A China Miéville top 10

To mark the BBC adaptation Miéville’s The City & the City, here’s a quick run-down of his oeuvre so far. All opinions my own.

  1. The City & The City. If one definition of great art is that it changes the way you view the world, then this is great art. Inspector Tyador Borlú investigates a murder in Besźel and Ul Qoma, cities which share the same space but where to acknowledge the other’s existence is a crime. Along with Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, this is my favourite work of 21st-century fiction.
  2. The Last Days of New Paris. Maybe not to everyone’s taste, this tale of resistance and survival in the days following a Surrealist apocalypse is a source of constant wonders. Artworks come to a weird kind of life – with all which that entails – and move with what Miéville beautifully describes as “dreamlike specificity”.
  3. Kraken. One of our cephalopods is missing. Octopi London. When a giant squid is kidnapped from the Natural History Museum, inter-cult capers ensue. His funniest book, and perfectly fits that (admittedly rare) “needing to read something light but which still melts your brain” mood. The wonderfully foul-mouthed PC Kath Collingswood is Miéville’s best supporting character.
  4. Railsea. Miéville’s second work aimed at Young Adults, this riff on Moby Dick is good fun. A great white mole is hunted in a world where stepping off a railway line means certain death.
  5. Looking for Jake. A short story collection, and patchy in places, but it contains enough gems to qualify: the modern-day Lovecraftian “Details”; “The Ball Room”, certain to put parents off taking their kids to soft-play for life; and “Reports of Certain Events in London” which I have to confess was the inspiration for one of my own stories.
  6. Three Moments of an Explosion. More short stories: more of them, and better. “Covehithe” (semi-sentient oilrigs; a comment on our oil dependency), the inverted landscapes of “Polynia” and “The Dowager of Bees” – there are certain cards you never want dealt – are among the highlights.
  7. Perdido Street Station. You were beginning to wonder, weren’t you? Epic urban fantasy, endlessly inventive, and the book that made his name. The first of his Bas-Lag trilogy but not, for me, the best of them. That would be…
  8. The Scar. The heroine of this nautical adventure, Bellis Coldwine, is arguably Miéville’s least-sympathetic protagonist, and that’s what I like about it. It takes guts for a writer to know readers are going to whine “I didn’t like the main character” and to not give a shit. The sudden appearance of the native females on the island of the Anophelii is one of the scariest things I’ve read in years.
  9. Un Lun Dun. More fun for Young Adults. With illustrations by the author, any book which features fighting trashcans – Binjas – has lots going for it. Also contains Extreme Librarians, which is always a good thing.
  10. Embassytown. This is the point at which a top ten seems a bit of a stretch. This space opera is (alongside This Census Taker, below) the only Miéville I’ve never felt tempted to re-read. Stunningly inventive linguistically, for me it all falls apart towards a rather uninspired final act.

 

At time of writing Miéville has published thirteen full-length books, so the above list is pretty inclusive. What did I leave out, and why?

  1. Iron Council. The final (so far) of his Bas-Lag novels. I’m not a Western fan, but that isn’t the reason it doesn’t make the cut. There are some great set-pieces, and astute political commentary, but it’s the flattest-feeling (and the longest-feeling) of the trilogy.
  2. King Rat. This almost made the list at the expense of either Looking for Jake or Embassytown, and on another day it might have made it. Miéville’s debut, the drum & bass motif is perhaps dated, the plotting (by his standards) conventional, but if I’d written a book this good when I was 24 (and the book I wrote when I was 24 was not good) I’d be pretty happy.
  3. This Census Taker. Or, the exact point at which an author leaves too much to the reader’s imagination. And with the “averaging gun”, it’s where Miéville lapses into self-parody. Happily this drop in form was just a blip because his follow-up was, to bring us right up to date, The Last Days of New Paris.

 

photo credit: Geraint Lewis/Writer Pictures

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Review: “Changing Track” by Michel Butor

Changing Track, described on the blurb as “at once experimental and engrossing”, was originally published by Calder Books in 1958 as “Second Thoughts” and has long been out of print in English. Alma Books have relaunched the Calder imprint1 with this, and other works from the Calder backlist are to follow later in the year.

Butor’s best-known work, it tells of a businessman’s train journey from Paris to Rome in order to be with his mistress, who he intends to install in a job and home back in the French capital.

