STEWART HOME'S LONDON
Neoism, Plagiarism, Praxis and the (Psycho)geographical Manifestations of the Avant-garde
by Ed Robinson.
Stewart Home is a London-born writer who began his career as a conceptual 'artist,' with connections to the self-promotory, self-historicising avant-garde Neoist movement, before leading an Art Strike between 1990-1993. As it happens, no-one else actually joined him in the strike, and he turned his hand from writing cultural commentary and pamphlets of Neoist manifestos and discussions of contemporary avant-garde art, to focus primarily on fiction. His work has been described as 'cheap, rushed 'and 'explosive.' The NME said that Home's 'sperm 'n' blood-sodden scribblings make Will Self's writings read like the self-indulgent dribblings of a sad Oxbridge Junkie trying to sound hard,' while Iain Sinclair in the London Review of Books wrote 'It's an exercise in futility to complain that Home's novels lack depth, characterization or complex plots: that is the whole point. The project operates within its contradictions, subverting the spirit of redundant industrial fiction, while honouring the form... Home's language feeds on metropolitan restlessness, movement, lists of trains and busses, gigs in pubs, rucks outside phone kiosks, the epiphany of the grease caff.' Home's work revels in the lifted, the borrowed, the plagiarised. The titles of many of his earlier works are lifted from punk rock songs and albums – Pure Mania (Vibrators), Defiant Pose (Cortinas) Slow Death (Flamin' Groovies) Red London (Sham 69), No Pity (999), Blow Job (Chaotic Dischord but simultaneously an Andy Warhol movie) Cranked Up Really High (Slaughter and the Dogs), New Britain (Whitehouse), Come Before Christ and Murder Love (Death in June). A more recent novel 69 Things to Do With a Dead Princess (2002), has nothing to do with punk or London, while Memphis Underground (2007) is only partly set in London and is named after a jazz funk tune, which is why I will be focusing on his earlier works here. So now you have a basic idea of who Stewart Home is and what he’s about.
Born in London in 1962, Home has lived in the capital most of his life (although work in the culture industry increasingly takes him away from his home). It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that the city not only provides a backdrop to his fiction, but has also served to shape that fiction to a considerable degree.
I will only be presenting a very brief version of my argument here, but hope to be able to convey the nature of Stewart Home's representations of London, and the significance of the city in relation to his writing. From the outset, I would suggest that London is in many ways central to his writing. Indeed, Home has been quoted as saying 'I'm not interested in traditional notions of literary depth, and characterisation bores me. The only character in my books is really the place, the setting, that is to say London. The 'individuals' featured in the prose are just cardboard cut-outs, vehicles with which to move the plot along.’'
The plots, too, in themselves are fairly simple: In Red London, a gang of skinheads with Marxist leanings wreak a trail of violent devastation and turn London over to anarchy. In Slow Death, a skinhead gang become involved in a plot to overthrow the bourgeois art establishment and reclaim it for an anarchic proletariat. Defiant Pose sees a collective of skinheads lead a revolution in which the government is overthrown and London succumbs to anarchist rule.
The London Home portrays, then, is one which exists under constant threat of destruction. Before I discuss the significance of this constant threat of destruction, I would ask 'just what kind of London is that that provides Home with his "only" character?' Or, perhaps, more saliently, 'how does Home portray his "only" character?'
In keeping with the pulp-genre style narrative used in these books and with Home's disdain for 'literary depth,' the locations in which these plots unfold are lent only sparse, pencil-sketch outline descriptions. 'Fellatio Jones entered Soho Square and drank in the squalor that surrounded him. The place was seething with hundreds of dirty squatters, the likes of whom were normally to be found infesting areas such as Brixton and Stoke Newington.' (RL, 148) 'The Horse was a large pub and the majority of its clientele were trendy labour party scum and assorted trotskyite shitbags.' (NP 26-27) Home's London consists almost entirely of high-rise flats, squats, pubs, art galleries, tube lines and disused warehouses:
'The Lodge Leader was busy hanging a show entitled New Neoism at the Thumbprint Gallery on Old Compton Street. The skinhead thought this was rather strange, because he often grabbed a snack in the Café Espana but had never noticed an art space in this part of Soho. Hodges made his way out of Leicester Square tube station and up to Cambridge Circus. Two minutes later, he'd found the building squatted by the Semiotic Liberation Front, it was virtually opposite his favourite caff.' (SD 142)
The inhabitants of Home's London, his 'cardboard cutouts,' are stereotypes: punks, hippies, businessmen. The majority of these character types who populate Home's London are merely incidental, or peripheral at most, their primary functions being to reinforce the grounds for their stereotyping through their uninventive dialogue, and to be at the receiving end of a beating doled out by the anarchists. Everything is a means to an end, and in Home's work there are only two possible ends: sex or violence. The following passage is a perfect illustration of the latter:
'The Lark in the Park was largely patronised by the unwashed children of the upper middle classes...
