Men in the Dry Dock: Sex, Desire, and Shipbuilding

The most striking images in the exhibition Photographs by Tom Wood: Cammell Laird Shipyard 1993–1996: Photographs from the Documentary Photography Archive, currently at the Williamson Art Gallery in Birkenhead, are the ones without actual workers but in which their presence is felt. They are the grubby, chaotic spaces in which many years of toil is vividly alive through stains and discolouration, the kind of interior that is in dire need of renovation and sanitation. In today’s parlance, they are a version of the ‘man-cave’, that squalid time-space continuum reeking of patriarchy usually found at the end of the garden. These workers own their spaces in a way that is more authentic and deserved than the company who otherwise legally claim them. This fact seems to have been tacitly recognised by Cammell Laird’s themselves, as there seems to have been no top-down demand to eliminate the worker’s personality from the spaces concerned, converting it back to the clinical white box in which the worker kneels in supplication to the capitalist machine. Laying claim to your workspace by personalising it is one of the discrete ways in which the worker rebels against capitalist reality. It is for just this reason that ‘clear desk’ policies abound in modern working life: do not assume this workspace is yours to claim, they seem to be saying, just as your labour is never really yours to freely dispose of or give to the employer engaging you on ever more precarious conditions.

There is another, less favourable, way of looking at the tendency for workers to leave their mark on the space that is and isn’t theirs. This highlights one of the unexpected elements of the exhibition at the Williamson. The gallery warns visitors before entering the space that there are images of nudity that some may find offensive. Nudity is almost neutral these days. Barely an eyelid is batted upon the appearance of the naked, almost always, female, form in painting and sculpture. This convention is so unalloyed and widespread that a gallery without such images would perturb visitors, as if their desensitisation to the exposure of female flesh is overturned when it is withheld from view. The case is altogether different when the female body features pornographically. We know the difference, and the difference between the Williamson’s alert and the reality made the disparity all the more naked, as it were. For some Cammell Laird workers engaged in a festival of pornography. We’re not talking titillation, which is bad enough. Almost all of the images within Wood’s images were full-on, hard-core pornography. One large photograph contained material so hard core, in fact, that someone had seen fit to stick a post-it note unceremoniously over the female subject’s anatomy. This recognised that a limit had been overstepped. The woman in question was reduced to the part that she was made to expose for the insatiable male gaze.

One image after another contained material ripped or cut neatly from the Cammell Laird worker’s favoured periodical. Their appetite for pornography was let off the leash, and their employer seemed to approve, in their own way: let the grubby workers do want they want, it’s good for productivity. These images exhibited in the most direct and uncensored (some might say unforgiving) of ways what Roland Barthes’ called the studium: that detail in the photographic image relaying historical information about the subject, their time and their way of life, their class, status, tastes, and so on. Crucially, however, the subject concerned was not the exploited women but the men whose gaze demanded women manipulated their bodies for the pleasure and power of anyone but themselves.

Pornography was fairly well represented in Tom Wood’s images, although obviously this was not the fault of the photographer. Wood reveals a truth about the male worker from  the early nineties (the culmination of a postwar period that peaked in the now egregious seventies and eighties) that cannot be ignored, a reality that is finally coming home in the post-Savile, post-Weinstein 2010s, crystallised by the #metoo movement. These images pinned me to the spot. It was not that I was gaining illicit, unexpected pleasure from pornography in a space that almost allowed me to gawp at women’s bodies without censure. Rather it was a sense of historical time that swayed my attention. I was receiving these images in a distinct stage in feminist history, when patriarchy is said to be on the back foot, the tide of unquestioned male power held back by a level of anger that signalled that time was up for (certain kinds of) men.

The enduring power of photographic images is their innate technical and representative capacity to freeze time and space for another time and another space. The image attracts or repels. Of course, the viewer’s desires will decide which course of action is taken, but in the main the image does the magnetic work. Perhaps it is not an either/or position but an in-between or liminal one, a state of suspension energised by competing forces. The power of the photographic image also lies in the extent to which it enthralls us against our very wishes, otherwise known as the Medusa-effect: the irresistable urge is to stare the snake-ridden head down, but we risk being turned to stone by doing so. One way of conceiving the standard aesthetic response to photography is through its historicity, namely the tension between then and now and the ways in which time influences the degree of alienation effected between the viewer and the viewed. We can cope with such tension only for so long. We crave release from being so captured by that which was itself captured. [What did that tribe say about the image stealing the soul?]

