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

 

Dancing into darkness – Holbein’s Dance of Death

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DANCING INTO DARKNESS

The Dance of Death, Hans Holbein, London: Penguin Classics, 2016, 184pps., pb., £9.99

If age is synonymous with canonicity – an assumption increasingly questioned – Hans Holbein’s 1523-5 Dance of Death qualifies as ‘classic’ on that score alone. But his striking work is also defining in deeper ways, epitomising the Reformation, when humanism, mercantilism, and artistic and scientific advances clashed and combined with classicism and Catholicism to launch the modern world. This is the first time the “Penguin Classics” descriptor has been applied to illustrations, but it is an admirable fit, and to concrete its status the Dance has been complemented by Holbein’s Alphabet of Death, and contextualised learnedly by cultural historian Ulinka Rublack.

Holbein is famed for his portraits of Henry VIII, Thomas More, and others – especially The Ambassadors in London’s National Gallery, his 1533 dual portrait of French diplomatists, Renaissance Men surrounded by the accoutrements of accomplishment as well as discord, between whom across a mosaic floor lies a monstrous anamorphic skull. The Dance of Death is less obviously appealing, being made up of 41 grayscale woodcuts, each just 65 mms high x 48 mms wide, but like the portraits it amply repays attention. The publishers have magnified the images four-fold to make it easier for us to appreciate the artist’s highly textured micro-universes, with their hyper-realistic settings and moral messaging.

Religious and political conventions were under heavy bombardment in proud cities like Reformation-ready Basle, where Holbein created his Dance, but innovators were also inheritors. Holbein was wonderfully fresh, but the concept stemmed from a 1280 poem, Le Dit des trois morts et les trois vifs, by Baudoin de Condé. Condé’s concept of a homiletic interchange between feckless living and ghastly dead transmuted swiftly into other languages and pictorial art across Europe. The word “macabre” was in use in France by 1376, and prelates or monarchs were often commemorated by Transi tombs, double-decker compositions representing them in both worldly splendour and mouldering actuality; an English example is Bishop Fleming’s (d.1431) in Lincoln Cathedral. In the fifteenth century the Dance was sometimes performed as a masque, Dominicans and Franciscans guised as skeletons capering grotesquely with others representing all grades of society – Terpsichore treading manic measures with Thanatos. Catacombs and ossuaries became sites of prurient pilgrimage from Paris to Bohemia and England (Hythe in Kent, Rothwell in Northamptonshire).

Catholics had always been told they should prepare themselves for orderly dissolution – property disposed of, wills made, family farewelled, masses ordered – in preparation for translation to Heaven, but death would always have been surrounded by fascinated fear. The comfort intended to be drawn from Dances or viewing the disjecta membra of saints through rock-crystal windows was often a pious platitude. The clownish cavortings of cadavers across chancel arches or convent walls were gallows humour, a natural response to the stark facts that child mortality in the 1520s was around 30% for the under fives, and adult life expectancy in the forties (Holbein died at 45). The Swiss, furthermore, were both importers of neighbours’ conflicts and exporters of mercenaries, and so grimly familiar with war. In Holbein’s accessible format, an old message gained new immediacy –

“Death was no longer up on the wall, removed from everyday life, but came home in many of these scenes….looked at closely by well-off people seated in comfortable wide, cushioned, beautifully carved chairs.”

Edification was now also at-seat, outré entertainment.

The idea of death as universal equaliser is a cliché, but in the hands of Holbein it was carried off with exuberant originality. The skulls beneath his subjects’ skins are always grinning, mocking their dignities, plans and pretensions, and lacerating their shortcomings. The fur-collared Senator engaged in politic conversations has noticed neither the pawing beggar, nor prone Death holding up an hourglass, because a demon blows a bellows into his ear. The Advocate accepting a fee has temporarily forgotten that he too is subject to punitive Law, which leers into his face and seems to drape a companionable ulna around his shoulders. The terrified Duchess sits up in her four-poster bed (a foreshadowing of the likely design of her tomb) to see skeletons cackling and fiddling, playing a tune even she must dance to. Even those to whom Death ought to be neither stranger nor terror are taken unawares – the Pope having his foot kissed, the Cardinal surrounded by sybaritic vines, the Bishop yanked away as his flock scatters in flight. Skeletons scramble riggings to claim the Seaman, pound dulcimers to beguile the clearly unmusical Old Man, relieve the Pedlar of his vast backpack (although he does not look grateful), drive the struggling Ploughman’s skinny horses out of furrow, and stalk out of a hovel clutching a yelling Child while his family gapes aghast. Holbein’s Dance simultaneously bolstered Christianity and satirised many of its exponents, and inculcated virtue while impaling the social order as neatly as one of his ossiferous japesters pierces “The Knight” through vain armour.

While never revolutionary, the Dance would have had a semi-democratising effect, Rublack notes – “None of the elites are shown conducting the business of government in a responsible way”. These elites being largely Catholic (and aristocratic), this kind of art was conformable to the Reforming, mercantile climate in early 1520s Basle. But in 1526 the woodcutter who executed the illustrations died, and ten further pictures never materialised. Holbein was compelled to seek work in Antwerp and England, although he returned to Basle to retain citizenship, where he designed the title page of the April 1529 ordinance that introduced the Reformation officially. (Two months previously, enthusiasts had instigated a purgative, cantonal ‘cleansing’ of religious artworks, ironically including some of Holbein’s.) He seems to have found the city increasingly uncongenial, and in 1532 returned to England, where he died in 1543 (his burial place, appropriately, is unknown). His Dance was republished in 1538, but it was only after his death that it really became celebrated, with innumerable editions in many languages.

Dances would be published across Europe into the nineteenth century – in England, William Combe’s wry 1814 text was brought brilliantly to life by Rowlandson – but post-Darwin, it became harder to see death as part of a Plan, or release to some (always nebulous) higher state. The Victorians had a neo-Gothic streak, but they also swept away the past with brusque energy. As Europeans lived longer and saw through old enigmas, death became less familiar, and more frightening. This process appears to be ongoing, judging from our obsession with healthcare and security, and growing interest in fields like cryogenics, genetic engineering and life extension. We seem if anything less able to face intractability with equanimity than were sixteenth century Helvetians. Hopefully this welcome addition to Holbein historiography will make some of us better people, or at least let us see ourselves in civilisational context – and this, after all, is the defining purpose of classics.

This review appeared in the May 2017 Spiked Review, and is reproduced with permission