Tremendous times

“I love titties!”

So enthused my German companion, whose name began with J, but the rest of which I cannot attest to with certainty (my revisionist memory keeps whispering Jörgen at me). We met in the sprawling outskirts of Valencia via our protruding, south-pointing thumbs. Alone and penniless, we came together and travelled all the way, by foot and hitched rides, to Malaga. We slept in doorways and fields. Naturally, we got to know each other a little along the way. I learned that this kind and talkative man loved titties and adored Westerns. He expounded with impressive second-language eloquence upon the latter (the former needed no explanation). The Wild West was, for him, the ultimate romantic adventure: there a man could strike out, test his mettle. You had to be quick on the draw and handy with a hoe. The law was still lagging behind the trailblazing times but there was a code of sorts. Cruelty abounded but so did its homesteading opposite. We were on a cold, windswept, pitch-black beach when he told me this. Between that and the fact I was on my own (myth-making) odyssey, I will never forget his impassioned description of the Wild West (and fondness for breasts, which presumably played a prominent role in the card-slinging, tit-touting saloons of his fantasy).

The Wild West makes for powerful fiction because it provides an abidingly mythical backstory for the fast-forwarded modernity of America (currently in the realm of hyper-reality). As I was chopping my veggies in the kitchen, I smiled (grimaced) as a commentator on the BBC explained that President Trump was popular with voters because he “shoots from the hip” as he “ploughs forward”. When it comes to America, I plough backwards, away from its hysteria and bumper-sticker debates. I go back to the flighty language that fixed its myths and hitched itself to its horse-driven dreams. The 19th century speaks to me more than the 21st century. Humanity was still a work in progress (we now know it isn’t) and reason was striking out and gaining ground (a vain endeavour, in retrospect).

On this side of the “pond” (the one that covers 20 percent of the earth’s surface), a television show called Ripper Street grapples with the closest thing England had to a Wild West: the Victorian East End. The show fell into my lap, as it were, after I read a review of it in the Guardian lavishing praise on its dialogue and revelling in its tasteful depravity. The critic gushed: “[…] I’ve never come across a piece of TV which so enjoys words. Every spoken mouthful is sucked on like a navvy lapping gin from a mug… The characters live through the words, rather than existing in the gaps between them.” Blimey! I lit an oily rag and settled in me lion’s lair to get a good butcher’s hook at it [æʔ ɪtʔ].

The show is set in Whitechapel and spans the final decade of the 19th century. The storylines smuggle plenty of social and political issues into the labyrinthine, claustrophobic setting of East London with its by-now mythical poverty and foggified sleaze: Russian political émigrés, violent antisemitism against the Eastern European Jewry, socialism, colonialism, child exploitation, a mysterious Golem, the poorhouse, bodies washing up on the shores of the Ol’ Muddy, the struggle of the Suffragettes, sepia-tinted pornography (including a snuff film), upper-class libertinage vs lower-class degeneracy, there’s even a revisionist version of the Elephant Man: these are but a few of the choice miseries on costumed parade. Nary a cobblestone is left unturned in this supposedly grim-but-poetic exposé of the period.

Sadly, the effusive Guardian reviewer was mistaken about the quality of language (has she not seen the incomparably superior Deadwood?). The writing certainly does its utmost to impress and goes out of its way to incorporate some fascinating Victorianisms (I was so taken by these museum pieces that I began compiling a list: mandrake, mudlark, phossy jaw, coppering, night soil, to take the Queen’s shilling, afternoonified, behindativeness, cheek ache, arse-monger, etc.). But frilly archaisms woven around a string of standard rhetorical devices is neither as lyrical nor as profound as it might sound (the impressively earnest lead actor had me convinced that it was on a few occasions). Despite the keen love of language and historical awareness behind Ripper Street, the dialogue and story is as formula-bound (and suspiciously nostalgic) as the countless other costume dramas lending England a desperately needed post-dated sense of identity.

