Print Story Nebbipsychogeography
Diary
By nebbish (Mon Sep 15, 2008 at 05:16:06 PM EST) (all tags)
World War One, Notting Hill, and of course Cycling


Books

Read “England Invaded”, an anthology of turn-of-the-century science fiction edited by Michael Moorcock. Moorcock isn’t someone I’ve read, but as part of the same psychogeography movement as one of my favourite writers, Iain Sinclair, I knew this would be a well put together anthology.

The stories in the book are from a peculiar period in British science fiction, the point where the “scientific romance” stories of the nineteenth century gave way to a much harder form that concerned itself with the issues of the day. As an anthology they start jolly, and get less and less jolly as they go on – the first story, “The Importance of Advertisement” by Tristram Crutchley, is about a British naval officer who comes across a flying machine on a visit to France, and uses it to fly over his fleet in the English Channel, dropping biscuits on the heads of his colleagues as they look up in merriment – a lighthearted premonition of the importance of aerial bombing that was to come.

The short stories that follow are in similar vein – but one, “The Monster of Lake LeMetrie" by Wardon Allan Curtis, about a scientist transplanting his friend's brain into a dinosaur and watching him gradually take on the creature's "uncouth" characteristics, is just mental. I haven't read anything quite so strange (and unintentionally funny) in a while.

The second half of the book is taken up by Saki’s long out of print “When William Came”, a pre-World War One novella about a Britain invaded and occupied by Germany. It makes for depressing reading, but not for the reasons Saki thought – throughout he bewails an English softness and lack of pluck, a nation that has rolled over and let the Hun take over. A takeover that has resulted in nothing worse than German flags above Buckingham Palace, emigration of the gentry to India, outdoor cafes on Piccadilly serving lager-beer and “Keep Off the Grass” signs in Green Park, but which is an affront to his ideas of patriotism.

Perhaps nothing could be so diametrically opposed to what actually happened only a few years later. Millions of Europeans went to die in the trenches of World War One in the name of his hopelessly outdated ideals. This book made me spit, but is perhaps as interesting a piece of pre-World War One fiction you can come across, outlining as it does the idiocy of upper-class thinking at the time.

However if you're interested in the fiction of this period I'd recommend "The Riddle of the Sands" by Erskine Childers as the definitive pre-World War One novel. It's a thriller (largely recognised as the first ever thriller) that follows a yachtsman who goes on a sailing holiday across the North Sea, and discovers a German military build-up amongst the sandbanks and inlets of the North German coast. A ripping read that's much more contemporary than Saki's nonsense.

Pamphlets

On the recommendation of an internet friend I ordered a pretty obscure late-1990s “London Psychogeography” pamphlet by anarchist writer Tom Vague, called “Rachman, Riots and Rillington Place.”

This is fucking fantastic, a real gem. Vague gives a concise, potted history of the weirder, more interesting aspects of Notting Hill’s history in the 1950s and 1960s – starting with the infamous serial killer Christie, then the Notting Hill Race Riots, taking in the pathetic tail-end of Oswald Mosley's carrer; moving through a fascinating account of infamous slum landlord Peter Rachman’s empire, into the Profumo affair, and finishing off with the bizarre story of media entity/criminal/self-appointed Black Power spokesman Michael X.

Though clumsily written, I haven’t come across such an interesting piece of work in ages. Vague has a knack for ignoring the boring and concentrating on the fascinating, and peppers his work with addresses and actual locations, making a visit to Notting Hill a must after reading it.

Surprisingly, considering his anarchist standpoint he is impressively objective, on balance of evidence showing that Rachman was a media bogeyman not half as bad as the landlords who used him to distract from their own affairs; while Michael X is uncovered as the real slum landlord, taking over Rachman’s empire through threat and extortion, before exploiting the new politics of the sixties to make himself out as a revolutionary. But I simplify – both were much more complicated characters, each lost and victims of circumstance.

I can’t recommend this highly enough – it’s still available, just, a lot of his other pamphlets have sold out – if you have any interest in this sort of local history, grab a copy while you can.

After reading “Rachman, Riots and Rillington Place” I decided to get myself up to Notting Hill for my weekend bike ride. Another pathetic ride clocking in at 20 miles. Gmap pedometer map of route.

