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September 2021

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The Purpose of Power by Alicia Garza
18th September 2021

Compelling, timely and powerful -
The Purpose of Power by Alicia Garza

The Purpose of Power by Alicia Garza

 

"Movements are the story of how we come together when we've come apart."

The Purpose of Power by Alicia Garza is a powerful, personal memoir, masterfully woven with a necessary blueprint for the future, and is now available in paperback. As we all need to become more invested in change, and tackling the systemic racism that is prevalent throughout our culture and institutions, this is an essential book that should be read far and wide, from one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter Global Network. Here you can read an exclusive extract.

 



 

I have traveled across the country talking with aspiring leaders who hope to make change in their communities. I’ll admit I die a little inside when people ask me, “How can I build my platform?”

          Or when they introduce themselves to me as an “influencer.” No joke: A brilliant young Black sister recently handed me a business card that identified her as a “student influencer.”

          My response, sometimes through gritted teeth, is this: “For what and for whom are you building a platform and profile?”

          I still do not believe that Twitter followers and Facebook friends represent the amount of influence you have. My friends who are digital organizers will kill me for saying this, and believe me, I mean no disrespect. If you have a million followers on Twitter, you are influencing something and someone. And yet the question remains: for whom, and for what?

          Black Lives Matter started as a hashtag and then grew into a series of social media pages that connected people online. But it was when masses of people began to move in service of Black Lives Matter that it became effective. Imagine if we merely continued to tweet about our dissatisfaction without taking that displeasure directly to decision makers? Imagine if we had continued to just write about what’s wrong online without showing up at campaign fundraisers and news conferences, without establishing encampments in front of city halls and police stations. What impact would we have had? Would this even be considered a movement?

          Black Lives Matter brought people together online to take action together offline. Solely organizing, educating, or pontificating online was never something that we considered to be effective organizing. But more than that, bringing people together offline requires building the relationships and infrastructure that can help grow the movement. Protests are never enough to build a movement. Protests need planning and preparation. Outreach and attendance. Follow-up. Security and safety plans. Messaging and targets. Demands. Cultural components. All of that requires vehicles that can give people things to be involved in between protests and off-camera.

          For me, the only use for a platform or a profile is in the service of the strategy of a movement. It doesn’t matter how many people follow me on social media if I am not moving them to do something amazing together offline— which is the only hope to achieve the changes we so desperately need and deserve. It doesn’t matter if someone wants to “be like me” but doesn’t want to do the work that I do that makes me me— and that work is situated inside the context of a movement. It is not work that I do in isolation or on my own. Can I move the people who follow me on Twitter into votes that oust problematic decision makers and instill people with vision and a plan? Can I transform my Facebook friends into leagues of democracy defenders in fifty states— people who ensure that every voice is counted? If not, frankly, fuck a platform and fuck a profile. Platforms and profiles are only as useful as what they are in service of.

          I worry that we are encouraging people to build profiles and platforms without a strategy to win the changes we want to see in the world— to think they can change the world according to how many people follow them on social media. I’ve learned we need bases, not brands.

 



Alicia Garza

Alicia Garza is an innovator, strategist and organizer. She is the Principal at the Black Futures Lab, co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter and the Black Lives Matter Global Network, the Director of Strategy and Partnerships at the US National Domestic Workers Association, co-founder of Supermajority and host of the podcast Lady Don't Take No.

 

 

The Making of Incarnation by Tom McCarthy
16th September 2021

Audacious and mesmeric -
The Making of Incarnation
by Tom McCarthy

The Making of Incarnation by Tom McCarthy

 

Bodies in motion. Birds, bees and bobsleighs. What is the force that moves the sun and other stars? Where's our fucking airplane? What's inside Box 808, and why does everybody want it? 
 

With his dazzling new novel The Making of Incarnation, Tom McCarthy weaves a set of stories one inside the other, rings within rings, a perpetual-motion machine, in which he peers through the screen, or veil, of technological modernity to reveal the underlying historical and symbolic structures of human experience. Especially for the Foyles blog McCarthy has selected an extract from his new work, and written a scene-setting introduction which also explains his fascination with forensic procedure. And don't miss out on our signed bookplate edition!

 




This exchange, from a chapter titled ‘The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes’, takes place about halfway through the novel, in the offices of Forensis plc. Lucy Diamond’s employer, a motion-capture company, is helping Degree Zero, a visual-effects outfit, produce a detailed CGI render of a staved-in skull for the sci-fi blockbuster-in-progress Incarnation; which is why Forensis (who, as their name suggests, are a state-of-the-art forensics firm) have been roped in.