“Engrossing” is the word: told in the second person, you’re immersed in the thought processes of Butor’s character. Of the many nouveaux romans I’ve read, few are difficult at the level of the text: Claude Simon may share a level of obscurity with Faulkner, but Alain Robbe-Grillet’s prose is elegant and precise at all times. Changing Track, though, is the most accessible nouveau roman I’ve come across.

The second person is not a common mode of storytelling, largely because it’s difficult to sustain credibly over a long work, yet Butor manages it here. So, like an avant-garde (not to mention avant-la-lettre) version of an 80s gamebook, YOU are the hero! But who are YOU? YOU are Leon Delmont, and YOU are a bit of a shit, really – unfaithful, self-absorbed, nosy, cheap and cowardly – which may all be a piece of sly humour on Butor’s part.

The book alternates between Delmont’s observations of the people in the carriage around him and the French countryside the train speeds through, with reflections on the decisions and situations that have led him to this point.

At the start, his memories relate to events from longer ago; the closer to Rome he gets, much more recent memories – which are troubling, and begin to undermine the earlier ones – force a change of his plans (la modification is the novel’s original French title). Increasingly, less focus is given to what’s happening around him as he drifts into his memories and they threaten to overwhelm him:

“its too late now, the chain of your thoughts, forged more firmly by this journey, rolls on as relentlessly as the train itself, and in spite of all your efforts…you are caught up and fettered by it”

Narrative mode aside, Butor is subtle in his use of those techniques which define the nouveau roman. He describes scenery as it is seen from a train, relativistically: the train is both a fixed point and constantly moving:

“there [is] a road ahead along which a lorry trundles, moves away, comes nearer again, disappears behind a house, is chased by a motorcyclist who passes it in a fine curve like a slack bow, drops behind him, behind your train, then vanishes from the scene.”

Prior to this, things outside the window are, similarly, given only as much “time” as the passing glance allows: “that cafe where the iron blind is just being drawn up…that tall cracked chimney, that used-tyre dump, those little gardens…” The only relationship between these places is their proximity, and consequently this is a much more “true” sense of how a city looks from a speeding train than an attempt at pathetic fallacy, or reaching for an all-encompassing sense of atmosphere, would provide. The train moves; things are glimpsed.

The mise-en-scene invites comparisons with a film which Changing Track pre-dates by a decade: Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ Express. That film portrays a film-maker and his collaborators generating ideas for a film which we, the viewer, then see played out before us. However, it takes on a life of its own as contingencies intervene: events continually force the story into different avenues. The obvious metaphor which both works share is that of a train journey as metaphor for life: things happen, and all plans are thrown askew. The linear movement of the train therefore becomes an ironic comment on the idea of progression.

Similarly to Robbe-Grillet, events in the future are described with the certainty of things that have already happened (what Robbe-Grillet calls “objectivised hypothesis”):

“you’ll lie side by side on her bed…you’ll caress each other…you’ll discuss formalities”

These daydreams become more ridiculous as the book proceeds and it becomes clear that Delmont is not going to do any of these things. What status, then, do these projected meals, walks and conversations, have? They make up a substantial part of the text, yet do not and will not “really” exist, so the narrative undermines itself.

A further ironic comment can be found in Delmont’s memory of a trip to a gallery, where he reflects on the trompe l’oeil effect2 of artworks by Pannini. Like a mise-en-abyme, they act “as though he had wished to represent on his canvas the faithfulness of the dream shared by so many artists of his time: to produce the absolute equivalent of reality, so that a painted capital was indistinguishable from a real capital”. Is this not what Changing Track purports to do?

What it also does, like Robbe-Grillet’s In the Labyrinth, is to demonstrate it’s own genesis. Another mise-en-abyme is the book Delmont carries but never opens. “In this book which you haven’t read…you know that there are characters bearing a certain resemblance to the people who have successively occupied this compartment…in this book there must be a character…a man in difficulties who wants to save himself, who is making a journey and realises that the path he has taken doesn’t lead where he expected.” The trip provides him with the idea of writing a book like he imagines this one to be and which is, of course, the one we are reading3.

 

1again: 2008 saw a welcome return to print of novels by Robbe-Grillet, Duras and Queneau, among others.

