The City in Fiction and Film, week 9: The Secret Agent, part one

41Pi137AB+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_week 8

We started this week with the material on the Situationists and the dérive that we did not have time to cover last week, before turning to the first half of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) – which to be honest I was a little anxious about, given the events in Beirut and Paris last weekend – and a very quick discussion of The Third Man (Carol Reed UK 1949), which we watched in the morning.

The Situationist International (SI) was a group of primarily Paris-based anti-Stalinist Marxists influenced by Dada and Surrealism, which existed from 1957-1972. Their key theoretical activity was to develop Marx’s ideas on alienation and commodity fetishism, broadly arguing that capitalism had become so extensive and intensive that life was no longer experienced directly but through commodities; and that it was necessary to find ways to shatter the commodified spectacle of everyday life. They brilliantly and correctly called for automation to be developed not so as to maximise profit but so as to liberate everyone into lives of freedom and leisure and creativity. And of greater relevance here, they developed a number of theorised practices or ways of critically intervening in the city, including détournement – turning the spectacle against itself through pranks, culture jamming, reality hacks – and such psychogeographical experiments as the dérive.

Differing from the journey (which has a clear destination) and the stroll (which is typically aimless), the dérive is concerned with movement through urban space with a kind of double-consciousness. On the one hand, it is about allowing the ‘attractions of the terrain and the encounters’ found there to organise your movement and experience of the varying ambiances of the city space. On the other hand, it requires a conscious attention to the effects this drifting and these shifting environments have on you. The dérive is both planned – you know your starting point, who your companions (if any) might be, you do not have a specific destination but you do have a broad aim – and unplanned, since you cannot know in advance precisely where your feet will be drawn and who/what you might meet. It can seem random, but the structures of the city also play a determining role, deliberately and accidentally guiding you through its ‘constant currents, fixed points and vortexes’ – physical routes and barriers, but also psychological ones. (It is instructive that Abdelhafid Khattib, the Algerian Arab who was part of the SI and one of the early psychogeographical experimenters was arrested by the police for activities his white French colleagues could undertake unchallenged.)

Returning briefly to Cleo from 5 to 7, we could see ways in which Cleo – who last week we considered as a potential flâneuse – might be thought of as underaking a dérive, more obviously in the second half of the film when an overheard conversation in a café reminds her of her friend, the model Dorothée, which leads her through different aspects of and locations in Paris and various unanticipated encounters. (We will return to some of these issues in a couple of weeks when we focus on Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (De Sica Italy 1948).)

But this was obviously the point to clumsily segue into a brief introduction to Joseph Conrad, sketching in some biography, his early association with Impressionism (see the preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897)), his omnivorous  consumption and reworking of raw materials (autobiography, people he met, fiction he read – which lead to charges of plagiarism in Poland –  and real news events – including the French anarchist Martial Bourdin’s presumed attempt to blow up the Greenwich observatory on 15 February 1894, which inspired The Secret Agent).

Conrad is typically considered one of the first British modernist novelists, particularly in regard to his ironic style and the sense of scepticism, melancholy, pessimism, constraint and doom that looms over his fiction (putting him somewhere between Dostoevsky and Kafka).

To help establish this mood or tone, we took a look at this fabulous passage in a letter he wrote to Cunninghame Graham in December 1897 (if I was the kind of person who sent out a family newsletter with Xmas cards, I would be tempted to adopt this). Conrad says that the universe

evolved itself (I am severely scientific) out of a chaos of scraps of iron and behold! – it knits. I am horrified at the horrible work and stand appalled. I feel it ought to embroider – but it goes on knitting. You come and say: “this is all right; it’s only a question of the right kind of oil. Let us use this – for instance – celestial oil and the machine shall embroider a most beautiful design in purple and gold.” Will it? Alas no. You cannot by any special lubrication make embroidery with a knitting machine. And the most withering thought is that the infamous thing has made itself; made itself without thought, without conscience, without foresight, without eyes, without heart. It is a tragic accident –and it has happened. You can’t interfere with it. The last drop of bitterness is in the suspicion that you can’t even smash it. … it is what it is  – and it is indestructible!