 

Forensic procedure has always fascinated me. It’s about the reconstruction of an event — usually a violent one. Its logic lies at the heart of literature, of tragedy especially. Oedipus is forensics. Forensics is about repetition, and trauma, but also about aesthetics: the rendering-visible and -legible of movement, action, bodies acting on other bodies with momentous consequences. It raises questions of agency, and predeterminism or ‘fate’ — questions as relevant in the digital era as they were in Sophocles’. The challenge is to get a multi-POV perspective on it all — kaleido-vision, if you like. It’s either that, or tear your eyes out…


**
 

The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes

 

          ‘This,’ Webster has set the skull down now and moved to a computer, ‘is a PBR, made with our latest toy, a Faro laser scanner, of one of these specimens – the third one from the right, to be precise. We could provide you and your movie people, Double Zero, with . . .’
          ‘It’s Degree Zero,’ she corrects him.
          ‘. . . Degree Zero, with this very scan, or one much like it. It’s made with the same flyover method we use with the Pitt Rivers and British Museums, digitising ethnographic artefacts.’
          ‘Artefacts as in . . . ?’
          ‘Statues, fetishes or handmade bowls, what have you . . .’ he tells her without taking his eyes from the screen or fingers from the glide-pad, moving about which they spin the radiant green cranium around, enabling multiple flyovers, each from a new angle, of its wound-crater, a detailed survey of its pleats and ridges.
          ‘This is more or less exactly what the character does,’ Diamond says.
          ‘She has a Faro scanner too?’
          ‘Version 20.0,’ Diamond smiles back, ‘with screen-independent holographic render . . . Hey, what’s that?’
          She can’t help herself slipping back into ingénue mode: the printouts covering the wall behind the monitor are too intriguing. They seem to depict a kind of urban grid: an irregular one, with arrows indicating various jagging trajectories across it.
          ‘What’s . . . ? Oh, that: Sarajevo,’ answers Webster. ‘Twentyeighth June 1914. It’s the route that Archduke Ferdinand’s car took across the city. Collaboration with the History Department at UCL. Apparently, the century since the assassination has produced a thousand theories as to why the anarchist Princip did it, or why this particular event sparked off the biggest tinderbox in human history – but no one’s ever thought to carry out a basic time-and-motion study.’
          ‘And . . . ?’
          ‘And what?’
          ‘And what has it revealed?’
          ‘It has revealed,’ Webster proudly announces, ‘that it all boils down to a three-point turn.’
          ‘A three-point turn – like in a car?’
          ‘Indeed: not like but actually in a car. The Archduke’s motorcade, driving down Appel Quay, here’ – he’s over at the wall now, pointing out the road in question – ‘turns right toward Franz Josef Street so as to deviate from the back-up route to which it has, as a precaution, switched (a bomb has been thrown earlier, and hit a secondary car; the pages of the speech Franz Ferdinand reads just prior to his assassination are flecked with blood) – a double-deviation, back to its initially announced route. Which isn’t very safe, given the day’s threat level. So, when the security implications of this dawn on the Archduke’s bodyguards, they decide to switch back a second time; which re-rerouting necessitates a three-point turn. Now, think of three-point turns: what do they all, no matter how swiftly or deftly they’re executed, entail?’
          Diamond thinks back to her driving test: angles and distances, protocols and sequences, mirror-signal-manoeuvre . . . ‘Toggling between forward and reverse?’ she tries.
          ‘Well, yes . . . But that dictates another basic quality: that every three-point turn contains, at – as – its pivot-point, a static moment. Here in Appel Quay, this moment takes place right by where Princip is standing. So, naturally, he pulls his pistol out and offs his sitting-duck duke quarry.’
          ‘What are the chances?’ Diamond murmurs.
          ‘Chance,’ says Webster, ‘is a can of worms this project has pried open. The more you look at it, the more you start to see a sort of correspondence – of symmetry almost – not only in the layout of the streets, the doubled routes, the switchbacks and retracings and so on, but also in the larger field of the event’s contingencies. Take just one sample area, for example: the lead actors’ titles. On one side, you’ve got Franz Ferdinand, the Archduke; on the other, Princip, the anarchist. Archduke, like princip, means ‘prince’ – from arc or arche: prime authority, but also curve plotted in space; and dux, or leader, plotter of a route. The Archduke’s people plot a route through space; the anarchists launch their counterplot, a plot against arch order, against structure. But their plotting is defective – as you might expect: they don’t believe in arcs or arches, that’s the whole point. But – here’s the twist, which perhaps isn’t such a twist after all – an arc comes to their aid: a double-arc, embodied in a three-point turn. It’s like a kind of doubling-up, a folding. And the street towards which the Archduke is heading doubles his own name, halfway at least: Franz Josef is his uncle, who’s dispatched him off to Sarajevo – like a double, to die in his place.’
          ‘So are you saying . . . ?’ Diamond begins; but Webster cuts her off:
          ‘I’m not saying anything. Just tracing out a set of lines; a fracture network. That’s all I do. I have a hat in this ring, too.’
          ‘Professionally?’ she asks.
          ‘Titularly. Staying within the same interrogation boundaries, names and their meanings: arc comes from the Greek arkheion, house’ – he opens up his hand to indicate their environs – ‘of records. In Ancient Athens, they had archons, magistrates, guardians and interpreters of the public archive; through their collective analyses and deliberations, the archons oversaw the workings of democracy and justice.’ He pauses for a while, then adds: ‘Archives were held in chest or arks, made of acacia wood.’ His finger gently slides down from the diagrams and route maps and swings back towards the skulls as he continues: ‘Arca can mean coffin too . . .’
          Diamond’s middle name is Sky. It was her mother’s maiden name. Her parents were second-wave hippies, early-nineties flower children. In tribute to the tangerine streets and marmalade skies, the plasticine porters with looking-glass ties of the song – as well (she suspects, reading between the lines of the foundation myth they fondly peddled her) as the fact that they were both tripping when they met – they named her Lucy. Are there arches at work there, too, plotting, from base coordinates of nomenclature, the paths and switchbacks, folds and doublings, assignations both fortuitous and unfortunate, even catastrophic, that her life will follow? Or is it something older, routes laid down prior even to that, some vast mechanism as inevitable as the engine movements of open-top motorcars, or newspaper taxis appearing on the shore, waiting to take you away? Here, in Forensis plc’s back office, one of the many darkened rooms that she now seems to spend the lion’s share of her time in, Diamond finds herself struck by a pervasive sense of powerlessness, of freedom from volition. It’s neither a particularly bad feeling nor a good and liberating one – it just is what it is.

