Thursday, July 31, 2008

Green And Pleasant Land

Well, Owen just about settles it: "These people don't think they belong to any class, and aren't remotely interested in what exactly happened to the industries, and the workers who worked in them, which once dominated eastern Berlin.... The smug jetset aesthete at the gallery opening might carry an accidentally liberatory charge - but only if one forgets the very real spatial and economic processes they are implicated in, to mostly malign effect." It's interesting, then, to stumble, on Youtube, upon Jonathan Meades' 'In Search Of Bohemia', an episode of his early '90s series Abroad In Britain. Apart from being a magnificent example of his mixture of casual erudition and blank strangeness, the kind of intriguing form almost unthinkable now on the BBC, it's fascinating by providing a kind of end-point to my own researches into bohemia, my own decided ambivalence. As Meades mentions, the painter Augustus John was the paradigm of fin-de-siecle bohemianism, a state of comfortable, creative independence made possible by the art boom of the era: "People made a lot of money". John came from the kind of petit-bourgeois background that allows relative failure without necessitating attendant hunger, that can easily foster artistic pretension (and, of course, gives the young subject a taste for comfort.) He attended the Slade College of Art, very much then still based on the principles of the first Slade Professor Of Art, John Ruskin - a major figure in Philip Hoare's study of Victorian millenarianism, England's Lost Eden. John's house in the village of Bohemia, in southern Wiltshire, stood on the very edge of the New Forest - just across the county border, in Hampshire, was Romsey, where George Cowper lived in the local manor house, Broadlands. Cowper was a major supporter of the Girlingites, a sect of millenarian and communitarian Christians living in the village of Hordle, on the other side of the forest - who played a shadowy part in the ideological history of communism and anarchism in Britain. Not to go too far into it - I'm saving that for the book that will one day hopefully be written - but this gang of unwashed ecstatics found in, the sheltering lees of the New Forest, a living blueprint for what the radical movements of the twentieth century were seeking after. There's a hell of a lot to be written about the intersection between late-Victorian bourgeois aestheticism and utopian socialism (or, for that matter, the nature of radical chic); the salient point seems to be that both are about the act of imagining, of bringing into practice, another way of life, other than the one of this world. The revolutionary faith is, as Greil Marcus had it, a gnostic one: what the SI had in common with the medieval heretics of Norman Cohn's The Pursuit Of The Millenium was a belief that the illusory world of exchange would be torn away like badly-painted scenery. I find myself studying types like Ruskin, or, say, William Morris, or the wave of bohemians that would follow them in the early decades of the new century, in spite of the stupidity of their convictions - setting the Arts & Crafts aesthetic against the soon-to-emerge modernism, you wouldn't exactly be hard-pressed to pick the reactionary style - as ciphers of something, in the same way that Marcus found the punks, Lettrists and heretics as ciphers of the ahistorical conspiracy of equals that made up the backbone of Lipstick Traces. (If I really wanted to appear credulous - and hell, why not? - I could link the Arts & Crafts mentality to the DIY record boom that followed punk.) The idea that perhaps there's some kind of continuum between the libertarian bourgeois types that populate England's Lost Eden and the innovators who populated the liminal zones of Britain and the US' devastated cities is probably ridiculously naive, but it makes a lot of sense - the New Forest itself is a kind of liminal zone, protected from the urban by the semi-rural buffer zone east of Christchurch on one side, and by Southampton Water on the other; its mixture of environments (stubby heath, rolling hills, old dense forest) seem to suggest a possibility of habitation, something the occasional hamlets and single cottages reinforce, but wandering out one feels an intense solitude, as if one had casually walked into another world. During the Second World War, refugees from Bournemouth and Southampton formed squalorous colonies in the forest; the government, rooting them out, found they were only one group among a population of travellers and solitaries who have lived in the forest for generations. Rumours of witch cults living in the forest persisted for centuries - and were, in a sense, confirmed, when Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca, inaugurated his first coven and community in the Forest. "These apparently endless heaths, these scapes of furze and gorse", as Meades says, "are the closest thing there are in this country, to the mackey, to the scrubland of the northern mediterranean basin. That is the country of the gypsy." The Forest, in spite of its association with authority - being designated as "the king's forest" - belonged, in fact, to no-one but its inhabitants, and the fugitive souls who drifted through its space: the second king to own it, after William The Conqueror, Rufus, was killed in a hunting accident whose circumstances remain mysterious. The local working population, almost entirely without the self-organisation the industrial proletariat were taking part in, apparently didn't need it: within the boundaries of the Forest, they were, to a certain extent, possessed of the same freedom that the likes of John could make easily for themselves.
(Note: the title is from the 'Jerusalem' of Mark Stewart, not Elgar.)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Of Tiles, Teeth And Neocolonialism

