Wednesday, November 21, 2007


My recent lack of productivity can be explained by a number of factors (love, work, lack of laptop), but I guess "laziness" pretty much does it justice. In my defence, we bears are very busy at this time of year, y'know, grubbing for bugs 'n' organising ursine uprisings 'n' stuff.

But come back next week (middle to end thereof), and you may find:

  • A review of Malcolm McDowell's film Never apologise, which is egotistical.
  • A review of Sonny Simmons and Tight Meat live on Seven Sisters Road earlier this week, which was erotic.
  • A corrective to why organised labour was really emasculated in the early 80s, which is not so much because of legislation as monetarism.
  • An explanation of why, by 1900, Hackney was pretty much doomed to a long future of deprivation, which was due to bad housing.
  • A look back at the floods in the east of England in 1953, which were deadly.
Then again, you may not. Anyway in my absence, here are two terrific (and somewhat lost) British singles from (I think) 2006 and 2007 respectively.

Lady Sovereign,"Ch-ching"

The good, the bad and the queen, "Kingdom of doom"

Sunday, November 11, 2007


Some videos!

Underground Resistance is a militant music-based collective in Detroit. It makes music, is a techno record label, and does outreach into some of the most deprived communities in Detroit. "Mad" Mike Banks, the collective's founder, is a basketball coach at a local school. Their identity (or lack thereof - Banks's face is never seen, and his interview in The Wire this month is unusual) reminds me a little of the punk-pirate-fanzine ethos, where you hear a one-off song by a band and have no way of finding out anything more about them. You can only listen to it on its own terms, without the gloss of magazine articles or promotional websites. This is "Killer whale."

Apropos of nothing, I present to you what, astonishingly, is the only Kleenex/LiLiPUT song on Youtube. It is "Eisiger Wind", and it's backed by a splendid video which lists 30 or 40 post-punk heroines, many of whom I've never heard of. Who could resist the Stinky Toys?

In a record-shop in Camden a few weeks ago, they were playing this music that kept swallowing itself up. The singer couldn't keep up with the hysterical casio keyboards, and the guitarist was playing something else altogether. Although this was unmistakably indie music, it reminded me more of dub than anything else - the tinny, cheap cassette sound would dive and plunge into deep echoing chasms. It brought to mind the very early Baby Bird CDs, the ones released before his brief foray into fame. I asked the guy behind the counter what I was listening to, and he told me, Ariel Pink. Stupidly, I didn't buy the CD. Then yesterday, Max Tundra played a song called "Higher and higher" on Resonance FM. "Wouldn't it be wonderful," I thought, "if this was by Ariel Pink?" And it was, which proves that Ariel Pink is haunting my life. This is "Make room for Harry".

Scratch that : maybe Ariel Pink really sounds like R Stevie Moore. This one is "Zebra standards 29 / Bulk of knowledge" - it's about throwing your life away.

And finally, here's Van Morrison with the best back-up band in history...


Maybe I'm biased given that I work there, but this report about the Council's "Camden Detached Project" is terrific...

They are not attached to any youth centre, and are distinct from outreach colleagues, whose aim is to bring young people into established services. Instead, these detached youth workers focus on what project coordinator Sacha Kaufman describes as "naturally forming groups" of young people - like Jahed Miah, 19, who prefers to "hang out" on the street with his friends in Camden rather than meet at a youth club or centre.


A week or so ago, Darling Vicarage explored Virginia Woolf’s conception of the city walk. In Mrs Dalloway, the title character, Clarissa, walks “to momentarily relinquish the confines of her domestic and familial responsibilities.” Passing from the domestic interior to the urban exterior, Clarissa becomes “isolated from the milling crowds … she begins to feel anonymous.”

I think we should be careful not to confuse this with psychogeography. The key word here is momentarily ; for Clarissa, an escape from her husband is only a fleeting fancy. Nobody sees her on the city streets. She achieves privacy through being invisible. It is true that psychogeography concerns the encounter between the individual and the crowd, but it also strives for something else which Woolf is not concerned with : a radical political awareness that creates an act of
visionary, revelatory unmasking. The banal sheen with which capital covers the city is stripped away.

Merlin Coverley's book on psychogeography rightly traces the origins of psychogeography further back than
Paris in the 1950s, though this is the time with which it is associated. Although the Situationists placed around it a playfully merciless framework of Hegelian Marxism, it is William Blake and Thomas De Quincey who create the tradition of visionary wandering. Blake's poetry - especially Jerusalem - and Confessions of an English opium-eater typify the possessed quality of the derive. "Trembling I sit day and night, my friends are astonish'd at me," writes Blake in Jerusalem. "Yet they forgive my wanderings. I rest not from my great task!" These are no flaneurs ; the records of their wanderings are desperate ; they stalk the streets, edgily turning corners, hounded in the midst of their pursuit. They do not dawdle idly. To paraphrase Ian Sinclair, they walk with a thesis. They know where they go, but not why or how.