Cammell Laird exerts a certain power over Birkenhead. Few families have not been touched by the shipbuilding company. Generation after generation of fathers and grandfathers have passed through ‘the yard’ at one time or another. Some will still recall the days on which a ship was launched onto the Mersey, a big day for the town, the kind of festival atmosphere allied to industry that is all but lost in twenty-first century capitalism. It was because of his work as a riveter at Cammell Laird’s that my maternal granddad died before his time as a result of exposure to asbestos. Hence the ghost or zombie of Cammell Laird’s stalks life in Birkenhead. Still, like the ever-thinning crowds thronging appearances of the royals, the recent launch of RRS Sir David Attenborough onto the Mersey was met with only limited festivity. Something of the people’s disdain rather than unquestioned respect for the loyalty towards shipbuilding was summed up by ‘Boaty McBoatface’, the alternative and ultimately rejected name proposed for the vessel. Forgive the pun, but the ship has sailed on Cammell Laird’s ability to extract suprlus value from the pride of the people of Birkenhead. After the company’s demise and the nefarious treatment of its workers, these days people are wise to what companies really represent (themselves and shareholders) and how workers feature in the picture of capitalism (in the background, pushed up against the frame; better out of the picture).

None of this changed my contempt for what I saw in Wood’s photographs. This had nothing to do with the photographer’s eye or technical skill, which allies documentary precision with the refined formal features of portraiture, simultaneously showing and telling. If anything, the porno was a startling feature of life at Cammell Laird, and, it should be said, not only at Cammell Laird and not in relation to all of its workers either. But it is somewhat representative. There’s a core something at work in these images, which could be called truth, since there is no doubt that men ruled the roost back then, no matter how many times they joked about ‘the other half’ or the ‘Mrs’ ruling them. The flagrant enjoyment of porno in the workplace – plastered onto walls, taped onto the inside of lockers, shoved into drawers – was a particular manifestation of their ownership of the world. You might look upon it more sympathetically, perhaps even compassionately, as some are prone to do even now, as the inability of heterosexual men to freely express themselves. The cup, however, is running low in that regard. (Parents protecting their young princes from the feminists demanding they treat women respectfully and equally are an especially backward contingent, confusing the son’s right to express themselves as a human subject with their so-called rights as future men.)

Sundry realisations dawned on me that all but diluted my compassion for the Cammell Laird men as beleaguered workers, in relation to which I momentarily enjoyed the thought of their superannuation, as if their fate as working class subjects was payback for their treatment of others. More than anything I contemplated what it must have been like to pass through these spaces as a cleaner, almost certainly all of whom would have been women, or indeed all other female employees (I don’t know the figures, but I suspect they were low). These men had no regard for the exposure of those cleaners to degrading images of women, added to which is the sad prospect that the relationship of the women concerned (the cleaners, that is) to their own bodies will have been determined by what their husbands demanded of and from them. What little to no respect these workers had for such women was paradoxically enforced the other way round, of course, in the case of their own wives and daughters: respect or else! But why bother? Why bother when degradation eventually comes full circle by means of other men’s appetitive instincts and behaviour? Instincts and behaviours they did little to keep in check (everyone is allowed a fantasy life) or denigrate (porno in the workplace is below men’s dignity, if it must be put that way).

I contemplated what it must have been like to come out as gay to these men. The porno may not have been all-encompassing, but its accumulation was sufficient to enforce a heterosexual, male-dominated notion of sexual relations. Other images in the exhibition, ones refreshingly devoid of porno, were full-length portraits in which the men stood firm but seemed anything but. Wood’s feel for light and composure lent a vulnerable majesty to his subjects, which I suppose is what most viewers are likely to intuit given what we know of their eventual fate as workers, the last stand of the old working class. Some intuition of their vulnerability, the terrible consequences of being laid-off with little chance of finding sustainable work elsewhere, the explosive impact on family life and indeed their marriage (a taste for porno does not preclude your ability to be a dedicated husband or father) – some of this crept in as I looked into their eyes, eyes which may have even melted the hearts of any closeted gay man, few to none though there may have been. But the thought remains: what is the likelihood of such open enjoyment of straight pornography coexisting with openness to difference? Straight porno says: this is what we want, this is who we are, we’re not going anywhere. No matter how moribund or ugly we may be, we still think we can possess the girl in that image, there where ‘she’ is on full view. Try coming out to that.