Which reminds me: when I was in Birmingham recently, I paid a visit to the marvellous municipal Museum And Art Gallery; amongst the many beautiful pieces of art and examples of Brum's past as the home of industry, what caught my eye (and this marks me out as rather sad) was the collection of coloured tiles, crockery, miniatures, etc. (produced in a number of different materials, not just porcelain and bone china as many believe). In my wistful, food-deprived state, I thought that if (God forbid) I should ever own a property, I'd want a set of tiles like those coating the walls of the kitchen. But I suddenly noticed a number of tiles showing what are known as chinoiserie scenes - cliched pictures of rural China done in a crude imitation of the original Chinese drawing style; many of the pieces of crockery were decorated in the same way, or at least used the blue-on-white line style characteristic of Chinese crockery. Looking back over the cases, it occurred to me that to judge them aesthetically as harmless and quaint - with more charm than mass-produced tiles made today, the central point of the fetishism of all 'vintage' items - was stupid: they were, indeed, the products of an industrial complex deeply intertwined with eighteenth and nineteenth-century imperialism, and the racist assumptions that underpinned it. The intervening 150-250 years, marked by aesthetic streamlining and standardisation of production, have made such things look positively home-made, but they were as mass-produced as any supermarket plastic table. Their contemporary equivalent would be the mass-produced faux-modernism of Ikea - products designed to showcase 'your individual personality', but, lest we forget, are produced to a standard design in Third World mass-carpentries. I write reluctantly about the politics of domesticity because, quite frankly, I've gotten rather comfortable with the idea of having a home to live in; but it seems that it's precisely these commodities that populate the domestic state that make concrete ideology, hiding it beneath a sheen of 'harmlessness'. The suffering and exploitation inherent in the system's processes find themselves incarnate in its products - yes, that chair you're sitting on, too.

It should be slightly obvious, in the light of Foucault's studies of how ideology invades the 'private' sphere (if, indeed, there ever was such a thing), that this extends to what he called "the care of the body". Shows like Ten Years Younger - which I used to watch to avoid having to do homework - manifest this with alarming audacity: working women, usually mothers, skin and bodies decimated by stress, cigarettes, alcohol, and the poor diet that results from not having enough money or sense of self-worth, their wardrobes reduced to comedic levels by years of utilitarian concerns, are taken by the hand by fairy godmother Nicky Hambleton-Jones and 'set right'. All of the changes they could never afford - cosmetic surgery, professional make-up advice, an entirely new (and more expensive) wardrobe, a talented hairdresser - all descend in one fell swoop. The catch-up sessions, filmed several months later, usually have mixed results: some maintain their appearances, others slip back into 'bad habits' (often, though it's never explicitly stated, because they can't afford to do otherwise, or they feel unjustified in that kind of regular expense). The responsibility is placed back on the subject by the objective forces to undo the damage that they did in the first place; the entire emphasis on 'lifestyle' that obsesses middle-class print media (Sunday supplements, fitness magazines, fashion rags, the likes of I:D and Clash) is universalised, made natural, eliding the idea that economics or class might have anything to do with it. The likes of You Are What You Eat, in which prole turds are poked and inspected in that patronising, plummy tone that suggests the speaker has swapped teeth with a horse, are merely an extension.

Monday, July 21, 2008

"Every breath you breathe belongs to someone there..."

