debate about whether mass culture might not be deserving of serious study. This would rumble on into the so-called ‘canon wars’ of the 1980s, waged over the opening up of literature syllabi to include non-western writers. In France, the Tel Quel group—made up of Derrida, Foucault and others—were developing a more theoretical approach to the arts, treating books less as instruments of moral virtue—with intentional meanings—than as ‘texts’ whose coded, contradictory signals had to be deconstructed.

In choosing ‘Night Words’ as his title, Steiner is suggesting not just that the words under discussion are meant for the night but that he himself is addressing us as from the dark of night, speaking by oil lamp perhaps, his audience peeling off one by one to listen to the new Grateful Dead LP or to flick through La Pensée Sauvage. In spite of that, I want to argue that it’s still worth casting a light on Steiner—now more than ever—to see what light he casts on us.


As is probably obvious, Steiner is no faddish Yoloer; he’s of the old (old) guard, a European intellectual for whom opining comes naturally. And art, for him, is not just important in the way it usually is for those who love it, but for the very survival of the species. Even in the case of porn, there’s nothing less at stake than the ‘private life of feeling.’ Reading him from the cynical perspective of late capitalism, this ability to take erotic writing so seriously is difficult to grasp. Nowadays, I imagine, most parents would be happy to see their kid pick up a copy of The Silken Thighs if just for the fact it meant they were reading rather than scrolling through unsupervisable reams of graphic online material. Steiner must be choking on his mousepad.

In the 19th century, indecent books were catalogued under the euphemistic heading of Facetiae, which is where we get the word facetious from. According to Steiner, it’s our facetious attitude to Facetiae, our inability to get serious about porn, that is a big part of the problem. Erotica leads to ‘diminishing reserves of feeling and imaginative response in our society’ and no euphemistic gloss can conceal this. Look at William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, he says, ‘illiterate and self-centred to its heart of pulp.’ A novel can have a heart, can be self-centred—this kind of unveiled moral criticism is alien to our age. Now look at Tolstoy, whose work ‘is not a primer for children or the retarded’:

Tolstoy is infinitely freer, infinitely more exciting than the new eroticists, when he arrests his narrative at the door of the Karenins’ bedroom, when he merely initiates, through the simile of a dying flame, of ash cooling in the grate, a perception of sexual defeat which each of us can re-live or detail for himself.

That’s right: more exciting. It is a mark of Steiner’s higher responsiveness that, like a orthodox monk trained on a daily regimen of abstinence and Russian literature, he can be turned on by Tolstoy and not concede Naked Lunch to be more exciting in any respect than Anna Karenina.

Steiner’s measure of freedom is humanity, and Tolstoy is ‘infinitely freer’ because he is more humane. William Burroughs, on the other hand, is governed by the totalitarian dictates of cliché, by the ‘hollow brutality’ of ‘four-letter words’. Steiner refrains from specificity here, leaving his full meaning, like Tolstoy, to our imagination. When he says ‘four-letter words’—sorry to be crude, George—is he referring to fuck, cunt, cock, dick, shit, suck, ball[s]? What about that most hollow and brutal of four-letter words, love?

This much is clear: Steiner doesn’t watch a lot of TV. If he were to glance at any period drama of the last fifty years, he might have to revise his views on the sublimity of cutting from a closing bedroom door to a ‘dying flame’ or ‘ash cooling in a grate’. This is the go-to transition in an art form he’d probably regard as shlockily ‘middle-brow’: the period drama. It’s these, however, that have come to shape our reading of the Greats, as filtered through the buttoned-up, brooding lens of Colin Firth bestriding his estate, venting his eros in clipped RP. I can’t imagine Steiner thinks this is doing much to extend our ‘reserves of feeling and imagination’, to open us up to great literature and to ourselves.

Despite his pouring scorn on people like Richard Hoggart and the ‘semi-literate mass audience which consumer democracy has summoned into the marketplace’, Steiner’s views are most apparent in the scores of sanitized TV and film adaptations that crowd the marketplace. Burroughs, on the other hand, a writer supposedly called into existence by the egalitarian spirit of ‘consumer democracy’, remains largely unknown to the ‘semi-literate’ masses.


Steiner takes an already ballsy argument to a new level when he discusses how some of the Greats dealt with their characters, how Tolstoy and Henry James would ‘tread warily around their creations’, treating them as real, autonomous beings, in contrast to

The novels being produced under the new code of total statement [which] shout at their personages: strip, fornicate, perform this or that act of sexual perversion. So did the S.S. guards at rows of living men and women.

‘The total attitudes are not,’ Steiner opines, ‘entirely distinct.’ To clarify: his argument is that the ‘total freedom’ afforded to writers of erotic fiction and the ‘total freedom’ of sadistic SS guards are ‘not… entirely distinct’; or, as he warily rephrases it, ‘their historical proximity may not be coincidence’. Why? Because both exercise their freedom ‘at the expense of someone else’s humanity, of someone else’s most precious right—the right to a private life of feeling.’

Steiner has worked himself to such a pitch of rhetorical frenzy he can attribute—without qualms or qualifications—a ‘private life’ to a fictional character and hold it to be as precious as that of a living human; he can have no trouble maintaining that the perversions inflicted on made-up characters are not ‘entirely distinct’ from those inflicted on the men, women and children who were tortured and killed in concentration camps during the war. As I said, this is ballsy stuff.

