4.48 Psychosis

I had intended to do a post looking at Sarah Kane’s play 4.48 Psychosis. I was going to try to explain it to people, and then try to explain why it had such an impact on me, but I’ve come to the conclusion that this would be a bit pointless. Kane’s work is not easy to assess and analyse: everyone will read it differently, and I really don’t think that she would have wanted her work to be reduced to simplistic summaries.

Having said that, I will explain a little about how I encountered her and her work, and why 4.48 Psychosis had such an impact on me personally.

I did an English degree at Manchester Metropolitan University between 2001 and 2004. The very last text I studied before taking my finals was 4.48 Psychosis, and the studying of it happened to coincide with the initial drafts of chapters 46, 47, and 48 – a trio of chapters I’ve always thought of as ‘The Nervous Breakdown Chapters’. Given that 4.48 Psychosis is also about mental illness, the coincidence of the two things was rather unnerving to say the least.

Kane apparently took inspiration from Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and C.S Lewis’ ‘The Silver Chair’ in writing the play, which – when read rather than performed – comes across more as a stream of consciousness piece than actual theatre. Much has been made of the fact that Kane killed herself prior to it’s theatrical debut in 2000, and this fact, and the subject of mental illness, resulted in a number of critics viewing the play purely as an extended suicide note. This was not how I read it: I read it as a very honest account of the mental processes of, the treatment of, and societies reactions to mental illness and mental health patients. I also saw it as a searing critique of mental health services in Britain in the late 1990’s.

Rather than try to analyse the play further, I shall type in an extract of it. If Kane’s estate object to me doing this I will, of course, take it down:

It wasn’t for long, I wasn’t there long. But drinking bitter black coffee I catch that medicinal smell in a cloud of ancient tobacco and something touches me in that still sobbing place and a wound from two years ago opens like a cadaver and long buried shame roars its foul decaying grief.

 A room of expressionless faces staring blankly at my pain, so devoid of  meaning there must be evil intent.

Dr This and Dr That and Dr Whatsit who’s just passing and thought he’d pop in to take the piss as well. Burning in a hot tunnel of dismay, my humiliation complete as I shake without reason and stumble over words and have nothing to say about my ‘illness’ which anyway only amounts to knowing that there’s no point in anything because I’m going to die. And I am deadlocked by that smooth psychiatric voice of reason which tells me there is an objective reality in which my body and mind are one. But I am not here and never have been. Dr This writes it down and Dr That attempts a sympathetic murmur. Watching me, judging me, smelling the crippling failure oozing from my skin, my desperation clawing and all-consuming panic drenching me as I gape in horror at the world and wonder why everyone is smiling and looking at me with secret knowledge of my aching shame.

Shame shame shame.

Drown in your fucking shame.


Pride And Prejudice And Zombies

Described as being “The classic regency romance – now with ultraviolent zombie mayhem” (not to mention the oddly whimsical ultraviolent regency zombie mayhem illustrations…) this book turned out to have an odd charm of its own, whilst being horribly compulsive.

For anyone who has been enjoying The Jane Austen Fight Club on Youtube (until it got blocked for copyright reasons that is…), this is of a similar ilk, only it’s more Night Of The Living Dead, The Evil Dead, or Buffy than the original Fight Club.

Imagine that regency England has been suffering from a plague of zombies, with London partitioned into sectors, the military encampments more worried about the undead than Napoleon, and in which it is the norm for all unmarried women to study martial arts in defence of the crown…

Weirdly, it works, mainly because this is a mash up or slash endevour really, not an original work as such, but it works by using a distinctly Austen turn of phrase when describing even the most un-Austen like scenes of carnage. As well as the zombie/vampire related films and shows listed above, it also shares a surreal subtlety with Stella Gibbons’ ‘Cold Comfort Farm’, itself a satire on rural fictions such as those by Mary Webb. Gibbons could, with an apparently straight face, throw in lines about cows losing legs, and high melodrama in which overwraught spurned men collapsed into piles of sandwiches, whereas Seth Grahame-Smith gives us class snobbery over the distinctions between Japanese ninjas and Chinese grand masters, a disturbingly twee take on what to do with ‘tame’ zombies, and a training game called ‘Kiss Me Deer’;

“The rules were simple: Sneak up behind one of the large bucks grazing in the nearby woods, wrestle it to the ground, and kiss it on the nose before letting it go.”