2always a sign in a nouveau roman that the author is drawing attention to the purpose of their work. Robbe-Grillet’s novels are full of them.

3an idea Italo Calvino had lots of fun with years later in If on a winter’s night a traveler.

 

Review: “The Unmapped Country” by Ann Quin

It’s a good start to the year for fans of mid-century experimental fiction. Alma have reprinted Michel Butor’s Changing Track, and now And Other Stories have gathered these short pieces and fragments by Ann Quin.

Quin, who drowned off Brighton beach in 1973 aged 36, has long been a cult figure. She was one of a small group of British writers who looked to the continent for advances being made in fiction (in particular the nouveau roman as practised by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon and others), among whose number were Christine Brooke-Rose (who translated numerous nouveaux romans) and B.S. Johnson. Quin’s first novel, Berg, is the best-regarded of the four she published, and a return to print of her work is overdue (though the ever-reliable Dalkey Archive Press have done their best).

Chloe Aridjis uses the word “mosaic” in describing Quin, which seems to perfectly describe many of these works. Quin’s language is sharp and precise, her prose often coming in staccato bursts. Each tiny sentence is a bright facet, fragmentary on its own but combining with those around it to intensely evoke a stifling, constraining universe.

“Enclosed by gray walls. Were they gray? Corridors. Women fettered from head to toe in black and white. Their white faces.”

Her characters are trapped, emotionally or physically, and strain at the leash of polite society. The England that is portrayed is a dreary, gray place where nothing happens. ‘A Double Room’ (one of the highlights) tells of a would-be dirty weekend in a drab seaside town. In a frank portrayal of female desire, a girl longs for her married lover to perform but he is continually unable, putting off the act for a perfect moment which never, of course, arrives.

In ‘Nude and Seascape’, a man struggles to place and to arrange to his satisfaction a woman’s corpse on a beach. He spends hours, frustrated by time and tide, trying to situate the cadaver just so. The title may sound like a surrealist painting, but the vignette is so visceral and told in prose so sharp it is anything but oneiric. Like a splash of cold water, Quin’s language is refreshing and – excepting a few period details here and there – doesn’t feel dated at all.

‘Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking’ evokes an atmosphere similar to some of the early stories in Dubliners, where a child has to navigate the unknown depths and hazardous shores of adult situations, but Quin’s spare, rapid-fire prose is closer to Beckett than to Joyce.

The title story, unfinished at Quin’s death, is a breathtaking portrayal of a woman committed to an asylum. The character whose head we inhabit, Sandra, walks a fine line, her perception at one moment hallucinatory and the next deeply, terrifyingly – yet all too plausibly – paranoid.

“Once she had understood the language of birds, now no longer, it took all her time to understand her own language…if speech at all then it was the spaces between words, and the echoes the words left, or what might be really meant under the surface.”

There is a kinship in the final part of the quote above with the tropisms of Nathalie Sarraute: those sub-vocal communications and thoughts which pass across our consciousness without ever being articulated.

Two early stories, ghost-written for the New Zealand pop artist Billy Apple, are probably the weakest but evoke a similar post-beatnik milieu as early Velvet Underground songs. Although interesting, they are not otherwise representative of Quin’s work but do show consistency: these are characters from the edges and margins of society, at a time when society was less understanding of – or adaptive to – those margins than it is today.

The Unmapped Country is a superb introduction to Quin, smartly packaged and with a thoughtful introduction by Jennifer Hodgson. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

All change: Jan Mark’s “Thunder and Lightnings” (1976)

In my previous post I wrote about nostalgia and the loss of contiguity that can trigger it. There are books, though, that I have always had: every house move has seen them boxed, shifted and unpacked; and, in time, re-read. For these books, each re-reading reveals new aspects: a form of anti- or a-nostalgia. One of these is Jan Mark’s debut novel, Thunder and Lightnings (1976).

I loved this book as a ten year-old. I took it everywhere; read it countless times. I can remember being on at least one visit to a family friend’s and immersing myself in it, to the exclusion of the other children present. I love the illustrations by Jim Russell, and the cover (above, again by Russell, such as you’d never see nowadays) of my battered edition, but I also love the current edition’s cover art.