Friend reader, putting Steiner aside for a moment, it’s worth recalling what happened one winter’s night during the reign of Louis XIV, when, after months of depravity, a particular libertine gave himself—while being sodomised—to fuck a turkey whose head had been placed between the legs of a woman so that it would appear from a distance as though he were fucking her, and how, at the moment of ejaculation, this girl took out a knife and slit the turkey’s throat. Nothing, as Steiner says, is ‘entirely distinct’ or coincidental, so should the Marquis de Sade’s four libertines be forced to admit the role of their turkey-fucking antics in the Holocaust as well?

The underlying issue with Steiner’s form of old-style humanism is, and has always been, a failure to establish which humans are being talked about. The great literary scholar P.N. Furbank once observed that the most common fault of humanism is to lapse into a Comtist ‘religion of yourself’, using the plural (‘we’, ‘us’) when the singular would be more appropriate. In the case of Steiner, it means founding a religion on the cult of the Western, Schoenberg-loving, academically well-endowed belle-lettrist himself.

Furbank thought there was another, better kind of humanism, though, which was encapsulated by D.H. Lawrence and his belief that ‘the ultimate passion of every man is to be within himself the whole of mankind’. This is what drives Lawrence’s fiction—a desire not simply to project his own passions onto another D.H. but to fully inhabit the other within himself. The transmission of bodily fluids, as for many other ‘new eroticists’, is only one part of the erotic equation.

In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, finally published unexpurgated by Penguin in 1960, Lawrence describes Hilda and Constance’s precocious attitude toward sex: well aware of its endless glorification by poets, ‘mostly men’, they think that if they can maintain their ‘inner freedom’, why not get from it what they can? For them, sex is not some holy sacrament—sorry again, George—but the denouement to a conversation: ‘a final spasm of self-assertion, like the last word, exciting, and very like the row of asterisks that can be put to show the end of a paragraph, and a break in the theme.’

* * *

In the first part of The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels tear into capitalism for stripping the ‘halo’ from formerly sanctified professions, turning physicians, poets and priests into ‘paid wage labourers’:

The bourgeoisie has torn apart the many feudal ties that bound men to their “natural superiors,” and left no other bond between man and man than naked interest, than callous cash payment… The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and turned the family relation into a pure money relation… In place of exploitation veiled by religious and political illusions, it has put open, shameless, direct, naked exploitation.

Ripping the clothing off of our relationships, our jobs, our sense of self, the bourgeoisie have left us naked to one another and to ourselves, to be nakedly exploited and to nakedly exploit others.

The political philosopher Marshall Berman puts this in the context of earlier ‘metaphors of nakedness as truth and stripping as self-discovery’. Baron de Montesquieu, two hundred and fifty years before his time, attacked the veils worn by Persian women in Paris as being contrary to the principle of ‘liberty and equality’. For him, everything should be visible, audible, that the heart might show itself as clearly as the face. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, likewise, had no time for the ‘uniform and deceptive veil of politeness’, harbouring fantasies of naked, wrestling Athenians. This was the attitude that Sade took to its logical extreme—or to multiple logical extremes—in his erotic fiction. A reverse-image of Steiner’s argument, Montesquieu and Rousseau believed that the real measure of humanity was freedom and that freedom in itself made people better. Liberty, as in Eugène Delacroix’s topless vision, was best expressed by the naked body.

But Steiner had an early defender in Edmund Burke, who, after the French Revolution, set himself against the tyranny of ‘compulsory freedom’ (similar in kind to Steiner’s ‘total freedom’):

All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle… are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

This passage should be ringing Marxist bells. Ignoring their obvious differences, both share a visceral feeling for the horrors of the ‘new conquering empire of light and reason’, an empire that wants to tear off the ‘decent drapery of life’, burning the ‘wardrobe of a moral imagination’. Burke draws out the illiberality, the tyranny, of the stripped body. His metaphor of dissolving would also be echoed in Marx’s image of “all that is solid melt[ing] into air”; both are processes whereby social bonds not resting on ‘naked interest’ are broken down, made to seem ‘ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated’. But as much as Burke and Marx attacked the present, they refused to turn back—as Rousseau did—to an idyllic past, to a time when nakedness was pure. If such a state existed, it was now irreversibly dissolved or melted. To idealize the past would be to ignore its terrible inequalities, especially for women, to carry them over to the present, and Marx, it should be remembered, wanted to ‘put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic conditions’. The naked body, in Marx’s time, was degraded by the social and economic conditions it inhabited, with nakedness an indicator of oppression, not freedom.

Those French philosophes, though, would shape much of the pseudo-religious, emancipatory writing on sex that so piqued Steiner two hundred years later. It might be useful to bring in another, more recent figure at this point: the Rousseauian belief in embracing the body in order to reject tyranny slots neatly into Michel Foucault’s ‘repressive hypothesis’. Far from being ‘rigorously subjugated’, Foucault argued that sex and sexuality were widely discussed from the 17th century onwards. The narrative of subjugation and repression was a way of shaping the past so as to suit the needs of the present. We should be suspicious, he says, of a society that loudly castigates its hypocrisy, that ‘speaks verbosely of its own silence’. After all, a ‘sermon’ about repression—attacking those who fall out of line—can just as easily become another orthodoxy, legitimating new forms of repression. Aldous Huxley brings this brutally to life in Brave New World: at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, we visit a classroom of eighty cots; its young students have just spent forty minutes having ‘Elementary Sex’ before switching over to ‘Elementary Class Consciousness’, where they will learn why it’s only right that Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gammas wear different clothes, vary in intelligence and occupy different rungs in the social ladder. In Huxley’s vision, as in Foucault’s, freedom quickly turns into just another, more pernicious form of oppression.