 



Tom McCarthy


Tom McCarthy's work has been translated into more than 20 languages and adapted for cinema, theatre and radio. His third novel C was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Walter Scott Prize and the European Literature Prize and his fourth, Satin Island, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Goldsmiths Prize. In 2013 he was awarded the inaugural Windham-Campbell Literature Prize by Yale University. McCarthy is also author of the study Tintin and the Secret of Literature, and of the essay collection Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish. He lives in Berlin.

Author Photo © Nicole Strasser

 

Tenderness by Alison MacLeod
14th September 2021

Elegant and ambitious -
Tenderness by Alison MacLeod
 

Tenderness by Alison MacLeod


Tenderness by Alison MacLeod is the spellbinding story of Lady Chatterley's Lover, and the society that put it on trial; the story of a novel and its ripple effects across half a century, and about the transformative and triumphant power of fiction itself. Published with glowing praise from the likes of Elif Shafak, Elizabeth Gilbert and Madeline Miller, Tenderness is the kind of rich, evocative and immersive novel that is perfect for the autumn reading. Especially for Foyles MacLeod has written a blog giving further insight into her glorious novel, which also features a small cameo from our own Christina Foyle.
 



The Case of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the Booksellers

 

In the summer of 1928, in a dark little Florentine bookshop, D. H. Lawrence was overseeing the printing of his latest – and, as it happened, his last – novel.  ‘My cough is as ever.’  His lungs were devastated by TB; the haemorrhaging was getting worse.  He weighed little more than seven or eight stone, and he was luminously pale in the heat of a Tuscan summer.  To Aldous Huxley, he wrote: ‘I’ve got to sell my novel, or I’m a lost soul.’  The price would be two guineas, and his own drawing of a rising phoenix would decorate the hardback’s boards.

 

In the spring, he’d sent the manuscript off to his publisher, Martin Secker, with a plea: ‘Don’t all in a rush be scared and want to pull whole sections out.’  But Secker, aware of the Obscene Publications Act – with the probability of a steep fine or possibly prison – was not scared. He was clear: he could not publish it.  Lawrence instructed his agent not to bother trying other publishers; he couldn’t bear the hand-wringing and hypocrisy of the replies he anticipated. ‘I’m beat by their psychology,’ he told Huxley. 

 

Even so, he was ‘embarked.  You must stand by me when the seas rise.’  The plan for private publication was born: ‘If I can carry this thing through, it will be a start for all of us unpopular authors.’

 

The scandalous novel was of course Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  ‘It is a nice and tender phallic novel,’ Lawrence assured a friend, ‘not a sex novel in the ordinary sense of the word.’ Tenderness had been his previous choice for a title.  ‘And those are the first two things, tenderness and beauty, which will save us from horrors… [I]n my novel I work for them directly, and direct from phallic consciousness, which, you understand, is not the cerebral sex-consciousness, but something really deeper, and the root of poetry, lived or sung.’ 

 

The notion of tenderness is vital to DHL’s body of work – essential to his vision not only for the full life of the individual, but to the sane progress of the wider world, especially as the world was in the wake of the cataclysm of the first world war: ‘The leader to-day needs tenderness as well as toughness,’ Lawrence argued.

