Thursday, September 11, 2008

Jon Savage - Teenage

The English journalist and writer Jon Savage is best known for his book England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond, both an history of the bands of late-70s punk rock and the social history of the punk movement of the time. Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture is a broader social history, dealing with the concept of adolescence prior to the emergence of the 'teenager' as a specific, commercial demographic in the 1950s. As such, Teenage focuses on a variety of movements, conflicts and problems which involved the youth of Europe and America from the last quarter of the nineteenth century up until the end of the Second World War.

The book's introduction traces its development from an early investigation into "the history of youth subcultures" of the post-war era to a realisation that "punk's historical collage... marked the moment when the linear forward motion of the sixties was replaced by a loop. Suddenly, all pop culture time was accessible, on the same plane, available at once." This realisation broadened into a wider interest in the development of youth and adolescence, not only in America but in western Europe; and the history of "the quest, pursued over two different continents and over half a century, to conceptualize, define, and control adolescence."

I haven't yet read England's Dreaming, so I can't comment on the strengths of that book: whether it is, as I have seen it reviewed elsewhere, a good documentary history of the bands of the era but "on slightly more dodgy ground" with regards to social and political context. Certainly Teenage is far more associated with the latter, but I think that is what gives it such strength as a work of popular history. It takes the idea of youth in a cultural and social context, and expands on it through documenting a wide variety of groups and movements. Moreover, it is vigorous in its pursuit of what really was revolutionary about the various youth subcultures - in reference to the discussion of adolescence at the end of the introduction, Savage states:

"There is a dialectic within the book, therefore, between the extraordinary and the ordinary. However, if I have to make the choice, it is to find the extraordinary within the ordinary."

Teenage does this by taking key groups from across the time period and geographical locations, and siting each in the broader social movements of its time. So there are decadents in late nineteenth-century Paris, and boy scouts in Edwardian Britain, juvenile delinquents and gangsters in American industrial cities, right up to the movements for and against Fascism in Nazi Germany. Some subcultures were a reaction to social progress, some were consequences of it, while others were impositions of the adult world on the youth it derived its power from.

To take an obvious example, the Hitler Youth in Germany grew from being one of many youth associations to the predominant, and eventually only, official one, deriving from the political and social ideology of Nazism; whereas around it dwindled a vibrant alternative culture stemming from the Wandervogel of the nineteenth century to a tiny minority of dissident groups. As the Guardian review of the books states, "Yet even the Nazis were unable to mould teenagers exactly as they wanted. Perhaps the strongest, most revelatory part of the book is a detailed account of how delinquent gangs and youthful tastes for forbidden British and American fashions and music survived throughout the Nazi era despite ever more violent state attempts to repress them."

While the most well known of these is the White Rose resistant movement of the late period of Nazi Germany and the war, it was preceded by and - by virtue of the isolation of totalitarian society - separated from earlier movements of looser rebellion by the German 'Swing Kids'. They form - along with the French Zazous - but one chapter of Savage's book, yet I'll discuss them below as both an example of the aim and arc of youth history in the rest of Teenage, and as a subculture of particular interest to my other area of writing.

Swing or 'hot' jazz spread from America into Britain and Europe during the 1930s, the latter form having already been established in Britain and France during the 1920s. In the 1930s, however, jazz came into conflict with the totalitarian and moral ideology of the Nazi state; the regime's attitude towards the genre of music is documented in Michael H. Kater's Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany from which Savage takes a quote from a Hitler Youth leader:

"The Nigger has a very pronounced feeling for rhythm, and his 'art' is perhaps indigenous but nonetheless offensive to our sentiments. Surely such stuff belongs among the Hottentots and not in a German dance hall. The Jew, on the other hand, has cooked these aberrations up on purpose"

With jazz as both a creation of an inferior Negro race and a Jewish conspiracy, censorship and repression soon followed. Savage describes how the divisions of Joseph Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry control and repressed the playing of jazz: the Reichsrundfunkkammer restricted radio play to ideologically controlled German jazz (having to recognise at least jazz's popularity as a form of light entertainment); while the Reichsmusikkammer policed the playing of jazz in public places and some musical venues. The " gaps in the totalitarian state" were exploited for as long as possible, allowing for small groups of jazz fans to form clubs for adolescents apart from the demands of the Hitler Youth, while following a mode of physical and cultural expression - swing - which stood in defiance of Nazi ideology. The largest of these groups was the Hamburg Swing Youth, formed in 1937.