Johnny Aggro led his crew to the front of the stage. They shoved their way past hairies who were idiot-dancing, stomped on couples snogging in the grass and verbally abused many of the scum who were in desperate need of a bath.
"Get your 'air cut, you slithering piece of shit!" Slim spat at a particularly obnoxious example of unwashed leather and denim.
"Don't oppress me with your fascist views man," the hippie warbled. "You should loosen up, relax, let everybody do their own thing!"
A punch on the nose sorted the hairy out. The bastard collapsed like a bellow that had been punctured by a pin, then proceeded to writhe in the dirt, clutching his bruised beak in a futile attempt to stem the torrent of blood that was pouring from it.' (SD, 54-55)
Similar fates befall a 'marxist moron' (SD, 90), a 'red cretin' (SD, 89) a 'copper' (NP, 25), a 'rich scumbag' (NP, 35) a 'bureaucrat,' (NP, 85), a 'wide-boy' (NP, 131), 'tea-swilling scum,' (PM, 70) an 'upper class bitch' (BJ, 222).
Interestingly, Home's skinheads are not fascists, and it is through his portrayal of skinheads that Home actually confounds the stereotypical notion of skinhead culture. Many of the battles fought in Home's books occur between the anarchic skinheads and extreme right fascists who are plotting to take control of the city, and once again, Home challenges the accepted image of fascists by presenting them as hypocrites; weak individuals, practicing homosexuals lacking in imagination, politically, sexually, and creatively. Here Home draws inspiration from Klaus Theweleit's Male Fantasies volumes. This eclecticism of sources is quite central to Home’s method: more of which shortly.
Home's skinhead hero in Slow Death, John Hodges, aka Johnny Aggro, can be seen to spend the majority of his time in a quest for only two forms of gratification: oral sex and random acts of violence upon those not of his own cultural denomination. However, Home further challenges stereotypical perceptions of skinhead culture by not only removing fascist politics but also hardcore punk and oi! music from the equation, and replacing them with an appreciation of Motown and an apolitical, nihilistic perspective. The quest for violence, also, is placed in an alternative context. Rather than seeking to persecute or eliminate particular groups, such as blacks, Jews or hippies, for 'political' reasons, Home's skinheads are fundamentally misanthropic and launch attacks almost indiscriminately for the thrill of the actual violence.
This apparent pleasure derived from the execution of the plethora of brutal scenes serves to further challenge one's approach to both the books, their characters and scenarios, and one's moral consideration of the society in which the books are set. That Home's books, including Slow Death, have their settings firmly rooted in the 'real' London, rendered concrete by the manifold references to actual names and places, rather than scene and mood-creating descriptions, is crucial, in that this very 'real' backdrop gives the characters and their actions a tangible credibility, despite the often bizarre and far-fetched nature of the events in which they participate. This creates a sense of the hyper-real, which serves to convey the idea that the London of which Home writes is the real London, and that the characters and cultures which populate Home's London are only partly fictionalised.
Home's London, then, is seedy, run down, populated by undesirables, and, worse still, stereotypes, characters without character, a warren for the downbeat, the downtrodden, the unwashed, the corrupt and the morally bankrupt. It is a city of backstreets, dingy pubs and squats, and art galleries. To this end, it is a city of extremes, of haves and have nots, where rich and poor live in their polarised quarters, divided by postcodes, side by side and yet a world apart.
