Enlightenments – Little Demon by Michael Wilding

ENLIGHTENMENTS

Little Demon, Michael Wilding, Melbourne: Arcadia, 2018, 260 pages, $29.95

Captain Cook named Cape Byron for ‘Foul-Weather Jack’ Byron, the adventuring Vice-Admiral who sailed past the easternmost point of the Southern Land in 1764, part of that endless English outpouring that shaped today’s topography. The weatherbeaten Enlightenment navigator, for whom beaches were only important insofar as they might provide shelter, would have been surprised by the shire that bears his name – where beaches mean ‘lifestyle’ rather than lee shore, and the aimlessly affluent have replaced both aborigines and landfalling Jack Tars. The landmark lighthouse shines out over nothingness, coda to a continent – and warning of hidden hazards. Private eye Plant blinks at it lugubriously in the opening pages of Little Demon, and at the sleek local resident briefing him, this man in expensive shoes who feels he owns this view, with the lighthouse its ‘iconic seal’ of having arrived. 

This is Plant’s sixth outing, the experienced, jaded, subtle, tolerant, well-read ex-novelist a sometime stand-in for the novelist. The country Plant constantly revisits is also the land of Wilding’s lost content, during what Plant/Wilding sees as ‘the best of times’ – cannabis-hazed, countercultural, idealistic, a place of horizons as big as Byron’s, where ‘new writing’ just might have altered everything. 

But Wilding believes much of this meretricious newness was in effect old reality repackaged, authorities exchanged rather than discarded. In his 2017 memoir Growing Wild, the author enumerated some of the multiple paradoxes of the Sixties and Seventies, such as how ‘liberalism’ and ‘tolerance’ were enforced, or how un-ironic academics told everyone that ‘there should be no shoulds’. The outcome of these decades-old delusions may be seen in today’s lovely but echoing littoral, a Byron Shire  – an Australia, a West – ‘without hope, without destination, without comprehensibility’, where raddled ex-hippies hobble along, ‘wasted, wizened…their eyes as blank and glazed as in the best of times.’ Post-postmodern miasmas keep sweeping in across everything like a chill mist off the Pacific. 

Wilding, like his demi-avatar, finds himself adrift, loathing political correctness even more than old ‘anti-communist’ excesses. ‘Even the 1950s’, Plant ruminates, ‘looked more liberal, more progressive, more committed to free speech and open debate than the twenty-first century’. Wilding is a staunch supporter of poetry professor Barry Spurr, with a rare ability to view such imbroglios in context, having written expertly on Johns Dee and Milton, in their lifetimes likewise objects of misrepresentation, suspicion and vitriol, punching-bags on which their respective ages worked out raging insecurities. Beneath the swirling surfaces and tidal races of twenty-first century Australia, Wilding spies shoals – social barrier reefs, all politics somehow ensuring that America will always rule, and the poor shall always be with us, product of neoliberal economics, cultural commodification, neurotic pluralism, and digitalisation designed by and for cognitive elites. 

Plant’s client is similar to him in age, but little else – Rock Richmond, a journalist and expert surfer of trends, who has parlayed middling talent into prosperity, and a timeshare in East Coast alternative culture. Richmond’s computer and storage device have been stolen. He has been writing a history of the alternative culture, he informs the underwhelmed investigator, which contains ‘things…no-one has ever dreamed of…revelations. World-shattering stuff.’ He does not want Plant to retrieve the devices (all material is backed up), but instead to use his contacts to alert editors or publishers who might be approached by the thieves. He claims not to be interested in the identity of the perpetrators, or whoever employed them, so long as the material is not published by anyone else. Plant does as he has been bid, but remains perplexed – especially as Richmond is clearly a lightweight, not the kind likely to unearth ‘world-shattering stuff’. And if he had a back-up, why did he need Plant at all – could it have been to put about the idea that he did not have a back-up, to outfox enemies? 

Puzzlement turns darker when Plant’s placid rural existence is invaded by an old interlocutor, Fullalove, a paranoid, pasty ‘eternal inner urbanite’ who has come to stay indefinitely, ‘just till things blow over’. Plant knows that nothing ever blows over for Fullalove – but nevertheless tolerates this unhygienic imposition, with all his fussy demands and infectious fears of almost everything. Pace Pascal, “Fullalove contemplated the night sky in unfeigned terror”, and like the Frenchman is determined to fill up all emptiness with theories. Plant finds himself often unable to answer Fullalove’s unquenchable questions, but bats them mostly away as just part of his guest’s emotional armature – until Richmond is shot dead at the lighthouse. 