The other day at work, I found myself amused to come across a copy of Lusso, the "luxury lifestyle magazine". Amongst its contents were a strangely Vice-worthy cover feature on the kind of experiences one might enjoy in post-Communist Russia (including "luxury vodkas" and driving armoured cars), featuring a limpid, high-cheekboned female on the cover, not dissimilar to those of another distasteful magazine; another, concerning the Segrave Club of Knightsbridge - an 'exclusive' group that allows members the 'use' of 'luxury cars' such as Aston Martins and Ferraris and what-have-you, all for a membership fee of somewhere around £5000 - included a pull-quote that made me laugh out loud: "I think I could handle the class warfare that driving around in a [insert overpriced automobile name here] entails." Presumably what the gentleman in question - and you can tell it is a man, verbally stroking this car like the idealised cock he takes it for - enjoyed was being given envious looks by even the rich, rather than having his car keyed by 'hooded youths'.

What struck me about this quote was the sheer strangeness of actually seeing the word 'class' in print, in a context not taking it to mean a bunch of children being educated (which they aren't these days, anyway.) Within the context of the mass media, or even everyday conversation - whose content seems to have more-or-less changed into that of the former in either case - class seems to be a total taboo, unless treated in a certain way: the occasional Ken Loach-style social-realist misery-fest on the BBC, a documentary here and there about 'underdeveloped' communities, or, as in Den Elliott's recent set of photos about the Bournville Estate in Weston-super-Mare, some tasteful 'journalistic photography'. The only acceptable framing for the topic is that of the anthropological document - a trip into the black areas of the map, outside the territory of seamless affluence that makes up most of the media Weltanschauung. This perhaps goes some way to explaining why the BBC could come up with such a folly as the White Season - class is made the subject of ethnology, or ontology; it's 'your roots', 'where you're from', and thus, ultimately, 'the way of the world', 'something that can't be changed', rather than the result of objective political or social structures. That the divide-and-conquer tactics of the nineteenth-century late-bourgeois class, rallying to 'king and country' when under attack from emerging working-class radicalism, should be enacted through an ostensibly public broadcasting service, shows that the supposed democratising effects of popular media - the idea that, both within the corporation, and among its viewers, the common thread of 'the public interest' makes them all equal; and that, moreover, relatively new public institutions like the BBC had a culture more pervaded by class mobility - have become as nothing. The bourgeois worldview, with Oxbridge graduates feeding straight into the stereotypes of 'media professionals', has colonised the public space (or what little remains of it.)

This became oddly obvious to me last night, as I was walking home. The same road that leads from my neighbourhood - lower-middle-class, with at least a few working-class families, all mainly in somewhat run-down Victorian semi-detacheds - through the working-class neighbourhoods that stretch to the east of Holdenhurst Road, towards Boscombe and Southbourne, travels to the heart of the town, a web of chain stores, nightclubs and alleys, where the young, affluent and airheaded may be seen stumbling around - whether in untucked dress-shirts and wide-boy flashed rolexes, or the Vice art-school student uniform. I was thinking about why it is that the middle-class-and-over customers at work a) always seem so miserable, as if buying huge amounts of unnecessary stuff were a disgusting chore, and b) always seem to believe it not merely perfectly reasonable to ask you to act like their personal shopper, performing stupid rule-bending tasks for them that they can easily do themselves, never once taking pity on a face prematurely aged by harassment, as all working-class faces seem to be, but feel that they have to treat you like a piece of shit, and that you should be thankful for the privilege of even speaking to them. The answer, it struck me, is that, to these people, class is essentially invisible. Don't misunderstand me - they know perfectly well that there is a division between myself and them, that I am a supposed inferior to be looked down on; but the idea that these divisions are the result of social and political structures doesn't even occur to them; neither does the idea occur that anyone would resent their arrogance or monetary independence (an independence, mind you, thoroughly undeserved, based as it is on nothing, and accompanied by corrosive stupidity). To say that, in their worldview, this inequality is 'naturalised' is putting it mildly.

