Thursday, June 16, 2022

Derek Raymond Revisited

The couple days have been spent revisiting Derek Raymond's (aka Robin Cook) autobiography The Hidden Files. I remember, when it came out, some expressed disappointment because they said the book did not have the same edge and dark focus of his crime/noir novels. That its prose and presentation was a bit self-conscious, as though Robin was trying to prove his worth as a writer. Maybe there was some truth in the latter, though at the time of its publication, I enjoyed the book immensely. But, for some reason, I hadn't  looked at it since. This even though I've re-read Robin's Factory novels, and some of his others (Crust On Its Uppers, A State of Denmark, The Legacy of the Stiff Upper Lip, etc.) at various times since their publication or re-publication. Re-reading The Hidden Files was not only a great pleasure but I found it quite moving. For me, no matter how under-appreciated it might have been at the time, The Hidden Files really does deserve to be up there with the likes of Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise, a kind of scaled down version of Anthony Powell's multi-volumed Dance to the Music of Time. For me there has always been something admirable about old Etonians- and I seem to have known a few over the years- who have the political and personal nous to reject their class, their education, and sense of entitlement. Certainly no one personifies that kind of downward mobility more than Robin. What a pleasure it was during late 1980s and early 1990s to run into him on the streets of Kilburn, where we were neighbours, or at events at Compendium or Murder One. As I was revisiting The Hidden Files I couldn't help but be reminded of those days, which led me to dig out my 1992 interview with Robin which took place at this favourite pub, The Coach and Horses in Soho, and subsequent article that appeared in the Observer Magazine later on that same year.    

Wednesday, June 01, 2022

CLR James: Then & Now

Reading John L. Williams' excellent biography of CLR James put me in mind of an interview I was fortunate enough to conduct with James in the Spring of 1989, just a few weeks before his death. The interview appeared in Labour Briefing as well as in Ed & Jenny Dorn's Rolling Stock, accompanied by an account of a memorial for CLR James held some months later (all of which I've inserted below).  These days I feel privileged to have been able to meet such a formidable writer and thinker. One of the things I liked about Williams' detailed and scrupulously researched account of James' life is that, with no particular factional axe to grind, the facts of James' life quite rightly stand on their own. And those facts and that life are truly  impressive. Likewise the range of those with whom James crossed paths, whether in the world of politics or  cricket. And there are, of course, many surprises. While I was aware of the likes of Trotsky, Eric Williams, Kenyatta, and cricket commentator John Arlott,  I hadn't known about James' friendship with Ernest Borneman (author the excellent noir novel Face On the Cutting Floor). But, then, James' life really was, as the title states, beyond the boundaries. Suffice it to say that  anyone interested in James or, for that matter, black history, colonialism and empire, or simply the function and drift of 20th century politics and culture should do themselves a favour and take a serious look at this book.   

As a postscript, I can, like Williams, recall seeing the CLR James BBC documentary. Though it must have been a repeat because I would have put watching the film sometime in the early 1980s. I say that because my first encounter with James occurred a bit before viewing the documentary.  I was travelling by train to teach a class in the west of England when I heard a lilting West Indian voice coming from the back of the carriage holding forth on how the ill-fated SDP (which had recently been formed in 1981 by disgruntled rightwing Labour MPs) was destined to fail. Not because of its politics but simply because of the way the House of Commons was constructed. That is, its actual space did not allow for a major third party opposition.  I'd never heard anyone talk about the politics of physical space in that manner (though I had yet to read anything so abstract as Bachelard's Poetics of Space, I was reminded at the time of the  seemingly endless debate a decade earlier about the shape of the table prior to the peace negotiations at the end of the Vietnam war).  I turned and saw  a group of young black students surrounding this man who was holding forth. But it was only while watching the aforementioned BBC documentary that I realised that person was, in fact, CLR James.  

Friday, March 11, 2022

Still Dangerous, Still New: Dangerous Visions and New Worlds- Radical Science Fiction, 1950 to 1985, edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre.