Unbelievably, despite loving exploring London’s nooks and crannies I’d never been to Notting Hill. I lazily toured the streets before finding what Tom Vague says was the heart of Rachman’s slum empire, Powis Square. It’s still surprisingly down-at-heel. Even in the posher bits up the hill, mere streets away from David Cameron’s address I found a crumbling stucco mansion subdivided into tiny bedsits, mouldy plasterboard across grimy bay windows. It’s an odd area, still.

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*The three wordier definitions of psychogeography in the poll were put to me by members of another forum when I asked them to define psychogeography. As someone who thinks the minutae of the history of an area can be just as revealing and important as a "macro" history of world events, I find the work psychogeographical writers do fascinating - whatever the definitions, it's definitely something apart from the way historical writing has traditionally been done.

Basically, I don't know much about academic approaches to history, but I like what they're doing.

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Nebbipsychogeography | 19 comments (19 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
Moorcock by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #1 Mon Sep 15, 2008 at 05:25:06 PM EST
He's a great editor. As a writer, he defines inconsistent. Some of his stuff is amazing, other things dreadful.
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[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
I was very impressed by nebbish (2.00 / 0) #2 Mon Sep 15, 2008 at 05:32:58 PM EST
That when editor of the seminal Brit experimental SF magazine New Worlds in the 60s, whenever it was running out of money he'd settle in for a weekend with a couple of bottles of whisky and bang out a shite fantasy novel to bankroll the magazine - now that's a writer!

I saw him at a reading with Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair last year - he made a lot of sense.

But where to start when he's written so many books?

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It's political correctness gone mad!

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Heh! by ucblockhead (2.00 / 0) #3 Mon Sep 15, 2008 at 05:55:51 PM EST
And I read all those shite fantasy novels!

If you like the whole Steampunk thing, the Oswald Bastible books are good. The Elric books are his most famous, but are a bit on the pulpy side. (Ok, lots more than "a bit".) The more recent Elric books are not pulpy at all ("The Fortress of the Pearl", "The Dream Thief's Daughter"), though I didn't care for the latest ("The Skrayling Tree".)

My personal favorites are The Dancers at the End of Time and Brothel on the Rosenstrasse. Behold the Man is also amazing.
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[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman

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Thing is by nebbish (2.00 / 0) #5 Mon Sep 15, 2008 at 06:11:48 PM EST
If the man can write, how bad can he be? And perhaps something he's banged out pissed in a weekend could be closer to the heart of what he's doing than something he's sweated over...

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It's political correctness gone mad!

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OMFG by ammoniacal (4.00 / 1) #6 Mon Sep 15, 2008 at 07:16:29 PM EST
I give, devise, and bequeath to nebbish my entire Elric collection upon my death.

"To this day that was the most bullshit caesar salad I have every experienced..." - triggerfinger

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Cheers! by nebbish (4.00 / 1) #14 Tue Sep 16, 2008 at 05:11:34 AM EST
Here's hoping I won't need to be drunk to read them :)

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It's political correctness gone mad!

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Oh Gord by ucblockhead (2.00 / 0) #4 Mon Sep 15, 2008 at 05:58:38 PM EST
How did I forget The War Hound and the World's Pain!? Not to mention Gloriana.
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[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
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Those look good actually by nebbish (2.00 / 0) #15 Tue Sep 16, 2008 at 05:13:34 AM EST
They also look like hard work, which has put me off Moorcock in the past. I think it's time to bite the bullet though.

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It's political correctness gone mad!

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War Hound by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #16 Tue Sep 16, 2008 at 06:36:08 AM EST
"Gloriana" is hard work, but "War Hound and the World's Pain" is a pretty easy read.
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[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
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May I just say by Phage (2.00 / 0) #10 Tue Sep 16, 2008 at 04:06:50 AM EST
Dancers at the end of Time. <shudder>

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Random thought... by Metatone (2.00 / 0) #7 Mon Sep 15, 2008 at 10:17:27 PM EST
I'm currently reading "After Tamerlane" (and if you've not read it I'd highly recommend it).
It's about the broad sweep of imperial histories, I'm finding it in my mind a great follow on to Guns Germs and Steel in a way.

Anyway, what's clear is that for much of the history of "Europe" once the age of serious colonisation had started up to WW1, the elites of Europe were really rather alike and more of a community that we tend to remember I think. - Brought to mind by your review of "When William Came."


After Tamerlane sounds interesting by jump the ladder (2.00 / 0) #9 Mon Sep 15, 2008 at 11:32:07 PM EST
Next on my reading list...