I’m tracing an odd family tree for ‘Night Words’—Burke, Marx, Huxley, Foucault—but when Steiner lampoons the high pornographer Maurice Girodias the resemblances are clear. Girodias, inheriting his father’s press and renaming it the Olympia, specialized in publishing erotic fiction after the Second World War—stuff he could just about get away with in Paris (provided he didn’t publish anything in French) but not at all in London. Some of those who wrote for Girodias included Burroughs, Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett, and Henry Miller. Girodias uses the prestige of these names to play up the historical significance of the press and to deliver a sermon on the virtues of permissiveness:

Moral censorship was an inheritance from the past, deriving from centuries of domination by the Christian clergy. Now that it is practically over, we may expect literature to be transformed by the advent of freedom. Not freedom in its negative aspects, but as the means of exploring all the positive aspects of the human mind, which are all more or less related to, or generated by, sex.

This is just what Foucault would later criticise and what Steiner finds ‘almost unbelievably silly.’ The idea of ‘domination by the Christian clergy’ is manipulated to give Girodias’s press a sense of pre-ordained purpose. But can erotica really hope to overturn centuries of moral censorship? Are all the positive aspects of the human mind related to, or generated by, sex? Sex is great, sure, but so are burritos, and I wouldn’t reduce everything that’s positive about the human mind to burritos (Girodias may never even have tried a burrito).

During the 1960s, despite Huxley’s warnings, it became fashionable to see the abolition of censorship as heralding a new era of pleasure, an open attitude to sex offering a ready-made solution to all manner of social ills. But it’s clear the sexual revolution failed in key respects to redress gender inequalities at home and in the workplace, often normalising new forms of oppression; mass-produced pornography brought the scantily clad female body triumphantly into the sphere of commodified exchange. What’s flawed in this debate, though—what should be dissolved—is the tired opposition between repression and permissiveness. Understanding pleasure, understanding others, should always be something other than decrying repression.

* * *

Steiner makes clear he isn’t a fan of censorship. He thinks it’s ‘stupid and repugnant’ for two reasons: first, there’s no objective criteria for judging what is and isn’t suitable for consumption—is your judgment sounder than mine?—and, second, history shows that censorship is rarely effective at preventing access to banned material in the long run. But this isn’t the debate he wants to have. Steiner is trying move away from the dialectic of repression and permissiveness, toward a greater understanding of the effects of ‘depravity’ on the mind and on language—it should be obvious by now that, in his Whorfian thinking, how we interact with the world and how we talk about it are much the same.

Steiner connects the commodification of sex to the ‘conditions of an urban mass-technocracy’ that makes our ‘economic and political choices’ ever more uniform, ever more susceptible to ‘the new electronic media of communication and persuasion’. This reads as the usual elitism of the Kulturkritik, averse to anything that smacks of mass culture or modernity, but lurking beneath it is also the more recent, radical influence of Marshall McLuhan, whose essay-cum-cautionary tale ‘The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis’ was published in 1964. McLuhan thought that if modern man was unable, like Narcissus, to tell apart his true self from his reflection, he would become enraptured by an ‘extension of himself’; in more jargon-heavy terms, he would become the ‘servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image’. McLuhan, like Pliny, mistakenly sees the name Narcissus as deriving from narcosis and suggests technology is a kind of narcotic that numbs us to the world, causing us to ‘self-amputate’, offshoring parts of ourselves to foreign gadgets. This fearful techno-determinism is still apparent when we talk about being unable to tear ourselves from our phones, a metaphor which implicitly treat gadgets as prosthetic extensions of ourselves, which make who we are and how we interact with the world one and the same.

Steiner is clearly drawing from McLuhan when he argues that, just as limbs atrophy through lack of use, the power to feel might, through lack of exercise, ‘wither in society’. Hovering behind this image is McLuhan’s prosthetic dystopia and contemporary fears over the effects of IVF and ET (in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer) on “natural” procreation and conjugal relationships. Sex, by this view, is the last, embattled outpost of the ‘private life of feeling’ and if we cede it to the ‘total frankness’ of erotic writing then ‘totalitarian politics’ is all but inevitable. To reiterate, Steiner’s argument is that if our literature becomes more monotonous, recasting our private lives in fifty shades of grey, so our language will too, and eventually our public institutions; soon, there will arise the ‘need for nervous stimuli of an unprecedented brutality and technical authority’. The monotony, the numbness, of our inner and outer lives will have both brought about and stopped us from responding to the brutality of fascism.

Let’s give this argument its due: though we’re more likely these days to think before we buy, eat or wear something, we’re less prone to reflect on what we consume culturally. To express a strong opinion about culture—to think ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ is better than Tintin—is to court elitism; to think that culture might affect how we engage with the world—to say that watching Jersey Shore makes you a worse person—is to risk sounding like a weirdo. Now, though we might ‘argue’ and occasionally ‘disagree’, we would never want to be seen as opining and harrumphing in the style of Steiner—not in public at least. The West likes to see itself as inclusive, pluralist, but as Theodor Adorno warned, the bourgeoisie is ‘tolerant’ for a reason: ‘His love of people as they are stems from his hatred of what they might be.’ Steiner, who cares deeply about what people might be, is given to wildly intolerant pronouncements. When we masturbate, he says, the actions of the mind ‘are not a dance; they are a treadmill.’ When our literature reflects this—becoming masturbatory—it stops dancing and starts circling the gyre; our humanity follows soon after.