It was a long-haired donkey-jacketed council labourer from Yorkshire named Tex who introduced me to Michael Moorcock's New Worlds magazine. It was that glorious  summer of 1967 when, as someone once said, there was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air.  I had been staying briefly in a house in Bermondsey. It was most likely  the only time I ever had anything close to what one could  call a  conversation with the taciturn Tex, this one lasting only long enough for him to hand me the magazine, mumble a sentence or two before going back to his thousand-piece jigsaw  he and his girlfriend had been working on for as long as I'd staying there. In the weeks that followed it seemed like everyone I ran into was reading the magazine. And one or two were even writing for it. With Michael Moorcock, not yet the author of all those Jerry Cornelius novels and so much more, at its helm, the magazine set out to explore, not the cliché-ridden realms of outer space, but that murky world referred to at the time as inner space, and, in doing so, make speculative fiction a kind of road map directing readers to what might be possible in a world that was being turned upside down. 

Moorcock had Roberts and Vinter to thank for purchasing the magazine  in 1964. Soon Moorcock had what amounted to a free editorial reign. Within its cheaply printed pages readers could find stories by a cadre of these so-called New Wave writers, whether Tom Disch, Brian Aldiss, M. John Harrison, J.G. Ballard, D.M Thomas, or Moorcock himself. These writers were mostly young, neither baked in the cynicism of the genre nor aligned with its mainstream tendencies. Moreover, contributors  were as likely to be influenced by Burroughs and Pynchon, as Sturgeon, Stapleton, PK Dick, Lieber or David Lindsay. As for those who read the magazine, they were sort who preferred perusing International Times and Tariq Ali’s Black Dwarf rather than the mainstream or traditional leftist press. Given New Worlds outsider  status, it was inevitable that it would meet some resistance. One of its stories, Bug Jack Barron,  by Norman Spinard, which appeared in a March 1968 New Worlds, so outraged those in certain quarters that it led  to a ban on the magazine’s distribution stretching  from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to WH Smiths in the UK, not to mention a debate in the British  Parliament regarding the misuse of Arts Council funding, which had been, to a large degree, subsidising the magazine. 

If not flying its proverbial freak flag, New Worlds was doing its best to move against the tide of sci-if technocrats- no point mentioning names- whose space operas and stories of  planetary expansionism and futurist war games had long dominated the genre. Not quite a case of anything goes, for Moorcock and his followers it was more a matter of transforming old tropes and creating new ones. All of which was coincident with the interest, thanks to psychedelics and soft drugs, in expanded consciousness, inner rather than outer space, as well as individual freedom. As Moorcock himself said, it was a time  “when we let the rockets explore the multiverse in terms of the human psyche. Powered by a faith that fiction- especially speculative fiction- could change the world, the New Wave allied with the underground press, the left, and the world of rock ‘n’ roll to create a cultural explosion.” Moreover, in keeping with the politics of the era, Moorcock, in 1969, was not only beginning to think of New Worlds as a magazine of  experimental literature as much as speculative fiction, but decided, whether of his own volition or by the persuasion of others, to democratise his editorship, and allow others to take on some of the editorial responsibilities. Which could  have been a sign that the magazine was running out of revolutionary steam. Indeed, it would never quite recover, even though New Worlds would continue for some years, eventually, to publishers Sphere and Corgi, morphing into a periodic paperback anthology.  

Meanwhile, in the U.S. the energetic and seemingly ever youthful Harlan Ellison was churning out his Dangerous Visions anthologies, beginning with a Doubleday edition in 1967. As excellent as the stories in Ellison's anthologies were- a sign of Ellison's acumen as an editor- the books were never, as far as I was concerned, quite as radical a departure from mainstream science fiction as were the stories found in New Worlds. It could be the authors who appeared in the pages of Ellison's paperback were a bit more  established, as might befit the demands of a mass market paperback publisher.  But that didn't mean that they didn't attract a legion of readers, myself included,  who picked them up wherever and whenever they appeared. Most likely  in liquor store and bus station paperback racks or on newspaper stands rather than in legitimate book stores. It was at one such  liquor store on Haight Street in San Francisco that I came across Ellison’s first anthology. That book, and their follow-ups, functioned, for me, as a kind of  entry level drug, providing me with my first  taste of Zelazny, Leiber, Delaney, and PK Dick’s mind-bending Faith of Our Fathers, a story with which I soon became obsessed. The stories were all accompanied by Ellison's  pithy and evocative intros- just a few sentences to prepare the reader for their deep dive into each particular vision. Yet those  anthologies lacked the same immediacy as New Worlds, nor did they have the explicit intention to, in Moorcock’s words, “create a cultural explosion.” Still, they  were necessary for those seeking something more mind expanding than what science fiction was accustomed to serving up at the time.  Ellison’s series would continue into the 2000s, but it was that first handful of editions that appeared from 1967-69 that were, for me, the most interesting.  Or it could simply be that their contributors were, whatever their past output, fairly new to a neophyte reader as I was at the time.  Interestingly, there was a degree of cross-over between the two publications. British writers such as Aldiss and John Brunner would appear in Ellison’s publications, while American writers like Spinard, Ellison, Delaney, John Sladek, Rachel Pollack and Pamela Zoline would crop up in the pages of New Worlds.  