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Just put it on my Wishlist by nebbish (2.00 / 0) #13 Tue Sep 16, 2008 at 05:07:31 AM EST
Looks like one for the future - I've got a book about Germany in the nineteenth century lined up, it might be good companion piece to that.

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It's political correctness gone mad!

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There was a lot of British invasion scare by jump the ladder (2.00 / 0) #8 Mon Sep 15, 2008 at 11:20:34 PM EST
Novels from the turn of the last century. First it was the French and then the Germans. And guess which still extant newspaper used to serialise them? Pretty similar to today's terrorist stuff as you had the foreign enemy within except they were German waiters who were secretly trained as soldiers. Neil Ferguson does a whole chapter on them in his excellent WW1 book, The Pity Of War.

PG Wodehouse wrote a piece satirizing Saki when everyone from the Germans, the Russians and the Mad Mullah invades Britain and people barely noticed.

Notting Hill is an interesting district of London. Suprised you've never been to the Carnival in all your time in London then?

Carnival by nebbish (2.00 / 0) #11 Tue Sep 16, 2008 at 05:03:41 AM EST
More Ladbroke Grove? The times I've been I've been at sound systems north of the Westway, near Trellick Tower for example, which is North Kensington really.

Having said that it's pretty difficult to work out where you are in those crowds...

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It's political correctness gone mad!

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I've ordered The Swoop! by nebbish (2.00 / 0) #12 Tue Sep 16, 2008 at 05:05:33 AM EST
I like Wodehouse

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It's political correctness gone mad!

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I feel the need to defend Saki by herbert (4.00 / 2) #17 Tue Sep 16, 2008 at 10:37:09 AM EST
Since he's one of my favourite writers.  I do admit that When William Came isn't his best though - I'd recommend anyone to read the damn-near-perfect short stories first.

First of all, the really bad prediction would have been "no-one is going to invade anyone".  But I'm not sure it's fair to treat it as straightforward prediction at all.  If he decided to write his book based on the ideas that (1) an invasion is possible and (2) a lot of people might accept it, then I don't see why he shouldn't stretch them both a bit.  Maybe he just didn't want to write about naval battles or a guerilla war.

I suppose you can say that raising the possibility of a successful invasion makes the book generally pro-arms-race, build-more-ships-before-the-Germans-do sort of thing.  But hadn't a lot of the military buildup already happened by 1913?  (That's only the publication date right enough - don't know when he actually wrote it.  And I'm probably out of my depth when it comes to discussing the causes of WWI.)  Seems too simple to pigeonhole the book like this anyway.  Suggesting that an occupation might be somewhat tolerated looks a bit subversive, even though he's making it clear he hates the idea.

And another thing - is Sands any more plausible?  I can't remember what Saki's actual invasion scenario was - does he go into much detail? - but they're both approximately saying that if Germany can get past the Royal Navy (probably by using underhand foreign trickery), then Britain is pretty defenceless.

Anyway I'll need to get that Wodehouse too I think.

I like Saki's short stories too by nebbish (4.00 / 1) #18 Wed Sep 17, 2008 at 04:58:02 AM EST
Though it's a long time since I read them. For a start I was disappointed that his usual humour seemed to be completely lacking in "When William Came."

I don't think plausibility is the problem. The invasion scenario in "When William Came" is defeat of the British navy with few casualties, but it's irrelevant anyway - the message is about a country that's gone to the dogs, its young men more interested in their own comfort than defending their nation, overrun by a "fifth column" of foreigners (anti-Semitism is another strong theme) - much the same crap you hear from unthinking armchair politicians today. It's not the military or diplomatic plausibility of the book I'm criticising here, it's his apparent despair at a national malaise that the events of only a year later (book was published in 1913, WWI started in 1914) showed didn't even exist.

It takes quite some ignorance to get it so spectacularly wrong, though events proved he was hardly alone amongst the British upper classes.

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It's political correctness gone mad!

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Well, somewhat agree by herbert (4.00 / 1) #19 Wed Sep 17, 2008 at 11:45:58 AM EST
I suppose that does pretty much sum up his attitude. I still can't see it as quite so obvious that he got everything wrong about the national psychology.

People were willing to go to the war when it actually happened, but does that mean they couldn't have suffered a morale failure if conquered?  You could see both as coming from the nation being overconfident about its own invulnerability.

Then there's the ending where it's the youth who turn out to be defiant - is it pushing it too far to say that's reminiscent of all the schoolboys who signed up to go to the real war?

I dunno, I'll read it again sometime and see if I'm just remembering it selectively.

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