There's Still a Bourgeoisie That Needs Smashing
South London agitator Stewart Home on the death or dearth of political art.
Stewart Home (photo by Marc Atkins)
Stewart Home is a novelist, poet and artist from South London. Since 1988 he has published 32 works of fiction and non-fiction, covering subjects as varied as 20th century Marxism, skinhead culture, continental philosophy and the meaning of sex and death under capitalism.
Existing at the fringes of the mainstream literary world, his novels read like a collision of Jonathan Swift, William Burroughs and Jean-Luc Godard. In 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess (2002), a suicidal man moves to Aberdeen and investigates a conspiracy theory claiming that Princess Diana’s corpse was dragged around Scottish stone circles until it fell apart; in Down & Out in Shoreditch Hoxton, prostitutes make startling pyscho-geographical discoveries; and in his most recent, Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane (2013), he subverts the campus-genre novel and populates it with zombies.
His long writing career hasn't earned him a place in the literary establishment, but it's unlikely that he cares. After the publisher of Down & Out went bust, Stewart went on tour, shredding copies and giving readings of the book, one of which is on a new spoken word record, Proletarian Postmodernism. He's also known as an artist, winning the prestigious Paul Hamlyn Award for visual art last year.
I gave him a call to speak to him about his career and the world.
Stewart having some navel torture with porn star Gina Snake in a promo video for Proletarian Post-Modernism
VICE: What does the title Proletarian Post-Modernism mean? The idea of an objective, "fixed" working class-identity seems opposed to postmodernism, which is inherently subjective.
Stewart Home: Well, I chose it precisely because of that opposition, but also because I think there’s a variant of working-class culture that is quite self-reflective. Also, it’s just quite a funny, unfashionable concept. In 1999 I used to give out these things called "necro cards" [spoof NHS organ donor cards enabling the holder to bequeath their bodies to "sexual experimentation"]. Some people really freaked out about them, and I thought the title Proletarian Post-Modernism would have the same effect. Today, corporate publishers seem only to want to maximise their audience. But instead of publishing something that’s of interest to everyone, they end up with stuff that’s of interest to no one. So it’s nice to alienate people, really.
In the late 20th century, left-wing philosophers like Giles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and the post-Marxist Italian autonomist movement incorporated postmodernism into radical politics and theory. Was this an influence?
Well, I read some of the stuff by people like Antonio Negri in the 1970s, and I’ve met Bifo [Italian autonomist, Franco Berardi] too. He’s a nice guy, but he didn’t get me at all. What a lot of those philosophers didn't grasp was that, while it's useful to understand philosophy, you also have to understand that it's a bourgeois ideology that needs to be smashed. And rather than trying to change it, they tried to take it in a direction they thought was a bit nicer.
One of Stewart's "necro cards"
There seem to be less politically orientated British novelists now than ever, which seems odd. The only one who springs to mind is the anarchist-leaning writer, Tom McCarthy.
I disagree. John King is quite political. China Mieville is also doing that stuff. Obviously, there’s Irvine Welsh, too. In the 90s, he and John King were completely outselling Martin Amis and co, but John got less attention because he’s from the London suburbs and the English bourgeoisie find Scottish people a bit exotic, and they hate the London working class more than anyone else. James Kelman – he’s another good, political writer.
With regards to Tom McCarthy, I guess the difference between us is that he’s a lot more sympathetic to anarchism than I am. Because of the Cold War, there’s still this assumption that if you’re on the left and you’re not a Bolshevik then you’re an anarchist – but that’s not the case. Actually, from the time of the 1917 Russian revolution, the Mensheviks developed a different position, asking, "What distinguishes Bolshevism from other forms of socialism?" And they traced the Bolsheviks’ methods of organisation back to the Russian Nihilists, who would later become anarchists. So you could argue that it was the Bolsheviks who were the anarchists.
That's interesting. What were your early literary experiences and what inspired you to write?
I got into punk when I was 14 years old, in 1976. I met quite a lot older people who gave me books by authors like Foucault, Huysmans, Lautreamont and Nietzsche. I started writing for fanzines in 1978, and started my own in 1979. After that, the music became really dull, so I tried to become an artist and write prose, manifestos and poetry. Around then I also became involved with the ultra-left London Workers Group, who emphasised the democratic elements of Left communism.
Through that, I also wrote for some publications, coming up with funny headlines. Then, around 1982, some members of the London Workers Group became part of Class War, which we saw as a degeneration into anarchism. I’d also been reading Boot Boy by Richard Allen, which was a kind of British skinhead pulp fiction, so I decided to adapt it and make it about Class War as a piss take for one of the magazines, but that publication folded before I’d even started, so I just wrote it anyway.
(Photo by Chris Dorley Brown)
And then you began writing novels?
