Dundee to Babylon

The life of a literary editor and published author is always a zig-zag of contradictions. Last Thursday I gave a talk to the Edinburgh Sir Walter Scott Club, in the New Club, the ne plus ultra of Edinburgh’s most Edinburgian elite, then off to the West Port Festival in the equivalent of Edinburgh’s Soho (it’s all set in second hand bookshops that have to share the street with lap-dancing clubs: it’s known as the city’s Pubic Triangle). It was with bizarre glee I realised I’d sold as many copies in one as in the other. Both, incidentally, gave me a tie as well. “Author: Will Work for Knitwear”. Then it was off to Dundee, with another set of antisyzygies.

Who lives in a house like this?

Dundee’s literary festival, like the West Port, is relatively young and consequently more adventurous. West Port had Frank Quitely, cine films and Kei Miller: Dundee has a day of comics, Neil Forsyth and Nick Cave. Dundee is an odd city, and one I’d like to spend more time in. I’d written about psychogeography in this week’s paper – the review’s at the end of this post – and so Mrs McS and I went off on a wee adventure. What strikes you immediately about Dundee is the wholly deliberate, wholly mendacious endeavour to rewire the city’s soul. The old civic centre, a glorious museum, school and civic chambers, with a statue of Queen Victoria as a Pyramid, is systematically by-passed like some arcane angioplasty, in favour of a new shopping mall and a Primark the size of Luxembourg. It’s also the only city where I’ve seen a seagull smoking a fag, like a ned pterodactyl. There’s also a large bingo hall called MECCA, which leads me to wonder if a Scottish hajj might not end in God’s Calvinistic lottery. Dundee’s festival is in the University, but we were billeted in the wonderful Hospitalfield House, where, to my delight, I saw a large canvas of The Trial of Effie Deans, a very weird smaller oil painting of The Glee Maiden and a portrait of George Gilfillan. And spent a long night talking with comics legends like Dez Skinn, Pat Mills, Alan Davis and Rian Hughes. There was also an absolutely first class meal laid on – including a guinea fowl terrine very smartly matched with home-made piccalilli. Then we were back to Edinburgh and the West Port Closing Party, which made me feel 173 years old. Which was an improvement on the 194 I usually feel, especially when spending all of the above engrossed in Paul Kriwaczek’s exceptional volume on early Mesopotamian culture.

Ashurbanipal, the Autarch as Archeologist

It has one of the best historical stories that might as well stand as a fable. We know much about Mesopotamian culture on account of Ashurbanipal, who, towards the end of their pre-eminence, ordered a giant library to be built, to house the best texts in cuneiform script of their culture. Ashurbanipal says it best: “I Ashurbanipal within the palace understood the wisdom of Nabu [their version of Thoth]. All the art of writing I made myself the master of them… I read the cunning tablets of Sumer and the dark Akkadian which is rightly difficult to use; I took pleasure from reading stones inscribed before the Flood”.

He did so just as new immigrants from the East were transforming the empire, their key strategic advantage being a new communications technology: the precursor of the alphabet.

 Anyway, here’s this week’s review.

Restless Cities, Matthew Beaumont and Gregory Dart (eds.), Verso, £12.99

If there is one literary movement which has flourished in the current generation, it is most likely psychogeography. How I wish there was a different name for it: despite inspiring some of the most innovatory and revealing books (and films) of recent years, the term itself seems like a piece of badly translated German sociology thesis. The editors of this splendid collection of examples of and essays on psychogeography make a fair fist of a more user-friendly definition, citing the words of the Henri Lefebvre, author of the Critique of Everyday Life: psychogeographers “will come to ‘listen’ to a house, a street, a town, as an audience listens to a symphony”. It is this capacity for intense, careful curiosity that unites writers as diverse as the late J G Ballard, Will Self, the under-rated Glaswegian Frank Kuppner and China Miéville. Although this volume deals specifically and exclusively with the contemporary city, it could easily be argued that W G Sebald, Robert Macfarlane and Kathleen Jamie have applied the same investigative methods to rural as well as urban spaces.

 No book such as this would be complete without a contribution from Iain Sinclair, the almost legendary curator of London’s mythologies. Sinclair’s work, from his wonderful early poems Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge, to his epic account of a walk around the M25, London Orbital, has ceaselessly charted the impact of high capitalism on the city’s fabric and fables. In the virtuoso piece here, “Sickening”, Sinclair goes global to ruminate on the Swine Flu hysteria. He finds arcane connections between “sterile” hypermodern cities and the language virus of William Burroughs; jumps between “hidden messages” on the DVD of the 1974 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (including the bizarre anecdote that the BBC wanted Arthur Lowe rather than Alec Guinness to play Smiley) and a hilarious account of a feverish taxi ride where the “hot-seat stand-in” driver is “navigating Old Street with a map of Lagos”. He clashes together former plague hospitals and contemporary paranoia with his trademark wide-eyed horror.

 Brilliant though Sinclair is, his influence can be oppressive: there is more to psychogeography than his visionary, weird style. Two writer / film-makers, Chris Petit and Patrick Keiller, contribute essays on, respectively, “Bombing” and “Imaging”. Petit skilfully weaves together the history of Blitz sites and the Allies’ maps of targets with the “bombing” of the market, building up to a pitch of indignation about New Labour and the vacuous media. Which came first, he asks, “the giant supermarkets or the XXL people?” Keiller is similarly bemused by the failure of the Left, though his tone is more nostalgic than outraged. In retracing his steps around suburbs where The Lavender Hill Mob was filmed, he singularly fails to have an epiphany, a moment more telling about the modern city than the more mystical versions of psychogeography. Instead of revelation, he finds “Europe’s largest car super-market”.

 Although London looms large in this book, there is room for a very telling and measured piece by Marshall Berman on his native South Bronx, an area which was the victim of what he calls “urbicide”; the systematic ruination of a whole district. David Trotter’s very clever essay on public phones doesn’t just deal with the classic, now usually derelict, red boxes, but the use of the phone booth in The Birds, The Wire, Stray Dog and The Third Man. Kasia Boddy takes a historical tour through the changing nature of window boxes, and in particular, the geranium. Esther Leslie’s piece on “Recycling” looks at how cities create waste and how artists can turn that detritus into something of value. The best essays, like word of mouth success, are like gentle and persistent recommendations, and Leslie’s essay left me with a very long new reading list.

 Restless Cities is a gem of a book, by turns inspiring, shocking and consistently intelligent. It does make me wonder, however, why Scotland, and Edinburgh in particular, has such little engagement with this tradition. Indeed, Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist is wonderful for many reasons, but being rare shouldn’t be one of them.

Cracks in the Universe

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Dundee to Babylon

  1. That first picture looks like a castle!

  2. Thank you, Stuart, for your kind and generous review of my Babylon book in Scotland on Sunday. And in particular for grasping so readily what I was trying to do.

    Best wishes,

    Paul

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