Whitechapel is portrayed as a swamp to be drained, a wilderness to be tamed, by our philosophising police inspector and his willing-to-use-violence-to-get-justice sidekick.  Whitechapel is an inversion (just as the inspector’s language is littered with inversions) of the colonial order; it is the dark heart of the empire that the sun never sets on. It is where the exploitative forces that fuel early capitalism and underwrite colonial expansion converge on rat-infested quays and in body-strewn alleyways. But the language cannot rise above the infernal machinery that moulded it. The misery is not metaphysical, as it aspires to be, nor is it poetic, like the pioneering American language that had to forge itself anew. It trembles with indignation while wallowing in its own filth. It institutionalizes the poverty it affects to inveigh against by reducing it to the level of backdrop and subplot in a thriller ultimately concerned with more titillating matters. That is England.

There is much to admire about Ripper Street (as BBC shows go) but its linguistic histrionics did not leave me purring with delight like Deadwood, an American show that explores the from-the-ground-up founding of civil society. Set in the 1870s, Deadwood was a real-life mining town in South Dakota that fell under no jurisdiction: it was, for a time, truly lawless. The magnificently named Al Swearengen (played by the English actor Ian McShane) deserves a place in the pantheon of great television characters. Tragically, the market forces that created and shaped America did away with Deadwood after just three seasons.

Ripper Street was right about one thing. The shadow of Jack the Ripper dominates East London mythology: every creepy gaslit alley leads back to it. I’m no Ripperologist – all I know is that he was a  psychopath who mutilated and killed poor prostitutes. He is said to have killed five ‘working girls’ (or ‘brass flutes’ in local lingo), also known as the ‘canonical five’, and maybe as many as 11 in total. There are 28 suspects according to Wikipedia, some contemporaneous, many identified later by an army of armchair enthusiasts (these include royalty and Lewis Carroll, though neither is considered a serious suspect). The Ripper seems an appropriate choice of myth for the darker side of Victorian England. It is an unspeakable crime that no one is accountable for. It cloaks a deeply ingrained misogyny behind the love of a good thriller. It imbues that brutal era with an air of mystery that lingers on in perpetuity like a thick bank of fog. “Are Jack the Ripper tours blighting London?” asks a Telegraph headline before going on to state that “Whitechapel has reached saturation point.” The market forces that led to the abject ruination of Whitechapel have long since gentrified the area and made a nice little cottage industry out of morbid nostalgia. The many atrocities committed under the British empire, on the other hand, remain largely unknown and unaired. A recent YouGov poll found that 43 percent of Brits thought the British empire was a ‘good thing’ and 44 percent were proud of Britain’s colonial history. Like Jack the elusive psychopath, the Union Jack got away with it. But in the spirit of all those Ripperologists out there, I will now attempt some armchair detective work of my own. I will geT aT iT.

Though I be from England, my accent (idiolect) is of my own making. In other words, I broadly sound like I’m from England but something is askew, amiss. People strain their ears to try and place where I’m from. It was a conscious choice (so I tell myself) because I find southern English accents unaccommodating to mind and soul. They are generally pitched  at posh or cockney, or some quavering form of (so-called) Estuary English wavering in between. Both require an enormous amount of (vain, conformist, animal-on-a-leash) effort; both are performative (if they are to sound convincing and authentic). Posh English seemed to be on the wane when I was growing up but it has returned with a vengeance, which seems only natural with the country steaming ahead back to the 19th century. It has undergone some minor tweaks; many unconsciously use an alveolar tap to soften ‘t’ into something closer to a ‘d’ (back in the good ol’ Savileties I remember being confused by a Radio 1 DJ who would say ‘bedder’ instead of better). Similarly, the glottal stop, once a distinctive feature of cockney, is now increasingly used by the affluent for the same reason: it feels more natural and less restrictive to fluid speech. Posh English is far less exaggerated than it was (it used to sound like a frustrated walrus trying to vocalize its melancholy feelings). But it outrages me that this beautiful language is still phonetically stratified and codified in this arbitrary and senseless way. “Posh” English is neither correct nor right nor desirable; it is the absurd remnant of hundreds of years of people born into privilege mistaking their manner of speech for intelligence and authority. Because of its historical complexities, compounded by a class-based enunciatory pantomime, English is a minefield for the mouths of its many self-conscious speakers. A long way away, then, from the English that got away.