And then I gave some thought to the women who wanted a break in the engineering industry. The women who want to get into overalls and get stuck in. This last sentence is a little provocative, as it could be read as a pitch for a porno shoot, one possibly dreamt-up by the desperate homunculi of Cammell Laird’s. The fact that this sentence can be read thus is symptomatic of a culture in which it is possible for the image of women as industrial workers to be limited to the pornographic fantasy world of the ‘real men’ who traditionally occupy those roles. In light of this, slowly but surely and over a fairly long time, women have had to unpick themselves from the sticky surface of straight male fantasy and prove their worth in the hard, sometimes brutal, almost always arse-sweating world of shipbuilding.

Born earlier and I may have ended up working at Cammell Laird. Who knows? Born earlier still and I may have ended up a docker. Imagining who and what you may have been had you been born at a different stage in history is a pointless parlour game. Why wouldn’t you have been the person you are now, with some modification? The forces of history (and folded within that, class forces) have other ideas for your destiny. You are lucky to be the person you are now based on the time you were born. Perhaps my destiny now will have been different had I made other choices, or instead traumatic events or accidents of history could have decided for me. We romanticise working class life from the past, peering at it through rose-tinted glasses. But few of us would have wanted to live those lives ourselves. The effect of rose-tinted glasses is that they place us in isolation from what lies on the other side – that is over there, beyond reach (thank God). Yet it is somehow a part of who I am. Cammell Laird is a part of me and almost any working class person from Wallasey or Birkenhead on the Wirral. Yet looking at these images at the Williamson I felt a gulf opening up that was too wide to fill. I stepped into the gallery space thinking I would indulge in a little working class pride and bolster my politics for the workers. Down with the bosses! Sadly I walked out glad that the world had done with all that – porno-lined workspaces, weak-spirited giants astride the world of work, unrestrained patriarchy… Of course, to bastardise Marx, these things haven’t really disappeared from view, they are the spectres haunting contemporary life.

I still think the workers of Cammell Laird were shafted by late twentieth-century capitalism. But in more ways than one those workers shafted society too.



A recently conducted poll in the United Kingdom revealed that the British people placed the rights of their pets over and above the rights of gay and BME people.

Sometimes you don’t need Brexit as proof that Britain is a backward country on the sly. Earlier this week I listened to a local radio phone-in show. The two main subjects: dog control order zones and boys wearing skirts and girls wearing trousers. A regular was vocal about both these things. On the one hand they agreed with a council’s decision to implement dog control order zones, expressing their disgust at the behaviour of dog owners and all the sideline issues to do with dog ownership. On the other hand they reserved their strongest bile for trans people, which the uniforms of primary school kids taps into but do not embody. Mention was made of a case in Australia whereby a six-foot trans-woman ‘with biceps the size of Popeye’ wanted to exercise their right to join a female netball team. (Some of the details may be wrong here, but that is the caller’s gist.) I felt the caller degraded themselves, but more worryingly still degraded others – others of whom she does not know but for whose ‘truth’ she has the audacity to voice, in the process degrading their humanity. (Humanity: when you start designating the gender of another person outside the frame of reference given by the person in question, as far as I’m concerned you are dehumanising them.)

The next caller on the radio show almost growled with anger in response, going so far as to label the previous caller an ‘evil woman’; no matter how belligerent and bigoted her views on trans people were, evil was a bit much. Except to say that she wasn’t deemed evil by this caller for her views on trans people but for her view on dog owners. Yes, that’s right: the man frothed at the mouth because someone had sullied the integrity of dog owners.

So there you go. Two entirely separate events in the British media confirm that most Britons elevate animals over humans. Correction: certain types of humans. And depending on context. When these dog owners are eating the meat of other animals, they are quite relaxed to say the least with their elevated right to consume whatever food they desire, no matter the consequences. The soul of the country goes the other way again once the rights of minority people are invoked. (Later on, another caller compared the way in which dog owners were being talked about with the way in which minorities are discussed. The assertion that upholding your rights as the owner of a pet is comparable with civil rights struggles is intellectually deficient as well as supremely offensive.)

There’s a simple reason for this. Pet owners will not like to admit it, and they will go blue in the face to deny it, but their desire to own pets is all about their image of themselves. Ever had the impression that owners and their pets begin to look alike?! Ever witnessed a dog owner pull strongly on the dog’s lead, to the point of nearly throttling the poor little bastards? Ever seen a dog being spoken to as if it can semantically and intellectually understand human language? No? You must be living in pet heaven, then, because what I see when I observe the behaviour of dog owners – their technique at walkies, the assumption that their dog’s barking is cute to everyone else as well as to themselves, the lack of threat they see in their dog running towards other people’s kids or even adults who freeze in horror at the thought of what will happen next, the fact that people enjoying a meal in a restaurant clearly have no problem with a flea-ridden creature rocking up alongside them, and so on – what I see when I observe all these so-called normal features of pet ownership is nothing other than a tendency to control. Attempt to diminish or take away entirely someone’s ability to express control over their pet(s) and all hell will let loose. Bugger anyone or anything else.