 

Utterly convinced of the importance of his new manuscript, he was nevertheless relieved to learn that, in Florence, ‘the printer doesn’t know a word of English’, which was convenient given the variety of so-called 4-letter words lovingly spoken by Mellors, Lady Chatterley’s earthy gamekeeper-lover. 

 

Lawrence predicts, rightly, that ‘some people will want to annihilate me for it.’  He could keenly remember the burning of all 1,011 copies of his 1915 novel, The Rainbow, in London, as well as the penury that followed.  Yet in the summer of ‘28, he was determined to do everything in his power for ‘the full, fine flower’ of his novel.  Why, he asked, ‘should the red flower have its pistil nipped out, before it is allowed to appear?’  Moreover, even when he tried – for a subsequent expurgated edition – he simply couldn’t do it: ‘I might as well try to clip my own nose into shape with scissors. The book bleeds.’

 

To elude Customs and postal officials, he and his publisher-partner-in-crime, Pino Orioli, resorted to false titles, plain wrappers and secret shipments.  ‘Does me good,’ Lawrence admitted, ’to feel furious about the novel.’ 

 

More reason for fury was to come.  Many of his thousand precious copies were about to be confiscated in both Britain and America, and the threat of arrest by Scotland Yard was to loom over the self-described ‘outlaw’ until his early death, at the age of 44, just two years later.  He signs off one 1928 letter, ‘Your sincere “traitor and enemy of the human race”’ in a two-finger jibe at the status quo.

 

But back in England, things were about to get even worse.  Lawrence confided in Aldous Huxley: ‘…the booksellers have hastily written to say we must take back their copies at once, they couldn’t handle the Lady, and I must cancel their orders, and will we remove the offence at once.  That is in all 114 copies we have to fetch back…  Then there are rumours that the police are going to raid the shops.’ 

 

Lawrence’s beloved Lady C. had become untouchable.  Foyles wrote to Lawrence and Orioli describing it as ‘a book we could not handle in any way’, although at least Foyles had the decency to cover the cost of its own returns.

 

Thirty years after Lawrence’s death, the spectacle of Regina v Penguin at the Old Bailey was about to grip the nation – and the world’s media.  Penguin, the first British publisher to attempt release of the full, unexpurgated edition of Lawrence’s most controversial novel, was being prosecuted in the autumn of 1960 under the Obscene Publications Act.  An amendment to Act had been introduced in 1959, making some room for a distinction between literature and pornography – but how much room remained the question.  If found guilty, publisher Allen Lane and Penguin would face an unlimited fine – or even the possibility of a 3-year prison sentence for Lane as publisher.

 

A jury of nine men and three women, plus thirty-six expert witnesses, vindicated Penguin Books, Allen Lane, and Lawrence’s reputation.  Constance Chatterley and her lover Oliver Mellors also walked free that windswept November day.  So did the many readers who immediately queued up in their hundreds around Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus on the day of the verdict to buy the new paperback for 3/6, the cost of just ten cigarettes.  As Larkin famously recollected:

 

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

 

The Defence papers of Michael Rubinstein, Penguin Solicitor, and the court notebooks, kept by the Defence barristers, make fascinating and, at times, hilarious readingIn the basement of the University of Bristol library, I discovered in their archives – in barrister Richard Du Cann’s impeccable hand – the notes he wrote in pink felt-tip pen in court as the trial advanced.  He noted, for example, the Prosecution’s count of all the ‘rude’ words in the novel.  ‘Balls’, for example, appears thirteen times.  The aim of the Prosecution throughout the six-day trial was to shock and scandalise the jury.  Their efforts failed, and that in itself was, for many, a shock.  Penguin Books triumphed against every odd.

 

I’m delighted to say that Richard Du Cann’s notes now form the end-papers for the hardback of my novel, Tenderness.  It is the story of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, from inspiration to suppression to liberation.  More even than that, it is my own exploration of what it means to live fully; to have a voice and to use it; to have an imagination and to defend its expression and power in the world.

 

Among the trial papers, one finds Evelyn Waugh informing Michael Rubinstein that ‘Lawrence had very meagre literary gifts’, Alec Guinness admitting that he ‘cannot honestly say’ that publication of the novel was ‘for the public good’, and a senior of Hatchards Piccadilly declining to take part, as a witness, ‘in what is sure to be a most amusing affair’.

 

By contrast, the owner of Foyles, the largest bookshop in the world in 1960, went some distance to making up for the return of those six copies to Lawrence in 1928.  Christina Foyle agreed to stand as an expert witness.  She provided a witness statement in preparation for her performance in the stand: ‘I found Lawrence’s style beautiful and impressive, as I expected… I exercise no censorship – any book published by a reputable publisher we sell.  I do not think that Lady Chatterley’s Lover could conceivably deprave or corrupt anyone.’ 

