Books and the City

Stewart Home, Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie, p.62 (invitation reverse).

Happy Bloomsday.

A few days after J.G.Ballard’s archive was given to the British Library, I went to the excellent Cafe Oto in Dalston for the launch of the three latest titles in the Semina series that’s been edited for Book Works by Stewart Home.

I’m still partway through and enjoying Stewart’s own contribution to the series, Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie (read more about the book here) but I also liked the fact that invitations to the Cafe Oto event were stamped on to leaves torn from the book. I received pages 61-62.

Sections of the book seem to have been produced by appropriating text from spam emails about things like penis enlargement and substituting the ‘generic references to girls, women and ladies’ therein with the names of women artists. The passage reproduced on page 62 here ‘explains’ such a process.

And actually this kind of substitution is a literary strategy that I would usually describe as Ballardian, refering readers to a prime example of it in Ballard’s short story ‘Jane Fonda’s Augmentation Mammoplasty’ which was published in the 1989 anthology Semiotext(e) SF.

So from a writer, Ballard, who as this New Statesman review from 2001 puts it ‘examined the impact of technology on human desire’, to Stewart Home’s exploration of the role of women in the art world and of the impact of technology on writing, to the rather more prosaic topic of the day in publishing circles, the impact of technology on books and publishing. Stewart and I contributed to this ongoing discussion by taking part in a public event at Westminster Reference Library a couple of weeks ago, together with Gavin Everall of Book Works.

Gavin and I had stepped in at short notice because someone else dropped out. The event was called ‘Literature 2.0: Book Now For the Future‘ and the conversation was interesting and well-attended. We should have recorded it, but didn’t.

I started things off with a quick reading from my novel Foxy-T to give people who haven’t read it an idea of what I do. A few minutes earlier as we’d waited for the audience to settle in to their seats, I asked Stewart if he was going to read from Blood Rites…, and he said, ‘No, I haven’t really memorised it yet.’ (For those who haven’t been to any of Stewart Home’s readings they are a tour de force and notable for not being ‘readings’ at all; rather Stewart speaks the passages in question entirely from memory, without reference-to or presence-of a book. As happened this week at Cafe Oto, in fact.)

Westminster Reference Library is just off Leicester Square, and the timing of our event coincided with the televised mass media production surrounding the UK premiere of the shockingly bad film Sex and the City 2. Because it was a warm evening, the windows of the Library’s first floor event space were flung open so that our discussions about technology, free distribution, the Google book agreement or the finer points of publishing contracts were accompanied by the incessant screams and cheers of the several thousand Sex and the City fans gathered below. The sound rose and fell like waves crashing on to a beach.

The way that Sex and the City 2 choreographs its four central characters does not seem so different to the Ballardian substitution strategy deployed by Stewart Home in Blood Rites… In places it feels as if the names ‘Carrie’, ‘Miranda’, ‘Samantha’ and ‘Charlotte’ have been dropped in to a series of situations (including the UK sit-com and soap opera staple of the works outing or cast holiday) where little is demanded of them but the repetition of a very limited number of character-specific tics and a prolonged and infantilised cooing at any of the numerous displays of wealth and ostentation: overdubs must have been excruciating.

As is the film. Almost anything that was ever good, interesting or witty about the original HBO sit-com seems to have been stripped out and replaced by an endless posing of the question, ‘What shall we spend the money on?’

By the time our event in the Reference Library finished so had the one outside. The red carpet was gone. Stars and fans had been replaced by street sweepers and litter pickers. Crowd control barriers were being stacked on to lorries while technicians dismantled the various stages: the movie premiere’s industrial and class underpinnings were exposed.

Thinking about Ballard again and the film studios, airports and motorways that surround London, and thinking too about those Dalston streets around Cafe Oto, I remember that last year we were lucky enough to visit the set of Eastenders at the Elstree Studios complex. It was a private visit rather than a writing gig of any kind, and very exciting. In retrospect the timing was perfect. It should have come as no surprise, but I was still amazed by the extraordinary attention to detail that is brought to bear on that little maze of slightly smaller-than-life streets. One literary example: Pasted to a wall opposite the street entrance to the fictional Walford tube station — which at the time of our visit was shrouded in scaffolding and tarpaulin just like the stations of the real East London Line during its recent refurbishment — was a flyposter for the very real and then still quite recent event Hackney Adventures which featured Iain Sinclair and others. There was another poster for an event involving the artist Bob and Roberta Smith.

Since it is June 16, I will also say that at the time of our visit to the set, I noticed that one Eastenders character’s bookshelf contained not quite a copy of Ulysses itself, but of Clive Hart and David Hayman’s 1977 University of California publication James Joyce’s Ulysses: Critical Essays. Since I am writing this on Bloomsday that is close enough.

Visit over, we emerged and set off through the suburban streets that lay ‘in the shadow of the film studios’ (as Ballard says of Shepperton in this 1990 interview). Looking around and still feeling that slight psychic jolt where fiction meets reality, I remarked that after the hyper-real simulation of Walford, the town of Borehamwood didn’t look very realistic. It was a day-to-day observation that only felt uncanny later, when we got home and read the first news of J.G. Ballard’s death.

Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie, by Stewart Home (2010) ISBN 978 1 906012 23 6—Price £8.00