I was horrified but unsurprised that the response to the ‘evil woman’ on local radio focussed not on her bigoted views about the (right to a) right to human dignity, but instead on the supposedly higher life form of the dog owner and their insatiable need to control.

Priorities. Maybe Brexit does say it all.


Claiming your independents

I am sitting at my kitchen table. It is full of stuff I’ve just bought on an impromptu tramp around the shoppier parts of where I live: Birkenhead, on the Wirral. The weather is good today, really good, too warm and bright for the coat I’ve been wearing all autumn and winter. I’m wondering if it needs to be put on a coat hanger until late October.

Before I left home earlier I heard snippets on Radio 4 of Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond’s spring statement. He is not someone I would ever listen to for advice on the economy. (Who would any of us listen to for advice on the economy?) The Guardian thinks he is upbeat – Hammond made a point of this, actually, so I don’t think the world’s leading liberal voice is applauding him. ‘[He] claimed the government was taking a balanced approach that was working’, said the World at One. We then heard Hammond: ‘That is how responsible people budget. First you work out what you can afford, then you decide what your priorities are, and then you allocate between them.’ Leaving aside political allegiances, I think some people – even some Tories, surely they’re not all dead-eyed free market zombies – would disagree with this: often priorities are decided before we are able to work out how much we can afford. For many there isn’t even the freedom to work things out, and for all in society some priorities are decided for us, such as council tax, utilities, and rent. You can be as sensible as you like with budgeting but economic circumstances can restrict how sensible you would like to be. There are just some essential things in life that we cannot afford to do without even if we cannot afford to do almost anything.

A vital strain of the power enjoyed by Hammond and the Tories is prioritising no matter the country’s priorities. Even when it becomes apparent that money seems to have been available all along (last minute injections of cash into the NHS, for example, or the money tree from which has been plucked the billion pounds in extra funding for the DUP), we realise a priority doesn’t become one until pressure mounts to levels the government’s speechwriters cannot stem. The NHS, we realise, is not a priority for this government, in spite of what they say to the contrary. We know politicians lie (it’s a boring cliche, there’s no getting away from it), but a Chancellor from a party wedded to austerity at any cost will seek to sound like a purveyor of budgetary common sense at the same time as conniving to shield the population from the truth of another agenda.


Before climbing the stairs to my flat in order to write this I spoke to a neighbour. In all the time I’ve known him he’s held down a number of retail jobs, all of which have been low paid with poor conditions. This job he’s in now is possibly the worst yet: early morning shifts working for a homewares store, less than part-time hours with shittier pay than usual. Other places he’s worked in gave him more hours and better pay but was riddled with poor management and low staff morale, which mounted to such a degree that he felt forced out.

Work can be thankless but if the pay is decent (humane enough), there is at least that pay-off. Being paid monthly as in his current job adds to the thanklessness; there’s something demoralising about monthly pay. The turnaround of life makes a month too  long time to wait for most things, let alone remuneration for one’s labour. All the more reason then for hope to be on the wane as too much time passes by without incentive. With the second coming-like advent of Universal Credit, monthly payments now afflict the welfare system, which is forcing new claimants (meaning eventually all claimants) to wait even longer than a month for their first payment even if they’re able to offer people an up-front loan to tide them over.

I feel for my neighbour. He seems compassionate and sensitive, and obviously hard-working. He said he’d take a 50 hour contract tomorrow; he said he’d work twelve hour shifts every day if the pay and conditions were good; ‘I’d rather work for my money than be on the dole’. He sends his CV endlessly to employers but receives not even an automated message; only stone-cold radio silence.


Wirral Borough Council is looking to sell off its assets in order to bridge the gap in central government funding caused by the Tory-led ideology of austerity. As ever with local councils, who think they’re being active by granting contracts to firms to assist them in the work they can’t be arsed doing themselves, a quango has been invented to execute its vision of a bright future: Wirral Growth Company. There is so much wrong with this name it’s hardly worth going into. Doesn’t it just say it all? How is my neighbour, for example, meant to get exercised by the thought of the Wirral Growth Company – still less consider himself its eventual beneficiary – when the companies whose investment they are attracting to the area will almost certainly offer the same old shitty pay and conditions?