In the 1940s, and in wartime Germany and occupied Europe in general, the Swing Youth was both under increased totalitarian pressure and availing of the confusion of war in both physical and social terms: they "instinctively responded to the freedom that they heard in their forbidden records", even if such

"passions were dangerous in wartime Europe, as the Nazis sought complete compliance from their subjects and their own people. At the same time, youth was destablized by the demands of total war: the chaos of mobilization, the disruption of family life, and the deranged psychology of war itsefl conspired to double the figures for juvenile delinquency in Nazi Germany during 1940 and 1941. At the time when confidence in the regime was at its height, there were over 17,000 recorded youth crimes, of which two-thirds were committed by members of the Hitler Youth."

While most of this youth rebellion was inner-city, working class gangs, the Swing Kids represent for history an extreme (and middle-class) manifestation of non-conformity. This dialectic of exceptionalism in Savage's book sits uneasily here with the class dynamics of Nazi Germany, as the significant Swing Kids had the effective protection of wealthy parents and the economic freedom to collect the consumer goods of the Swing lifestyle - clothes, records - which contrasts with the baser freedoms that working-class youths were able to hold on to. Yet the Swing Youth still represented a true cultural defiance; and many of its leaders, particularly from the Hamburg club, suffered true retribution at the hands of the state police.

This retribution was not, and needed not to be, as severe as that handed out to later and more explicit dissidents, but was still indicative of what we see today as the prime mechanisms of fascist repression. As Savage explains:

"The Gestapo's campaign [against Hamburg Swing clubs which had moved undergound] was extremely effective against a group of young people unprepared for such brutality. They used stool pigeons, pressurising vulnerable swings to inform on their friends. The Hitler Youth informed on swing pupils in local schools and acted with directors to expel the rebels. However, the subculture persisted to the extent that, in the summer of 1941, an appeal for help was made to the head of the Central Security Agency, Reinhardt Heydrich. In January 1942, the net was drawn even tighter with a new decree that banned dancing in semiprivate locations like sports clubs.

That same month, Himmler intervened. He was determined that there would be no "mere half-measures" against this contagion: "All the ringleaders, and I mean ringleaders both male and female, and all teachers with enemy views who are encouraging the swing youth, are to be assigned to a concentration camp..."

Outside Germany, in France the situation was more isolated from the direct actions of the Nazi state, but complicated by the political reshapings of the occupied and divided French state. In the south of the country, in the Southern Zone, power was vested in the Vichy regime. Under the leadership of the World War I her Marshal Petain, Fascism was created anew as a French ideology: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité was replaced by Travaille, Famille, Patrie. Vigorous morality and a subservience of youth to the "spirit of sacrifice" and the community defined this new Vichy culture. Though this represented existing strains of French conservatism, it was also opposed by the country's intellectuals and liberals, themselves under Nazi control:

"To Simone de Beauvoir, observing from Paris, the marshal's phrases about the family, God, and the "reign of virtue" was the "same violent prejudice and stupidity that had darkened my childhood - only now it extended over the whole country, an official and repressive blanket." In comparison to the Vichy's return to a nonexistent religious agrarian past, conditions in the Occupied Zone were both more modern and more serious. Although Vichy was the capital of the new France, Paris was the seat of power and under the direct rule of the Nazis."

In this culture of repression, resistance was both extremely dangerous and morally required. Sartre remarked, "Everything we did was equivocal; we never quite knew whether we were doing right or wrong; a subtle poison corrupted even our best actions." The rebellion of jazz was an implicit one, an affected attitude found "in the mannered sarcasm first rehearsed by Baudelaire" and a provocative dandyism, which Camus described in L'homme révolté as

"The dandy can only play a part by setting himself up in opposition. He can only be sure of his own existence by finding it in the expression of others' faces. Other people are his mirror."