In the horror stakes, who would have thought that Charlotte Lucas would suffer a fate even worse than simply marrying Mr Collins? that Elizabeth Bennett would arrive to see Jane in Netherfield not only all over mud, but also all over zombie?

Lady Catherine proves to be as infuriating as ever, albeit with martial arts skills and expensive ninjas, and Grahame-Smith gives Wickham a comeuppance that seems oddly appropriate, all things considered.

Not for the fainthearted, and it’ll ruin the original for you, but good fun nonetheless.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq, from a peculiarly British and, often, Mancunian viewpoint: Unusual and powerful commentary I read/heard at the time.

It seems odd to be writing about press coverage and discussion of the invasion of Iraq, and its immediate aftermath, in 2011. But during the course of writing ‘Screaming In Public’ (mainly 2001-2006, with extra edits up to 2009) it became increasingly obvious that the story would have to reflect not only a particular musical and cultural scene, in Manchester and beyond, but also local, national, and often international events. I started writing what would become the final version of the story (earlier versions, going as far back as 1995, need not be discussed here) in August 2001, about 3 weeks before 9/11, and would say that whilst I had no desire to write a novel about 9/11 and its consequences, to an extent I didn’t really have much of a choice. I chose not to dwell on 9/11 much in itself for the simple reason that, like the majority of the world, 9/11 was something both I and my characters experienced only remotely on T.V.

When it came to writing about the period immediately before and after the invasion of Iraq, this remoteness wasn’t an option, and as such the discussions, machinations, spin, lies, politics and protests all had to be acknowledged, given that they all had much more obvious day to day impact on the everyday Stopfordian and Mancunian than 9/11 did. Whether you were pro or anti war, whether you felt it was inevitable or preventable, you simply couldn’t escape from it. And you were expected to take sides.

As a student at MMU at the time, at the height of much student anger and discussion about the war, I happened across a piece of polemical writing, which had been casually littered across the English department, presumably in the hope that people would pick it up and read it. It wasn’t signed, merely dated 10/2002, and headed ‘An Invitation’.

In 1990 a 15-year-old girl appeared on TV receiving wide media coverage to say that she had witnessed an atrocity carried out in Iraq in a children [sic] hospital in Kuwait. When it turned out to be a fake story it was ignored by the media. It was invented to change public perceptions and go to war. This was 1990’s concrete evidence. Today’s evidence must be more attractive to sell the war to the public! But, how much does it help feeding people with lies, hate and fears unnecessarily. After all, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean equipped with the latest technology and mighty power? With thse destructive technologies they bombed everything including sheep. Sheep are totally innocent animals.

Another reason for attacking Iraq is to hide war crimes, that were committed in 91 and 98, by installing a puppet government to help bury appalling evidences. Dragging other nations to their knees in such a humiliating way is immoral. This letter is to avoid further wars and collective punishments. It’s in remembrance of the many who had no hand in political life. But, suffered for so long and then finished in silence in this world that is characterized by communications and fast information exchange. This is an invitation for peace. Thank you.

Feelings were running high, with a number of Stop The War coalition groups active in Manchester throughout 2002 and 2003, something reflected by City Life columnist Danny Moran’s regular forays into the world of the angry activist. In early February 2003 he wrote of an attempt to ‘flan’ New York mayor Rudi Giuliani at a book signing at Waterstones (City Life, 5-20th Feb 2003) along with a number of examples of civil disobediance, and clashes between police and anti-war protesters at rallies on Oxford Road. In March of that year he talked to an activist planning to fly out to Iraq as a human shield, and attended anti-war coalition meetings in town, concerned with planning actions for the day of the invasion, and the bombing campaign known as ‘Operation Shock And Awe’. He wrote of his great hope, on the 8th March 2003, that the protests would work, that the city would be shut down, chaos and press coverage ensue, and that ultimately the government would have to back down. But it rained instead, and protesters dwindled away.