It knits us in and it knits us out. It has knitted time space, pain, death, corruption, despair and all the illusions  – and nothing matters.

(Which always makes me think of The Clangers – and of that moment of sheer existential terror when the fabric of the universe rips apart in that episode of Button Moon. (I am so street! I am so down with the kids!))

In Conrad’s own description of the origins of the novel he describes how

the vision of an enormous town presented itself, of a monstrous town more populous than some continents and in its man-made might as indifferent to heaven’s frowns and smiles; a cruel devourer of the world’s light. There was enough room there to place any story, depth enough there for any passion, variety enough there for any setting, darkness enough to bury five millions of lives.

And our treatment of the city in the novel will largely focus on this depiction of London as a monstrous, indifferent and cruel place; as a dark grave in which its inhabitants are buried; as an exemplar of modern anonymity; as claustral and carceral; as somewhere that blurs the distinction between home and work; as an amoral structure inhabited by spectral, untethered characters trapped in death-in-life existences; as a place of darkness, secrecy, mechanisation, hierarchy and control.

[Page references are to the current Penguin Classics edition.]

The first passage we looked at, though, was the one in which Mr Vladimir outlines his rationale for targeting the Greenwich Observatory in the faked anarchist bomb outrage. He begins by dismissing the assassination of a head of state, because such actions are now so commonplace that they are no longer spectacular enough. Attacking churches would just muddy the waters with claims that such attacks are religiously motivated; attacking a theatre or restaurant would be passed off as a ‘non-political passion: the exasperation of a hungry man, an act of social revenge’ (26). Of the latter two options, Vladimir notes – with a timeliness the students also noted – that ‘every newspaper has ready-made phrases to explain such manifestations away’ (26).

Instead, Vladimir favours an attack that defies such easy narrativisation – it must be something so irrational-seeming as to defy our capacity to explain it away. You could attack art – plant a bomb in the National Gallery – but the only people who would cause a fuss would be ‘artists – art critics and such like – people of no account’ (26). But if you could find a way to attack science – ‘any imbecile with an income believes in that. … They believe that in some mysterious way science is at the source of their material prosperity’ (26-7). And if you could find away to attack the purest, most abstract-seeming of science – ‘if one could throw a bomb into pure mathematics’ (27) – it would be so ‘incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable’ as to be ‘truly terrifying’ (27).

Attacking the Greenwich Observatory is not just an attack on astronomy, the next best option after maths, but also on the global order. It is an attack on the Greenwich meridian, on the military and commercial imperial web imposed upon the world. It is an attack on the seat of power.

And it is a plan conceived from the lofty view, the god’s-eye perspective, we discussed last week in relation to the de Certeau observing New York from the top of the World Trade Centre. The remainder of Conrad’s novel is set down on street level, in the grubby poetry written by his characters transiting through, and pausing to rest in, the city.

Next we took a look at the way in which Conrad depicts the anarchists: the fat, pasty, wheezing, resigned martyr, Michaelis; the grim, giggling, toothless, balding, goateed, dry-throated, deformed-handed, malevolent-eyed Karl Yundt, whose ‘worn-out passion’ resembles ‘in its impotent fierceness the excitement of a senile sensualist’ (34); and the ethnically ambiguous Comrade Ossipon, who has a ‘flattened nose and prominent mouth cast in the rough mould of the negro type’ and ‘almond-shaped eyes’ that leer ‘languidly’ (35).

Conrad’s descriptions draw upon cultural codes, familiar from popular fiction, yellow journalism and elsewhere, to construct images of unsavouriness and thus to link physical appearance to morality. This is not restricted to the anarchists; later, he describes Sir Ethelred, the government minister, in similarly grotesque terms. Indeed, most – if not all – of the characters in the novel are grotesques. They are the undead adrift in the city, trapped and deformed (physically and morally) by it.