A new Lidl opened close to central Birkenhead recently. If there is anything less symbolic of a bright future it is the opening of a branch of Lidl. Wirral Council granted permission for the store to open in a relatively deprived corner of Birkenhead in which small independent businesses have signalled small shoots of positivity over the years.

Three international food shops can be found in a sort-of quarter around two busy roads leading out from central Birkenhead to the suburb of Oxton. Added to that is a thriving fruit and veg shop whose colourful and diverse wares spill onto the pavement. It has been a bulwark against the total decline of central Birkenhead, a town centre (I hate the municipal language, but even so) that blighted my childhood through its unremitting ugliness. Central Birkenhead is a dystopian vision in irredeemable concrete; a mega-bunker of one crap shop after the other, where even the market manages to drain the lifeblood, forcing you to abandon the place altogether and stay on the Liverpool bus all the way across (or, rather, under) the Mersey. Today, however, we decided to take ourselves on a grand tour of the international food stores of Birkenhead.

The fruit and veg shop is on Oxton Road. Locally speaking, ‘Oxton Road’ is a psychogeographic flag, indicating rising gentrification from the post-apocalyptic precincts of Birkenhead’s centre to affluent suburbs beyond. When I visited this afternoon, classical music was being played on a little radio above the onions. For once I felt I wanted to stay in a shop rather than get out as quickly as possible because of some whining X factor wannabe or techno beat that has the psychological effect of a dentist’s drill. I recognised the piece on the radio: Haydn, I’m sure, or was it Mozart? The bright, breezy sound world of the first Viennese School suits the colour and shapes on display in the fruit and veg shop. Something about general health is implied: calm, harmony, order, humanity…

Items purchased: rainbow chard, black kale, one butternut squash.

The three other places, as I say, are international food stores, full of canned beans, pulses, tomatoes, and fruit; spices, seasonings; oils, vinegars; sauces and ketchups. They too offer fruit and veg, but I thought it was only reasonable to purchase fresh food from the shop dedicated to selling only them.

I was greeted warmly with the genuine offer of help if needed.

Items purchased: 2 cans of Rose Coco beans (borlotti or ‘crab eye’ beans)

Bulging bags of onions stacked by entrances was a recurrent design feature.

Items purchased: one large bag of ground turmeric, two cans of chick peas.
Items purchased: one large bag of cumin powder, one medium bag of sugar coated fennel seeds.

In one of these stores, situated on a long residential street with retail premises mixed in, there was an uneasy atmosphere that sadly put me in mind of delicate race politics needling away in predominantly white, mono-cultural places like Birkenhead. Still, the owner of that gaff couldn’t have been friendlier, even if his regulars looked bemused if not surprised by my presence. I wondered if many local (white) residents shopped there. For me, the sight of an international food store on such a street mixes things up; something beyond a fag and booze peddler makes life worth living that little bit more. Every little difference helps. Even the possibility of onions being displayed in a different way opens up your imagination, sets you free from the hypnosis of consumer capitalism. You don’t have to buy that can of Bird’s rice pudding that is three years out of date, but you can if you really want to, and nobody will stop you. Buy them all!

Clearly we swerved Lidl, casting a contemptuous look at its clinical facelessness. I am not contemptuous of the people who work there, or of their need for work and even – I hope so, anyway – what pleasure they can yield from working there (the odd good-humoured banter with customers, camaraderie with fellow workers). But development of places like Birkenhead cannot come at any cost: look at the small independent businesses I’ve profiled – my hope is that they will thrive rather than die because of Lidl. Something tells me it will be the regulars of these shops that keep it going as ever before, while the mainstay of Birkenhead’s populace will embrace the very thing that sounds their death knell, every hour on the hour. Sadly, for most people living in the area, certainly the ones not resorting to food banks, Lidl is a godsend for tight household budgets.

Under the auspices of The Wirral Growth Company, corporate power will metastasise like cancer. Call it self-fulfilling irony. It’s a familiar story: you have only to replace the name and the place, but the similarities carry over wherever you are. Where small independent businesses truly invest in places, big companies do so cynically, for the benefit of their shareholders. Wirral Borough Council has missed a trick (mis-read the soul of the place it is meant to look after). Lidl is nobody’s saviour. Likewise the companies and brands set to flood central Birkenhead in the development proposed by the quango that in all likeliness will literally run it aground. The municipal powers that be seem to have turned their back on (or pushed their nose up at) the small independent businesses that have kept Birkenhead’s outlying streets alive with the same passionate dedication that they have awarded their precious contracts. Build a future around real people rather than aiding and abetting the stock market, making citizens vulnerable yet again to the lionising power of finance capital. What future for the fruit and veg shop on Oxton Road? And the thanks it gets for brightening the place up and encouraging healthy eating? The spectre of capital looming over it a few yards up the hill courtesy of the authority to which it pays its business rates.