So it’s appropriate that these  two publications  would form the basis, and focal point, for a study of radical science fiction from 1950-1985. In fact, Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre, while keeping those publications firmly in mind, move both backwards and forwards in time with essays that extend the  rebellious spirit, however varied, of New Worlds and Dangerous Visions. Nette and McIntyre’s volume really does cut a wide swathe, with excellently-researched essays from a variety of contributors on subjects that move across the board: from that utopias, dystopias, the bomb, revolution, the Vietnam war, race relations, feminism, the sexual revolution, ecology,  and drugs, to sub-genres like Russian, gay, and young adult sci-fi, as well as chapters on publishers, editors, and writers, both obscure and well-known, from Moorcock, Judith Merril, Philip K. Dick, Samuel Delaney, Barry Malzberg, J.G. Ballard, Ursula LeGuin, Roger Zelazny, to Denis Jackson, Hank Lopez, R.A. Lafferty, Octavia Butler, and James Tiptree. With something for everyone, there are bound to be writers discussed that will be unfamiliar to readers. I for one had never come across the likes of Hank Lopez (Afro Six) or Denis Jackson ("Flying Saucers and Black Power"!). Likewise, there’s a plethora of paperback covers, all excellently reproduced which will make readers want to track down some of these titles on secondhand sites and bookstores. 

In all, this is as complete a history of that period- 1950-1985- one is likely to come across. Though as I thumbed through its pages it did make me think about how so much of what considered  radical during those years has now more or less become mainstream speculative fiction. But that probably says as much about how the genre has evolved as it does about this who now read the genre. If there is a criticism to make about the collection, it's that it doesn’t include contributions  by the writers themselves. But then, in the end, this is essentially a book by sci-fi critics ands fans for other sci-if fans. Which  it does in a format that has become something of a template for its editors. That is if their two collaborations-  Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction 1950 to 1980, Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture 1950-1980- are anything to go by. All of which makes me wonder if  Tex, minus the donkey jacket, is still around, and, if he is, if he's still reading what he once was so excited about. I hope so. Because, if nothing else, Dangerous Visions and New Worlds illustrates that it wasn’t, as the editors attest, so much a “long 1960s,” as a perpetual 1960s, however much those years and what they stood for have been, and continue to undergo such revision. 

Monday, January 10, 2022

On Dangerous Ground: Woman On the Run (Norman Foster, 1950), "One More Thing" (Apologies to Columbo).

Woman On the Run (Norman Foster, 1950)

Who finds Playland sinister necessarily gumshoes 

fate, not unlike Pinocchio ogling the Fat Lady before 

dodging phallic double-parkers, bumper stickers 

decrying the benefits of spousal abuse. Payback hot 

wire exhaust fumes stodgily mashing suburban mush. 

They said it was over even before it was over, the song 

celebrating insinuation, or, better yet, the benefits of

capitalist degeneration. Those westward petit-bourgeois 

wankers, ensconced in ocean-side condominiums, 

wallowing in cryptic crossword clues and anxious 

evenings of cathode narcolepsy. Gawked while stuffing 

coupons into letterbox conspiracies. Others say only 

movies make it real, concentrating the mind on guilt 

rather than gelt. Leaving idle hands and loose ends to 

track some alienated dog walker, thrust into the numinous 

night. Witnessing shock and awe gangland murder not 

far from where Kid Schlemiel once shared a joint with 

Janis Joplin, who, for all I know, was in fact Daffy Duck 

in disguise. Or is that stating the obvious? One person's 

truth being another's collective amnesia. But, yes, the man 

on the leash, marriage on the rocks, would have been 

better off  had he allowed his mutt to simply crap on 

the carpet. Yet any deliberation over whose tail is wagging 

what dog can only be speculative. That mask of civility 

frozen at the seams, Mrs Dog Walker totes the medicine 

that might alleviate her husband's frozen heart. But loyalty 

only goes so far; it's not that she wants him dead, just out 

of the way. Even if the guy she confides in is not now, 

nor ever has been, a confirmed newshound. Still, he speaks 

in complete sentences and treats her as if she just might 

actually qualify as human. But tattoo this: never fully 

trust a man in a film, circa 1950, who purports to take 

a woman seriously. As for Foster, his bona fides are 

themselves slightly suspicious, from the Mercury Players 

to Mr Moto and Charlie Chan. Schlepped his puny budget 

from L.A. to San Francisco to hoover the city's crevices. 