At the end of the section in chapter 3 when the anarchists are described, Ossipon finds the idiot-boy Stevie obsessively drawing, as is his wont, circles. Alluding to Lombroso’s pseudo-science of ‘criminal anthropology’, Ossipon describes young Stevie as a perfect example of degeneracy. Verloc seems sceptical.

It is a curious moment. Conrad seems to be declaring that it is erroneous to make categorical judgments based on appearances even as he relies on his readers doing precisely that. Characters are trapped by their appearances into playing certain roles, just as the city entraps them, constraining and channelling them, serving them up to their fates.

We will return to the novel next week.

In closing, we had a very few minutes to talk about The Third Man. It is set in post-war Vienna, a city which was divided until 1955 into four zones, each governed by a different Allied nation (UK, US, France, USSR), with the international zone in the centre governed by all four powers. As with The Secret Agent, it makes apparent the complex governance structures of a particular which, as in M, is doubled by an underground that seeks to evade those overlapping, panoptical administrative structures. These representations can also help us begin to see the structuration of all cities.

Looking backward, the famous scene on top of the Ferris wheel, in which Harry Lime (Orson Welles) tries to persuade Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) of the statistical insignificance of individuals so as to justify his own monstrous crimes, recalls the view from atop the World Trade Centre that de Certeau talks about. Looking forward, it is a film set amid the rubble – a Trümmerfilm. It signals the ongoing presence of trauma and the urgent need for reconstruction that we will consider in relation to Bicycle Thieves and Passport to Pimlico (Henry Cornelius UK 1949) before the end of this semester, and which will inform our study of Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard France/Italy 1965), Le couple témoin/The Model Couple (William Klein 1977) and JG Ballard’s High Rise (1975) next semester.

week 10

Recommended critical reading
Anderegg, Michael A. “Conrad and Hitchcock: The Secret Agent Inspires Sabotage.” Literature/Film Quarterly 3.3 (1975): 215–25.
Bernstein, Stephen. “Politics, Modernity and Domesticity: The Gothicism of Conrad’s The Secret Agent.” CLIO 32.3 (2003): 285–301.
Harrington, Ellen Burton. “The Anarchist’s Wife: Joseph Conrad’s Debt to Sensation Fiction in The Secret Agent.” Conradiana 36.1–2 (2004): 51–63.
Kim, Sung Ryol. “Violence, Irony and Laughter: The Narrator in The Secret Agent.” Conradiana 35.1–2 (2003): 75–97.
Leitch, Thomas. “Murderous Victims in The Secret Agent and Sabotage.” Literature/Film Quarterly 14.1 (1986): 64–8.
Mathews, Cristina. “‘The Manner of Exploding’: Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Men at Home.” Conradiana 42.3 (2010): 17–44.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 5, “The City in Ruins and the Divided City: Berlin, Belfast, and Beirut.”
Shaffer, Brian W. “‘The Commerce of Shady Wares’: Politics and Pornography in Conrad’s The Secret Agent.” ELH 62.2 (1995): 443–66.
Sinowitz, Michael. “Graham Greene’s and Carol Reed’s The Third Man.” Modern Fiction Studies 53.3 (2007): 405–33.
Stape, J.H., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Recommended reading
Conrad’s Under Western Eyes (1991) is often seen as a companion novel to Secret Agent.
Novels of urban underworlds include Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer (1925), Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938) and The Third Man (1950), Gerald Kersh’s Night and the City (1938), Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke (1952), Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers (1953) and Hubert Selby, Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964).
The criminalisation of sexual dissidence led to an often autobiographical fiction of queer underworlds and marginal urban existence, including James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956), John Rechy’s City of Night (1963), Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (1978), Larry Kramer’s Faggots (1978), Alan Hollinghhurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues (1993) and Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin (1995).