Since the age of the Romantics, psychogeography has taken a number of guises, and has criss-crossed the Channel between London and Paris. Everybody from Verlaine and Rimbaud to Peter Ackroyd is supposed to be a psychogeographer, and even Will Self has his own psychogeographic column in the Evening Bastard. While its quasi-religious aspects have remained (especially among more conservative commentators such as Ackroyd, but also among some left-wing people, whose misplaced political melancholy leads them to conclude that there really is nothing new under the sun), the more concrete act of creating a new city from unearthed clues is often lost.

Psychogeography as a glorified local history trek is obviously reactionary - it
promotes a sense of romantic nostalgia ; its attraction to myth appeals to an illusory "collective consciousness" ; it pays no attention to economic patterns ; it ignores class structures. The Situationists' critique of urban geography is an important corrective, locating the shifting sands of the city's significance along strictly historical lines. But it must be said, the Situationists' larking-about approach ("A friend recently told me that he had just wandered through the Harz region of Germany while blindly following the directions of a map of London") did not produce results. Their attempts to locate a north-west passage through the city seem to have come to nothing. For them, the theory of psychogeography was hindered by the rationalisation of Hausmann's Paris.

This ought to tell us something : that a rethink of psychogeography in the city is overdue. J.G. Ballard, a psychogeographer who has flipped the genre on its head, explains its outdatedness.

I regard the city as a semi-extinct form.
London is basically a nineteenth-century city. And the habits of mind appropriate to the nineteenth century, which survive into the novels set in the London of the twentieth century, aren't really appropriate to understanding what is really going on in life today. I think the suburbs are more interesting than people will let on. In the suburbs you find uncentred lives... So that people have more freedom to explore their own imaginations, their own obsessions.

London, Patrick Keiller's pallid film about drifting across the capital, despairs of London. "Dirty old Blighty," it begins over a barely moving image of a cruise ship passing under Tower Bridge through the sickly grey Thames. "Under-educated, economically backward, bizarre : a catalogue of modern miseries." London projects Robinson, Daniel Defoe’s own psychic traveller, into the balefulness of the early 1990s. Robinson, we hear, is a flaneur. He teaches part-time at the University of Barking and spends his remaining time trying to pinpoint himself and his history on a mental map of the capital.

Robinson conceives that there is a “problem of
London”, and that it is insoluble. He obsesses over Sterne and Apollinaire and entirely neglects everything in between. He survives by pretending that the nineteenth century never existed. The failure of the English revolution and Blighty’s reaction to the French Revolution has produced a fear of individuality,
which masquerades as its ostensible opposite, the celebration of the free market. The autonomy of public institutions fades and the re-election of a corrupt, post-Thatcher Conservative government is an inevitable symptom of Britain’s malaise.

Robinson cannot find a home in
London. He cannot be affected by its secrets, for London, forever watched by an army of CCTV cameras and addressed by endless tannoyed instructions, no longer conceals any secrets. Intrigues find their home in the espionage of high political office, or else in the past.

And so, Robinson’s eye wanders to the suburbs : to Teddington Lock, to Richmond Hill, to Perivale and to Brent Cross, where he finds a man reading The arcades project, a potential ally who gives a phoney telephone number.

I wonder if Robinson is right. Perhaps psychogeography is hopeless – a “trompe l’oeil reality,” in Debord’s words, whose illusions, visions and fantasies occlude a rational dismantling of the city. I have drifted, of course, but never satisfactorily, and especially not in very built-up areas. DV
and I attempted a wander round Rotherhithe last weekend but it was awful. A tabula rasa, a victim of erasure, a hideous and decrepit theme-park whose amusements – Quebec Curve, Hollywood Bowl, Frankie & Benny’s – offered a stale promise of being anywhere but Rotherhithe. We went ten-pin bowling in Tavistock Square instead.

A psychogeographer must be simultaneously surveyor and resident : cooly analysing the forces which combine to produce reality, but sensitive to the intangible stimuli of the city, and alert to one's own propriety of it.

The city is as much yours as anybody's. Trespass upon it. Stake your claim to it. Join Savage Messiah at Housman's bookshop on Caledonian Road next Saturday (more here).

Friday, November 02, 2007


The Counterfeiters, a film about the biggest money forging operation ever committed, reminds one of Edgar Allen Poe's short story "The purloined letter," or rather, Jacques Lacan's famous analysis of it.