Yeah. I was living in Bethnal Green at the time, and went to the library to write and keep warm. Alongside the English pulp-fiction influences, I mixed other "highbrow" stuff, like nouveau roman writers such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and the Surrealists. What I was interested in was how pulp fiction was inscribed in Grillet's work through the figure of the detective. I also noticed that the English pulp writers reused phrases and entire paragraphs from book to book, so I decided to repeat this technique, with sex scenes and fight scenes being described almost identically with only the character's names changed, which I thought was hilariously funny. It was also a way of taking pulp apart, which a lot of the critics didn't get.
Proletarian Post-Modernism features the short story Cunt Lickers Anonymous, which satirises establishment writers like Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie. What is it about these writers you disliked?
They were backward, stupid, reactionary and posh. The only reason they’re hogging the field is that they all went to the same public schools and university colleges as the people in publishing. But their writing is completely boring and virtually unreadable. Amis is just a right-wing twit, more interested in his teeth than anything else. And I just felt like, because there weren’t any good books to read, I had to write them myself. The modern novel still seems to be heavily influenced by all that 19th century stuff, like it's disappeared down a cul-de-sac. But if you go back to earlier novels like Tristram Shandy, you realise they don’t have to be like that.
Then, when you published it as a pamphlet in 1992, you also staged a protest called "Will Self Is Stupid".
Yeah, that thing happened because he had a go at me in the Evening Standard after Steven Wells had given him a bad review in the NME, saying something like he wasn’t worth the scrapings of my blood or semen. But I’m not Steven Wells – I didn’t write it. So what was I supposed to do when Will Self attacked me in the newspapers? I could have either ignored it or took the piss, so I took the piss.
You also have a career as an artist. How does that fit in with your writing?
I don’t like to separate them, because they tend to feed off each other. It began as part of the same experiment as the writing, which was to show that becoming an artist was really just a matter of obeying certain bureaucratic conventions, which to a large extent I’ve proved.
I started off on my own, and then became part of the Neoists, and then became more involved in the underground, exhibiting in galleries like DIY in the Elephant and Castle shopping centre. By 1986, I was reviewed in art magazines and newspapers for a collaborative installation called "Ruins of Glamour" at a former industrial space called Chisenhale Studios. When you went in you had a spotlight blinding you. On the left there was a picture of a junkie with a "Heroin is the opiate of the people" T-shirt on, and on the floor there was loads of coal, because it was winter and it was really cold, which was another joke. It was messy stuff.
After I left the Neoists, I held an exhibition called "The Gallery of Plagiarism", and later I had a one-man group called Praxis, but everything seems to get confused by my Wikipedia entry, which overemphasises certain things and ignores others. The fact is I do both literature and art, but I've had bigger arts prizes than I have literary ones.
The "Ruins of Glamour" exhibition (photo by Edward Woodman)
You lived and worked in East London during the same period as the YBAs. Yet, whereas their work seems broadly apolitical, yours isn’t. How do you feel about the fact that their emergence seems to be so closely linked to the area?
It’s bizarre. In the 1990s I lived in council houses in Bethnal Green, Poplar and the Shoreditch end of Brick Lane, but I left because I got fed up of bumping into people from the West London art world who had moved to Brick Lane to live in gated communities. I used to live about three minutes away from The Shop, where Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas worked, but I never knew anything about it at the time. I’d even known Tracey in the 80s, too.
There was another side to it as well. I happened to have lived in the same row of houses in Bethnal Green as the one Rachel Whiteread poured concrete into, in 1993, to produce a relief of its interior as a supposedly universal symbol of Victorian domestic architecture. These buildings had been condemned since 1946 but weren’t all demolished until 1994. I lived there in the 80s, when the Liberal party [who became the Liberal Democrats in 1988] got into Tower Hamlets with their racist "Sons and Daughters" policy, which prioritised housing for "locals", meaning that non-whites were discriminated against. So it was therefore very frustrating to see the media bleating about Whiteread’s piece while ignoring the very specific relationship between housing and politics in Tower Hamlets.
The borough once had the highest percentage of council tenants out of anywhere in the UK. Until the late 80s, when councils started getting rid of their social housing tenants one way or the other, anyone who wanted to get elected in Tower Hamlets had to appeal to the interests of council tenants. But Rachel Whiteread didn’t want to talk about that. She wanted to talk about the universality of domestic architecture.
How do you feel about recent political events, such as the writers’ petition against NSA surveillance or the fact that even Labour are backing austerity and moving toward axing union relations?
The thing about the NSA petition is that writers are always more concerned with themselves than anyone else. Unfortunately, what a lot of these protests for freedom of speech and anti-censorship have in common is that they’re also implicitly defending the interests of the global middle class.
With regards to the British left, I have a more nuanced view. The thing is that the working class has to organise as a class in and for itself. In terms of revolutionary action, it therefore can’t just be unions that act – it has to be the majority of the working class. So I'm not particularly depressed by a lot of stuff. I’m not surprised about the welfare reforms. It’s not good, but I think things will change – it’s just a matter of finding the right means of organisation, which we don’t currently have. Also, as you can see, the bourgeoisie are completely disintegrating – whether that’s MPs' expenses, phone hacking, George Osborne’s scandal or whatever else. So I’m not depressed.
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