The simplicity of Home's plots and prose style belie the theoretical complexities which are central to their formulation. Within books like Slow Death and Blow Job, Home can be seen to challenge the very notion of 'literature' by deconstructing conventional methods and stripping the narrative form to its barest minimum. The absorption of base slang and contemporary colloquialisms within the actual narrative, rather than purely within the dialogue, again indicates a calculated attack on the prevailing culture of middlebrow English Literature. There is a clear sense that Home is revelling in the debasement of the idea of the modern canon. This highly stylised and deeply simplified mode of writing would appear to exist within the parameters of what is loosely termed 'postmodern' fiction and is indicative of what Lyotard refers to as 'the postmodern condition.' In a genre where art reflects life, the fiction of postmodernism reflects a fast-paced mode of living dominated by a blizzard of media images and information overload.
The two-dimensionality of Home's characters would certainly appear to support the image of the postmodernist revelling in depthlessness and superficiality, irony and pastiche, the population of stereotypes reinforcing the implication inherent within postmodernism that we have experienced the death of originality and from hereon in are destined to simply repeat, rehash and regurgitate new permuations of the old because there is nowhere truly new to go. It could similarly be argued that Home presents us with a city which houses a society in which life is so fast-paced that no-one has time to notice their surroundings or see beyond the superficial stereotypical surfaces of those around them: street names, pub signs and tube stations are the only signs needed to navigate the city.
Is Home’s London – its layout, its street-mapping, its architecture, in his cursory, pencil-sketching of the city simply a further example of the same postmodern shallowness? No: I would contend not. Home's portrayal of the city has a strongly implicit knowledge of the place which is so deeply ingrained within the author and his 'characters' that it requires no filling in of the details. While many other 'London' writers, the likes of Will Self, spend pages on the detail, describing the architecture, the weather, the lighting, Home does not need to include such embroidery. In the simplest geographical terms, that is, in terms of street layouts, London is always the same. Paradoxically, the only thing which is certain to remain the same is the fact that London is constantly changing and constantly under threat. The brevity of any descriptions which Home includes simply serves to reinforce the impression of London as fast-paced city, a place where everything and everyone is constantly on the move, with no time take in the details of their surroundings, and no need to take in the details of their surroundings because they are already so familiar with them – or so they think. On this level, then, yes, this absence of depth in the detailing of the settings of the 'action' would correspond to the characteristics of the postmodern mode of writing.
However, Home has made innumerable statements, both in interviews and in essays, which stress that his work is fundamentally avant-garde in its intent, and he has gone to great lengths to highlight his avant-garde credentials – as I shall demonstrate.
The activity which takes place in Home's London is highly repetitious. 'Suits' travel to their places of work by tube, Marxist Times vendors spout political slogans on every other street corner. Even the acts of random (and strategised) violence which occur are recounted with the same 'commonplace' tone. Home achieves this by repeating the same phrases again and again throughout his novels. Many of these phrases (he 'collapsed like a bellows that had been punctured by a pin,' 'gouts of blood' the 'satisfying crunch of splintering bone,') are plagiarised from other sources, most notably the 'Hell's Angel' and 'Skinhead' books published by New English Library in the 1970s. The formulaic and repetitious presentation of violent acts, as well as the sex scenes, serve to highlight the repetitious nature of daily life within the city. This practice of writing to formula within Home's books also serves to essentially 'devolve' the function of the author, substituting creative input for mere manipulation of prewritten slabs of text:
I take a lot of sentences out of other people's books and I repeat them endlessly throughout the work around the narrative structure. Also when you write a book, you need about 60 thousand words. All I have to do is have a sex scene every other page, and every sex scene is identical. That's half the book written before you've even started.
That Home talks so openly about his use of other texts is vital, in that he, like writers such as William Burroughs (another of Home's influences) before him, is consciously demystifying the creative process and attacking the notion of the author as a 'creative genius,' an idea against which the avant-garde has worked since its accession into an artistic context in the late 19th century. Home's celebrated pilferage of Richard Allen’s style, method, and, indeed, phraseology sees the ‘70s pulp Skinhead books being realigned in a contemporary and overtly political, humorous, context, with only minor adaptation. This is not a purely 'creative' approach to writing. It is a recylcative approach, and, arguably, a destructive approach.