 

Perhaps, in the end, she was not among the thirty-six called to give testimony because her wit was too unpredictable, too non-conformist – and too enjoyable: ‘In my opinion, the only person who will find the book obscene is the person who is looking for obscenity – the psychopath, the gentleman of inelegant leisure who haunt the medical sections of bookshops.’

 

Michael Rubinstein, who was possessed of a wonderful wit himself, nevertheless felt obliged to put two lines through each page of her statement.  At the top he wrote, ‘Not to be called’.  Yet, there in the temperature-controlled, hushed basement of Bristol’s Special Collections, I couldn’t help but give a silent cheer for Christina Foyle, for her wickedly good phrasing – and for being on the right side of history.

 



Alison Macleod

Alison MacLeod is the author of three novels - The Changeling, The Wave Theory of Angels and Unexploded, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013 - and two story collections. She is the joint winner of the Eccles British Library Writer's Award 2016 and was a finalist for the 2017 Governor General's Award. She was Professor of Contemporary Fiction at the University of Chichester until 2018, when she became Visiting Professor to write full-time. She lives in Brighton.

Author Photo © Kate MacLeod

 

 

 

London Clay by Tom Chivers
9th September 2021

What secrets lie beneath a city?
London Clay by Tom Chivers

London Clay by Tom Chivers


London Clay by Tom Chivers is an exploration of the stories that make a city. Written in rich and vivid prose, Chivers leads us on a journey to find the source of his memories, and to discover lost rivers, secret woodlands, the marshes and islands long buried beneath the city he loves. From Roman ruins to a submerged playhouse, from an abandoned Tube station to underground rivers, Chivers leads us on a journey into the depths of the city he loves.

Especially for Foyles, Chivers has selected a an extract to share, and has written an introduction giving extra depth to the piece and his fascinating book. 

 



I have been exploring the alleyways and edgelands of London since my early teens, when I would take the train up from Herne Hill every weekend to explore the Square Mile or Bankside or the West End on my skateboard. Later, it was London’s ‘lost rivers’ that fired my imagination - former tributaries of the Thames that are now bricked over or contained in Joseph Bazalgette’s vast network of subterranean sewers. In my book London Clay the streams become memory lines, reaching back through the history of the city and through my own past too. Effra. Walbrook. Tyburn. Fleet. Together with the vanished islands and hidden woodlands, these phantom channels have profoundly changed the way I think about the urban landscape, opening my eyes to new ways of thinking about this flawed, complex and beautiful city.
 

In the chapter from which this excerpt is taken, I follow the elusive river Neckinger from its source in Lambeth Marsh, near Waterloo Station, before tracking its course above ground to the Elephant and Castle. Here I discover a startling geological anomaly - the first of three mysterious ‘drift hollows’ hidden beneath the streets of the capital. Where it passed the Lock Hospital for Lepers on the Old Kent Road, the river was known as the Lock Stream; the unusual name, Neckinger, derives from the gallows - or ‘Devil’s neckerchief - which stood at its mouth. You can still visit the spot, or somewhere near it, by walking east along Tooley Street from Tower Bridge. St Saviour’s Dock is the only visible remains of the Neckinger; it was dug out by the Cluniac brothers of Bermondsey Abbey in the thirteenth century. You can peer into the murky depths from the junction of Tooley Street with Jamaica Road, or cross its entrance on a spindly bridge on the Thames Path. What can you spot, submerged in the mudflats?

 

************

 

A family of mallards is dabbling in the thick yellow silt of St Saviour’s Dock. I stand on a concrete parapet and look over the edge. It’s low tide and the Thames has drawn back its grey- green mantle, retreating more than 300 metres to the main channel, where it laps against mudflats. Surface water pours from a drain set into the embankment beneath me and forms a silver rivulet working its way through the black sediment at the head of the dock. Traffic cones appear, half- submerged, like ancient stelae. Driftwood, road signs, a plastic fork. Someone is watching from a window in one of the tall, converted warehouses that line the waterway – an architect, perhaps, in black- rimmed spectacles.
 

St Saviours Dock
 

The mouth of the Neckinger was first dug out by hand to form a dock nine hundred years ago by the monks of Bermondsey, when the stream was still navigable as far as the Abbey, but its character today is distinctively Victorian. A toxic atmosphere seems to rise from the slime of the dock bed, creeping up the tide- stained embankment walls like a fever. I follow Mill Street along the back of the warehouses towards the mouth of the dock. Two women in pencil skirts are sharing a single damp cigarette outside a recruitment agency. The warehouses are adorned with conspicuous signage: Shuters Wharf, St George’s and Scott’s Sufferance; Vogan’s Mill and New Concordia; Butler’s, Reed’s and China Wharf. Fresh paint jobs for a vanished industry.

