Granta, London 2010
Life’s full of little ironies. I left off reading Les Miserables when Hugo went into a seemingly interminible digression about the Battle of Waterloo. I needed a rest so I began reading this as soon as it was given to me. I finished it in two days, coming upon near the end another Battle of Waterloo, this one at Waterloo Station, on 12 September, 1992, and here a vivid and flinty description of all hell breaking loose between the hardened edges of anti-fascist movements and the equally sharp edges of a medley of far right youth fascists, skinheads at this point in time being on both sides.
Schaefer’s descriptive powers are immense, and if there is a poetry of visceral violence it is here (along with a most heartbreaking, lyrical counterpart of tenderness which expresses itself physically). The novel opens with an intensely vivid description of homosexual encounter in a public toilet. The unrelenting realism of the sexual and the violent, often crossing into each other, forms a helix that can’t not draw a fascinated and horrified response from the reader. The dualism of this sort of voyeurism parallels the attractiveness of the S/M dyad, the ugly becomes beautiful, the beautiful and innocent something to be violated and destroyed.
The novel’s protagonist is James, a public school and university child of parents who look after him during his prolonged adult adolesence during which he is waiting to become a serious artist, a screenwriter no less. There are many like him in the world in which he moves, so obviously this is more than mere fiction. He is fascinated with the Nazi thug Nicola Crane whose brutal physiognomy and stance adorn the book’s frontispiece, a fascimile from Skins International fanzine, 1983. Crane is one of a list from England’s recent history of far right thugs, stertching from the likes of Stuart Donaldson, psycho and front for the Rock against Communism band, Skrewdriver, to the more homely charms of our own Nick Griffin. (It’s important to note, for reasons that will become apparent that Donaldson and Griffin too were public school boys). Jame’s researches take him and us on a journey along the contours of the 1970s through to the present factionalisms and vaguely articulated sense of such movements as the British National Socialists, the British Movement, the National Front, the British National Party, Blood and Honour, and sundry others. Insights into aspects their activities – such as military training sessions, infiltration into establishment instituions, music, ideologues, connections with strange European bearers of the mysteries of the swastika (which is the symbol for the wheel of the the sun, hence Children of the Sun, a blood-stained swastika flag touched by Hitler himself being lugged around London in a duffle bag during our encounter with these insights) – are brought to life with scenarios that border on the grotesque (I don’t want to plot spoil but I am referring to a gaga old woman who is too scary to get a part in a horror movie) to the chillingly domestic with a young and earnest Nick Griffin fresh from Cambridge with his leaflets and booklets and intelligent arguments.
Schaefer’s constructed his novel so that James’s research is embodied in a factual framework with a fictional narrative, the main character being Tony whose story begins and ends the book, the ending though with a contrived but satisfying twist. Tony, like almost all of the characters (at least half of whom are ‘semi-fictional’: the blurring of fact and fiction is not only a literary game, it’s largely what the book is about) is broken, violent, tender, inconsistent, intelligent but often inarticulate, swept along and never having the opportunity to grow up. Three kids offer him a glue bag to sniff: he takes it, “I was young once.” The structure is very straightforward and works for what the author is doing, certainly presents an uncomplicated reading of the narrative.
Regarding the history covered in the book, I think you’ll find it interesting, informative and so on, but I’d like now to turn to some aspects of the novel which lift it towards being very good indeed.
It’s about identity, markers, self and other. Of course, it’s got political and ideological aspects but there’s no didacticism, polemic or answer to a sneaked-in question. It lays stuff brutally on the table in a way that shows quite clearly some underlying patterns to the way we all think. I have alluded to three elements: the erotic, the violent and the tender (the latter connected with joy). The tensions between these generate the power of the novel, of the individual. Identity is made of the private (erotic, tender) that may need the other to share with, yet always throughout the relationship of trust, except in the most marvellously paradoxical way right at the end, is precarious and fragile at best. Identity of self – perhaps only James’ boyfriend Adam and some of their middle class friends show a degree of adult autonomy – is the absence which initiates the time-honoured method of finding the self by losing it into the communal. At a gig on Nick Griffin’s Daddy’s farm, Tony is drawn into the heaving, sweating dancing gang of skins, at first conscious of the erotic self that he must hide but then, he
….sees himself repeated in every direction like a hall of mirrors, and understands that this will not wreck him, he is not distinct from it and floating fragile on its surface, but rather it is him, of him and he is part of it, the shouts, the salutes, the sieg heils coming from within and around him alike. With one force, one voice, he fills the courtyard.