The film (Die Falscher in German) is set in a Nazi concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, where a convicted Jewish currency forger is coerced into producing millions of fake pounds and dollars which will boost the Nazis' resources and flood the British and American economies. The dilemma is obvious: the Jewish forger, Sorowitsch, can comply with the deadly order and survive or refuse and be killed. The themes of the film - betrayal and deception - recur rather in the way that the themes of "The purloined letter" - theft and concealment - are repeated.

In Poe's story, the letter begins in the hands of the queen, and we are given to understand that if its contents (which we never discover) are revealed, the queen's situation will become very precarious. When the scheming Minister D enters the royal boudoir with the king to carry out the business of the day, the startled queen chooses to hide the letter in the most visible place possible, playing upon the king's inattentiveness. The Minister spots the queen's duplicity, and swaps the letter with another taken from his pocket. The queen sees what he has done, but is in no position to protest. A Police Prefect is tasked with locating the letter but, after searching the Minister's hotel-room with a fine tooth-comb, cannot do so. The Prefect, baffled by his failure, calls upon Monsieur Dupin, who assures the Prefect (with more than a note of mystique) that he can locate the letter immediately without a sophisticated police search. The Prefect promises him a handsome reward if he can realise his boast.

Dupin visits the Minister's room and, after a brief search, finds the letter "hidden" in a card rack, quite out in the open. A day later, pretending he left a snuff-box in the Minister's hotel, Dupin takes the letter and collects his reward.


Just like in Hitchcock's Vertigo, the story consists of two identical scenarios repeated, but since the players in the act change, its significance also alters. The content of the letter does not change, but its signification is unstable. Its meaning depends entirely upon "the symbolic system within which it is constantly displaced." Roles within the symbolic system change as the letter changes hands, so that the queen's position switches from empowered recipient to vulnerable victim of a theft ; and the Minister's moves from sly political operator to Dupin's fool. Here the story ends, but we see no reason why Dupin's position of power should be maintained indefinitely. The act is destined to be repeated.

The forged money in The Counterfeiters plays a similar role to the letter in Poe's story. Its value, its meaning, and our judgement of the forger Sorowitcsh, depend upon the system within which he works. At the beginning of the film, we see Sorowitsch as a playboy enjoying (for all his Jewishness) life in Nazi Germany. We might frown upon his criminal activities, and hope that he loses the ambivalence to anti-semitism which he shows before he is arrested and sent to the concentration camp (such are our own prejudices), but we approve of his criminality because it occurs in Nazi Germany and is thus subversive.

But when he is ordered to continue forging money under the orders of Sturmbannfuhrer Herzog, our opinion of the situation changes entirely. Now Sorowitsch is making money for the Nazis, in order to save his own skin. Before, money meant Sorowitsch could live the life of riley. Now it means he can survive. It also means others like him will be killed. Its meaning is entirely ambiguous, for we cannot decide what we might do in his position.

When Burger, a political activist whose wife is still at Auschwitz, tries to sabotage Sorowitsch's efforts, in order to slacken the Nazis' momentum, the meaning of the money changes again. Burger reveals its wider significance, the network of exchange through which it passes. He tries to force his fellow prisoners to see that the fruits of their labours are funding the annihilation of people like them. The prisoners now see that the money is the cause of death ; their survival will hasten their own extermination.


Traditional semiology distinguishes between a signifier (a word) and a signified (the 'thing' which the word describes). The signifier is therefore a means to accessing the meaning of something. By describing a thing through language, we discover its meaning.

But as we see, the money in The Counterfeiters is not easily described. Though its content does not change, its significance alters dramatically : from the life of riley, to the means of survival, to bringer of death. What matters is not its content, but its place in a system.

Of course, unlike the purloined letter, the situation of the money within a symbolic system cannot oscillate indefinitely, for the continuity of the system has been disrupted. In the terminology of social semiotics, the "dialogical chain" has been cut. In Nazi Germany, language no longer carries the values, beliefs, desires and ideologies of society, because the Nazi ideology is absolute annihilation. Auto-annihilation was an inherent part of the Nazi credo. In Mein kampf, Hitler had envisaged that early marriages would reduce sexual infection. But all marriage must have one over-arching objective : "to serve a higher goal : the preservation of the race." The Third Reich would be a state where only the strongest survive, "where one creature feeds on the other and where the death of the weaker implies the life of the stronger."

It is only after late 1942, when the German campaign falters and momentum shifts to the Allies, that this fatal and suicidal logic is cut. The prisoners at Sachsennhausen do not behave heroically, because they cannot. They can only delay, wait and hope.