Call it psycho-geography, but only if emphasising the prefix 

of that neologism. As if the gaffer might have been stealing 

glances at Schlemiel's tear-stained Baedeker, to give him

license to prowl the city like a wounded coyote woofing 

and warping at every pit stop. Either smart before its time 

or retrograde after the fact, its laws and stipulations bleed 

the Avenues to the zoo and ocean. Holy smokey eyes, 

what politics of inevitability do not decry le bon temps 

roulet remain forever contradictory, insisting the plot 

is not the story, the narrative barely the end of the matter.

"One More Thing "

Adjectives like floating insects in a Hollywood swimming pool. 

So 1950s, larger than life, inflated by superlatives. Magnified to

billboard proportions. Though these days big would be biggest. 

Leading to the inevitable, if ambiguous: The Biggest Sleep: perhaps 

a euphemism for the most boring movie ever, or could it be a pill 

to get you through a troubled night? The Biggest Clock, a travelogue, 

or a typo in a porno ad? The Biggest Combo, a burger place on 

the Strip or the world’s largest aggregation of musicians. Back then 

big really did mean something. Like, before the first feature, a Big 

Boy to forget the Big One, before the final shrug, as in big fucking 

deal. Nodding out in sky scraping impeccable nonchalance. Framed 

by cigar-choking expressionist emigrés, their motto: I shot therefore 

I was. Time leading to paranoia, perversion to crime, and sleep, 

not orgasm, the little death. That coffee thrown in Gloria’s face a 

reality only when she clocks herself in the mirror. A woman with 

a scar, sister under the mink, more dangerous than a gun or an 

explosion. The mark so deep it becomes irredeemable. Which helps 

explain why it's always night in high-contrast simulacra. Why in 

the land of the minuscule, a less than average shyster can so easily 

become king. That is, if size matters, if modifiers have more import 

than that which they modify: Clock, Combo, Heat, Sleep, Steal, 

Night, Knife, Goodbye. This one goes out to who would remain 

anonymous, their ships lost at sea.  Continents long since absent, 

as insomniacs out of the past darkly. Falling adjectives like confetti  

between more frames per second than reality can ever hope to count.  


Sunday, November 28, 2021

The Long Half-Life of Proletarian Prose: On Michael Gold and Maxwell Bodenheim


PERHAPS IT’S NOSTALGIA that has allowed proletariat writing to enjoy a half-life that defies its poor reputation. Though few literary sophisticates read the likes of Jack Conroy, Meridel Le Sueur, Jim Tully, or Tom Kromer, the fallout from such writing, abundant and popular prior to and just after World War II, remains with us in various guises. There are elements of it in noir and hard-boiled fiction, past as well as present. It’s also an undercurrent in early Beat writing, even if the latter was in part a reaction to the sectarianism that proletariat writing produced. In fact, traces of it exist in any writing that comes from and speaks to those on the wrong end of the economic order.

From the Depression to the beginning of the Cold War, Michael Gold was arguably proletariat writing’s leading advocate, as well as one of its primary practitioners. As one learns from Patrick Chura’s excellent biography, Michael Gold: The People’s Writer, the tentacles of Gold’s influence, in his heyday, spread far and wide. Moreover, Chura, in what constitutes the first full-scale Gold biography, drives home the point that anyone who professes to represent a progressive point of view owes no small debt to Gold, who, since the early 1950s, has gone largely unrecognized.

Born Itzok Isaac Granich in 1894, Gold chose to assume the name of a Jewish abolitionist civil war veteran in the midst of the notorious 1919–’20 Palmer Raids. A lifelong communist, he is best known, if known at all, for Jews Without Money, a semi-autobiographical novel that lifted the lid on New York’s poverty-stricken Lower East Side Jewish immigrant community. The literary equivalent of Lewis Hine’s famous New York photographs, Jews Without Money remains a powerful work that, since its publication in 1930, has never been out of print.

