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 Millions of Europeans went to die in the trenches of World War One in the name of his hopelessly outdated ideals.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.
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.
*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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