With the increasing repression and censorship of the regime, in winter 1941 the Zazous emerged from the "petits Swings" and "Ultra Swings" of American influence. They were dandys set apart from the collabos (collaborators) by their dress, a blend of American, British and continental fashions. The jazz slang Zazou originated, in one version, from Cab Calloway "whose watch chains and checked jackets were highly influential on the style" and who "recorded 'Zah Zuh Zah' in 1933, and embellished it with the chant "zazouzazou - hey!", while scat singers "developed this clanging surrealism" further (Savage draws most of his documentation from Les Zazous, by Jean-Claude Loiseau.)

The Zazous continued as an underground movement, subverting the Fascist culture of France and its Fascist youth magazine Le Jeunesse, until by summer and autumn 1942 the state opposition - combined with the violent actions of collabo youth groups - essentially eradicated the "principally middle- or upper-middle-class" movement. In the final period of flux, some of the most interesting cultural statements of the group manifested themselves - from the adoption by a deliberately outcast few of the Jewish yellow star "to show their sympathy for the Jews... exactly like the official one, except for one detail: at the centre, there was a word of five letters: Swing" (or Zazou) to the emergence of a subgroup of 'zazou triste' ('sad zazou'), "wearing somber clothes and steel-rimmed glasses". (Sound familiar?)

"The Zazous appeared on the French stage and then disappeared, as if in a puff of smoke. Although they cultivated a blank facade, they left the authorities in no doubt about their total contempt for "The National Revolution." They also reveled in their bad press to the point of delerious abjection. Turning adolescent obnoxiousness into street theater, they offered a symbolic resistance to the occupation's "ambient, abstract horror" that also mirrored its ultimate vacancy. However, they learned that in Nazi states everything was politicized, and that defiance was punishable by violence, imprisonment and death."

Monday, June 16, 2008


104 years ago on this day, a fictional event took place in the book of James Joyce, Ulysses. The central character, hero and icon of that book was called Leopold Bloom. So, some Irish people like to commemorate the 16th of June each year as 'Bloomsday', by dressing up in Edwardian clothes, eating kidneys, and reading extracts from Ulysses.

Ulysses on Steady Diet of Books


"...and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldn’t answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didn’t know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and then the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auction in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousand of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deep-down torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire ad the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I though well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."

Trieste-Zürich-Paris, 1914-1921


from Ulysses: A Short History, by Richard Ellmann

"Ulysses may be seen to conduct its affirmation by discovery of kinship among disparate things, whether these are mind and body, casual and important, contemporary and Homeric, or Bloom and Stephen. The universe is, if nothing else, irrevocably interpenetrating, Joyce takes an almost mystical pleasure in convergence – of times, persons, qualities. These receive authorization in Ulysses from no abstract statement, but from language, which is part of the argument as well as means of expressing it. By displaying the utmost linguistic variety, in levels of speech, in styles of writing, Ulysses testifies that, beneath all forms of conscious striving, of individual life or social organization, human beings are at work with syllables to submit language as living and delighting proof of their gregariousness."

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Flann O'Brien - The Third Policeman

Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman is - at least currently - likely the most recognized of the Irish humorist's novels. It holds a more glamorous reputation than that of the previously reviewed Dalkey Archive and is less achingly literary and somewhat more sensible than his acclaimed debut, At Swim-Two-Birds. What part of that reputation comes from its association with the TV show Lost, as I said before, is probably that "both works are probably equally as difficult to follow".

The Third Policeman is a dark fantasy, a comic tale that delves into murder, death and metaphysics, but never outright farce. The book is set in the provincial Irish countryside, as opposed to the urban and suburban (respectively) Dublin settings of At Swim-Two-Birds and The Dalkey Archive. Hence the focus of the story is on the isolated, cocooned inhabitants of a very strange police station, to which the narrator and main protagonist turns to for assistance at the novel's start.