Defiant Pose climaxes with Terry Blake, the leader of the anarchistic skinhead collective receiving oral sex whilst sailing on a boat down the Thames while the Houses of Parliament burn and collapse into the river. As in Red London, Blow Job and Pure Mania, the finale is built upon anarchists overthrowing the establishment – be it the art establishment, the government or the capitalist system – and destroying London landmarks - art galleries, parliament - the architectural symbols of that establishment. To this end, the climax of the book represents the very essence of the avant-garde.
Parliament Square was a riot of colour and action. Flames were leaping from Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. The trouble had spread down Millbank and word had just reached those at the epicentre of the disturbances that the Tate Gallery had been fired. The news that billions of pounds’ worth of modern art was going up in smoke brought loud cheers from the crowd...
Terry found Joyce at the very centre of Parliament Square. She was in his arms as Big Ben crumbled and went crashing into the Thames. The comrades laughed maniacally as this symbol of imperial oppression was wiped from the face of London. To achieve freedom they had to erase, demolish and otherwise destroy the very architecture around which the bourgeoisie had engineered the domination of their class. The city would have to burn and burn and burn before this destructive frenzy reached its orgasmic resolution! Watching the Houses of Parliament reduced to a smouldering ruin made Terry and Joyce feel horny as hell.
The almighty crash as the roof of Westminster Abbey caved in added urgency to their lust. A church had stood on the site since the seventh century. In the eleventh century Edward the Confessor founded the present building. Henry III began a vast programme of restructuring in 1245 and this marked the Abbey as it was known until its demolition at the hands of the feisty proletarian mob. (DP, 132-133)
The brief history of the site of Westminster Abbey only gives a prefatory glimpse into the psychogeography which Home develops in later works, most notably in Come Before Christ and Murder Love and 69 Things to Do With a Dead Princess. Defined by Richard Essex, the chairman of the London Psychogeographical Society as 'the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals,' psychogeography is clearly removed from physical or human geography. Although the details in this particular scene are essentially historical and physical in geographical terms, the way in which the demolition of centuries of history affects the mood of the characters and makes them feel 'horny as hell' lends a distinctly psychogeographical dimension to this particular scene. While there is not the time here to develop further the idea of psychogeography, I would direct anyone who wishes to learn more on the subject to have recourse to White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings and Slow Chocolate Autopsy, both by Ian Sinclair, as well as almost any one of the 275,000 pages on the Internet dedicated to psychogeography.
This image of destruction, which is recurrent within Home's novels, is, then, both physical and symbolic, and affects structures both architectural and social, serves to represent the founding principle of the avant-garde, which is to destroy all that which has gone before and to strive to create something new, if simply for its own sake. To build, one must first destroy is the dictum by which the avant-garde exists.
If postmodernism 'pushes to the extreme' the modernist rejection of the 'cult of originality' and celebrates the 'loss of origin in the age of mass production,' then it was the avant-garde which saw the initial use of such devices. For instance, Peter Bürger, who provides one of the two major theories on the avant-garde, cites several instances in which mass production and the location of mass-produced and prefabricated objects in 'art' galleries by representatives of the avant-garde (Duchamp is an obvious example) as a tactic for rejecting traditional notions of art, and equally significantly, the idea of 'the artist' or 'the author.' The purpose of the avant-garde, then, is to ask 'what is art?' and to challenge conventional notions of what constitutes art – and literature. Both of the leading theoreticians on the subject, Bürger and Poggioli, each acknowledge that the avant-garde has, historically, had a tendency toward nihilism as it has striven to destroy and build anew. Says Poggioli, we shall call it 'the antagonistic movement.' Home's work displays a clear antagonism toward the literary establishment, and represents a concerted effort to reduce'‘the novel' to its lowest common denominators. His work, replete with prefabricated plagiarised phrases, could well be considered 'anti-literature,' and certainly challenges the conventional notions of literature.