It was not, however, the book I’d hoped it would be. When it was advertised in the school book club brochure (“The Chip Club” or “The Lucky Club”, I forget which), as an aircraft fanatic I read the blurb and expected it to be about planes. The cover did nothing to dispel the notion. So when it came, I was a little disappointed. Surely I can’t have been surprised: I knew it was going to be fiction, after all. But it wasn’t “about planes”. What was it about?

Andrew Mitchell moves with his family from Kent to a tiny village in rural Norfolk. At school he meets local oddball Victor Skelton, who is obsessed by aircraft: specifically the Lightnings that fly from nearby RAF Coltishall. The two become friends: Victor is an outsider and although never spelled out as such, Andrew is too. As Andrew becomes familiar with Victor’s idiosyncracies (which are largely his means of keeping the rest of the world at bay), he worries about how his new friend will react to the imminent replacement of Lightnings by the newer Jaguar aircraft.

That’s it, in a nutshell: two boys meet, new boy is drawn into local boy’s hobby, worries about how his friend will adapt to change. There’s no plot, as such; something I’m not sure I realised aged ten. Events occur, a friendship develops, and although it most certainly is about things, that’s pretty much it.

On a surface level, then, it’s about a friendship. But what it’s really about is change, and adapting to it.

Andrew is used to change; his family have moved many times in his twelve years: “I went to three junior schools and two secondary schools”. Victor has lived in Pallingham all his life; Lightnings have flown overhead for as long as he can remember. He is anxious about a future without them; the recent retiral of the Hawker Hunter has plainly given him a foretaste of what life without his beloved interceptors may be like. But Victor’s friendship with Andrew – evidently his first close one – and his newfound fondness for guinea pigs suggest a diversification of interests will help him through the loss.

Although Andrew is plainly used to change, he is unmoored by the move, and is feeling his way through his new life. His baby brother, Edward, is too young to be affected by the change, and accepts everything with a nonchalant interest. Until encountering Victor, Andrew’s schooldays are a vacuum: he makes little effort to reach out to other pupils, and is consequently ignored.

Andrew’s personality only comes out in relief, as he is the character through whose eyes we (mostly) read the story. In many of his conversations with Victor he is highly pedantic (not that Victor notices; or, if he does, he bats it back to Andrew). In his favour, he is self-aware enough to realise this and tries to stop, but can’t help himself. I’ve maybe re-read it three or four times since childhood, and the most recent time (last week) I was surprised by how much Andrew needles Victor, unable to reconcile the other boy’s contradictions. Throughout the book there is a face-off between a type of low-level chaos and a desire for order. Andrew’s family and Victor represent the slightly rough-around-the-edges chaotic side, while Victor’s uptight parents with their spotlessly clean house, and (arguably) Andrew with his need for tidy explanation, represent the desire for order. Such dynamics help show both boys that one person’s normal is another person’s weird, and vice-versa.

Much of the boys’ discussions take the form of low-level arguments: in the proper sense of considering each other’s point of view and revising one’s own accordingly. In this manner, Mark makes many points that no doubt escaped me as a ten year old. The boys – and Mrs. Mitchell – read the action strips in boys’ comics, but as they begin to use a nascent critical intelligence, they see through the jingoism and fantasy that usually1 underpins such characters. This is reflected in a trip to a war grave near Coltishall, where the militarism that’s never far from the surface in the UK is simply and elegantly dismantled. It’s an impressive feat the author pulls off, in getting across a genuine love of aircraft with a recognition of what purpose these multi-million-pound weapons perform, while simultaneously recognising the historical feats of the Battle of Britain yet not romanticising or idealising them.

The main theme of adaptation to change by-passed me at the very time in my life I could have done with learning from it. A parental divorce when I was very young, though I was spared the worst, left me at some subconscious level wary of upheaval. Years later, around the time I devoured Thunder and Lightnings, my Gran died. I used to go to her house for lunch every day; in her absence, rather than join my classmates in the school dinner hall, I’d head up the high street and eat my packed lunch on doorsteps, hidden from view, as if repeating the forms of the ritual would restore the substance of it. Taking pity on me, I was occasionally invited into friends’ houses by their parents to eat with them. I’ve no idea how long this went on for – no more than a week or two – before my Mum and Dad found out and I had to go to the dinner hall.

In denial? Maybe a little.