Richmond, Fullalove decides, must have been writing about still-sensitive Cold War secrets – 1960s communes ‘really’ CIA-run, drug-funded military experiments into post-nuclear survivalism. Like all conspiratologists, he takes little-known facts – such as that L.S.D. research was once funded by the U.S. Navy – and links them in ever longer chains of reasoning, some links of which are sound, but which taken as a whole become progressively weaker. This could pall, except there is much humour – such as in Fullalove’s lazy reluctance actually to seek out arms dumps in that hot and insect-haunted landscape. He ‘knows’ they are there, and that is enough for him. ‘This is the age of virtual reality’ he says, exuding clammy self-interest as well as self-satisfaction. ‘Let’s keep it that way.’ The ever-easygoing Plant agrees, content to let questions float away or hover in the air as pregnant possibilities. 

Equally suggestive are the frequent literary allusions, of a kind rarely found in noir – Australia, Plant, Wilding, and all the rest of us entangled in ancienter European culture, and unthinkable without it, Wilding one of too few writers determined to keep the flame alive in battering winds. Plant’s case may have started out as a simple criminal investigation, but it swiftly, and unforgettably, shines bright lights onto the way we live, and some of the reasons why. 

This review first appeared in the May 2018 issue of Quadrant, and is reproduced with permission 

Michael Wilding’s Spiked review of Displacement

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MICHAEL WILDING’S SPIKED REVIEW OF DISPLACEMENT

Very pleased to say that the renowned Australian writer Michael Wilding has reviewed Displacement handsomely for Spiked. Here’s the link – http://www.spiked-online.com/spiked-review/article/the-loneliness-of-the-high-rise-free-runner/20005#.WVmAJjOZNok

And here’s the text. Thanks, Michael.

The loneliness of the long distance free-runner

Through all the formal variations of the English novel, one theme recurs: the two nations. The huge divide between the rich and the poor, between the privileged and and the indigent. Disraeli’s classic treatment of it in Sybil presented an England polarised not only in terms of class but of geography. So did Elizabeth Gaskell in North and South. Derek Turner follows the model of Charles Dickens with the huge contrasts embodied within one city, London.

But in the years novelists have been dealing with this theme, things have changed. The old polarisation between workers and employers or urban workers and landed gentry is no longer representative of current realities. In Derek Turner’s novel, Displacement, the family that once would have been characterised as working class consists of the redundant, the unemployed and the casualised. The mother is dead, the father ‘has not had any paid employment since Thames Tides Transport had capsized 15 years earlier’. A family tradition of working the river, going back generations, has ended. His son Mike gets into dope, then the harder stuff, then illicit entries and eventually does time in Brixton. The other son, the novel’s protagonist, Martin Hackett, has few prospects.

During his meeting with the school careers-guidance counsellor, the only suggestions had been working for the council, or perhaps the infantry.

When we encounter him he is working as a bicycle courier.

Martin had been lucky to get his job, cycling across London, delivering packages. Normally they wanted graduates. It was money, it helped with his fitness and it let him see parts of London he might otherwise never have known.

But his passion is for climbing high buildings at night, free-running. Climbing and then leaping from roof to roof.

All there is now is the air, and the moment – that perfectly calibrated movement – the concrete roof blurring before his left foot finds the uttermost edge and he leads with his right across the awful crevasse at the bottom of which are sharp metal bins and the cruel street.

Alongside this exhilaration, the recurrent note of the novel is isolation. Martin climbs alone, only once does he ever encounter another climber. If occasionally he sees or is seen by someone through a high window, the glass ensures his absolute separation from those inside. He is like Heathcliff, similarly isolated, looking in at the life he is excluded from. Except that Martin has no wish to enter or participate.

Doing it is enough in itself, because it allows excellence impossible elsewhere. That no one else can see him doing it doesn’t matter – he knows what he can do. That no one else sees it in a way makes it finer.

His courier work keeps him similarly isolated. Except for the brief exchanges with snotty, superior receptionists, he is alone on his bicycle all day. It is not just that Martin belongs to no community, but that no community is shown anywhere. This is a marked development in the condition-of-England novel. Sybil presented an England of two separate communities. The workers were exploited but there was sufficient sense of community for some of them at least to engage in collective activity. Those days have gone. Community, solidarity and the rest of those grand sonorities have vanished. Martin is accepting of this, and happy that it is a feature of his obsession.

