DOWN & DIRTY: STEWART HOME SPEAKS TO FLUX ABOUT HEREOS, ANTI-HEROES AND HIS NOVEL DOWN & OUT IN SHOREDITCH & HOXTON
FM: Tell me about your new book, Down and Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton. What is it about? Where does it fit, if at all, with your other fiction? And are you still looking to write as 'bad' a book as possible?
SH: Above all, and like all my books, Down & Out In Shoreditch & Hoxton is about the impossibility of separating form from content within human expression and the ultimate futility of genre distinctions. So the book has been written with the constraint of every paragraph within it being exactly 100 words long. This was a way of forcing myself to write differently and simultaneously of self-consciously signifying to readers how distinctions between poetry and prose don't really work. This book is both poetry and prose. Actually I wanted each paragraph laid out on a separate page to emphasis this fact, but when Do-Not Press pointed out how much they'd have to charge for the book if I insisted on doing it this way, I let the idea go. Also, like most of my books Down & Out is about London and the gentrification of specific parts of the city, in this instance the area between Bethnal Green and the City. About five years ago I really started noticing how this was affecting a lot of the prostitution and drug dealing that was going on around where I was living. Although it trailed down areas like Wentworth Street that were residential, a lot of the prostitution took place in areas that were made up of warehouses and light industrial units. So when these got increasingly converted in loft apartments for yuppies, you found these new middle-class residents were adept at complaining to the cops about the stuff going on around their swanky conversions. The yuppies would also complain about the noise from long established businesses in the area, and I know of printing firms that had been there for years that had to move because they had so many restrictions slapped on them as regards working hours. So what happened was that things that hadn't really been a problem to most of the working class population that lived in the area, suddenly got forced onto the council estates like the one I lived on. The yuppies really changed the character of the area and have made it a lot worse for the predominantly Muslim local population. At the same time I'd be reading stuff written by art critics in which they'd be going on about how gentrification had solved the problem of racism in the Brick Lane area. This was complete nonsense, since community self-defence against fascism had addressed the most blatantly criminal aspects of this. However, institutional racism remains a massive problem in the area and gentrification has exacerbated it in terms of housing and jobs. So it was this unpleasant process of gentrification that set me off on looking into the history of prostitution in the area between Bishopsgate and Brick Lane and attempting to rethink the way Marx uses prostitution as a metaphor for all human alienation and exploitation in capitalist societies. Since there is a rich literature about prostitution in this part of London going back at least 400 years, I found what I was assembling was also a way of looking at the representation of prostitution in English literature as a whole, and it simultaneously gave me an overview of the culturally constructed relationship between sex and death.
I'm still looking to write bad books as far as literary criticism goes since what I aim to do is go way beyond literature. The novel is a paradigmatically bourgeois cultural form, so a good novel is inherently reactionary - only bad books can be revolutionary. In Down & Out I begin by using odd elements of realism, and some of the incidents such as where I write about racist cops invading the estate to nick a burglar, were what was going on in my block as I wrote. However, this use of realist tropes becomes increasingly parodic as I move through the book and the emphasis shifts slowly from sex to death. So early in the book I am describing the actual streets used by prostitutes in the area, and I know them well because I would walk past the kerb crawlers picking up brass every night when I came home from the pub. However, as things progress rather than having the toms shifting around the streets they stood on as actually happened, I have them disguising themselves as grieving widows and soliciting in Tower Hamlets cemetery. So the book becomes utterly fantastic and this is one of the ways I accentuate my interest in the cultural construction of the relationship between sex and death.
FM: I know you don't like your reader to be told explicitly what they should think with your books, that you don't want it to be that easy, but with this work, is there anything between the lines that you feel is important to you right now, in terms of how you are feeling?