On a slightly more bathetic note, I went off football (having been a big Aberdeen fan, like most boys in my part of the country in the early 80s) when Alex Ferguson and some of the team’s best players – the ones who’d brought so much glory to the club – left throughout 1986. Like Victor, never having known the team to have changed more than just a little at the edges, the wholesale transformation (for the worst; they won only three more trophies in the next decade) was not something I could accept. I went off football almost overnight, and for the best part of a decade2.

Mark wrote the book for a competition (which she won) soon after moving to Norfolk; she based the Mitchells’ shock at the jets’ noise on her own. Coltishall replaced its Lightning fleet with Jaguars in the summer of 1974 (the year I was born), though they continued to fly from bases such as RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire until they were finally withdrawn from service in 1988. Jaguars were scrapped in 2007, though Coltishall itself had closed down the year before. There is a photograph of me, in my Aberdeen shirt, standing in front of the Lightning “gate guard” at Coltishall, taken one summer evening in (I think) 1985. Yes, I pestered my parents to drive from the caravan park we were staying at near Yarmouth, through the back roads of East Anglia, purely to see where Thunder and Lightnings was set.

As well as being the first I’d heard of Green Shield stamps and the phrase “a fine and private place”,  it taught me (pace Andrew’s Mum) “there’s no such thing as fair”. Many years later I gave a cameo role to Andrew and Victor as adults, in my story The Other Field, as a tribute.

Victor, as Andrew’s mother surmises, is more adaptable than Andrew imagines. While Andrew fears that their new friendship may already be waning, Victor is planning cycle trips to RAF Marham to see his namesakes, the Handley-Page Victors. He sees no reason for the rest of the summer holidays not to provide a deepening and a furthering of their friendship. At the end – no spoiler alert needed; this isn’t a plot-driven book, and the replacement of Lightnings by Jaguars is a matter of historical record – Victor seems accepting of the end of the era. A lone aircraft does a trademark vertical ascent:

“”forty thousand feet in two and a half minutes”, whispered Victor…he grinned, his old and famous grin, and made a searing dive with his hand.

“Well, if that wasn’t [the last Lightning of all], that ought to have been…”

There are books you start again as soon as you’ve finished them, but the ambiguous ending of this one meant that was never the case for me. No matter, I’d return to it sooner or later.

 

 

1 I’ll look at this in a future post. In my previous post on nostalgia, I split artefacts into three categories: those which were lost and which when regained are the “true” nostalgic items; those which travel alongside you and grow with you, revealing something new each time (Thunder and Lightnings); and those which also travel alongside you but which do not grow, and form a sort of halfway-house between the other two. Into that category falls I Flew With Braddock.

2 And when I got back into it, it was as a fan of Aberdeen’s big 1980s rivals, Dundee United.

 

Source:

Mark, Jan: Thunder and Lightnings (Puffin, 1978)

 

photo: Jamie Gorman

The lure, the lie and the lessons of nostalgia

“Proust had a bad memory…The man with a good memory does not remember anything because he does not forget anything.”

Samuel Beckett, ‘Proust

To begin with, the first part of the quote above must look like exceptional contrariness on Beckett’s part. Proust’s most famous work is, after all, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), the prime subject of which, explored at great length and from every conceivable angle, is the working of the passage of time on memory. Surely Proust, of all of us, had a good memory?

But no. What Beckett means is that if Proust had a good memory, he would never have forgotten his past in the first place; it would always have been with him. In this case, his memories would have been subject to the mind’s processes – re-remembering, mis-remembering – which render memories unreliable because they irreversibly distort the original mental “image”.

It is only because Proust’s memory was so poor that the taste of the famous madeleine (dipped in tea) brought everything rushing back to him, fresh and undisturbed. He’d forgotten everything about his early life in Combray. So, untouched and unsullied, it comes flooding back with an intensity and vividness not available to the person who has periodically revisited those memories in the interim. These recollections – the result of involuntary memory – are not “sepia-toned”; on the contrary, for the brief period that they can be grasped (before the conscious mind seeks to falsify them by expanding the captured moment, or by attaching other, non-contiguous memories), their immediacy renders them as vivid as the present moment.