Is this a mad line of thinking? Well, at the same time as Steiner was writing, thousands of Indonesian ‘communists’ were being herded into the backs of trucks and executed en masse, their bodies dumped in open graves or tossed into rivers. This received minimal coverage in mainstream Western media, being either downplayed or distorted to suit an anti-communist agenda—made, in other words, into a good thing. I mean, it must have been a good thing since General Suharto, who led the coup, was supported by the United States. Noam Chomsky quotes George Orwell’s observation, from an unpublished introduction to Animal Farm, that ‘in free societies, unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without any need for any official ban.’ You wouldn’t usually associate Chomsky with Steiner, but both are alive to the ways in which ‘free’ societies look to manufacture consent, either by ‘spinning’ news or blocking out alternative narratives. In such a way, massacres are justified. In his film The Act of Killing, documentary-maker Joshua Oppenheimer shows how those involved in the 1965 coup—torturers and mass murderers—used Hollywood films (mainly Westerns and gangster movies) to assuage their guilt, to distance themselves from the atrocities they committed.

More recently, in ‘A Bunch of Nobodies’, Mark Greif unequivocally links the abuse and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib to the nakedly exploitative culture of twenty-first century America:

Because of the way we live, the American mind fills up with the sexual use of other people. Even on the subway and in the street, porn-i-color daydreams issue through our mental viewfinder… You can escape our bombing maybe, but you can’t escape our fun.

Would those soldiers in Abu Ghraib have been as likely to sexually degrade their prisoners if our culture wasn’t the way it is—by which I mean, awash with degraded images of naked bodies, not just on our top shelves but on every other TV channel and billboard? How we have fun, which includes what we read, watch or otherwise consume, affects who we are. We might be appalled at a photograph of a hooded man forced to masturbate for the camera, or of a soldier smiling as he poses next to a dead body, while in another tab, minutes later, think nothing of indulging our ‘porn-i-color daydreams’. Perhaps Steiner’s prophecy has come true and those lurid on-screen titillations are diminishing our ‘reserves of feeling’ or, worse than that, desensitizing us to new forms of brutality. As the editors of n+1 put it: ‘We have freed masturbation from the stigma of the centuries. But who will free us from masturbation?’


I want you to imagine an evening with George. First, he’ll turn off the main lights, making sure to leave on a tasteful bedside lamp. Then he’ll let you know, in passing, that sex is never just sex—not with him—but a form of total communication which is also communion. It’s a spiritual transaction, existing outside of the marketplace. In this bedroom, at least, your halo is still intact. Then, offering you a glass of Chateau Latour—a holy sacrament—he’ll run his hazel-coloured eyes up and down your body before laying one big, slender hand on yours and intoning (repeat after me):

This physical communion, this nightplace, represents one of the last citadels of privacy. In our imperfect striving and repeated failure, the words, the gestures, the mental images which set the blood to racing, we find ourselves. In this dark and wonder ever-renewed, both the rumblings and the light must be our own.

Is your blood racing yet? Now let’s compare George’s ideal of sex with that explored in Nicholson Baker’s Vox (1992), a recent classic of ‘high pornography’ and a favourite of Bill Clinton’s. In Vox, a man called ‘Jim’ rings up a sex chat line and has a conversation with a woman called ‘Abby’ that lasts for the entire duration of the book. The novel features sex aplenty, then, but it’s all mediated, as per the conceit, through Jim and Abby’s telling of it. Sex is not so much an act of communion or transformation as of simultaneous masturbation. Jim recounts his greatest sexual experience as being the time he sat alongside a work colleague beneath a plaid blanket and she masturbated to Pleasure So Deep, a badly dubbed European X-vid. The fact it’s dubbed is a part of the erotic experience, the distance between real pleasure and its consumption being the new site of desire. Abby says she can’t have sex because of a yeast infection so makes use of a technological substitute—her showerhead—while fantasising about public exposure. Her ‘private citadel’, to use Steiner’s term, has been so infiltrated she can no longer imagine herself getting aroused in the bedroom. Her only option is to break down the barriers between public and private space, to bare herself in broad daylight.

Not to Steiner’s taste, you might think, but Baker is one of the finest and most humane purveyors of erotica. ‘Night Words’ begins with a question: ‘Is there any science-fiction pornography?’ Steiner briefly mentions a (brilliant-sounding) novel where ‘the terrestrial hero and explorer indulges in mutual masturbation with a bizarre, interplanetary creature.’ There’s ‘no real novelty’ in this, he says, flicking the ash from his mental cigarette, because it wouldn’t matter if the sea-monster were replaced with sea-weed, accordions, meteorites or lunar pumice; none extends ‘the range of our sexual being.’ In short, ‘there just aren’t that many orifices.’