These policeman (of which there are three) harbour some strange habits, obsessions and, as is ultimately revealed, arcane knowledge. The first, the Sergeant Pluck, is essentially the base for Sergeant Fottrell of The Dalkey Archive, with his obsession with bicycles and their atomic dangers. The second, young Policeman MacCruiskeen, has as a hobby the production of an infinitely regressing series of wooden chests, each fitting inside the one before. The third, Policeman Fox, is the most mysterious, leading a nocturnal and otherwise invisible existence, and not appearing until the very end of the novel. Other characters include John Divney, the narrator's partner- and rival-in-crime of the opening chapters, Mathers, the dead or not-quite-dead miser, Joe, the narrator's soul; a group of one-legged men, said to be allegorical to the IRA; and, in another overlap with The Dalkey Archive, the mad scientist De Selby - who appears in a series of lengthy footnotes which themselves make up a kind of book-within-a-book.

The Dalkey Archive begins autobiographically, in the second paragraph - the first actually begins "Not everybody knows how I killed old Philip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with a spade" - briefly charting the way in which the situation that the narrator finds himself in emerged: the death of his parents; his living in a strange kind of bondage with Divney, the caretaker of the family farm and, later, public house; and their plan to steal the old miser, Mather's, money. Following the apparent murder of Mathers, and some lengthy periods of distrust, the narrator is sent to the old miser's house to retrieve the stashed metal box containing the object of the theft. However, in the tradition of fantastical stories everywhere, as well as in classic science fiction tales of weirdness, 'something happened':

"I cannot hope to describe what it was but it had frightened me very much long before I had understood it even slightly. It was some change which came upon me or upon the room, indescribably subtle, yet momentous, ineffable. It was as if the daylight had changed with unnatural suddenness, as if the temperature of the evening had altered greatly in an instant or as if the air had become twice as rare or twice as dense as it had been in the winking of an eye; perhaps all of these and other things happened together for all my senses were bewildered all at once and could give me no explanation. The fingers of my right hand, thrust into the opening in the floor, had closed mechanically, found nothing at all and came up again empty. The box was gone!"

From that point on, The Third Policeman descends into surreality and bizarre discoveries. The Harper Perennial blurb describes the novel as "distinguished by endless comic invention and its delicate balancing of logic and fantasy", delivered, it must be said, in the author's inimitable but quintessentially (and therefore, imitating) Irish style. Part of the book's appeal lies - and this is not exactly an original observation, but a memory of something I read elsewhere as well - in its combination of the parochial (the rural setting and the microscopic dramas of the police house) and the universal (the metaphysical and existential discoveries, trappings and just plain absurdities of the plot). While The Dalkey Archive was played as a detective farce, investigating the peculiar yet personal experiments of the inscrutable De Selby, The Third Policeman contains a much more entirely warped and twisted world:

"As I came round the bend of the road an extraordinary spectacle was presented to me. About a hundred yards away on the left-hand side was a house about which astonished me. It looked as if it were painted like an advertisement on a board on the roadside and indeed very poorly painted. It looked completely false and unconvincing. It did not seem to have any depth or breadth and looked like it would not deceive a child. That was not in itself sufficient to surprise me because I had seen pictures and notices by the roadside before. What bewildered me was the sure knowledge deeply-rooted in my mind, that there were people inside it. I had no doubt at all that it was the barracks of the policeman. I had never seen anything with my eyes ever in my life before anything so unnatural and appalling and my gaze faltered about the thing uncomprehendingly as if at least one of the customary dimensions was missing, leaving no meaning in the remainder…

I kept on walking, but walked more slowly. As I approached, the house seemed to change its appearance. At first, it did nothing to reconcile itself with the shape of an ordinary house but it became uncertain in outline like a thing glimpsed under ruffled water. Then it became clear again and I saw that it began to have some back to it, some small space for rooms behind the frontage. I gathered this from the fact that I seemed to see the front and the back of the ‘building’ simultaneously from my position approaching what should have been the side. As there was no side that I could see I thought the house must be triangular with its apex pointing towards me but when I was only fifteen yards away I saw a small window apparently facing me and I knew from that that there must be some side to it. then I found myself almost in the shadow of the structure, dry-throated and timorous from wonder and anxiety. It seemed ordinary enough at close quarters except that it was very white and still. It was momentous and frightening: the whole morning and the whole world seemed to have no purpose at all save to frame it and give it some magnitude and position so that I could find it with my simple senses and pretend to myself that I understood it. A constabulary crest above the door told me it was a police station. I had never seen a police station like it."