Items purchased: none whatsoever, ever.

Further up the hill can be found an historic conservation area. It’s a different world entirely from the retail-residential mash-up of central Birkenhead. Oxton, or ‘Oxton Village’, looks smart and acts smart, and probably thinks itself smarter than it is. In Oxton the cars get bigger and the lips bigger still. BotOxton? Still, the place affords quiet walks with generous opportunities for the have nots to peer at the property-owning haves. Oxton is exactly the kind of area that stokes the so-called ‘dream’ of property ownership, that curiously British phenomenon by which the nature of one’s building assets determine the extent of one’s human worth. Oxton is a place eternally ripe for gentrification, which has been happening apace in the past few years. Perhaps uniquely, it is comprised almost totally of independent businesses. The last place my companion and I visited on our Birkenhead tramp is an upmarket grocer’s that it would be churlish to dismiss as yet another overpriced outlet where people gain status from paying over the odds for regular stuff. Seeing as the upmarket grocer actively supports other independent traders locally and regionally, it would be wrong to dismiss them in this way. After all, isn’t what they do called community (or at least some version)?

As in my other examples, a genuinely warm and welcoming atmosphere awaited me. All of these traders know what they’re doing and know when their customers are likely to need help and advice. In these spaces it can feel like going back in time, when all our food shopping was done in cramped premises crammed from floor to ceiling with all the things required for life. In Oxton, the fruit and veg adorns the entrance like a garland. It is a highly stylised affair, not an international food shop exactly, even if much of its product range is comprised of ingredients from around the world. Here internationalism is more a lifestyle marker than a way of life, although the shop’s encouragement of international cooking seems genuine. Still, you expect a modern Arkwright to step out in a buff-coloured grocer’s coat, except Oxton is more bourgeois-bohemian than ironic hipsterdom. The latter would likely approve of the decor, however, with its blend of vintage green and sans-serif typography.

Items purchased: one sandwich and one can of locally produced soda (lemon and lime).

My companion and I sat on a bench opposite the grocer’s. I drank my soda slowly under a resplendent sun reaching its zenith. We had come to the end of our grand tour of Birkenhead’s international food stores. Kids in boater hats from posh prep schools were being conveyed in 4x4s through Oxton’s curvy lanes back to the family compound. I tried to prevent the jarring juxtaposition in the fortunes of Birkenhead’s citizens from spoiling my moment of peace in the sun. But the class war between them up the hill and them down the hill got to me. Life-worlds of difference. This wasn’t London, but it may as well have been.

My shoulder was aching under the strain of the bag with all our purchases; my companion offered to carry the butternut squash for the remainder of the journey, but I was enjoying the weight almost masochistically, proving to myself that it is better to work for your provisions than to guzzle more of the world’s resources like the carbon-greedy parents of Oxton. Refusing all the trappings of modern life as we had done, walking to the shop and back and denying corporatism a penny of our money into the bargain, we felt free. In claiming your independents, it is possible to find yourself, and sometimes each other.




There was not one can of Cherry Coke to be had in the village of Middleton. The photo I planned of me slaking a fictional thirst on a drink I haven’t drunk for years and which I would never normally choose anyway was immediately scuppered. For the sake of this blog, for the sake of recreating a moment from a recognised classic of recent European literature, I was willing to try one again. But despite walking from one end of the village to the other, I could find only a pub open for business. I had to deduce where the village shop had been, the one in which the narrator of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn visited on his way to see the poet Michael Hamburger, who lived outside the village itself in an Arts and Crafts house surrounded by the apple orchard he tended. (This was clarified for me after my own visit and during the time of writing this post. I mean, I knew Hamburger tended an apple orchard, was in fact famous for keeping hundreds of rare English apple breeds going throughout his life; but I didn’t know his home was Arts and Crafts style, and I had completely forgotten he lived on the outskirts of Middleton and not in the village itself. This parenthesis seems odd in the general grammar I have adopted for this post, a post-facto interpolation that tears at the seams of writing. I could have placed these comments in a footnote but wanted to stress the timorous construction of the account I am giving. It is in the spirit of their necessity at this point in time that I offer them here as an extended parenthesis.) Gone was the supposedly eternal space of the village shop, and the short walk I had undertaken in the name of a key passage from Sebald’s book was thrown off course a result of its absence.