The final vestige of the Neckinger meets the Thames in a shallow gully wandering through the mudflats. The water is the colour and consistency of potter’s slip; a slurry of claggy, oyster- grey fluid in which a set of faux-rattan garden chairs has found itself upturned and dumped. The intertidal zone is ambiguous territory, neither river nor solid ground – a suitable conclusion to a stream whose very existence is in doubt. I spot a shopping trolley, almost entirely submerged; a bottle of fizz and a circular blade; scaffolding poles and a child’s grey sock. A modern footbridge spans the entrance of the dock and its steel struts remind me of the delicate latticework of a biplane. As I stand there, above the mud that is pockmarked, here and there, with little pools of standing water, I imagine, at that moment, being pulled underneath, as if in quicksand – first a foot, then up to the knee, then the other foot, and an arm, sinking ever deeper the harder I struggle, screaming voiceless cries, until my toes hit the bottom and I’m up to my neck like Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days. ‘Oh no doubt you are dead, like the others, no doubt you have died, or gone away and left me, like the others, it doesn’t matter, you are there.’

‘Form is a straitjacket,’ said the poet Paul Muldoon, ‘in the way that a straitjacket was a straitjacket for Houdini.’ I am starting to think of the lost river as a magic an illusion, and of the Neckinger as the greatest escape artist, mercurial thing. Before the Great Fire, the Neckinger had not drained into St Saviour’s Dock at all but, instead, filled a large mill pond running parallel to the east. Then, by the construction of various tidal ditches, the pond was later formalized into a kind of moat, enclosing an area of notorious slum housing known as Jacob’s Island. When the social reformer Henry Mayhew visited in 1849, he dubbed it ‘pest island’:

"The running brook is changed into a tidal sewer, in whose putrid filth staves [planks] are laid to season; and where the ancient summerhouses stood, nothing but hovels, sties, and muck- heaps are now to be seen."

It is here, on Jacob’s Island, that my journey, and the history of the lost river, concludes. And so I double back along Mill Street, where a figure in an oversized parka is carrying a tray of cupcakes in a Tupperware box. The figure buzzes into a gated apartment complex where once stood the ‘crazy wooden galleries’, ‘dirt- besmeared walls’ and ‘decaying foundations’ described by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist. In an open plan office, a bearded man is tapping at a laptop below a giant display of the company’s brand values: Teamwork, Innovation, Authenticity. ‘The air,’ said Mayhew, ‘has literally the smell of a graveyard, and a feeling of nausea and heaviness comes over any one unaccustomed to imbibe the musty atmosphere.’ Mayhew was not the only observer to identify Jacob’s Island, and its polluted waterways, as a breeding ground for disease. The physician John Snow traced the source of the cholera epidemic of 1853– 54 to a sailor living near by, in Marine Street.

I am walking the line of Folly Ditch along Wolseley Street, between handsome apartment blocks and terraced houses. It is here that Dickens staged the grand finale of Oliver Twist. The murderer Bill Sikes, chased from his hideout to the rooftops of the island, forms a long rope into a noose by which he intends to rappel into the ditch and evade his pursuers; but then, suddenly startled by a vision of his dead lover’s eyes, he loses his balance and falls to his death, killed by his own means of escape.

"The noose was on his neck. It ran up with his weight, tight as a bowstring, and swift as the arrow it speeds. He fell for five- and- thirty feet. There was a sudden jerk, a terrific convulsion of the limbs; and there he hung, with the open knife clenched in his stiffening hand."

Surely the location and method of Sikes’s demise were not coincidental; for it was here, on the north side of Folly Ditch, that the gallows once stood that gave the Neckinger its name. It is marked on a map of 1740 as ‘Devol’s Neckenger’, an ancient place of execution which was later remembered by a public house, the Dead Tree. Dickens returned to Jacob’s Island fifteen years after the publication of Oliver Twist. Folly Ditch had disappeared, filled in and covered over by the ‘Bermondsey Improvement’. The site of the Dead Tree had been inherited by another inn, the Ship Aground, whose name, he wrote, ‘is wonderfully appropriate, for everything seems to have got aground there – never to be got off any more until the whole globe is stopped in its rolling and shivered’.

The rain has stopped by the time I find the pub, tucked between Dockhead Fire Station and Farthing Alley. Four tiny England flags are quivering in the wind. A satellite dish and a CCTV camera are fixed to the wall below a row of wooden shutters and the ship aground in golden lettering. In the windows, a dim light is burning. Posters advertise live sport on TV – Champions League, FA Cup, Six Nations rugby. Happy days: I’ll stop for a pint, another stormy blow- in, then walk the Thames Path home to Rotherhithe. I reach out and grip the door handle. Then something tells me to stop. I turn to face the street. Four long, black vehicles are moving slowly, silently past, on the line of Folly Ditch. A funeral cortège. The floral tribute reads, SISTER.