Recommended viewing
Conrad’s novel was filmed as Sabotage (Hitchcock 1936), which we will watch next week, and The Secret Agent (Hampton 1996).
Ambiguous underworlds appear in a vast array of films, including The Informer (Ford 1935), Pépé le moko (Duvivier 1937), Brighton Rock (Boulting 1947), The Blue Lamp (Dearden 1950), Night and the City (Dassin 1950), A Generation (Wajda 1955), Canal (Wajda 1957), Ashes and Diamonds (Wajda 1958), À bout de soufflé (Godard 1960), Hell is a City (Guest 1960), The Yards (Gray 2000), We Own the Night (Gray 2007) and Killing Them Softly (Dominik 2012).
Films about marginalised urban sexualities include Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger 1969), Working Girls (Borden 1986), Paris is Burning (Livingstone 1990), Young Soul Rebels (Julien 1991), The Wedding Banquet (Lee 1993), Exotica (Egoyan 1994), Beautiful Thing (MacDonald 1996), Nowhere (Araki 1997), Fucking Åmål/Show Me Love (Moodysson 1998) and Mysterious Skin (Araki 2004).

The City in Fiction and Film, week six

modern-timesWeek five

This week we watched Modern Times (Chaplin 1936), read a recent article on it by Lawrence Howe (which contains some useful contextualisation for the film, even though I am not wholly convinced by its argument), had a brief introduction to Marxist ideas about capitalism and the class society it produces, and then spent quite a while discussing some basic essay writing skills.

As described by Frederick Engels, in his ‘Preface to the English Edition of 1888 of The Communist Manifesto’, Marx’s ‘fundamental proposition’ concerning history and class is that

the whole history of mankind … has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; that the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class – the proletariat – cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class – the bourgeoisie – without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles. (in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, ed. by David McLellan (Oxford: OUP, 1998), 48.)

Starting with this broad sweep ties back to the work we did on historical periodisation in week 2 as we started to think about ‘modernity’, but more importantly gave me an opportunity to include a picture of the lovely late Andy Whitfield on the spartacus1powerpoint slide explaining classical slave societies (Feudalism had to make do with a picture of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood.)

Capitalism, Marx argued, is defined by the exploitative relationship between the bourgeoisie (or capitalist class), who own and control the means of production (from factories to financial instruments), and the proletariat (or working class), who sell their labour for a wage which is worth less than the value created by their labour. All that extra value they create is used to pay for raw materials, plant, etc; and all that is left over from that – surplus value, in Marx’s term – is taken by the capitalist. Although there might be small individual and partial exceptions, the capitalist will always look to increase production of surplus value – by introducing ‘rationalised’ production processes and increasing automation, by lowering or freezing wages, by extending the working day (including reducing breaks), by offering productivity bonuses, by resisting unionisation of the workforce and health/safety legislation, by casualising the workforce, by not paying the costs of pollution, by relocating to countries with weaker unions/workplace protections/ environmental laws, and by avoiding/evading taxes and manipulating political systems.

Before discussing Modern Times, we took a look at several short sequences from Metropolis (Lang 1927), a film I really wanted to include on the module but which is too long for the screening session (and perhaps in that respect a bit cruel as an introduction to silent cinema – although next week we will be watching Man with a Movie Camera, so I am not sure where the greater cruelty lies).

Lang’s film spatialise class relations in a manner that will become common in dystopian visions, and also in the real world. Here the spatial division is vertical, recalling the literal and figurative descents into poverty in Gaskell’s Mary Barton. The garden in which the city’s wealthy youths play is somewhere high up and pristine. Freder’s father’s office – as controller of the city – is also elevated above all, symbolising his pan optical powers (making him an important figure when we dip our toes into a little de Certeau in a few weeks). Then there is the magnificent metropolis itself, beneath which are the machines which sustain it. And beneath the level even of the machines, as Lang’s opening sequence shows, is the city of the workers.