I remarked to the friend I was with how walking through villages is more of a tantalising prospect than we generally think. Urban walking is said to hold the most potential for our desires, yet there is something particular about the layout of the small built environment of the village against the vast landscape surrounding it that emphasises human activity where it does exist. Hence turning a corner in a village is a qualitatively different phenomenon from doing the same in a city. Maybe I was describing my hope of coming face-to-face with the shop in which Sebald’s narrator himself wishes to slake a well-earned thirst with the purchase of a bottle of mineral water. I had not banked on this shop being centrally located, either, even if Middleton had a clear central gathering space in the form a village green over which the tower of the parish church loomed. Since the only visible business on the green was the pub, we scattered ourselves to see if the shop nestled elsewhere, maybe on the village’s outskirts. Finding no other possible premises, we returned to the ‘Street’ (as Sebald’s narrator puts it) and to a cottage that looked like it had once been shop premises. The sign saying ‘The Old Post Office’ was a dead giveaway, that is giving away the former place of a now dead post office. Post offices and grocery stores so often exist symbiotically, even these days, and this made me think that next to the Old Post Office had indeed been the once vital place where bread and milk could be bought.


The present owners somehow alert passersby to this fact by picking out the former entrances in duck egg blue. They could have refitted the shop entrance with more conventional window frames, but instead have adapted features of a different kind in order not to disrupt the balance of a centuries-old elevation. I stared at the place without outstaying my welcome, imagining the narrator stepping across the threshold to make his feeble request for much-needed refreshment.

“Some two hours after my fortuitous release from the labyrinth of the heath, I reached the village of Middleton, where I planned to visit the writer Michael Hamburger, who has lived there for almost twenty years. It was nearly four o’clock. Neither in the village street nor in the gardens was there was a soul in sight, the houses gave an unwelcoming impression, and, with my hat in my hand and my rucksack over my shoulder, I felt like a journeyman in a century gone by, so out of place that I should not have been surprised if a band of street urchins had come skipping after me or one of Middleton’s householders had stepped out upon his threshold to tell me to be on my way. After all, every foot traveller incurs the suspicion of the locals, especially nowadays, and particularly if he does not fit the image of a local rambler. Perhaps that was why the blue-eyed girl in the village shop gave me such a flabbergasted stare. The jingle of the door bell had long since faded, and I had been standing for a while in the little grocer’s shop, which was piled to the ceiling with tinned foods and other imperishables, when she emerged from a back room, where the light of a television flickered, to gape at me with her mouth half open, as if I had landed from another planet. Once she had recovered somewhat, she scrutinised me with a disapproving air, her eye fixing at length on my dusty footwear, and when I wished her a good afternoon she again stared at me, utterly stunned. It had often struck me that when country people set eyes on a foreigner they are quite overawed, and, even if he has a good command of their language, they find it hard to understand him. The girl in Middleton village shop was no exception, and merely shook her head nervously when I asked for mineral water. What she at length sold me was an ice-cold can of Cherry Coke, which I drained at a draught like a cup of hemlock, leaning against the churchyard wall, before walking the last few hundred yards to Michael’s house.” (W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, translated by Michael Hulse (London: The Harvill Press, 1999), pp. 175-6)

I am still uncertain even as I write now whether my deductions took me close to the original location of Middleton’s village shop. Foolish of me to expect the survival of a shop recorded in a book written in the early 1990s, let alone that, even if the shop had survived, there would have been continuity of ownership. This would have been nerdy perfection – for the kind of nerd who converts their old PhD into a valid holiday pursuit. But I so wanted to see a flickering TV in a back room. And I wouldn’t have minded if the girl serving me didn’t have blue eyes (yet it would have been creepy in a good way if she had). I wanted my presence to be viewed with circumspection but knew that villages and villagers were now less circumspect towards outsiders. Perhaps it was taking the encounter too far to expect the shop to be stocking the same imperishables noted by Sebald’s narrator, even if in some admittedly very isolated cases it was still possible. Just. But it wasn’t to be. So much has moved on in the world since the publication of The Rings of Saturn. All told, however, this was all pure folly, having little to do with the serious endeavour of the well-researched and assured literary pilgrim.