I've recently been reading Theodor Adorno's Minima Moralia, and one of (the many) quotes that resonated with me concerned the nature of elegance, as it is (only) found in bourgeois circles. Much of my time at work is unfortunately spent idly gawping at the, ahem, 'fairer sex'; the store is something of a magnet for all those with nowhere better to go, and the slightest hint of social pretension - thus attracting many of the young men and women who attend the local art school and university, as well as many of the foreign students who visit, i.e. all those who can afford to be elegant and/or attractive. The idea, however, that any of them might consider me a human being, has been proved wrong time and time again. Adorno writes that "The elegant attract by the expectation that they will be free in private from greed for advantages already theirs, and from the blinkered myopia that results from constricting circumstances.... One... believes that their sensitivity must recoil, at least in thought, from the brutality on which their privilege depends, whereas the victims have scarcely even the possibility of recognising what makes them such." This idea has been the foundation of a whole host of archetypes, from the Victorian philanthropist to the sensitive little rich girl who crops up again and again in literature, folk tales and society - from the count's daughter who visits, unbeknownst, the suffering people of the village below the castle, to the 'ministering angels' of nurses in the First World War, to the bohémienne who takes up with the sensitive working-class boy (see Elizabeth David for ref.) But, "[n]ot even the subtlest snobism has dégoût for its objective precondition, but rather insulates the snob from its realisation"; class consciousness, in the bourgeois, instead of flashing up the suffering their existence and behaviour creates, revealing how they themselves are shaped by the social and political structures they are part of, consists in "deleting [their] individual destiny, help[ing their] being-in-itself, [their] social character, to emerge."

Reading part of K-Punk's Tricky cover story in the new Wire, I found myself nodding involuntarily at his description of 'Tricky Kid' as "the best song about a working-class male projected out of his milieu into the pleasure gardens of the hyper successful since The Associates' 'Club Country'". My own, none-too-frequent, encounters with the social milieu of bourgeois hipsterism and 'indie culture' have been, to say the least, curiously enervating: expecting, to a certain extent, the excitement and glamour that was absent from a childhood and adolescence spent in the alternately dreary and torturous realm of public education (including 5 years in a rather shit all-boys' secondary), in a family with no real expectations and not a lot of money, I found simply a variant on the same dreariness, and a sense of continual exile. I was there, but not with them. The seemingly ontological sense of embarassment I carried around - my clumsiness, my ill-fitting clothes, my social ill-ease - persisted precisely where I'd hoped they would disappear; indeed, they seemed almost amplified. The ideal of an unbridled hedonism permitted by monetary independence quickly palled, and was revealed as impossible; it soon became apparent that my previous depressive insistence on the impossibility of happiness was nearer the mark (if still a little off). The world and possibilities documented in Virginia Nicholson's Among The Bohemians: Experiments In Living 1900-1939 were a corrolary of the experience of modernity, something that has apparently now left us. In his Plan B article last year on Cocorosie, the modern paradigm of Williamsburg pseudo-bohemia, of a monetary independence that gives licence for so-called carefreedom, Everett True wrote that "[b]eing outside means being condemned to a cold existence away from the neon and greasepaint"; but it is no longer possible to "make yourself that way"; there is no way inside.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

My Alibis #3

"The talk about early and late maturers, seldom free of the death-wish for the former, is specious. He who matures early lives in anticipation.... Such anticipation, saturated, as it were, with itself, withdraws from the outer world and infuses its relation to it with the colour of neurotic playfulness... Painfully he must win for the relation to objects the space that is occupied with his imagination: even suffering he has to learn. Contact with the non-self, which in the alleged late-maturer is scarcely ever disturbed from within, becomes for the early-maturer an urgent need. The narcissistic direction of his impulses, indicated by the preponderance of imagination in his experiences, positively delays his maturing. Only later does he live through, in their crude violence, situations, fears, passions, that had been greatly softened in imagination, and they change, in conflict with his narcissism, into a consuming sickness... In their inner economy, unconsciously but implacably, the punishment is meted out that has always been thought their due."
--Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Placeholding #2