Yet in one of the smudged photocopies of fanzines and the like that punctuate the novel, we have this in Square Peg no.12, 1986, ‘Why I’m a Skin’:
(a skin is) able to walk anywhere, his passport the astonishment of the sharp mind in the brainless stereotype…
…This animal’s only secondary sexual characteristics are his braces, worn up to exaggerate the width of his shoulders, down to emphasise the curve of his bum.
Another scene (I won’t describe it in detail, it is worth savouring) evokes a Tea Dance with an assortment of the oddest, weirdest, most outlandishly dressed and styled couples and it is here that explicit reference to the word joy is made. Tenderness exists elsewhere too in the little details of lovers’ rituals, yet for the most part it is trodden down (often literally) by sadism, often greeted by paid for masochism. Somehow in the Square Peg quotation and the desire by Adam – a successful BBC producer – to dress as a skin, and to go to S/M skin club and be utterly humiliated, and many other instances of the conflation of dress, power, identity, violence, eroticism, gender simply saturate the novel’s ‘content’ (at the level of ‘representing’ some attributes of the far right movements at a small period of history): James’ intuition that after all his searching in the British Library and other conventional research, he has to find whatever he is looking for by finding out how the virtually absent Nicola Crane feels.
England is not about England nor was it ever.
To me, there were some disturbing overlaps implied between the descriptions of the Fascist ideologues, the ‘thinkers’ and the counterpart in any demagoguery of the ‘far Left’. Even the mystical mumbo jumbo James gets sidetracked into studying then taking on board to the point of becoming paranoid has its symmetry between right and left.
The Nazi mythologies are well known, but it’s worth pointing out that you won’t have to click many times to find sites with Deleuze and John Dee sharing the spotlight. The use in the novel of the London Psychogeographical Society’s speculations on the pyramid at the top of Canary Wharf (reprinted in the novel) fits in these days with the more Waterstones texture of psychogeography (indeed Schaefer includes an opening epigram from Iain Sinclair’s Suicide Bridge). The Battle of Waterloo has an awful symmetry about it, and when the police throw a cordon around all the skins to escort them out of the station, they little know that half of the skins have turned, or always been, commie.
More traditionally, old school tensions rise. Piqued James turns on his lover, Adam: “This whole sub-skin thing. You get your rocks off by dressing on the ne plus ultra of the lumpenproletariat and pretending you’re powerless. It’s classic English guilt.” Complementing such traditional complaints, there is a diatribe elsewhere against petit bourgeois grammar schools yearning to be like public schools, and the pathetic guy Adam and James go to see for a whipping who turns out to be a wimp with a longing to touch public school boys. It’s these little touches – that public schools aren’t accidentally mentioned on many occasions – that do remind us that while all this stuff is going on there’s a class system out there, and an elite grinding happily away. Fight on, boys.
Schaefer has a geat eye for the urban detail, just enough slant of something to conjure up the whole. London as, like the S/M tension, horribly fascinating and attractive, a wasteland and pulsing with life at the same time. He gives his more vacuous characters enough words to hang themselves with, his authorial voice an ironic comment rather than the ornate showmanship it may appear to be if you don’t see just how careful he is to maintain precisely the right distance while being intimately connected with every level of the novel’s workings. Some feat.
He’s a clever writer, but doesn’t show off. My guess is that the ‘solipsistic cunt’ who drove across Tottenham Court Road during the anti-Iraq war march is a character from Ian McKewan’s Saturday (also a novel about identity but, well, a bit different). Mind you, when James’ sister has a go at him for making his parents remortgage the house so they can keep supporting their lazy jobless pseudo-artist son, she calls him a ‘solipsistic prick’.
But remember, whatever, whether they’re real clothes, or clothings of ideas, concepts, fantasies, ideologies in the end they are all just skins. We are made of the erotic, the violent, and if we’re lucky, the tender. The rest is just “as if quotation marks swarmed about me like moths.”