We also took a look at some of the machinery in the film: the 10-hour shift clock and 24-hour clock over which the shift change is announced (we have already seen Lang’s obsession with clocks in M), the rather abstract machine which overheats and transforms, in Freder’s eyes, into a barbaric ancient idol into whose maw the workers are fed; and the even more abstract clock machine that Freder undertakes to operate so as to free an exhausted worker, only to become a kind of knackered Christ figure himself as he struggles to keep up with its incomprehensible demands for repetitive motion.

Some of this imagery is picked up on directly in Chaplin’s film, which also begins with the image of a clock and workers trudging to the factory like lambs to the slaughter.

Before the screening, I suggested some possible binary oppositions that could be used to try to think through the logic of the film:

capitalist and worker
surveiller and surveilled
employed and unemployed
production and consumption
lack and plenty
work and leisure
human and automaton
conformity and difference
law and lawlessness
order and chaos
authority and resistance
propriety impropriety
male and female
adult and child

As ever, a lot of these terms sort of overlap or seem to be describing the same things from different angles.

The boss using the giant screen in the bathroom to berate Chaplin on his break establishes that the relationship between capitalist and worker is a power relationship (we have already seen the boss goofing off, doing a jigsaw and reading  the funny pages – Flash Gordon, if I am not mistaken, since the visible page is Tarzan?) – and that this power relationship includes bullying and surveillance (which includes workers having to clock-in and clock-out, even for bathroom trips). Furthermore, the fact that the boss even contemplates subjecting his works to the Billows Automatic Feeding Machine so that can they be fed lunch without needing to leave the production line indicates the extent to which he does not think of them as human beings but as mere parts of a technical apparatus, as cogs in a machine. (It is also an example of trying to increase productivity through automation so as to increase surplus value, or profit, at the expense of the worker.)

Such control systems or disciplinary structures as the factory represents also provide most of the other key locations of the film: asylum, prison, orphanage, department store, restaurant.

Talking about the department store – designed to move customers through the space in such a way as to organise and prolong their experience within the retail environment (think about how IKEA has no windows or clocks and only one route through the warehouse – and, at least according to one of the class, blocks cell phone reception) – also facilitated a way to think about the interconnections of production and consumption.

Chaplin and the gamin (Paulette Goddard), of course, are disruptive forces of chaos in all this. Chaplin’s derangement by the repetitive labour of the production line shows how poorly we all, as humans, fit the environments created to maximise the extraction of our labour power for other people’s profit. The gamin’s initial gender-blurring – posing like Peter Pan, providing food for the family when her father is unemployed – and her refusal to be subordinated to state systems (the law around property, the orphanage to which her younger siblings are sent) betoken a similar energy. Both she and Chaplin are often positioned as childlike, and their attempts to find a space in the adult world are endearing parodies of that world: the dream vision of a suburban home Chaplin imagines, the run-down shack the gamin crafts into the image of a suburban idyll, the way they play and dress up in the department store. (And they are not alone in not fitting in this world: the prim and severe vicar’s wife whose stomach nonetheless gurgles when she drinks tea; the scarcely glimpsed ‘gay’ prisoner, who minces out of the dining hall and into his cell; the unemployed men forced to break into the department store because they are starving; and so on.)

Then it was time for a break, for the grand unveiling of the essay questions, for reminders to do the library quiz online within 24 hours, and for essay-writing advice.

The latter is especially tough, I find, to do for a whole group, none of whom have yet submitted any work. Makes it hard to know where to begin, what particular strengths and weaknesses each student has. So we did some very basic stuff.

On stucture, taking Strunk and White’s advice: ‘Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic.’ So a brief introduction to what is going to be discussed, probably somewhere between 5 and 8 paragraphs, each devoted to making, developing and supporting a single idea in a chain of ideas/paragraphs, and a short conclusion tying it all together. For a 1200 word essay, the introduction and conclusion should probably need no more than a sentence or two each. Revise the introduction once the essay is completed so as to ensure it describes what the essay actually does, rather than what you intended to do (the initial introduction can also be used to help think through revisions to early drafts). No new ideas to be introduced in the conclusion – and never end with a quotation (it is supposed to be your conclusion).