Working in a bookstore can be enervating occasionally: the constant sight of books – from the middlebrow toilet-paper churned out by broadsheet lickspittles like William Boyd, Tim Winton and Zadie Smith, to the cut-and-paste sugared pulp of Victoria Henry, Jilly Cooper, Melissa Nathan, et al. – that I know I could knock into oblivion, let alone a cocked hat, choking the shelves where my own tomes should rest, pointing out to middle-class fuckwits where the ill-indicated books they might be looking for are (typical advance: “I’m looking for atheism”; typical response: “Um…”), trying to shelve in the badly-organised Kids section and being swamped by insidiously good-natured and demanding mothers (all middle-class, we should mention, although the working-class mothers are just as demanding, if simply coarse with it) (typical exchange: “Where are your books on fairies?” “Um… Are you looking for fiction books about fairies, books on folklore…?” “No, I’m looking for, you know, books on fairies…”), can get monstrously wearying.

It’s for this reason that the occasional spark of pleasant novelty is always the sweeter, whether it be getting in the new Will Eisner book (Life, In Pictures, which I will have to get the next time my paycheque comes in), or marvelling at the fifteen copies of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (my none-too-recent reading material, and extremely fine it is too) in the fiction section. Then, there’s another thing. A few months ago, as I was unpacking boxes of travel books, I pulled out something that me gasp. The Complete Notes is a hardcover compendium of two Bill Bryson books, Notes From A Small Country, and Notes From A Big Country (copies of both of which reside at our local library). The dust jacket is a bit ugly, essentially slapping the cover designs of the two books together, and thus losing the distinctive, graceful look of the originals. You can get a copy for 99p (plus postage and packing) from Amazon, but we’re selling it for somewhere in the region of £12.99. I note all this because it seems important to the question of why this discovery affected me.

It should be noted that Bryson isn’t what you (or I) would call an amazing writer; he’s supremely suited to the genre of middlebrow travel writing, his “wry observation and curious insight” (Lord, how such phrases make me quiver) perfectly appealing to the reader not looking for any real depth, or, for that matter, Mail On Sunday readers (Bryson’s columns for said newspaper form the body of Notes From A Big Country.) Readers like my father: he spent some time during a family holiday in France (I think, not quite sure) reading a tattered library copy of Notes From A Small Country. My reading material at the time consisted of the Discworld books, only two of which, stupidly, I had brought with me. Seeing as most of our time was spent at the tent, my parents lazing around in the sunshine and drinking copious cups of tea, I warded off boredom by reading, and soon finished them both, thus taking up Notes… in parallel with my father. The book consists of the story of a round-trip of England Bryson conducted shortly before moving his family to the US; having little to no sense of geography, I had almost no idea where most of the places discussed in the book were, and little to no sense of what they were actually like. What struck, I think, was Bryson’s good-naturedly cantankerous attitude towards the mess we’ve made of Britain; his consistent complaint of near-total homogenisation between every town he visited, of casual ugliness propagated for no real purpose (ugly chain storefronts jammed into otherwise pleasant buildings, ratty pseudo-public spaces, the general sense of crapness that comes with living in England) was striking to someone who’d only lived among such shit all his life, and knew nothing else. From then on, I’ve paid more attention to the architecture and nature wherever I’ve gone. You could say it was the beginning of the creation of a critical faculty in me, the permanently-embedded grit that would irritate me into griping in writing for the rest of my life. His consistently amusing – such a mild word is absolutely perfect for the not-exactly-hilarious nature of his work – observations were a source of interest for the rest of my holiday. I can’t remember whether I actually finished the book, but I think I did. In any case, I largely forgot about it.