The crucial distinction, for Steiner, isn’t between different ways of having sex—though he’s oddly bored by this line of enquiry—but with how it’s conceived. In this, Baker is a master. Though erotic in subject matter, Vox isn’t about people engaging with each other’s bodies but talking on the phone—or sat side by side—and ‘topping’ themselves off. This, we could say, is science-fiction pornography. It accords with Susan Sontag’s definition of science-fiction and porn, at least, as those two branches of literature that aim ‘at disorientation, at psychic dislocation.’ It’s also Steiner’s worst nightmare come true. Having stolen our intimacy and sold it back to us ‘prepackaged’—in the form of X-vids like Pleasure So Deep or Vox itself—the ‘new pornographers’ have reduced us to monads, made our intercourse into the mutual (but separate) consumption of mass-produced images of dead-eyed strangers performing sexual acts on one another in a draughty, ill-lit studio somewhere in… —it’s not exactly clear where, but in sci-fi as in porn the specifics aren’t so important.


Friend reader, it might still be unclear why I’ve dusted off this old essay, on its 50th anniversary, only to subject it to such perverse and occasionally brutal treatment. To a generation of channel surfers and cultural omnivores, Steiner might seem—for all his “polymathic” status—an irrelevance. And, let’s state the obvious, his views on pornography are irrelevant. So too is his desire to ring-fence a staid form of nineteenth-century realism from the incursions of “minor” genres like sci-fi, fantasy and erotica. Rather than protecting our humanity, such exclusions would only diminish our reserves of feeling, our moral imagination.

But as I recoil at Steiner, another part of me is drawn to him—this must be how desire works and nothing less than George (seductress that he is) would expect. ‘Night Words’ is best read not as a reaction against permissiveness or pornography per se but as a powerful critique of the nihilism corroding the study of humanities in the 1960s, at a time when postmodern artists and academics were arguing that our freedom was illusory, our morals self-serving and our culture a hall of mirrors. The ‘new pornographers’ are a sexy smokescreen for an altogether different argument.

The differences between Foucault and Steiner demonstrate this. Though both pointed out flaws in the ‘repressive hypothesis’, they couldn’t have disagreed more on its significance. In 1965, Foucault was putting the finishing touches to Les Mots et Les Choses (published in French in 1966; translated in 1970 as The Order of Things), in which he famously announced the ‘death of man’. His stated aim was to dethrone ‘the subject as pseudo-sovereign’, to expose and de-subjectify the ‘desire for power’. In some ways this follows on from the work of early modernists like Baudelaire who wanted to épouser la foule: to ‘become one with the crowd’—épouser can also mean ‘to embrace’, ‘to marry’ and, appropriately, ‘to fuck’. Steiner, unlike Baudelaire and Foucault, wants the artist-intellectual to stand apart from the crowd, not to immerse himself in society but to maintain a constant vigil over it. So Steiner observes, from a distance, the ‘splintered, harried elements of our consciousness’, which, he might have added, reflect a society ‘splintered’ by war and ‘harried’ by the dislocations of capital. He wants us to take those ‘splintered’ pieces and, if not to put them back together, at least give them a renewed sense of dignity.

In another essay, ‘To Civilize our Gentlemen’, Steiner says that teaching literature is an ‘extraordinarily complex and dangerous business’ (luckily, George’s middle-name is Danger): scientists may have the capacity to develop machines or chemicals of mass destruction, but science is ultimately a ‘neutral’ activity, even ‘trivial’, because it can’t explain what it creates—that’s the job of the humanities. It should be clear why Steiner thinks a ‘neutral humanism is either a pedantic artifice or prologue to the inhuman’; to take up a ‘neutral’ stance is to abnegate responsibility. Foucault’s anti-humanism is thus unthinkably irresponsible for him. Steiner’s argument no doubt confers an unhealthy degree of importance on the humanities, but what we consume—the art we watch, listen to, read—and the relationships we form are always, to some extent, mutually constitutive. Art reflects the society from which it emerges. To know a people, look at its art.

Steiner ends ‘Night Words’ with this call to arms:

My true quarrel with the Olympia Reader and the genre it embodies is not that so much of the stuff should be boring and abjectly written. It is that these books leave a man less free, less himself, than they found him; that they leave language poorer, less endowed with a capacity for fresh discrimination and excitement. It is not a new freedom that they bring, but a new servitude. In the name of human privacy, enough.

We might—and obviously should—dispute Steiner’s claim that all erotic fiction is ‘boring and abjectly written’, and that any explicit description of sex leaves us and the language ‘poorer’, but we’d be unwise to dismiss George out of hand.

As he argues elsewhere, literature has always acted as ‘a school to the imagination, an exercise in making one’s awareness more exact, more humane’; it demands ‘not obeisance but live echo’. Art doesn’t hold a mirror up to nature; it holds a mirror up to our nature. Lest we become enraptured, like Narcissus, by the image we find there, we should remember that we are its ‘live echo’ and, as such, still shape the image we see in the mirror. Steiner’s fears, hysterically laid out, come down to this: that we’ll more than buy into our reflection; we’ll become the worst possible image of ourselves—less free, less human and less able to communicate, our language shorn of its ‘capacity for fresh discrimination and excitement’. So numbed to the world, we won’t achieve that ‘final spasm of self-assertion’ that is the mark of good conversation, good sex and good writing. When inhumanity rears its hooded head, we won’t know how to respond.