On the day British and American troops invaded Iraq, school kids and students across Manchester walked out of schools, colleges, and universities, and joined the anti-war marches. This is often forgotten, and it also doesn’t seem to have occurred to many people in recent months that some of those schoolchildren, say for example Big Issue columnist Robert David’s then 11 year old son, who marched that day, would now be in the 18-21 kind of age group, and that a number of those young anti-war veterans may well have been engaged in more recent bouts of student activism, specifically the Gaza occupations at a number of universities in 2009, and most recently the protests against the rise in tuition fees and the abolition of the EMA. City Life also reported on the large number of students and schoolkids who walked out on March 19th 2003, the subheading to the piece being “GMP exasperated as Riot Squads face school uniforms on Albert Square Peace Demo.” As the article reported:

While police estimated 600-700 protesters on the march, hundreds more held vigils and sit-ins on school premises. Manchester’s Stop The War Coalitions only involvement was a flyer posted on their website, with recruits gathered through a flyer, email and text campaign. Planning meetings, meanwhile, maintained a stringent under-18 entry policy. (City Life, 2-9th April, 2003)

A similar example of youthful precociousness was reported in the same issue of the late listings mag, when Radio 1 DJ Sara Cox appeared in Bolton as part of the stations On The Road music roadshow event. A Q&A went badly off message when, as columnist Citizen put it, the normally “intellectually demanding posers as ‘who’s your favourite popstar?’ and ‘Do you prefer wearing thongs or knickers?’ were followed by ‘Do you think Blair was wrong to go to war without full UN resolutions?'” Cox’s response was indicative of the BBC: She was highly embarrassed and refused to answer on the grounds of maintaining impartiality.

Once ‘Operation Shock And Awe’ had begun, and the protesters had returned home embittered, angry, and in some cases with letters home from irate school teachers, media coverage went into even further overload. Private Eye, in typically cynical mode, wrote of the operation as being defined by the concept of ‘Event TV’, with media pressure for “a quick win” on the basis that war was perceived to make great T.V. (Private Eye, 4-17th April 2003) It added:

Admittedly cynics argue that the media wanted a war because ratings for news shows rise during conflicts. There was a lift in the figures at the beginning but ratings were falling sharply by the second half of the week. This suggests that theories about ‘stripping’ are correct. The audience has a shorter attention-span: one-day cricket, five-day war.

Of course, it was never going to be a 5 day war, but the coverage of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad on 9th April 2003, widely reported at the time as ‘The End’ of the war, despite appearances to the contrary, bear out this theory that there were two wars really: the media war and the real one.

Private Eye was especially good in its reporting of the reporting, capturing both the hysteria and the hyperbole that overtook many news channels and newspapers, plus the sheer tedium and unhelpfulness of much of the information for the average viewer and reader. By April, much left wing media coverage was fixed on the ‘reconstruction’ of a supposed post-war Iraq, with much cynicism as to profit making opportunities for U.S firms. By July, the target had become Guantanomo Bay and Camp Delta, formerly Camp X-Ray, which would itself inspire a group of artists in Hulme to stage a living, breathing replica of it later that year.

Chapter 34 of Screaming In Public reflects a moment in the fictional narrative where real life events quite simply swamped the story, and as such had to be inserted, and made part of the story as best they could. This does happen once more, at another, later, point in the story, and I’m aware that a similar explanation of real life events will be necessary then as well.

Girls To The Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution

Reading this book was a bit like doing a jigsaw: fragments of the story I could recognise from earlier accounts of riot grrrl (most notably the riot grrrl chapter in Jenkins and Anderson’s Dance Of Days), some I remember being dimly aware of at the time, to varying degrees (Simple Machines and Positive Force I remember reading about/being aware of at the time because there was a Tsuinami interview in Ablaze! 10 and they mentioned the connection there), but they are fragments in a wider, more detailed narrative.

Before obtaining a copy of, and reading, the book I was a bit worried that it would be written for the academic market, and that it would tend towards dryness as a result, and be laden with theory (I got this impression from reading the review on Wears The Trousers) but it isn’t at all: It’s very vivid and readable. Marcus does write it from the position of an insider, which is a definite strength in this case as previous books on riot grrrl haven’t been written by insiders, but her perspective doesn’t mean she is uncritical: she is setting up the cracks as well as showing the strengths.