A couple of years later (I think), I was commanded to buy something for my father’s birthday. Dry for ideas, I went to the bookshop where I now work – at the time, a quite long trip for me to take alone, but now one I make every day – and went over to the travel writing section, which was in the same place it is now. Figuring he liked Bryson, I looked through the books on offer, but was bewildered by the range. The idea of one human being writing so many books was almost beyond me. None of them really seemed to suit, except for The Lost Continent, a volume about a trip Bryson took around America in the late 80s, with a paperback cover that I still find oddly charming. I bought it, trembling with anxiety as was my wont, wrapped it and gave it to my father some days later. He seemed pleased, if not overly excited. He enjoyed the book, occasionally drawing my attention to certain passages with that drain-like chuckle of his, but not being especially impressed with it. I’ll admit I wasn’t either, but it left something of a trace on me. It was, I think, almost a year later, during the beginning of my first year of Sixth Form. It should be noted at this time, I was an utter nervous wreck, bent, though I’d never have admitted to myself, on a swift and well-publicised death. I hated my life, and I wanted out, now. This must have been the beginning of October 2005, and I had, by that time, begun to calm down and settle into a routine, but every day was a still a struggle. I had just finished reading Crime And Punishment for the first time, a book whose closing chapters had an impact on me like a freight train, working changes on my mind that have allowed me to survive to this day, and affected me far more than any of the cynical, misanthropic books I’d been reading in a torrent that summer (Louis Ferdinand Celine’s Journey To The End Of The Night, Camus’ The Fall, etc.) I was, to use a cliché, reeling from the impact of Crime And Punishment when I picked up my father’s copy of The Lost Continent, unable as I was to read anything more substantial, and consumed it in two or three days. By the time I got to the end, I barely remembered anything that had happened, although one image did stay with me: that of Bryson, out on the backroads, coming to a main road, losing control and skidding into a ditch. That sensation of deathly speed was exactly how I felt in those days.

The Lost Continent isn’t an especially exciting book: for the most part, his descriptions of the small towns and vast distances he passes through can be rather repetitive, and there are quite a few passages – such as the story of his family’s Irish cleaning lady, who died of cancer – that he admits are nothing but filler to plug the holes in a journey with many boring sections. In the second half, as he travels through the empty West of the country, his activities – that is, driving all day through empty landscapes to small towns, getting a motel room for the night, usually either eating in a small restaurant or watching TV, before repeating the next day – can be rather boring to read. But it was perhaps this quality – you could describe it as being the literary equivalent of porridge – that lodged its way into my brain. A year later, as I began writing the first short prose pieces I actually felt were worth keeping, I think the knowledge that this kind of prose – as much as the ultra-keen modernism my Beckett-soaked brain wanted to trade in – was part of my mental life suggested that prose styles that admitted of more of the real world – for example, of the world of my parents’ grumblings and mild enthusiasms – were permissible, could be used.

So, after I began working at the bookshop in question, it was an oddly pleasant surprise, whilst shelving in the travel writing section, to be faced with a few shelves of Bill Bryson books. As with many books throughout the shop, I thought, perhaps, (half-jestingly as always) of buying a copy of The Lost Continent, seeing whether it matched up to my memory. Such is the nature of idle thought. Handling travel books had reawakened my interest in the subject: it wasn’t merely works like Daniel Kalder’s Lost Cosmonaut, but things like Paul Theroux’s monstrously unhip books about travel via train, Boswell and Johnson’s A Journey To The Western Isles Of Scotland, even Tony Hawks’ pathetically matey middle-class joke-arounds like Round Ireland With A Fridge (I had to sticker a stack of this not too long ago – it is about as bad as that title suggests). A year and a half ago (or thereabouts), having eventually worked out I was going to have to carry on with living, I began to work out routes across Europe with the map in the back of my large notebook, to carry out after I left school (at this time I was still adamant I wouldn’t go to university). Even after acknowledging that I actually did have a future, by deciding I would go to uni, the plans remained, with the idea to travel during a gap year. The main plan was to travel across Europe, each route a pilgrimage of literary and historical significance: Paris, where Beckett and Ionesco lie in the Pere Lachaise; Marseilles, to visit the near-unmarked grave of Artaud; Catalonia and Aragon, where anarcho-syndicalism briefly reigned during the Civil War; Ravenna, with Dante’s tomb; Germany and Austria, for visits to Mauthausen, Dachau, Belsen, Berlin (you can see I was a cheerful teenager); the Balkans (including a trip to Srebrenica); Hungary, Poland (with the obligatory journey to you-can-guess-where), the Ukraine (with a trip to Babii Yaar – the ravine in the suburbs of Kiev where Nazi forces murdered some 33,000 Soviet Jews), and possibly Russia. My parallel plan had been to create a book from the experience, combining travelogue with essays about the literary and artistic subjects at hand (alternating a chapter on a place, and an essay about the associated artisan). Needless to say, a year of living followed by four months of unemployment – keeping the cash reserves needed for such a venture drained – put an end to such foolishness: the book idea, in retrospect, was incredibly stupid, and the sickening arrogance and misery-love I must have possessed to believe I could write anything about the history of these places makes me ashamed still…