This is a threat that can’t be whisked away by the magic of democracy or whatever increasingly sophisticated gadgetry Silicon Valley is dreaming up. On August 14, 1860, Marx wrote in a letter: ‘in modern times almost the first act in a people’s struggle for freedom or independence seems, by some monstrous fatality, to consist in contracting a new servitude.’ Marx, marooned in London, was becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of revolutionary action across the continent. Attempts at agitation on the part of the workers’ movement were being waylaid by small concessions to which they were forced to accede for fear of losing their jobs. As Steiner suggests, obtaining new freedoms can often stop us from challenging—even seeing—our real servitude. Or, as he warns earlier in ‘Night Words’, sounding a lot like Marx, we must guard against giving our consent, without realising, to a culture in which ‘our dreams are marketed wholesale.’ In a culture that lives and dies by the market—where capital sets the terms of what’s possible—even our dreams have an exchange-value.

George Steiner, the bespectacled Square, the arch-elitist, thinks there is a kind of escape that won’t lead to further enslavement—something Foucault could never have dreamt of. It consists in being more sincere, honest and open (albeit behind closed doors). If we can, let’s separate Steiner’s ideals from the faulty machinery of his argument, the narrow-mindedness of his opinions. Let’s put his best self forward: he wants literature to be a momentary stay against confusion—we can all appreciate that—and to do more than just reflect what it sees, or what sells; to make us more humane, more exact, more ourselves. For all that that may sound vague and utopian, it’s surely something to aspire to. Sex or no sex—but avoid nothing for its own sake—he wants us to love truly, which means travelling beyond oneself, returning changed. In our imperfect striving and repeated failure, the words, the gestures, the mental images which set the blood to racing, we find ourselves.

What Can We Do?

This was originally given as a talk at Cal Folger Day’s Nonfiction Nite in Dublin on 3 July 2016.


My first response to the referendum result was shock. London, where I live, voted for Remain—as did almost everyone I know—and yet the majority of the country voted to Leave. My thoughts turned to social media. A community should contain a plurality of views, but social media filters out dissenting opinion, creating these insular back-slapping little bubbles. Psychologically, as Claude Steele said in the 1980s, we have a tendency to use new information to reinforce our prior sense of self. The information we scroll through on Facebook rarely challenges us—not in the way real people do. Instead, it offers a warm bath of self-affirmation. But the referendum made another reality painfully clear: the UK is divided along boundaries of geography, class, age and ethnicity. And the most tragic thing is this: if we can’t even see it, what can we do?


The response among many of my friends loosely followed the Kübler-Ross model of grief: first there was denial, then anger, then bargaining and depression, but precious little acceptance. People said they weren’t British anymore; they were ashamed of their country; they were leaving. Some called for London to leave the UK. They poured scorn on the “uneducated bigots” who voted Leave and railed against the fact that older people—in a last angry swipe before kicking the bucket—had mainly voted Leave. And that was the nice stuff.

Some said things like “What really saddens me is that this is going to hurt those weakest in society the most”, and argued for a second referendum or for this one to be annulled—why trigger Article 50 when it was only advisory! If people had been better informed, they said, they’d have voted to Remain.

And it’s true, the referendum was mismanaged, with the almost-endless free movement of lies and half-truths. Maybe if everyone had been more politically engaged—ideally with stable jobs, decent houses and university degrees—then Remain would have won comfortably. As it was, and is, to ignore or annul the results would only make those 17.4 million people who voted Leave feel (with some justification) more bitter and more excluded than ever. And UKIP, of course, would be waiting with open arms—a party which thrives on resentment.

Perhaps a two-thirds majority should have been required for a decision of this magnitude. Perhaps the legal ramifications of leaving/remaining should been worked out beforehand and properly explained. A lot of stuff could and should have been done differently. But however much we march around and say we love Europe now, it’s not going to make much difference. Remain voters need to drop the bullshit.

Turnout was 72%, higher than in any General Election since 1992. As David Runciman points out: “The margin between the two sides—3.8 per cent—was roughly the same as the margin by which Obama defeated Romney in the 2012 presidential election (3.9 per cent), and you don’t hear a lot of people complaining about the legitimacy of that”. When Boris Johnson won the 2012 London Mayoral Election turnout was a pitiful 38.1%. That doesn’t seem fair to me. But to take issue with it involves asking much larger questions about how our democracy functions, or doesn’t.


My friends in London, whether they have money or not (most don’t), still have the kind of cultural and social capital that provide them with opportunities.

In a brilliant short documentary, Sheena Moore, a social worker from Stainforth who voted Leave, talks about the view from up north: “We see the south as privileged… and we know there’s poor pockets but, when you go to London, you can see the wealth.” In the south, though the wealth may not be equally distributed, it’s everywhere evident. In Stainforth and other small towns in Yorkshire, where the pits, the chicken factory, the sewing factory and the pubs have all closed, it’s nowhere evident and nowhere distributed. “In Doncaster town central,” Moore says, “you can’t see and feel the wealth. It can’t get any worse. Job losses—we’ve had forty years of job losses.”

She meets a man on the street—a British Asian man—and asks him why he voted Leave. At first he gives the usual line about immigration and taking back control, but when pushed, when actually engaged with, it becomes clear that the real issue—the “bones of it”—is jobs. Jobs that disappeared with the closing of the mines and haven’t come back. This voice isn’t being heard. Instead, my Facebook stream—I don’t know about yours—is full of those sneering man-on-the-street vox pops, where people with regional accents get two seconds to say something racist and/or stupid before it cuts to someone else.