Using spell-check (make sure it is set to English UK; remember it won’t catch certain kinds of errors, such as typing ‘form’ when you mean ‘from’). Use grammar-check sparingly, as typically you need to understand grammar in order to make sense of its recommendations. Instead, concentrate on becoming a better writer (obligatory plug for the genuinely excellent kids’ book, The English Repair Kit by Angela Burt and William Vandyck).

We covered rules about laying how to quote and paraphrase and reference (MLA-style).

Finally, we thought about writing in a more formal academic style, but how that did not necessarily mean writing in long sentences. Focus on short, clear sentences, and work in length-variety where necessary – focus on the connection between what you want to say and the best way to say it clearly.

And then wrapped it all up with another quotation from Strunk and White:

Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

week 7

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 2, “Urbanizing Modernity: Utopia/Dystopia and the City of the Future Past.”
Desser, David. “Race, Space and Class: The Politics of Cityscapes in Science-Fiction Films.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 80–96.
Jenkins, Henry. “Looking at the City in The Matrix Franchise.” Cities in Transition: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis. Ed. Andrew Webber and Emma Wilson. London: Wallflower, 2008. 176–192.
Mellen, Joan. Modern Times. London: BFI, 2006.
Sobchack, Vivian. “Cities on the Edge of Time: The Urban Science-Fiction Film.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 123–143.
Staiger, Janet. “Future Noir: Contemporary Representations of Visionary Cities.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 97–122.

Recommended reading
By imagining future cities, sf often highlights contemporary concerns about the city. See, for example, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1953), Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966), John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968), Thomas Disch’s 334 (1972), Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (1999), Tricia Sullivan’s Maul (2003) and Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014).

Recommended viewing
The same is true of many sf films, such as Metropolis (Lang 1927), Things to Come (Menzies 1936), Alphaville (Godard 1965), Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971), THX 1138 (Lucas 1971), Soylent Green (Fleischer 1973), Blade Runner (1982), Akira (Ôtomo 1988), Dark City (Proyas 1998), Minority Report (Spielberg 2002), Code 46 (Winterbottom 2003), District 13 (Morel 2004), Children of Men (Cuarón 2006), La Antena (Sapir 2007) and In Time (Niccol 2011).

Modern Times was partly inspired by À Nous la Liberté (Clair 1931).

 

On Matters Locomotive and Tentacular; or, Four or Five (More) Things About China Miéville

[After finding yesterday’s old piece on China, I remembered doing this one, too. But on reading it, I have no memory at all of writing it. It’s from the Readercon 17 programme, back in 2006 when China and James Morrow were GoHs.]

This was the plan, the plan was this: I would get the first post-rush hour train from Bristol to London and be there by noon.

tentacles‘There’ is the Starbucks in Borders bookstore on Oxford Street, our default meeting-up place in central London, and we would leave ‘there’ as soon as possible, and grab some pizza at a place around the corner (where, a year earlier, our arrival had been greeted with rapturous applause from the staff – not because they recognised China, but because they’d been open for almost an hour and we were their first customers that day). And after lunch, although the pretext for meeting up was discussing essay proposals for a book we are editing on Marxism and sf, we would head to the Natural History Museum to see the thirty-foot long, newly-on-display, giant squid.

That was the plan, the plan was that.

So of course that was not what happened.

Readers of King Rat and the stories in Looking for Jake (and a forthcoming project, as yet still a secret [Un Lun Dun, I guess]) will know that London is a strange place, where all kinds of unexpected things can happen; that the fabric of the city itself is fantastical. Strange chimera flit through the crowds, pausing to take fliers advertising clubs and bars and language schools from fastidiously scruffy young men and women being paid way less than minimum wage for their cash-in-hand labour, and roar in anguish, in bafflement, at this world which is no longer theirs, and retreat temporarily into the interstices, before emerging once more, hooked on it. Creatures, remnants from another time, can be glimpsed in the reflective surfaces of department stores and sandwich shops, phone booths and passing buses. Others dance across the rooftops. And then there’s the people, who are pretty fucking strange.