The analysis of the frequently contested, maligned, and misunderstood activity of writing on the body is interesting. Through Kathleen Hanna, Marcus links it to art history and artists such as Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, to ACT UP and straight edge, revealing prededents and possible influences. I also like the way Susan Faludi’s ‘Backlash’ (which I read just prior to this on the basis that it was probably long overdue that I did), Madonna, and the post-punk film ‘Ladies And Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains!’ are mentioned and discussed. She sums up writing on the body this way:

a girl’s body was contested territory; this was a way to rewrite its meaning.

I begin to see more and more that the riot grrrls essentially, consciously or not, picked up the gauntlet laid down to women at the end of ‘Backlash’, where Faludi wrote, and I’m paraphrasing here, ‘This is how it’s been in the 80’s, what will happen in the 90’s?’

I also think that Marcus sums up a crisis point beautifully when she writes in the 1992-3 section “Riot Grrrl was edging its way, involuntarily, towards the cultural mainstream, and it wasn’t ready to be there.”

In terms of the way punk and riot grrrl have been fetishized and the nostalgia aspect has become damaging, I found a section of the book where Marcus discussed Seanna Tully’s introduction into riot grrrl particularly poignant: Tully became a riot grrrl in 1992, and she proudly wore a ‘Riot Grrrl; shrinky dink necklace, but was acutely aware of it not coming from the first batch of such homemade neckaces.

 “I had first-generation-shrinky dink envy,” Seanna laughed later, aware of how silly it sounded, but her comment pointed to something real: how easy it is to idealize things that happened in the past, or are happening to somebody else, as more enticing than what you could make out of your own life.

Another general strength is that the book clearly makes a strong case for music as a serious tool in feminisms arsenal: How many girls would get to tour a feminist lecture tour? and how many would attend? What would be the entry requirements to speak on such a tour? And what would be the entry requirements for a group of young feminists to form a punk band and tour?

I also like that Marcus isn’t afraid to discuss the violence bands like Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear faced, from men and women, and from some of the riot grrrls in the end. She also acknowledges the chilling impact of murder and rape within the punk scenes, and of Kurt Cobains suicide.

The decline and fall section is very good, in that she recognises the impact of burnout, sheer disillusionment, the searing impact of media intrusion, failure to address issues of class and ethnicity (I should probably say race, but the ghost of A Level Sociology lingers on…) and the subsequent battles within that ensued as a result of this, also the impact of Jessica Hopper’s breaking of the media embargo, and individual acts of profound selfishness on the various chapters and scenes. I like the postcript very much, in that she acknowledges the enduring impact and influence of riot grrrl, whilst also pointing to the fact that American society has got worse, not better, since riot grrrl.

Needless to say, the book focuses on the U.S scenes and chapters, so whilst the U.K gets a mention, it’s only in the form of London, Huggy Bear, Linus, and Lucy Thane’s film of the Bikini Kill/Huggy Bear tour in 1993: ‘It Saved My Life’. There’s a vague reference to chapters, bands, and scenes, in ‘the north of England’, but that’s it. This is to be expected though as it’s clear that the book was never intended to take a much wider view than the U.S. One day, fuller, worldwide accounts of the impact riot grrrl had on girls in Britain, Holland, Belgium, France, Brazil, Poland, Spain, Italy, Croatia, and beyond will be written, but scrappy accounts are what exist at present, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

Some musings on travel and borders

I had to have my ingrown toenail seen to in Hazel Grove this afternoon, so it was a case of a lie in and waiting, and shivering, in the snow at the bus stop for a 192 that could be bothered going all the way to Hazel Grove (the first 192 was going to Stepping Hill, the second 192 was going to Stockport. A case of third time lucky…) I got there half an hour early because there was a surprising lack of traffic on the A6, and – enjoying the view of the snowy pennines on the horizan, above the rooftops of shops and the civic hall, I had a forage in Cancer Research and found a Jellybean CD for £2. I didn’t think it was worth £2, only it had ‘Who Found Who’ on it, which I used to own on 7″ when I was about 10, and which I knew I would get stuck in my head within the hour, so I bought it. I’m listening to it now, and it’s surprisingly good whilst being very of its time. I also spotted The Beatles ‘Strawberry Fields…’ on 7″ for £5, which to a collector would be a bargain, but to me it didn’t seem worth it as I just don’t like it enough. I did buy the Soft Cell version of ‘Tainted Love’ on 7″ for £1 thought, but it won’t play on my record player. Further investigation has led to the discovery that the 45 rpm setting seems to have re-set itself to 33 and a third rpm. If the 33 and a third setting had re-set itself to 45 then it wouldn’t matter so much, only it hasn’t. The 78 setting is fine, so it’s obviously not the belt slipping or anything like that. I can only conclude that I probably haven’t used it since I tried to transfer Laura Branigan’s ‘Self Control’ to digital via Audacity: Can only presume the record player Didn’t Like It. Laura Branigan didn’t much either, as the file is very, very quiet…