It seemed there was no community of free-runners, and that seems proper to Martin, who has never known community.

The free-running is vividly described, in both its physicality and exhilaration. It is such an extreme concept that it might have seemed something from magic realism. It certainly has its potential as fantasy, as symbol, as metaphor. While being anchored in reality. And it brilliantly solves one of the problems in writing about an exploited and demoralised working class, or unemployed class – the problem that the material is not greatly enjoyable to read. You can go for images of degradation and deprivation, but they are not much fun. And concern can so easily become, or sound like, condescension. I remember my mother’s shock at hearing Richard Hoggart talk on television of his working-class parents, referring to the grime of factory dust embedded in their faces. ‘Don’t you ever write anything like that about us’, she said.

Deprivation and despair are readily enough represented in Displacement. But they are importantly not the totality. Turner’s protagonist has his hopes, his literal aspirations as he climbs. It is both physically exhilarating, a literal ascent, and also a mental and emotional release, an achievement and a satisfaction. Mountaineering was, probably still is, one of those upper-class leisure pursuits. WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood appropriate it for The Ascent of F6, Freudianising it rather than politicising. It’s mother they discover at the top. With Displacement, the activity has been reconfigured. Martin’s girlfriend realises how it fits in with his worldview, the way he used to talk –

All that about society, and all of us being shat on from a great height, and how you wanted to look down on them for a change!

Now it is the proletariat climbing. Well, it always did but tended to be left uncredited in the background as guides, sherpas, rescuers, useful adjuncts but not featured.

So he has risen out of the common, climbing out of London’s gorge.

Grim as Turner’s overall vision is, it is not without hope and it is not unrelievedly bleak. Martin has another escape, through poetry. You don’t have to be wealthy or privileged or leisured to write poetry. Poetry is accessible.

He continued reading and even writing poetry, but his conversation atrophied, because there was never any opportunity to use any of the beautiful words that raced in his head.

And then the novel accelerates as Martin becomes a celebrity. He is noticed on his free-running, and becomes a story in the press. The arrival of the young, brash, public-school educated journalist to do a story on him provides a splendid episode in the tradition of English class comedy. And the novel’s action elsewhere moves out of England, when Martin takes his girlfriend on holidays to Europe. The varieties of tone and setting save Displacement from seeming programmatic. Its dominant image of free-running expresses an exhilaration –

…to free-run with the grandest backdrop of all, outwit security, jump over the system.

A taut, compelling and absolutely original take on contemporary Britain, Displacement is a memorable and deeply rewarding read.

Michael Wilding is the author, most recently, of In the Valley of the Weed and the memoir Growing Wild.

This review appeared in Spiked in July 2017, and is reproduced with permission

 

Growing Wild by Michael Wilding

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Growing Wild, Michael Wilding, 2016, Melbourne: Arcadia, pb., 302pp., Aus$39.95

A hoicked-up small boy sits astride a yoked-up heavy horse, while three sun-stained men smile at posterity. Hairy hooves press good grass, lush trees shade old ridges, and though the cover is black-and-white we feel the burden of that 1940s sun, the texture of that workwear, conjure the sleepy scents of horse and soil, hear the muted afternoon. It could be a tableau from Cider With Rosie, or an image from Mass-Observation, the social research organisation founded in 1937 to document British working-class life. The latter is apposite, because that meadow was in Worcestershire, and that bare-legged boy would become Michael Wilding, class campaigner, radical and “proto-post-modernist”, progenitor of “new writing” in an outpost of old empire.

Growing Wild tells of Wilding’s peregrination from puritanical, proletarian English provinces to intellectual eminence in Australia. It also constitutes a mini-cultural history of the 1940s-1980s, enlightening about both England and Australia as seen by an unusually cultured and self-aware observer. The Oz adult was partly prefigured in the British boy – “Did I spend my whole childhood in fuming and resentment? Sometimes when I look back on it it seems so.” He portrays 1950s suburban Worcester as an edgeland – “…the margin of the Marches, the border of the borderland, the second degree of peripherality.” This sounds over-complicated, but certainly his childhood was convoluted with cross-cutting class gradations, all setting themselves apart and allotting others by accent, clothes, demeanour, occupation, politics, sexual morality, or the tidiness of their gardens.