SH: I'm always trying to move forward with what I do, and there is often quite a lag between writing something and it getting published. So I've actually written two much bigger books since Down & Out In Shoreditch & Hoxton. In one called Memphis Underground I continue to look at the gentrification of the Hoxton area and the effect this has on a thirty something male living in the area who does badly paid office work. In the book I completed last week called Tainted Love, I'm still looking at the sex industry but a rather different part of it. My mother was a showgirl and hostess at Murray's Cabaret Club in the early sixties and this place at that time is infamously connected to the Profumo Affair during which the Tory war minister John Profumo had to resign from his parliamentary post because he'd lied when he'd claimed he wasn't having an affair with Christine Keeler who - like my mother - was a showgirl at Murray's. So Tainted Love fictionalises my mother's life and because she lived in Notting Hill for much of the sixties and seventies, it also addresses in passing the gentrification of that part of west London. My mom wasn't a pavement pounder but no matter what part of the sex industry someone works in they still get objectified, and a by-product of this can be that their humanity - I might be misunderstood if I said simply womanity - can be overlooked. In the case of the businessmen who'd pay my mother to sit and drink with them in clubs like Murray's and Churchill's, I think they'd have been surprised to learn that her friends included novelists like Colin MacInnes and Alex Trocchi and that she was also involved with new age religious movements like Subud and The Divine Light Mission. The cops are even worse, and when my mother was found dead in her Cambridge Gardens basement flat in 1979, they didn't treat the fact that she was lying naked on her bed with the door to the street open on a cold December day as being in any way suspicious. The cops treated my mother very badly, I don't feel they saw her as human, to them it was just a case of another dead junkie whose death they didn't want to investigate. This happened a lot to people involved with the Notting Hill drug scene, there was extensive police corruption and the cops went out of their way not to investigate certain deaths including my mother's. It's important to remember that back in the seventies even the right-wing judge Melford Stevenson when jailing members of the drug squad told detective Norman Pilcher in shocked tones: "You poisoned the wells of criminal justice." So I guess between the lines what I'm saying in Down & Out and Tainted Love is that the codemnations that are sometimes directed towards junkies and prostitutes should be deflected back against the alienated social relationships that produce prejudice. This is why I make the female prostitute narrator of Down & Out cultured, to counteract cultural stereotypes of the bimbo. When my mother left school in 1960 she was sixteen and back then you could leave at fifteen but she stayed on the extra year to get qualifications. My mom knew a lot about the most advanced aspects of modern culture and leant to speak fluent French as an adult. She was about as far removed from a bimbo as you can get, and so were her friends who did hostess work, which illustrates how ridiculous these stereotypes are.
FM: How have your thoughts on the literary establishment developed over the years, and where are they now? I expect you still feel very similar to how you've always felt? I read something you said refuting Will Self's rejection of the underground. Is there (still) an underground, and a chance to be truly subversive whilst also effective?
SH: I think the literary establishment are completely irrelevant, they're a self- elected cultural Old Bill and completely out of touch with anything that matters. What they perceive as a non-existent underground is in fact far more vital than they are. We don't need to subvert the literary establishment since they are simply a parody of what they believe themselves to be, but we do still need to overthrow capitalist social relations. By acting collectively we can be subversive and effective.
FM: In so far as the Art Strike was about rejecting the notion of art as a commodity, how far do you feel that this is still the case? What needs to change, and how? What are your thoughts on the notion of culture being prostitution? And where do you see yourself in this? What are your current views on our art establishment - do you ever feel tempted to jump back in?
SH: At the end of the day I feel it is the social relations between the people who create and enjoy any particular cultural form that are of far great importance than the cultural objects thrown up by these relationships. In saying this I would also stress that no one is only a writer or an artist, in order to create cultural artefacts one must necessarily also look at what others have done and are doing and how interested parties respond to what you do. And while I oppose commodity culture I'm also aware that one cannot live differently in this world. If my novels are published then they become commodified as books, that's as inescapable under capitalism as the fact that I have to find some way of paying my bills or the power will be cut off and I won't have a roof over my head. As far as culture as prostitution goes, like the (wo)man said, in this world we are all prostitutes. It isn't really possible to jump in and out of commodity culture. The Art Strike I played a part in organising was a strategic manoeuvre on my part, in that I'd set out to see if I could become recognised as an artist as an experiment in practical philosophy. I didn't go to art school, so I didn't have the background for this and I basically declared the 1990 Art Strike as a way of ensuring that I had a cut off point for this activity, but it also simultaneously provided a way of making amusing propaganda against art. However, by the time I went on art strike, I'd managed to get my gallery work reviewed in national newspapers, so the possibility of jumping back in is always there as long as there is a capitalist art world, and I wouldn't rule this out since I'm always looking for fresh ways of making mischief.