But our delays and derailments are far more mundane. Family. Trains. And by the time we get ‘there’ it is gone two o’clock. (There was an amusing incident involving a borrowed phone in case China needed to contact me, which he does, but by text, which my quick briefing on this new-fangled technology did not cover. I manage to find the message but am uncertain how to reply. I amaze myself by finding China’s number in the phone’s address book, so I call and leave him a message. The number later transpires to be that of his old phone. But I will omit this is at makes me sound much too old yet insufficiently curmudgeonly. And has nothing to do with trains or cephalapods.)

Lunch is relocated to an Italian restaurant, which does a pasta dish China likes involving little balls of fried courgette and spinach. Our arrival prompts neither adulation nor irony.

51M+qPPQDFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_‘Trains,’ I tut, to boost my curmudgeon-score as we share a mezze and several varieties of bread. But we have been talking about trains a lot, lately. I have a crazy notion that there is a book to be written about trains and early cinema and time-travel (but very distinctly not about early railroad films or time-travel movies), and China’s voracious reading, especially the research for Iron Council (and for his review of Stefan Grabinski’s The Motion Demon), keeps throwing up gems. It’s like having a really good research assistant I don’t have to supervise or pay (although he has still not returned my copies of The Iron Horse, Once Upon a Time in the West and Emperor of the North Pole).

These are the three things he tells me.

‘The seemingly obvious use of the railroad to “mean” Manifest Destiny, as in Zane Grey’s The U.P. Trail, is only permissible because of the peculiarity of that particular railroad. It really did only have one line, at least for a brief moment, but much longer iconically, and that’s been the source of a lot of notions of the unilinearity of the railroad, which are completely spurious. Not even a consideration of the siding or even the parallelism of tracks (necessary unless all trains are going only one way, a patent absurdity). So railroads aren’t even a misused symbol – they only work symbolically because of a lie.’

‘Of a failure, no, a refusal, to observe accurately,’ I suggest, ‘because that would strip the metaphor of its political potency.’

The mezze is really good.

$_35Iron Council riffed heavily on Frank Spearman’s Whispering Smith. Spearman was a sort-of libertarian, reportedly Ayn Rand’s favourite writer, did lots of stuff about rugged railwaymen. Whispering Smith is a troubleshooter for the railroad who is allowed to go anywhere and do more or less anything, including kill anyone necessary, to “fix problems”. It is an extremely perspicacious critique of rugged individualist/libertarian railroadism (as I’ve christened the ideology), because contrary to the “enlightened self-interest” of the Randists and half of Spearman’s own characters, the thrusting of the rails is only possible with a roving assassin – a man in a permanent state of Schmittian law-making exception! – bringing peace for capital-expansion at the end of a gun beyond the bounds of the rails. So the railroad relies for the always-spurious solidity of even its semiotic status to the right on an implicit awareness of beyond-railroad coercion of the most violent kind. Spearman, a cunning writer, recognises this and rather than attempt to conceal it, hides its in plain view.’

‘Agamben,’ I mutter, sipping a rather non-descript red wine, knowing that his Schmitt reference is more astute than my name-drop (but then he did study – and write a book on – legal theory). I refill my glass and reflect on how it is possible for China to talk so enthusiastically about stuff despite his rather non-committal approach to drinking.

220px-Sanatoriumpodklepsydra‘And then there’s Bruno Schulz, using trains (in several different ways – history as both inside and outside the train itself, on the rails as well as in the corridors) to think about the alterity of history and alternate possibilities. I’m increasingly interested by the idea of the multi-track nature of railroads, let alone Grabinski’s sidings, as key to their importance. There’s this astonishing passage in his ‘The Age of Genius’ in The Sanitorium under the Sign of the Hourglass:

Ordinary facts are arranged within time, strung along its length as on a thread. There they have their antecedents and their consequences, which crowd tightly together and press hard one upon the other without any pause. This has its importance for any narrative, of which continuity and successiveness are the soul.