His dour, frustrated, foundryman father (who had yearned to go to university) was often at contrariety with his cheery, conservative, musical mother, “as if cavalier and roundhead coexisted in the same family”, and may have resented his son’s easier path to fulfilment. His father’s case fed Wilding’s later politics, but in the short term he turned snob, hating cultivating the family vegetable plot and ‘correcting’ his father’s speech. Their parlour was sometimes another “battlefield of the class war, fought with words rather than deeds” – a humdrum continuation of Hudibras, Worcester writer Samuel Butler’s mock epic of the Civil War, whose hero is held back by his “dialect and discourse”. But not all of childhood was a combat zone, nor was all Worcester waste. Wilding looks back from the far side of the world, and falls under an enchantment of old names, while the Severn still swells with secret meanings in his dreams.

He worked as postman, farm labourer and deliveryman, but also sold a story to BBC radio at 18. Oxford offered opportunity, but he fretted even under those somnolent spires, and no amount of acceptance proved enough. He edited Isis, but felt always on sufferance, prisoner of proletarianism. He festered, devoured Jude the Obscure, refused to alter his accent, but also avoided “unstylish” contemporaries of comparable class, his itchiness emblematised by his ill-cut academic gown (shades of Widmerpool’s overcoat), which he believed accentuated rather than elided his origins. Then came real escape – English lectureship at the University of Sydney.

Carrying his cargo of small resentments, he fell in with local leftists, then campaigning against censorship, drugs laws, Western foreign policy, imperialism, racism and sexism. To that coterie there were clear linkages between political constraints and cultural traditions, made more plausible because anti-communists were sponsoring high-end journals like Encounter, and Leavisites operating at the sharpest end of metapolitics. Australia looked like a universe, and Wilding expanded into its well-fed wideness, its endless evenings of fine food and thrown-open windows, horizon-altering drugs, easy sex, open-ended discussions about everything, “the systematic deregulation of the senses mandatory for the followers of Rimbaud and the enthusiasts for Brautigan.” He talked and published tirelessly, striving to push boundaries, erase differences, usher in a shibboleth-less world. To him, narratives narrowed possibilities, and were in any case inapplicable to modern life – “Our lives, our careers, our aspirations no longer seemed expressible by the traditional narratives. Or maybe we just hoped not”.

But if lives, careers and aspirations really were no longer expressible, they could be controlled, and like many others in the perfervid Seventies Wilding voiced bleak suspicions about society, producing a regular Nation Review column called “Wilding’s Paranoia”. He started sceptical, but “the extreme speculations proved to be true”, and increasingly he saw Western societies as stamping-grounds for self-aware socioeconomic forces seeking to cozen populations into buying product along with their “conservative, reactionary” worldview. (The conservative reactionaries would seem to have been spectacularly unsuccessful.)

One of Wilding’s manifold merits is candour about his cohort. While Sydney’s Push was “unrelenting in its refusal to recognise the validity of any authority, it had its well-defined pecking order”, and was “committed to pluralism with all the fervour of fanatical monotheists”, while litterateurs opined oxymoronically “there should be no ‘shoulds’”. The Aquarian ideas have aged badly, and some of the erstwhile avant-garde are now excoriated as ists and phobes, while the conscious uncoupling of Westerners from their heritage has led to “the denial, rejection, surrender of history”, a “de-humanising and de-politicising, or at any rate de-radicalising, agenda”, an existence “without hope, without destination, without comprehensibility”, “suspicion, disillusion, and nihilism”.

At 75, Wilding remains admirably open to ideas, an honest liberal as critical of PC idiocy as of conservative complacency, and is manifestly determined to persist ploughing his personal furrow. He notes, boyishly defiant, “I thought being a writer you could say excessive things, troublesome things, even outrageous things, and get away with them. And even when I found out you couldn’t get away with them, it still seemed worth saying them.” Indeed, it was.

This review first appeared in the Spectator Australia on 3 June 2017, and is reproduced with acknowledgements

Into the valley – Michael Wilding’s In the Valley of the Weed

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Into the Valley

In the Valley of the Weed, Michael Wilding, Melbourne: Arcadia, 2016, $29.95

“Old radicals become quietist” a character in Valley of the Weed tells Plant, the appropriately-named private detective investigating the disappearance of a high-profile academic. “They stop socialising. Stay at home and surrender to the comforting millenarian conviction that change will come, but in its own time.” One who has not surrendered is Michael Wilding, ex-vanguardist of Australia’s 1970s “new writing”, a post-modernist before the term existed, but now through force of events transmuting into a kind of cultural conservative. Notwithstanding his differences with the Australia of forty years ago, he is anguished by its present etiolation, and detests the looming ‘rational’ robotism in which everything Western can be automated and alienated, commodified and controlled.