It was last year when I began thinking about place and writing again. Unemployment meant that I hardly saw anyone at that point, apart from my immediate family (the corrosive effect of unemployment on self-esteem, the constant feeling of inadequacy and helplessness, is well-documented, and I never felt like seeing anyone.) To combat cabin fever, I walked for hours around my home town, braving the blazing summer weather to cycle on the beach and explore the town gardens. I read about a book every ten days, and eventually I spotted a copy of Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out For The Territory in the London History section of my local library. I had already come to psychogeography via the Situationists (and partially via Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces), but Sinclair’s approach was odd even compared to them: he spun dense, interweaving patterns from the history of places, creating alchemical spells that transformed space, meshed and mashed the vectors of space and time. From the fascinating extended essay on Derek Raymond’s ‘Factory’ novels and the befogged, claustrophobic streets of Wapping, to the account of ley lines running through London’s Hawksmoor churches, as eulogised in eccentric poet Aidan Dun’s Vale Royal (intersecting with the history of London’s private poetry presses, sampled on the Sinclair-edited anthology Conductors Of Chaos), it ranged over a London that I – and, indeed, most Londoners – never knew of, coding and decoding the voices of its past, the paths of its present. The conceptual linkage with my then-burgeoning interest in hauntology – spectral geography, ghosts being tied to a site, the trauma of history building up like sediment in places – added further frisson; the ideas permeated not only a number of the pieces I wrote for this blog, but the fiction I was working on at the time.

So, it was rather nice, when I started working at the aforementioned bookshop, to find Sinclair’s books – Lights Out…, the magnificent London Orbital, Edge Of The Orison – alongside Bryson’s in the travel section. In the last few months I’ve found myself being drawn inexorably toward this writing, reading Robert McFarlane’s The Wild Places, Philip Hoare’s England’s Lost Eden, finally purchasing a copy of Lights Out… - and, to my partial shame, finally re-reading The Lost Continent and Notes From A Small Island. They’re both more amusing and more boring than I remember, the former particularly – between occasional evocations of places of real beauty in the backwaters of America, and laugh-out-loud moments where he spits real venom at his home country’s absurdities, there are large passages where nothing really happens, and his easygoing manner becomes somewhat tiring, making me want to scream “Petit-bourgeois arse!” at the mute page. It becomes obvious here that travel writing is, alongside the memoir, possibly the most difficult genre in which to write something interesting, to create something with real affective power over the reader, without spilling over into the realm of parody, ego-centricity or shallow flippancy. Travel writing, in a certain sense, is writing stripped back to its central functions, observation and composition, input and processing (with the vague possibility of output). At its worst, it tends toward that bugbear of bourgeois naturalism, disinterested contemplation (one reason why I never take part in the supposed writers’ exercise of ‘sitting in a café and watching the world go past’ – I never can be disinterested); at its best, it picks up the fugitive signals of place and amplifies them – pitching up the noise of landscape. The self-consciousness at the heart of writing is nakedly exposed in travel writing – which explains why so many conservative writers retreat into jokiness, colloquialisms, the anecdote – because no travel book is merely written after the fact, without any thought of the writing troubling you during the acts recorded; when I wandered around dark, echoing concert space during Marginal Consort's performance at the Arches, a notebook jammed in my coat pocket, I knew, even then, that the transmogrification of this experience into language was shaping the experience even as I underwent it. My feelings about Glasgow, and Scotland in general, are shaped by the narratives that later moulded my writing about them.