Of course, Home is as aware as anyone, if not more so, of the perpetual dichotomy which lies at the heart of both anarchism and the avant-garde, in that their nihilistic principle of destruction is essentially self-defeating. Anarchism is self-defeating in that its primary objective is to 'smash the system' without ever proposing an alternative. The anarchists in Home's books succeed because they are united in their quest. To be united is to work against the very idea upon which anarchy is based. The avant-garde is self-defeating because by its very definition, to destroy the old and create something wholly new, it must be eternally self-collapsing, self-destructive. In order to destroy all precedents, it must in turn destroy itself. To this end, Home's London is constantly under threat. But it is not simply under threat from anarchists or fascists. It is a city under threat of being suffocated by money and progress, a victim of its own success as a centre of artistic and cultural achievement.
"In the seventies Soho was great but now only Berwick Street has anything of the feel you used to get there, mainly because it still has a street market. The West End of London has been cleaned up too much. Shoreditch still has the vibe but money is pouring in."
Home's London is also under threat in terms of its literary history. The spawning ground of a long lineage of literature, from Dickens through to Martin Amis, London, in the hands of Home, is under threat of being rewritten, a city destroyed by an attack of literary subversion. What the finales of Home's books can be seen to represent, then, are dramatic narratives which render the abstract principles of the avant-garde concrete, and, above all, demonstrate that the avant-garde is not simply an historical artistic movement. No, as Poggioli suggests, the avant-garde was not a single movement, but is, in fact, an ongoing sequence of independent movements and individual exponents – one of which is alive and well and living in London.
This paper was first given on day 2 of 'The City and Literature' conference at Worcester College, Oxford, 20-21 September 2003. It was very slightly updated prior to posting here on 11 October 2007. A longer critical appraisal of Stewart Home by the author of the essay above can be found in Shift Linguals: Cut-Up Narratives from William S. Burroughs to the Present by Edward S. Robinson (Rodopi, Amsterdam & New York 2011, Chapter 4 "Stewart Home: Pulp, Parody, Repetition and the Cut-Up Renaissance", pages 199-247).
Stewart Home on his early fiction
Essay on later novel 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess
Books & Writing
Stewart Home 'post-porn-modernist' caught on camera in 'three-in-a-bed sex romp' with two of his Barbie dolls.
Stewart Home 'getting down & dirty...'
Stewart Home with another of his sex dolls.
My 10 Worst Drug Experiences
1. I was 11 years old and bored so thought I'd try smoking loose leaf tea. It was hard to roll, gave me a headache and tasted dreadful, though that might have been because I used ordinary paper rather than Rizzlas!
2. When I was teenage and regularly visited this punk rock squat I picked up a little trick. We used to buy packets of a non-drowsy antihistamine then proceed to open all the capsules up, separating the colours. Someone had figured out that the white stuff was the 'non-drowsy' part, (i.e. a stimulant!). We'd then line them up and sniff them. I'm not sure if it actually worked or if I was just so excited about getting high that I got all worked up. The bottom line is that it burned like hell and made me hyper.
3. When I was about 10, I tried smoking dried corn plant leaves and various types of lawn and wild grasses. None of them did anything whatsoever, and the corn leaves are really hard on the throat. Still these early experiences put me off ever wanting to smoke cigarettes, so they had their up side...
4. One day when I was 16 I really wanted to get stoned so I decided to drink the bong water knocking about in the punk squat I was visiting. This did actually succeed in getting me quite high but it also made me violently ill.
5. A friend and I decided to try nutmeg after reading about it in a book (probably William Burroughs but not 100% sure now). Nothing happened after digesting a couple of teaspoons so after an hour we downed two more each with hot chocolate. Still nothing, so a few more laced hot chocolates followed. Around 11pm we noticed we had been staring at the gas fire for about two hours. My friend then declared he was extremely wasted, and I realised I was too. A couple of hours later we went to bed, concluding the experiment had been more than successful. But then things started to go awry. I felt very heavy and nauseous and began to hallucinate demons outside the room trying to break in. I hadn't eaten anything all day, so I had this extreme volcanic activity going on in my belly; It was as if the nutmeg had begun some kind of nuclear reaction. However, it didn't hurt because of the physical sensation-dulling effect. I slept until 10pm the next night, when a concerned friend woke me for a cup of tea. I had one sip before passing out. The next day I woke about 6pm and managed to have a cup of tea and a few bites of toast, before crashing out again. It took about 5 days to recover, and even then I had something approaching a slightly spacey version of an alcohol hangover. Needless to say nutmeg is poisonous at the dosage I'd taken
6. One night I went tripping with a group of friends. We all dropped at the same time and were up for a big night. I got really off it for hours - at least I thought I had. The next day I discovered the tab I thought I'd taken was still in my wallet. I'd taken precisely nothing.