After the podiatrist, I stood at another bus stop, shivering in the snow by Bird In Hand Yard, waiting for a Bakerbus to Poynton so I could go to Brookside for Garden Centre vouchers and thermal socks. The 391 obliged after not too long, and as I travelled through Hazel Grove, I reflected on cross border bus travel. Living on the Stockport/Manchester border, and before that the Stockport/East Cheshire border means I tend to have a duel perspective on many things, and I’ve found that whilst I didn’t appreciate this when I was growing up, I appreciate it a lot more now. There’s a balance of urban and rural, town and city. Brookside is only just in Poynton but, just as there is when I get the Buxton bus to Lyme Park, there’s the immediate border contrast when you get off the bus, with the bus stops in the blue and white colour scheme of Cheshire East, signalling that you’re coming to the end of the GMPTE zone. It’s not marked at all in Heaton Chapel because both Stockport and Manchester are in the GMPTE zone, so the signs of crossing the border are different: things like the recycle bins outside houses and flats being different, and the change in council insignia.

After Brookside, I walked back from the East Cheshire border to the terminus in Hazel Grove and caught a 192 back to Heaton Chapel. This was followed by a trudge to Heaton Moor to pick up my quilt from the launderette. Last weeks laundry soundtrack was Gregory Isaacs (including the blissful ‘Nightnurse’) and Lily Allen’s ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’. I think it was Lily again today.

JK Rowling and Tamora Pierce

I was stuck by this piece by Bidisha, which appeared in the Guardian the other week. At the height of the usual mania over the new Harry Potter film, she wrote a very moving piece about those who had grown up with the series.

It was only when she came to assess Hermione as a feminist character that I got a bit annoyed. Now, to my mind Hermione may be many things, but as interesting a character as I find her she wouldn’t be my first choice when it came to examples of inspiring female characters in fantasy fiction. I thought about this, and I’ve realised that this is almost definitely because I grew up reading Tamora Pierce, not JK Rowling. I think I was about 11 or 12 when I read the first 2 Song of the Lioness books, and seem to remember having to wait what felt like an absolute age (about 2 years) to read the third book in the series – The Woman Who Rides Like A Man – and about another year or more for the fourth and final book, Lioness Rampant. I was thinking about Pierce again because I’ve been re-reading the Trickster duology again, which were the last two books of hers to be published in the U.K. They were published by Scholastic, who also happen to publish Philip Pullman, and (I think) another well established British fantasy writer, whose name I can’t recall… I always thought it odd that the Pierce books have always done so well in America (prizes, bestsellers, school visits…) whilst generating a loyal following but little press interest over here. I do remember a brief paragraph in Bookseller once, years ago now, when the first 3 Harry Potter books were all out and the phenomenon was really taking off, which pointed out that Pierce’s heroines made Hermione look incredibly tame in comparison, but I don’t recall any other British press discussion of Pierce at all.

When it was announced that Scholastic would no longer publish Tamora Pierce after the Trickster duology, I did wonder if it was because they had other, bigger selling, more established, homegrown fantasy writers on their list. I also wondered if it was because of the nature of the Trickster duology, which is as dark in its way as the final Harry Potter book is. I expect I will never know.

So far as I have been able to find out, Pierce still doesn’t have a British publisher, 3 years later, whilst continuing to write American bestsellers for teens overseas. How very odd…

Launderette soundtrack watch…

Today’s soundtrack was Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back To Black’ on repeat. Don’t think I’ve ever heard all of it, it’s just one of those albums where you feel as though you have even though you haven’t. I’ve had ‘Rehab’ stuck in my head all day as a result, which works surprisingly well in a washing and drying setting weirdly… the family who came in especially for the dub reggae were a tad dissappointed though…

Came home with a longing yearning for Carmel and Sade

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