 



Tom Chivers

Tom Chivers is a writer, publisher and arts producer. He was born in 1983 in south London. He has released two pamphlets and two collections of poetry, the latest being Dark Islands (Test Centre, 2015). His poems have been anthologized in Dear World & Everything In It and London: A History in Verse. He was shortlisted for the Michael Marks and Edwin Morgan Poetry Awards and received an Eric Gregory Award in 2011. Tom has made perambulatory, site-specific and audio work for organisations including LIFT, Cape Farewell, Humber Mouth and Southbank Centre. He was writer in residence at Bishopsgate Institute and associate artist of the National Centre of Writing. In 2009 he presented a documentary for BBC Radio 4 about the poet Barry MacSweeney. In 2011 an animated film of his poem 'The Event' was broadcast by Channel 4's Random Acts. He lives in Rotherhithe with his wife and daughters.

 

On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint by Maggie Nelson
9th September 2021

Read an extract from
On Freedom:
Four Songs of Care and Constraint

by Maggie Nelson

On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint by Maggie Nelson


In her new book On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, Maggie Nelson examines what freedom means in relation to the biggest areas of debate in our culture -art, sex, drugs, climate. Drawing on a vast range of material, from critical theory to pop culture to the intimacies and plain exchanges of daily life, Nelson explores how we might think, experience, or talk about freedom in ways responsive to the conditions of our day. Here you can read an excluive extract.
 



STOP HERE IF YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT FREEDOM


From the introduction to On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint by Maggie Nelson

 

I had wanted to write a book about freedom. I had wanted to write this book at least since the subject emerged as an unexpected subtext in a book of mine about art and cruelty. I had set out to write about cruelty, then found, to my surprise, freedom coming through the cracks, light and air into cruelty’s stuffy cell. Once exhausted by cruelty, I turned to freedom directly. I started with “What Is Freedom?,” by Hannah Arendt, and began to amass my piles.

 

But before long I diverted, and wrote a book about care. Some people thought the book about care was also a book about freedom. This was satisfying, as I, too, felt this to be the case. For some time, I thought a book on freedom might no longer be necessary—maybe not by me, maybe not by anyone. Can you think of a more depleted, imprecise, or weaponized word? “I used to care about freedom, but now I mostly care about love,” one friend told me. “Freedom feels like a corrupt and emptied code word for war, a commercial export, something a patriarch might ‘give’ or ‘rescind,’” another wrote. “That’s a white word,” said another.

 

Often I agreed: Why not take up with some less contested, obviously timely and worthy value, such as obligation, mutual aid, coexistence, resiliency, sustainability, or what Manolo Callahan has called “insubordinate conviviality”? Why not acknowledge that freedom’s long star turn might finally be coming to a close, that a continued obsession with it may reflect a death drive? “Your freedom is killing me!” read the signs of protesters in the middle of a pandemic; “Your health is not more important than my liberty!” maskless others shout back.

 

And yet, I still couldn’t quit it.

 

Part of the trouble resides in the word itself, whose meaning is not at all self-evident or shared. In fact, it operates more like “God,” in that, when we use it, we can never really be sure what, exactly, we’re talking about, or whether we’re talking about the same thing. (Are we talking about negative freedom? Positive freedom? Anarchist freedom? Marxist freedom? Abolitionist freedom? Libertarian freedom? White settler freedom? Decolonizing freedom? Neoliberal freedom? Zapatista freedom? Spiritual freedom? and so on.) All of which leads to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous edict, the meaning of a word is its use. I thought of this formulation the other day when, on my university campus, I passed by a table with a banner that read, “Stop Here If You Want To Talk about Freedom.” Boy, do I! I thought. So I stopped and asked the young white man, probably an undergraduate, what type of freedom he wanted to talk about. He looked me up and down, then said slowly, with a hint of menace, a hint of insecurity, “You know, regular old freedom.” I noticed then that he was selling buttons divided into three categories: saving the unborn, owning the libs, and gun rights.

 

As Wittgenstein’s work makes clear, that the meaning of a word is its use is no cause for paralysis or lament. It can instead act as an incitement to track which language-game is being played. Such is the approach taken in the pages that follow, in which “freedom” acts as a reusable train ticket, marked or perforated by the many stations, hands, and vessels through which it passes. (I borrow this metaphor from Wayne Koestenbaum, who once used it to describe “the way a word, or a set of words, permutates” in the work of Gertrude Stein. “What the word means is none of your business,” Koestenbaum writes, “but it is indubitably your business where the word travels.”) For whatever the confusions wrought from talking about freedom, they do not in essence differ from the misunderstandings we risk when we talk to one another about other things. And talk to one another we must, even, or especially, if we are, as George Oppen had it, “no longer sure of the words.”