The facts are these: 62% of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers voted to Leave, as did 62% of those in casual labour (zero hours contracts) and dependent on welfare payments. These people felt they had nothing left to lose, and when you feel like you have nothing left to lose, when change is an everyday part of your life, you weigh risk differently.

This is borne out by Lord Ashcroft’s poll. Most people who voted Remain were risk-averse and, in making their decision, prioritised threats to the economy, jobs and prices. The reason most people gave for voting Leave, on the other hand, was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK.” It wasn’t immigration but “taking control” that rang truest. For casualised workers scattered across Wales, the north and the midlands, in former coal-mining and industrial towns, life was already precarious, and the promise of greater “control”, however illusory—a chance also to show the affluent south they still existed—was jumped at.


The way I’ve been talking about the referendum has been mainly socio-economic. Some people disagree with this approach. They’d rather place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Leave campaign (or an incompetent Remain campaign, or just Jeremy Corbyn). These nationwide divisions are, for them, cultural. They cite evidence suggesting that people who voted Leave—who are scared of immigrants and multiculturalism—also favour public floggings. They point to the upsurge in racial harassment. Leave voters aren’t poor and disenfranchised, they say. They just like law and order and hate immigrants. They’re just ignorant “Little Englanders”.

Now I don’t want to downplay the recent spate of racist attacks and street-level abuse. I think the referendum has emboldened a minority of people to act on their prejudices. But I think it’s dangerous to talk about this without context. Racism can only be fought once you understand its roots, its causes—once you understand it has roots and causes.

Discussions of racism often focus on how it operates—hate speech, graffiti, vandalism, violence, cultural appropriation—with the aim of various campaigns (like UEFA’s “No to Racism” campaign) being to get people not to say or do racist things. There’s nothing wrong with this (and much that’s good) but the assumption, as with telling a child not to stick their fingers in shit, is that explaining the reasons why will only take too long or prove unpersuasive. It’s a lot easier just to say Don’t do it!

The problem is, a person can avoid saying or doing “racist” things without coming any closer to understanding—or believing in—the point of it. Hence a community that appears peaceful and tolerant one day can descend into violent conflict the next. (This is often the case in Indonesia, where my mum is from, which is only ever one economic crisis away from spiralling into ethnic conflict.)

It’s more important to understand how oppression and discrimination work, the ways in which they rely on a belief in clearly defined, homogenous groups (“Blacks”, “Asians”) which don’t exist. Racism happens when people ignore the intersecting matrix of language, culture and tradition in favour of an abstract belief in ethnic clarity. When they refuse to engage with people as they are.


I think the narrative we should be looking at—which arches over and includes those strains of anti-immigrant and racist feeling—is the desire for order and control. Many commentators act as if this came from nowhere, whipped into existence by Farage and Gove. But material and psychological instability don’t emerge overnight. This is where the history—the context—of the last fifty years comes in.

The spread of votes based on educational attainment has been used by some—embarrassingly, stupidly—to argue that those who voted Leave were simply dumb and ignorant (with the very old-fashioned implication that only those with university degrees should have been allowed to vote!). But what it really points to is the ever-widening gulf that’s opened up in our society between the rich and poor.

Data collected by the Equality Trust shows that the share of income going to the top 10% of the population fell in the postwar decades—it was 34.6% in 1938 and 21% in 1979—while the share going to the bottom 10% rose. But since 1979, this process of “narrowing inequality has reversed sharply.” In 2010 (the latest year for which data is available), 45% of all wealth in the UK was held by the richest 10%. The poorest 10% held only 1%. When New Labour left office, there were more working families in poverty than there had been in thirty years.

Income growth at the top

What’s worse, as studies in the US have shown, politicians are more receptive to the concerns of middle- and high-income voters (the people who donate to election campaigns), and so inequality becomes entrenched: the rich lobby for policies that will make them richer; the voiceless poor get poorer.

In the UK, this was offset for a long time by the influence of the trade unions (and the “old” Labour Party), who lobbied for the interests of working people. With the weakening of both, working people lost their say in the political process. As Andrew Adonis, former Labour minister, has noted: the gap between AB turnout (managers and professionals) and DE turnout (unskilled and manual workers) increased from 6 points in 1992 to 19 points in 2010. People knew their vote would make minimal difference, so they stopped turning up. That is, until Thursday 23rd June.


At the beginning, I asked what can we do? Like everyone else, I’m flailing for answers. But the first thing we can do—as always—is to look around us and to look backwards: to try to see what the hell’s going on and then to understand it in terms of those wider changes which have been occurring over the past forty years. What next? Talk about it, learn from each other.

Last year, the Home Secretary (and probable future Prime Minister) Theresa May said that it would be “impossible to build a cohesive society” with immigration—she then introduced (I guess to help with cohesion) a £200 annual “health surcharge” for immigrants. Having grown up in London, being the child of a first-generation immigrant, I know it isn’t immigration which prevents the building of cohesive societies. Successful societies, more often than not, arise when different peoples come together, sharing their skills and abilities.

As Antonio Gramsci said, society is not a “one-way process of political management”. But in the managed democracy of the pre-recession era we learned to let go. We can’t be defeatist or passive now. There’s no time for mourning. We need to come together, provide opposition, and pressure the Conservative Party to hold an election—either later this year or early next—to ensure they don’t use our withdrawal from the EU to trigger a further transfer of wealth (and democratic representation) from the poorest to the wealthiest in our society.