FM: I’m interested in the concept and the myth that is the 'hero'. What is your view on the hero, on the rebel and rebellion, and the messianic revolutionary guiding us to utopia? What is your view of progress? I ask because I read an interview where you were asked why you rebelled in the case of the Art Strike. You answered: “In the existing order, where things take the place of people, any label is compromising. In contesting commodity culture, I am not rebelling against society in the name of some abstract right, but fighting for a world freed from the irrationality of capitalist social relations. In doing this, I explicitly reject the romantic individualism that has created the role of the rebel. Reality will destroy the utopian abstractions of rebels.” Do you still feel this way, and if so, how do you think it can be applied today in a debate over the hero? Do we really need a hero to guide us, or does this stop us from thinking for ourselves? Also, can there be a truly subversive mainstream hero, or is the whole concept flawed in this current system? Art and the artist, as well as the philosopher, are often seen as guides, even as heroic figures - from Marx to Orwell. How far do you endorse this, and how far is this true of what you are trying to do? Are you still seeking to single-handedly subvert the cultural order?
SH: I don't think it is possible to single-handedly subvert the cultural order, it takes a collective effort. Communism can only be achieved by the proletariat as a totality realising its world historical role as the class that abolishes all classes. Obviously, the Russian revolution was capitalist in nature and had nothing whatsoever to do with communism. If, as I do, one understands capitalism as a social system where productive labour is freed up to work in the cities and less than ten percent of the work force is left on the land, then it becomes impossible to view Bolshevism as anything other than the imposition of capitalist social relations on a formerly feudal society, or rather the shift from the formal to the real domination of capital. Moving on, I'd differentiate between heroes and role models. I'm not against role models per se but one must approach them dialectically, in order to realise a role model one must simultaneously suppress it. I think the hero is different, if you treat someone as a hero then you aren't going to criticise them. I can illustrate this by way of reference to my attitudes towards Marx. I recognise that Marx did a lot of really important theoretical work, but that work itself is neither beyond criticism nor the accomplished fact of proletarian revolution. On the question of America, Marx got everything wrong and there is also plenty of room for criticising his personal relations since he didn't treat his family particularly well. That said, in the Eighteenth Brumaire Marx expresses as well as anyone ever has the problematics of heroes and role models: “Men make their own history, but not of their own free will... And just when they seem to be engaged in the revolutionary transformation of themselves... in epochs of revolutionary crisis, they timidly conjure the spirits of the past to help them... If we reflect on this process of world-historical necromancy, we see at once a salient distinction, Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just and Napoleon, the heroes of the old French Revolution, as well as its parties and masses, accomplished the task of their epoch, which was the emancipation and establishment of modern bourgeois society, in Roman costume and with Roman slogans...” Mario Mieli in Towards A Gay Communism quotes Larry Mitchell as saying there is more to be learned from wearing a dress for a day than wearing a suit for a year. For some of us this remains true and drag may yet be the best garb for revolution. However, I also rather liked what the Metropolitan Indians did during the last major Italian social crisis, and maybe we can have an eclectic po-mo mix of transvestites and Indians battling capitalism and simultaneously using such garb to go beyond roles to a truly fluid human existence.
FM: As you say, if people are made into heroes, are deified, then they are less likely to be criticised. Also, all men, whether leaders or not, look back to the past in order to guide us forward. What I want to know is, if we constantly look to heroes past and present, can this be a bad thing in terms of stunting our own progress as individuals, in stopping us from thinking for ourselves? (This thinking for ourselves, this consciousness, is after all vital in a Marxist sense for our emancipation.)
SH:.I wouldn't entirely go along with how you've formulated this question because I feel that thinking is starting to become uncoupled from doing in what you're saying. Also since (wo)man is a fundamentally social creature, a true flowering of individuality is intimately connected to the social. I think we should learn from others both past and present, but the thing is to learn above all from other people's mistakes, so that in going beyond their failures it becomes possible to surpass their achievements. The danger is that if you treat someone as a hero, you'll end up glossing over the flaws in what they do or have done, and that will prevent you from correcting them. Also I don't think truth is fixed for all time, so what is required in order move things forward changes according to the historical moment.
FM: Okay, in so far as the answer to my first question is ‘yes’, if current capitalist social relations prevent us from acting collectively - keeping us as ineffectual individuals separated from and competing against everyone else - what hope is there? What can a conscious individual do when faced with the repression from this system on the one hand, and from the ineffectual nature of heroes on the other?
SH: Look for ways we can act collectively and in finding ways to do so, we will realise our species being and thereby create an ever changing world and an ever growing ecstasy. There is no magic formula but when we finally break out of the current situation we'll probably be kicking ourselves because it could well prove to be a lot more straightforward than we ever imagined! The one thing I know is that we have to work this out together, no one in isolation and acting on their own will find the solution.
Published in Flux Magazine circa 2004.
Stewart Home interviewed about hoaxes
Stewart Home tells it like it is....