The establishment Wilding lacerated or lampooned was long ago captured by its enemies, and ideas then thought revolutionary have ossified into the intolerant orthodoxy of “The Cathedral”. But old enemies have returned, if anything in greater strength – censorship, conformity, ignorance and nastiness. Now the iconoclastic litterateur satirises P.C. pearl-clutchers and priests as gleefully as once he impaled mainstream politicians or real-life Edna Everages. Valley of the Weed is the latest of some fifty books by Wilding, all of them remarkably adding something to, or defending, the Western canon. This book is dedicated to Barry Spurr, one of Australia’s most eminent victims of the ultra-Left’s Two Minute Hates. (Wilding also paid tribute to Spurr last year, in an essay on Milton’s Samson Agonistes – another poetical thinker who fell out with his times – for The Free Mind, the Festschrift produced to protest that despicable defenestration.) This is the fourth novel to feature Plant, who is sketchily delineated, but seems in some ways a simulacrum of the author – cultivated, a disillusioned radical, an un-dogmatic observer of trends, and would-be righter of wrongs.

Plant is asked by a retired professor with links to the intelligence services to find out what has happened to Tim Vicars, a well-known academic who has been looking into whether marijuana ought be legalised, but is then vilified when some of his e-mails sent over his university server are published by a leftwing website. These contain “the forbidden words…racist and sexist and homophobic stuff”, so naturally the university fires him to show it shares the same “elevated values” as the students (and divert attention from controversial cost-cutting and department closures). “We have a word for everything” Plant notes stolidly, but there are some we are no longer permitted to pronounce. In an ostensibly ever-freer era, the cockily confident speech celebrated by Sidney J. Baker is ironically shrinking back into itself, its speakers looking increasingly over their shoulders in fear of a visit from the Australian Offence Forces.

Vicars’ banishment and vanishment brings to light a convoluted sexual life, and a mass of contradictions and enigmas about his character, modern academe, drugs laws, the secret state, civil liberties, abuses of the internet, media bias, the literary world, and political correctness – in short the whole tenor of 21st century Australia as it transitions from mateship to tense modernity. The ambiguity that engulfs everything is reinforced by Wilding’s technique of raising possibilities without offering answers, foresting action and dialogue with question marks. He also provides Plant with an interlocutor named Fullalove, who combines recondite knowledge and great articulacy with acute paranoia (exacerbated by cannabis use). Wilding has an interest in conspiracies going back to the 1970s, and a rare knowledge of arcana and esotericism as far back as John Dee, so every situation is open to almost endless interpretations, depending on one’s perspective, or perhaps the levels of tetrahydrocannibinol in their blood. Almost everyone in Plant’s un-Lucky Country is manipulated or manipulator, confused or cunning, mixed in their motives, in some way suspect.

Why was Plant asked to investigate in the first place? Why has Vicars taken such an interest in marijuana, and who stands to gain or lose by any change in policy? Why did he use those “frightful words” on a server he must have known would be monitored – misplaced humour, psychological safety-valve, or a deep plan to extricate himself from intolerable pressures? The “libertarian anarchist” editrix who doxxes Vicars has highly pragmatic politics, moving from Left to Right and back to Left, following the culture (or is she shaping it?). Who sent her the emails? Why did she take such prurient relish in publishing them? Has some secret part of her always wanted to say those words herself? Is she really interested in social betterment – or is it actually all about her? Even the weather at times descends to disorientate, Plant staring out from Vicars’ apartment into a fog where “even absence was obliterated”. He longs, like so many others, for a clearer view, some return to form and narrative, a move away from self-realisation to society, a recrudescence of meaning, the end of post-modernity and its post-truth by-blow.

All this may sound forbiddingly worthy, but the undoubted import is delivered with ease, bejewelled with sparkling imagery – “she looked up like an indignant bird, one of the smaller ones, interrupted in eating crumbs” – and mordantly witty insights into how we live, and a few of the reasons why. Raising possibilities includes raising the possibility of escape, but Wilding is non-prescriptive almost to a fault. He offers no neat solution to Plant’s case – and no easy answers to any problems, except to be aware of what is (or might be) happening, at most a turning off rather than on, a tuning out rather than in, and a dropping out, and off the grid. Luckily for lovers of good fiction and good societies, he will never pursue this quietist course himself, but keep on instead adding new new writing to our old, helping in his engaging, unpretentious way to reinvest the West with sorely-needed significance.

This review first appeared in the Spectator Australia in January 2017, and is reproduced with acknowledgements