Nostalgia is big business. Ebay could barely exist without it. As I write, Blade Runner 2049 is in the cinemas (and explores the role of memories in the creation of the self), and Episode VIII of Star Wars is not far off release: two movies whose existence owe much to nostalgia on the part of the post-baby-boomer generation that makes up the bulk of their fanbase; a generation to which I, born in the mid-70s, belong.

Nostalgia has been big business for years, of course. Using Star Wars as an example again: after Return of the Jedi, with the saga finished, interest in that particular universe dried up over the next few years. By their own admission, Lucasfilm never wanted to experience anything like the period from 1986-1992 ever again. But in the early 90s1 fans slowly rediscovered the trilogy, and haven’t let it go since. Of course they hadn’t “forgotten” Luke Skywalker in the same way Proust had forgotten Combray, but the crucial thing in both cases is that the continuum was broken. If something ceases to be a continual presence in your life, when it is later summoned to mind it will trigger associations up to – but not beyond – the point that you and it parted company.

To switch to music; when we shared a student flat in Dundee, my friend Dave and I were into the electronica that was coming out (including Warp’s Artificial Intelligence series) at the time. There are tracks from the early 90s which I have listened to ever since but Dave hasn’t, and vice-versa. As a result, tracks that have formed part of my soundtrack for two decades immediately take Dave back to evenings in a damp-smelling maisonette because he hasn’t heard them in the interim, while they maybe take me back to the bus journey home from work a few weeks ago, because that was only the most recent time I listened to them; or they don’t spark any association at all because they’re a background part of my life.

“”Something to do with eBay”, Johnny reckons
He’s bidding on it now, for a Subbuteo catalogue ’81-’82
He’ll win it, put it in a drawer, and forget he ever bought it.”

Saint Etienne, “Teenage Winter

The key thing about the items in the photo above is not that they date from the 1980s. They don’t necessarily come from contiguous parts of my childhood: I may have devoured Look-In intensely in 1981 but a few years later it would have been a distant memory because I was reading Asterix, and then a few years later Zzap!64. Each stage of childhood is lived intensely; but when it passes, it’s dead. For a child, a decade feels like a geological era and at 14 you are no longer the person you were at 7, or even 11.

What links these items is that they are all things which I had – or which I remember, or my friends had – at the time but were thrown out (or lost) and which I purchased much, much later, usually via ebay. Although during this time (and to this day, though my son has custody of them now) I had, for instance, a Star Wars annual and other books and magazines from my childhood, the things pictured above had long since ceased not only to be present in my life, but even to exist in my voluntary memory. As a normal and healthy part of growing up I had forgotten the existence of these things, and from day to day my memory wouldn’t even stray down pathways that would lead me to recall them. This is what the Star Wars generation had forgotten: the memorabilia and paraphernalia that – while the films remained – had long been thrown out, passed down to younger siblings or given to charity shops

There are studies which show that nostalgia can trigger positive feelings in the brain and certainly the pleasurable shock of recognition when confronted with something long-forgotten is a thing you can crave. The photo at the top is proof of that.

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But what is it we’re looking for when we’re nostalgia-hunting? The idea that things were better in the past, that there was some golden age that we can hark back to, is a reactionary one that I do not subscribe to. But for the vast majority of adults, childhood was a time largely free of responsibility, when life had an intensity that is experienced much less frequently when you’re older. And nostalgia needn’t mean looking as far back as that; as I said above, the continuity of presence is the key, and once that is broken you can be nostalgic for things that happened (relatively) much more recently.

The things in the photo above date from roughly 1981-1986. A little after that, my main interest was horror fiction, much of which I’m happy to re-read today. But revisiting things from earlier, from pre-adolescence, should not surely be done with the expectation of gaining anything of worth, should it? Most of these items are annuals, comics and magazines, and their very form is significant: they are ephemera, weekly or monthly output designed to be read and discarded. Books are different, or can be (the gamebooks in the photo are a bit of an outlier: not disposable but still unlikely to be of any real worth to someone older than their target market of boys aged 10-14). So these things represent the little background forgotten elements of my childhood. The nouveau-roman author Alain Robbe-Grillet, perhaps surprisingly, sums this up perfectly in his autobiography:

“the importance of things…obviously doesn’t lie in their intrinsic significance but in the way they stick in our memory”

The associations are the key. The items above don’t actually offer anything significant other than their existence, and the fact that they remind me of a particular time of my life. Is there anything deeper that my obtaining them seeks to reach? What did I actually gain from buying these things? From watching dodgy VHS transfers to YouTube of 70s and 80s kids’ TV opening titles? “A walk down memory lane” is an inappropriate metaphor. It isn’t a bucolic stroll the nostalgia-junkie seeks, it’s a jolt; a hit.