Yet what is to be done with events that have no place of their own in time; events that have occurred too late, after the whole of time has been distributed, divided and allotted; events that have been left in the cold, unregistered, hanging in the air, homeless and errant?

Could it be that time is too narrow for all events? Could it happen that all the seats within time might have been sold? Worried, we run along the train of events, preparing ourselves for the journey.

For heaven’s sake, is there perhaps some kind of bidding for time? Conductor, where are you?

Don’t let’s get excited. Don’t let’s panic; we can settle it all calmly within our own terms of reference. Have you ever heard of parallel streams of time within a two-track time? Yes, there are such branch lines of time, somewhat illegal and suspect, but when, like us, one is burdened with contraband of supernumerary events which cannot be registered, one cannot be too fussy. Let us try to find at some point of history such a branch line, a blind track onto which to shunt these illegal events. There is nothing to fear. It will all happen imperceptibly: the reader won’t feel any shock. Who knows? Perhaps even now, while we mention it, the doubtful manoeuvre is already behind us and we are, in fact, proceeding into a cul-de-sac.

‘Isn’t that fucking amazing?”

I have to agree.

I also have to confess.

This was the plan, the plan was this: over lunch we would talk wisely and wittily about arcane things, scare the children at the next table with our profanity and their parents with out erudition (or vice versa). It is not that China is scarily geeky (although he does know his shit), nor that I cannot write convincing dialogue (although I cannot); but rather that China’s words come from a long and almost painfully helpful email he sent me after a phone conversation about matters locomotive.

Conversation over lunch that day really focused on our childish enthusiasm for all things cephalopodic and tentacular. I’d recently rewatched Jon Lurie’s series of fake fishing documentaries, Fishing With John, in which he takes various celebrities – Jim Jarmusch, Tom Waits, Matt Dillon, Willem Dafoe – on improbable fishing expeditions. The series ends with a two-parter in which John – who died while ice-fishing with Willem in the previous instalment, a fitting punishment considering they used the proper equipment rather than chainsaws to cut through the ice – is discovered to be not only alive and well but taking Dennis Hopper fishing for giant squid in the Andaman Sea. After arduous travels, unsuccessful angling, a sidetrip to see some squid-worshipping monks who warn of the giant squid’s hypnotic powers, they finally meet with success, of a sort. A giant squid rises to the surface. But all is not well. Disorientation strikes Dennis and John. What is going on? Has something happened? They leave Asia disconsolate, because despite seeing their prey up close, it hypnotised them, and they believe their expedition a complete failure.

Jeff VanderMeer’s name of course crops up, as it always does in squidversations. But a new potential source of delight is introduced. An aside about James Woods not sleepwalking through a performance but actually sleeping through a performance in ER triggers a memory deep in China.

‘Have you ever,’ he asked, ‘seen Tentacles? I’ve only heard about it – a 70s Jaws rip-off about a giant octopus – in which John Huston literally phones in his performance. Apparently, he finally gave in and agreed to appear in it on the condition that he didn’t have to leave his own home to do so. So his performance consists of him sitting on a lawn-chair on his own lawn, saying things over his own phone like, “Hmmm, yes, that does sound like it could be the work of a giant octopus”.’

Neither wise nor witty, neither arcane nor profane; more geeky than erudite; but it certainly did scare the children sat at the table next to us. And their parents.

***

Coda 1. We did actually discuss the proposals and finalise the line-up for Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction.

Coda 2. The little balls of courgette and spinach are really rather good.

Coda 3. While China’s books are available at all good bookstores, it is worth noting that Tentacles is also available on region 1 DVD, but while I was able to pick up a copy for just five bucks, there is a heavy price to pay: it comes with the Joan Collins movie Empire of the Ants, a low point in a career hardly distinguished by its heights.

Coda 4. We never did get to the Natural History Museum to see the giant squid.

Coda 5. Unless we did but just can’t remember. Hypnotic powers, y’know.