I believe that the English have such a weak (resentfully ovine, philosophically bovine) sense of identity precisely because they are unable to speak effortlessly. Of course, many people do speak effortlessly because they have had years of practise to clip and clack and flip and tap at exactly the right moment. But mouth and brain remain sadly, nay, tragically, estranged. The English spoken in America and Australia, for example, does not have these problems. They have other self-made linguistic markers of social status and misguided notions of ‘good’ English, but these are unrelated to the particular phonetic obstacle course I have described.

When I was a kid patriotism was for idiots. It was considered crass and desperate and took the form of the Union Jack being waved about by skinheads and football fans. You had to be patriotic by litotes, by lovingly mocking your country, by being discreetly proud of Dennis Potter plays and the rolling countryside and a seemingly exceptional threshold for tolerance.

“Do you love your country?”

This was the question put to then-editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, when he was summoned before a parliamentary hearing to defend his newspaper’s (carefully vetted and redacted) publication of the material leaked by Edward Snowden. England, long lost at sea, had finally and officially adopted the language it had first exported across the pond in 1607.

You can’t put your feet into the same Ol’ Muddy twice.

I woke up from a profoundly sad dream set in 1970s Canada, in a rundown town, where I was a guest at a wedding, and kept going to the bar ordering tumblers full of vodka.

What’s the point? I try to write right, to say something worth saying. But then I think: what’s the point?

In the good ol’ Savileties I grew up watching Clint Eastwood westerns. I loved them, their laconicism, their grit. I thought, now there’s a man. Clint went on to make arguably one of the finest (revisionist) westerns ever made in 1992. I went to see it in a cinema in Leicester Square. Afterwards I said wow: I’d never seen anyone hit the bottle so hard. Clint (now in his dotage) went on to support Trump and to call the youth of today a ‘pussy generation’. He struck orange in the steamy, swampy political landscape of America.

A photograph of Billy the Kid sold for $2.3 million in 2011. It had been found in a junk store and was a real steal at two dollars.  It shows the notorious Billy playing croquet.

“I love titties!”

Who doesn’t?

I watch a string of slickly gritty new Westerns (3:10 to Yuma, Django Unchained, Meek’s Cutoff, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Homesman, True Grit, Bone Tomahawk, The Claim, The Duel, The Salvation, Slow West, The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, The Keeping Room and many others, including non-western westerns) in my desperation to turn back time, on England, on America, on myself.

I have always consciously resisted the treacherous allure of nostalgia. My dad, an American, fell for that racket in a big way long ago. He hit the far right as he got older. To my horror, but not to my surprise, he supported Trump. He wrote to me: “Putin has already shown that he respects Trump where he never showed anything but contempt for Trump’s America-hating, American-people-despising, freedom-fearing, Islamists-bowing-before predecessor.”

My dad will die soon. He is very old and frail. I was drinking with G and J when I felt compelled (my compulsions will kill me) to write to him. I reined in a lifetime of resentment and disgust and wrote one line:

“You are a deeply unpleasant human being.”

He wrote back hurt and confused. I reassured him that I sometimes get blurty and my language gets spurty so he can die with an undeservedly clean conscience but I have no wish to ever communicate with him again.

America deserves Trump. Ideologically, he has been roughly 40 years in the making. Teleologically, he has been hundreds of years in the making. This ‘book’ is slowly but surely drawing to a conclusion. History, on the other hand, has just begun all over again. Because it never fucking ends.


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