The initial thrill is just that: initial, a short-lived burst of – what? A moment wherein your own personal Combray opens up; the layout of the bedroom you had when you were eight; the wallpaper, a mood, an atmosphere, whatever was in the charts at the time. You thumb through the magazines for a brief diversion: maybe some of the stories are better-written and better-drawn than you appreciated at the time, maybe some others aren’t, and even the adverts – those least important, most peripheral pieces of cultural jetsam – give you the hit. “I remember that! And that!” And what of it?

Because our oldest memories were created by a child’s perception, which is very different from that which we have as an adult, it lends those mental snapshots an incomplete, hazy quality, into the gaps of which can easily slip a sense of the eerie. It is this disjoint – an adult playback of a childhood recording – that has made hauntology such a successful aesthetic in recent years.

In using nostalgia not solely for its own sake, but by acknowledging and actively promoting the argument that the past is not a golden age lost, but exists instead as a weirder place than we can now “properly” recollect, hauntology is in this respect a progressive mode.

But, my interest in hauntology notwithstanding, I’d be kidding myself if I’d bought a thirty-year old copy of Look-In for anything other than that first rush of familiarity.

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The ten minutes spent leafing through the magazines above were the mental equivalent of the junkie hit: intense but fleeting; maybe leaving a sense of wasted time and money, a slight feeling of shame, and a promise never to do it again. What were you looking for? A time that’s passed, long past. An impression of it, then: for what reason? To do what with it? A retreat, anaesthetic.

Buying such items again is a form of reclamation; an attempt to recapture the time in which they were part of our lives. But all we end up with are the artefacts; the associations we hope to rekindle with them – temporal, ephemeral – are long gone.

Nostalgia can be a sugar-coated trap. Life should be lived facing forward, not back. Brexit is only the most extreme version of what happens if you disengage with the present and wallow in nostalgia (or, worse, nostalgia for a time before you were born2, the reality of which you therefore can’t verify and which has been pre-packaged for you).

However, Proust, in his final volume (Le Temps retrouvé – Time Regained), has the epiphany that all of one’s past still exists, and can be accessed via involuntary memory by finding the relevant triggers. For him, these include an uneven cobblestone, a ringing doorbell and, obviously, the madeleine. But he also realises that this time must first be lost before it can be found, in order for it to contain meaning.

As I’ll examine in a subsequent post, there are things from childhood that grow with you, in which you can constantly find relevance and meaning. Other things don’t, and we may regard them with a sense of bewilderment that we ever invested so much emotional stock in them. A further type of things, also, don’t speak to the person we are now but can still offer a briefly enjoyable visit to the past. They give nothing new, they speak only to us like a crackly recording.

This last category, I think, covers the things photographed above. The things from childhood which still speak to me are those whose presence in my life has never been interrupted: for the very reason, possibly, that they still held meaning for me. There are countless items – and I’ll look at them too in the future – that I have not sought to re-obtain, even though they ostensibly belong to the same category as Look-In and Zzap!64. The items in the photo, then, represent those things in which I have tried, and failed, to find contemporary relevance and which have delivered the (pleasurable, but ultimately sterile) hit of nostalgia for its own sake.

 

 

1Someone (not me) could write a thesis (furthering the work of Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher in this area) on the part played by the events of the late 80s and early 90s (downfall of Communism/”the end of history”, etc.) in creating a cultural environment which could give rise to the burgeoning nostalgia industry; ironic given that from the viewpoint of 2017, the early 90s seem like a lost utopia.

2The “WWII/finest-hour/time-when-the-population-was-entirely-white” mentality that led us into this mess.

sources:

Beckett, Samuel: Proust & Three Dialogues (Calder, 1965)

Proust, Marcel: In Search of Lost Time, (six volumes, Vintage, 1996)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Ghosts in the Mirror (Calder, 1987)

 

photos: Jamie Gorman