My parents hated all this filth. But it was America, one had to accept it. And these were our neighbors. It’s impossible to live in a tenement without being mixed up with the tragedies and cockroaches of one’s neighbors. There’s no privacy in a tenement. So there was always some girl or other in our kitchen, pouring out a tale of wretchedness to my mother, drinking tea and warming herself at my mother’s wonderful heart. That’s how I came to know some of the stories of these girls.

At the time of the novel’s appearance, Gold was being called an American Gorky. Through a series of vignettes, based, for the most part, on his own impoverished family and their neighbors, Gold captured the lives of poor Jewish immigrants of the era in prose as unvarnished as that of the most hard-boiled of writers.

Jews Without Money would be Gold’s primary literary achievement, but he also wrote poems, plays, and stories, as well as fiery polemics that, for over 30 years, appeared in a variety of progressive periodicals. H. L. Mencken considered Gold’s stories hardcore enough to be published in his American Mercury, which, until the early 1930s, specialized in tough guy regional writing by the likes of James M. Cain, Edward Anderson, Jim Tully, and John Fante. However, Gold’s tenure as a Mencken protégé didn’t last long, mainly because he felt Mencken was coaxing working-class writers like Tully into highlighting their anti-social exploits without any ideological comment, critique, or context. Had Gold been more flexible and less politically conscious, he might have, with Mencken’s backing, been more widely read. Fortunately for leftists, Gold was too preoccupied with political matters, preferring to put his efforts into periodicals like The MassesNew Masses, the Daily Worker, and Liberator. Had he not done so, there’s no telling how many plays, stories, and poems Gold might have produced, or how far his literary star might have ascended.

(Click here to read the remainder of this L.A. Review of Books article, including the second part on poet and novelist Maxwell Bodenheim)

Friday, November 26, 2021

On Dangerous Ground: Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), The Window (1949)


Where the Sidewalk Ends (Otto Preminger, 1950)

"A cop is basically a criminal,”  

with “an instinct for...legalized 

violence.” Not so much symptomatic

as stating the obvious. Back before

the bald guy entered the picture.  

It's a daddy-thing, I guess. The old 

guy works for the man or 

the mob, or is there a difference? 

Reeking blood brother nemesis. 

“I didn’t know a guy could hate 

that much.” Say, what?  Blame 

the city, schmuck-face. All that 

neon moral ambiguity. Kills the 

soul as well as the robbery suspect. 

Who never hopped a red-eye 

heading for Dreamland. Dumped 

the body but not the soul. They 

say if you throw an egg from 

the Dead Zone nine times out 

of ten you'll hit a fucking Cartesian. 

Framing the question, not 

the cabbie- his high-flag 

drenched in sassafras, headlong 

towards an imperfect circle. 

Blissed-out rainwater and graveyard 

tips. Tight-wadded miracles 

frenetically enbedded in a father 

who falls for the murdered man’s 

wife. As watered down as  Luke 

the Drifter retching for redemption 

cralwing through a cookie jar 

delirium. Prompting the great 

man to feign ignorance: “I remember 

nothing.” Low box office, high 

impact, late night fodder, legalised-

something-or-other, without a 

man-oh-manifesto to fall back on.   


The Window (Ted Tetzlaff, 1949)

So many roads, so far to gawk,   

Yet, who, with any certainty, 

can claim a reliable narrator. 

If not imprisoned, witnessing a

crime, or living a lie, whether 

barnstorming in black and white 

or embeded in a complexity 

of claustrophobic tenements 

reeking of boiled tongue and 

rancid cabbage. Lower East Side 

gentrification dollars whinpering in 

the wind-up. Walls cackling, 

deaf to lack, lustre and rodents 

the size of small seizures. Told to play 

outside, the kid says “But there’s 

nowhere to go.” Who verifies ash 

can aesthetics, misty yet murky,  

and oh, so Naked City, if only 

from the waste down. Tinseltown 

slobbering. Dream now, die later, 

Woolrich. a fly in an overturned jar.  

As for the kid, age 31, on the outskirts

of the Factory, overdosed in the

remnants of his childhood. From 

Peter Pan to John Doe and a pauper’s 

grave. Said, “I was carried on a satin 

cushion, then dropped in a garbage 

can,” a singularity without mercy.