 



Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson is the author of several books of poetry and prose, including the New York Times bestseller and National Book Critics Circle Award winner The Argonauts, and most recently in the UK, Bluets. She teaches at University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles.

 

Greek Myths: A New Retelling by Charlotte Higgins
8th September 2021

Greek Myths: A New Retelling by Charlotte Higgins

Greek Myths: A New Retelling by Charlotte Higgins

 

Intro

 



Arachne 
 

Arachne wasn’t descended from the gods; she wasn’t even royal. Her father, Idmon of Colophon, was a dyer. His work was to harvest thousands upon thousands of seasnails from the shores of Phocaea. He’d crush their spiny shells, steep them in salt water for days, then boil up the liquor. Then, he’d dip fleeces into the vats. It was like the work of an enchanter: what began as dull-white wool would emerge from those vessels shimmering with subtleties of purple and scarlet.

          Despite Arachne’s ordinariness in other ways, she was famous for her skill as a spinner and weaver. People would come from miles around to her workshop at Hypaepa, beneath Mount Tmolus. It was a pleasure to see how deftly she combed the wool into fluffy clouds; how she attached handfuls of it to her distaff, then drew out the even, strong thread between her thumb and index finger, setting the whorl whirling as she did so. But it was in the design and invention of her tapestries that she really excelled. So vivid and alive were her scenes that you’d think the characters in them were really moving; you could almost hear them speaking.

          It was evident to everyone that Athena herself had trained Arachne. And not a day passed without Arachne hearing someone saying so. But she, secure in the brilliance of her artistry, denied it. And there came a day when she was so irritated by the remarks that she found herself saying, ‘I’ve heard enough about Athena. She can challenge me to a competition if she must. If she wins, she can name her penalty.’

          It was a throwaway remark. And so Arachne was not at all on her guard when a stooped, grey-haired woman said to her, ‘Take care, Arachne. You can boast that your weaving is better than any other mortal’s. But never, ever compare yourself to a goddess. If I were you, I’d apologise right away.’

          Arachne was so angry she almost struck the older woman. ‘This is outrageous! I’ll not take advice from you. You’re practically senile! As for Athena – if she is really so bothered about me, I’m sure she’ll come herself.’

          ‘She’s already here,’ said the old woman.

          With trembling, blue-veined hands she cast aside her shawl. All at once, instead of the tiny figure hunched over a stick, there stood a young goddess, erect, refulgent, magnificent. On her head gleamed a bronze helmet, made by Hephaestus – its horsehair crest brushed the beams of Arachne’s workshop. In her hand was a spear, and slung over her breast was the goatskin aegis, the sign of the power she shares with her father, Zeus. A thousand snakes writhed from it like living tassels.

          Arachne’s assistants and slaves, all the nymphs of Tmolus who were gathered in the workshop, all the visitors who had come to admire her work, fell back in terror and bowed their heads in reverence. Only Arachne herself, flushing slightly, stood her ground. ‘You still think you can compete with me?’ said Athena, her voice ringing out strong and clear. Arachne stared belligerently at the goddess, her arrogance intact. She gave a curt nod. The competition was on.

          The goddess pulled off her helmet, laid down her spear and threw off her aegis. Both of them, immortal and mortal, hitched up their skirts. Standing side by side now, working with extraordinary speed and skill, they set up a pair of tall, sturdy looms. They measured out the warp threads, attached them evenly from the
beam, then tied on the terracotta loom weights in neat bunches, fixing the threads to the heddle bar with knots of wool. The preliminaries over, the real labour began: the women began to send their shuttles flying through the shed, neatening the work as they did so with sharp taps of their weaving swords. They used precious purple yarn, and real gold thread too, but they also blended together many other tints – everything that madder and saffron, woad and oak bark could produce – to create marvellously subtle effects. It was like when the sun comes out just after a shower, and a rainbow arcs over the sky. You can see the colours, distinct and shimmering, and yet at the edges the hues seem to shade into each other and you can hardly tell where one ends and the next begins.

          Both the weavers, goddess and human, told ancient tales on their webs. Athena began by setting her immortal hands to weave a border of olive branches – you could almost feel the narrow, papery leaves between your fingers. At the centre was a scene showing herself as the winner of a great competition. The contest she chose to depict was not one against a mere, puny mortal like Arachne, but against one of the greatest of the deathless Olympians.

 



Charlotte Higgins

Charlotte Higgins's previous books include the acclaimed Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain, which was shortlisted for awards including the Samuel Johnson (now Baillie Gifford) Prize for non-fiction, and Red Thread, which was a Radio 4 Book of the Week and won the Arnold Bennett Prize 2019. She is chief culture writer of the Guardian, a past winner of the Classical Association prize, and a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. She lives in London. Chris Ofili is a British artist. He lives and works in Trinidad.

 

 

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