We also need to understand that desire for control felt by those 17.4 million people and to steer it away from bigotry. Control of borders, of migration, is a red herring—an issue manufactured by a political elite keen to distract us from the greater depredations of our economic system. As Sheena Moore and others have shown, people are aware of this. But how can we channel that latent anger into organised forms of resistance?

Bursting the bubble—or trying to see beyond the bubbles we inhabit—might be a start. If you can travel, travel. Connect with other parts of the country. Refuse to accept the narrative that we are divided, because if you do it will become self-reinforcing, self-fulfilling.

The referendum result is no doubt going to hurt middle-income wages—especially if we re-enter a recession—but it’s also going to hurt entrenched interests. While the political deck is split, or being reshuffled, opportunities present themselves. We have to put forward another narrative to counter the anti-immigrant one—another understanding of control that doesn’t play to the fears but to the aspirations of this country. To close the divide between local and cosmopolitan, rich and poor, migrant and native.

I can’t tell other people what to do. I basically just write about things. But everyone has to contribute in their own way, and that’s how a society should work. With people deciding for themselves how best they can contribute. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.


Last week the poet Geoffrey Hill died. A brilliant and self-consciously English writer (but not in a bigoted tub-thumping “Little Englander” way), he thought of poetry as a means of resistance, a way of holding out against the venal simplifications and manipulative rhetoric of politicians and the media.

In an interview in 2000, Hill said: “one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations… resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.”

For me, despite the gloomy tone, there’s hope in this. If only we can see beyond the “slogans of incitement,” the simple-minded narratives. Because in language—as in people—there’s complexity, ambiguity and ambivalence. Acknowledging this, seeking it out, is the first thing we can do, the first step to resisting.


Post-Brexit Diary

Friday 24th: wake up early, check phone. News alerts. Take Southern from Peckham Rye to Victoria, District Line. English tutorial. Try to explain to my tutee the significance of what’s happened. A lot of people feel angry, like they have nothing to lose, inequality having eaten away at our body politic, etc. The only thing we can do is be more open, more giving. He looks out of the window, either moved or bored. We turn to Chapter 49 of Great Expectations. Miss Havisham’s self-immolation: is she finally consumed by self-pity or purified in the flames?

Saturday 25th: J says people were coming into the café crying yesterday. D says London should hold a referendum to leave the UK. A friend who’s just returned from visiting family in Mauritius cooks us dinner. Shock all round. Watch the last ten minutes of the Croatia-Portugal game. In the last five minutes, looking certain to go to penalties, Portugal score. While the Portuguese team and training staff celebrate together, Ronaldo stands apart. Croatia are united in their grief, Ronaldo alone in his joy.

Screenshot 2016-07-01 15.11.50
a kind of despair

Sunday 26th: At a café round the corner, I ask what the “Special” is. No one sure. Eventually someone says (or decides) it’s asparagus and egg on toast. Though this sounds bad, I’m too awkward to change orders. I’ll try it. Before even taking my first bite I know this will be the taste of regret.

Monday 27th: Coffee by St Thomas’ Hospital on steps down to the Thames path, the Houses of Parliament to the right. Spitting with rain. A Korean male model is posing for photographs, holding a pair of sunglasses to his mouth. An Austrian news crew are setting up on Westminster Bridge. The presenter stands on a box, her face bathed in light, eyes closed. Later, in Committee Room 12 of the Houses of Parliament for “Stories of Migration and Displacement”, Inua Ellams talks about there being 7 billion worlds out there, and how selfish – or boring – it would be to restrict yourself to one. Two doors down, the PLP are calling on Jeremy Corbyn to resign. Outside, a rally gathers on Parliament Square.

Tuesday 28th: Meet M at exhibition. Defining British Art. Thomas Gainsborough painting from 1786 (two years before he died): wooded landscape with herdsman, cows and sheep near pool. I always confused him with Constable who I imagined like a constable as sturdy, upright, “English”. Gainsborough is all loose, expressive brushstrokes, swirling paths and shadowy faces. Here, the trees blur into the background and as soon as you get a fix on them they start to drift. In the distance, family members congregate sadly around the entrance to a thatched cottage. They’re in another painting, another world. Later, at the candle-lit vigil for Nazanin Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi (both being detained in Iran), a woman comes up to us who’s just been at the “remain” march on Trafalgar Square. When we tell her about the vigil she shakes her head. The world is terrible. We talk about family. She says they live in America. It’s funny how people change. When her brother was younger he wouldn’t even peel a tangerine. Now he cleans up his mother’s shit.

Wednesday 29th: Walk A’s dog. Legs so bad he has to poo against the side of a tree. It slides down the side of the bark as I scoop it up. At Guy’s hospital, a sign in the Haematology department says they’ve lost over £18,000 from missed appointments in the past week. Later, read poems in Baker St alongside Hadiru (life in the diaspora as a kind of limbo) and Aleksandra (“identity is in the eye of the withholder”) and Vahni (throws mints into the audience, says “This Is Not a Riot”). Reminds me of an earlier conversation with T, who said he didn’t know there were so many kinds of mint. Buttermint? What does it taste like? Murray mints. But Murray mints don’t taste like mint. They have texture. First hard, then squidgy, then nothing. Texture goes, but the taste remains.