In this bizarre universe, the narrator's journey takes on an air of inexplicability and unknowableness that marks it out as less of a comic fantasy than a science fiction novel. The wit is ever-present of course, but nonetheless often heavily overlaid with a profoundly odd sense of fear and trepidation. The Third Policeman is thus a novel of combination, "a murder thriller, a hilarious comic satire about an archetypal village police force, a surrealistic vision of eternity, the story of a tender, brief, unrequited love affair between a man and his bicycle and a chilling fable about unending guilt".

Like Lost, the piece of modern culture that this novel is so tantalisingly connected to, The Third Policeman is a cryptic tale, but it is not one entirely without resolution or exposition. From the first extract above, and from some adjectives I could easily have used in describing the book, a good deal of the plot's secret may be guessed. Regardless of the actual nature of the plot or the narrator's journey, however, The Third Policeman remains a work of surreal comedy and bizarre wit. A useful appendix to my edition details some of the book's history, and proves that some of the book's truth is stranger than its fiction:

'A Curious Tale'

A publisher’s note at the end of The Third Policeman displays a letter, written in 1940 by O’Brien to the American author William Saroyan, in which he explains some of its eccentricities.

By the time they reach this letter, readers will already have marvelled at the book’s many themes: man’s search for God, for eternal youth, for unimaginable power and treasures, and his relationship with nature, with the soul, with the myriad mysteries of the universe and, crucially, with the bicycle.

A beguiling and curious combination of many books and styles – part Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, part Gulliver’s Travels, part Seventh Voyage of Sinbad - The Third Policeman drifts from bizarre fantasy to sheer nonsense and back again, propelled by frequent drafts of dry wit. It is, in the immortal words of one of the policeman, ‘nearly an insoluble pancake’.

Almost as strange as the novel’s plot is its history. It was written after the publication of O’Brien’s first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, but was rejected by his publishers who wrote: ‘We realize the author’s ability but think that he should become less fantastic and in this novel he is more so.’ He had been thinking about adapting it for the stage, probably influenced by Saroyan’s success as a playwright, but abandoned the idea after this blow.

Nevertheless, he did try his luck abroad, sending the manuscript to literary agents in America through a contact of Saroyan’s, with the perhaps more apposite title of Hell Goes Round and Round. However, further enquiries revealed that they had mislaid it. Perhaps enraged, or inspired, by this carelessness, he abandoned all attempts to place it with anyone and began telling friends that he had mislaid the manuscript, even inventing different fates for it. These ranged from the simple mistake of leaving it on a tramcar or showing it to someone at the Dolphin Hotel and then leaving without it, to the inspired notion that he had taken it on a trip to Donegal by car only for the pages to have somehow been blown out of the boot. To an actor friend who knew a film director and who felt it might be adapted into a script he offered the rather undramatic yarn of having left it on a train. Only his friend Donal McDonagh knew the truth and, after O’Brien had asked him to look at the novel again to see what was wrong with it, McDonagh replied ‘nothing’. Despite this assurance, it lay unread for twenty-six years.

Yet various chunks of The Third Policeman did appear in O’Brien’s final novel, The Dalkey Archive. Largely concerned with bicycles and policeman, some of the material has been lifted, word for word, from the original source. And a short story published under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen, called ‘Two in One’, also borrowed from the unpublished novel. But when O’Brien’s friend and biographer Anthony Cronin suggested that the story should be published under the byline Flann O’Brien, the latter replied ominously, ‘I don’t know that fellow any more.’