7. When I was about eight I had a session with a mate where we lit matches and inhaled the clouds of poisonous gas. We did about 6 matches each. What a rush! Actually, there was no effect really, but we felt really naughty.
8. When I was 18 years old a friend with psychiatric problems sent me a letter which said almost nothing, but stuck in the middle was a piece of cardboard. It was brightly coloured and had a line of smiling cartoon figures dancing on it. I immediately took this to be LSD and split it with another mate. We sat down, put on a 13 Floor Elevators album and preceded to set the mood - low lighting, incense, etc. About half an hour later we both began to 'feel' the trip come on, so we changed the record to The Strawberry Alarm Clock and both said how nice and mellow it all was. Half an hour later we were starting to doubt the strength of the acid. Two hours later it dawned on us that the blotter wasn't working. This was because the piece of cardboard was in fact from a raisin packet. Needless to say it was not psychoactive, but perhaps we were.
9. When I was 12 years old there was a lot of talk about the possible highs you could get from smoking banana skins though no one seemed to know whether it was true or not. Me and a mate thought we'd put it to the test. We peeled a few banana skins and baked them in the oven until they were dryish. We diced up some bits of the skin with a kitchen knife and rolled this with some tobacco in a Rizzla. It didn't burn very well, I don't think we cooked the skins for long enough and it tasted like shit. Still, we told all our mates it worked, although all it did was make us feel sick!
10. Another of my punk rock era drug tricks was to drink a whole bottle of a cough medicine called Actifed, and I think the taste was nicer than the effect, it was an obnoxious bunch of us doing that particular high back then.
From Stewart Home blog, 8 October 2007.
Cybersex Addiction Triggering Herpes Epidemic.
Cybersex is generally seen as a safe option in an era of deadly sexual diseases. However, cybersex is not without infection risks according to a friend of mine who works at an internationally renowned institution in Baltimore (Maryland, USA) and since he wishes to remain anonymous I shall refer to only as Blaster (aka Doctor). According to Blaster, yet to be completed and released research shows that cybersex addiction has triggered a fresh herpes epidemic. According to my friend the doctor, this is not as unlikely as it may at first sound because many people have contracted the herpes virus without knowing they have it and without any symptoms; likewise since cybersex often entails the same emotional involvements as physical sex (there have even been instances of divorce on the grounds of cyber infidelity), it can trigger the same stresses as any other type of sexual relationship, particularly when infidelity is involved, and it is this stress that triggers herpes outbreaks in those cybersex addicts who have never had a herpes attack before but in whom the virus has lain dormant for what is often years. Innumerable instances of this phenomena have been found in both those who have a regular sexual partner but also indulge in cybersex, as well as those who have abstained from physical sex for years (and in some instances even a decade or more). Apparently one of the reasons this information is not being disseminated to the general public is because experts fear it might trigger panic and even lead to those who view cybersex as a safe option falling back into riskier sexual practices. So next time somebody sends you a message asking if you 'wanna cyber', think carefully before hitting the reply button. It seems that cybersex is only safe sex for those among us who lack any 'real' sexual experience....
Stewart Home blog, 4 October 2007.
Protect Yourself From Data Mining
You know how Google, for example, keep records of all the searches anyone makes; to counteract this I not only use lots of different computers and search engines, I also periodically make searches for things that don't really interest me that much - you know stuff like "flower arranging" (not actually one of my interests), "love and romance" (which seems to turn up a lot of dating services, not something I need) or "chemical composition of DNA" (which actually pulls up links to loads of really interesting info, although a bit off track from my more usual concerns) - and what I'd really like to see posted in the comments here is other examples of things people think it would be good to search for (or already search for), just to leave false trails for the data miners...
Stewart Home blog, 10 October 2007.