Travel writing is the genre where the complexities of our relationship to place are worked out: for the flipside to the boggle-eyed exploration of the exotic that recurs so often in travel literature is a sentimental attachment to ‘home’, to rootedness. This occurs in everyone, I think, but more self-consciously in writers, or visual artists, than most: the extent to which place shapes our consciousness is seen most vividly in its visible creative products, where for most people it remains an unscrutinised and unarticulated part of their barely-understood self-images (I’m thinking particularly of the literature of proletarian nostalgia typified by Gilda O’ Neill’s My East End or Jennifer Worth’s Call The Midwife, in which geographies merely accepted with a shrug, or reviled, are invested with a rose-glass glow by their disappearance, and the authors’ ascent into the middle-class.) Sorley Maclaine’s poetry (which inspired Harrison Birtwistle’s new quartet Tree Of Strings, which I heard earlier this week) would be unimaginable without the landscape of Raasay; R.S. Thomas' work would be unthinkable without the stony hill country of North Wales; M.R. James’ most terrifying tales wouldn’t exist without the bleak expanses of east Suffolk. The process of literary composition depends, to a certain extent, on place: I find it almost impossible to write somewhere that I feel uncomfortable (hence why I rarely write in public), while others thrive on the disruption that the unstable housing arrangements of late capitalism afford. If writing can be seen as a Heimlich art, begun from the safety of the warm and private study, it can also be deadly unheimlich, bringing both reader and writer in proximity to unknown, impersonal and alien powers; it seems to me that the best travel writing – and this is the strange quantity which exercises such power over me – walks the thin line between the two. The two zones elide into each other: any unfamiliar place, visited enough times, becomes another home; 'unheimlich' still contains 'heimlich', just as the home can, for the young mind, being shaped, contain the first instances of the strange and alien. For Iain Sinclair, ‘home’ is a tangled mess of roots, the city a patchwork of areas familiar and less so, always known, distantly, to him, but holding within itself all manner of strange treasures, magickal connections, bizarre energies – even his beloved Hackney throws up mysteries, from the soon-to-disappear anomalous idyll of the nearby Lower Lea Valley, to the strange sigils adorning soon-to-be-demolished villas; for Bryson, ‘home’ is an altogether more uncomplicated proposition – sleepy Iowan capital Des Moines, his birthplace, and the beginning and endpoint of The Lost Continent – that can nonetheless be only appreciated after absence. Probably the most (only?) poignant scene in The Lost Continent is Bryson’s second return, after exploring the west of the country, to Des Moines: this American who has, for the last twenty years, known nothing except the glowering hills of Yorkshire, arrives into this place that is flat, but not in the least empty or threatening, instead reverberating with the light of memory.

Within a couple of months, I’ll have moved from Bournemouth to the Black Country, a geography I’ve only ever passed through on the way to somewhere else (barring a brief, and barely remembered, visit, on a family holiday, to Coventry, which I immediately wanted to leave, from sheer boredom (I was an unpleasant child)). During the last year, I’ve gotten to know Bournemouth, and the surrounding area, far better than I did in the entirety of the preceding 18 years. Awakened traces of childhood memory – particularly, of trips to my aunt and uncle’s farm near Beaulieu, in the New Forest, the canopic avenues of trees, the brown and yellow autumn light, the seemingly-ancient drifts of leaf litter and mud – have invested more significance in this place than I ever thought likely. Throughout my teens, my one wish was to leave what I considered to be a dead hellhole of a landscape, infested with bourgeois reactionaries and colonised by capital; it’s only now, in coming to leave it that I’ve found its other face. I've only ever made a few pieces of writjng about Bournemouth itself - always abstracted, extracting its least salient points (graveyards, desolate parks, the deathly claustrophobia of its schools, the swell-battered seafront) as evidence against it, and the rest of the world. It's not the sort of place you can write poems about. The only form I think I could write in, even partially honestly, about it would be somewhere between the memoir and the fragment - my own diary, or not even that, just discarded scraps of description. A form, in short, that is commensurate with the business of living, of day-to-day experience, rather than the wide grasp of, say, the novel. The people I've met, the places I've discovered, the things I've found, over the past year, would be its substance - and it's only now, when I'm leaving it, that this place and its voices begin to come into focus, to be framed as something other than a fleeting glimpse.