I set my sights – literally and metaphorically – on locating Hamburger’s house. There was an attendant problem here too, a pile-up of wrong turns in my thinking and actions as a reader that produced the perfect misfired Sebaldian moment. Firstly, we hadn’t intended to visit Middleton at all, and so I wasn’t prepared. Ever obliging, my Dad was willing to drive me there, but I kept my real reason for going to Middleton secret as I was somewhat embarrassed at the thought of revealing my idea to buy a can of Cherry Coke and have a picture taken of me drinking it. ‘What’s there?’, he enquired. Nothing, at least for the general visitor. Everything and nothing for the initiated. Without the Sebaldian context and the ironic enjoyment of staging a flippant moment, Middleton would have struck him as pointless. Pretty, another relatively unspoilt corner of Suffolk, but very little to offer visitors. I had to give him a reason of some kind: “It’s in The Rings of Saturn. The narrator visits his friend in Middleton and weird stuff happens.” I don’t think he was any the wiser. In the end he merely accepted I wanted to go there, for whatever reason, and took our little tramp around the village as an opportunity to rest in the car listening to the radio.

Another reason for the misfire is that I had just bought two large bottles of mineral water in a branch of Waitrose in the semi-desuetudinous town of Saxmundham. I was therefore prepared in a way that Sebald’s narrator hadn’t been. I couldn’t even remember to withhold my thirst until that Cherry Coke was in my hand. (Something tells me the scene would not have played out quite as effectively for the reader if the narrator had popped into Waitrose for supplies before visiting Hamburger.) Thirdly, on account of the unexpected visit to Middleton, I hadn’t checked up on things, the simplest of things, nor was I carrying the copy of The Rings of Saturn I had bought in Aldeburgh precisely to refresh my memory during our holiday. My head was relatively empty, except for the following: Michael Hamburger, Middleton, village shop, no mineral water, Cherry Coke, and, for reasons that will be clear if you decide to read The Rings of Saturn yourself, a black beetle swimming in a small fountain. I flitted between these words as I worked out what to gain from being in Middleton. Taken as a whole, they constituted the main reason for going: ‘I suppose the other reason I could have told Dad for coming here’, I self-consciously remarked to my friend, ‘is that Middleton is the scene of a confluence of intertextual references in a classic of recent world literature!’ She raised an eyebrow at the high theory register even if she accepted it as a rationale.

Truth be told, I am lousy at this kind of thing. I like to think of myself as a thoroughbred literary pilgrim, but time and again I end up lacking the details that make such things happen. There must be some connection in this between my chequered past with Sebald research and stepping out – as successful Sebald scholars otherwise tend to do – with an index card brain ready to flick through in order to guarantee an experience is edifying, illuminating, even entertaining – in order at the very least that it should work. I seem to be programmed for self-sabotage. It’s not the first time I have frantically walked around a place in search of a site of literary significance only to berate myself afterwards for not doing my homework. Opportunities for literary pilgrimages being few and far between, oftentimes you have to grab the moment when you happen to be en route to somewhere decidedly non-literary and mundane, such as where to stock up for tomorrow’s breakfast. If I had it in mind to request this visit to Middleton, my ill-preparedness spoke volumes about the fear of ridicule or actually just the fear of looking ridiculous. That is, the thought of acting the fool in full view of my superego, channelling as it does the academy from which I feel excluded. What is the point in being assiduous if there is little point in the first place? Being ill-placed is more than failing to find the right place: it is the feeling of having touched a sphere of influence only to become an outcast, a stranger to yourself in the form of an over-zealous amateur as opposed to the fully-fledged professional you thought you were becoming. The thought, in other words, of over six years of doctoral research rendered null and void by a community that refuses any acknowledgement.

Internet coverage being what is in those parts, my friend and I fumbled on our phones for information that would put us on a better footing. Such as (mainly): what was the name of Michael Hamburger’s house? On entering the village I’d clocked a large house in spacious grounds called The Old Rectory. Though an old structure, it had been modernised. Moreover, it was the name of Sebald’s home in Poringland, and despite being a popular name in rural areas, it was too much of a convergence to be true. Hamburger had passed away in 2007 (I verified this date subsequently); his wife may have continued living in their home, but equally she may have taken the decision to downsize. I was offended on behalf of the Hamburgers’ memory with the idea that a new owner would sweep in and clinically modernise the place, denying it of the charm the Hamburgers had unselfconsciously nurtured across the years. Nor would I have been surprised to learn that the apple orchard had become one of the casualties of such a process, having been replaced by lawns or grounds ripe for playing sport, a basketball hoop or two and even one of those enclosed trampolines that are part and parcel of  modern suburban blight.

Working on slim pickings, we nevertheless walked to The Old Rectory to see if we could find anything better to go on. It was a beautifully bright and warm October afternoon. I smiled at an old lady tending her garden, and she smiled back, if a little nervously. Bunting made up of flags from countries across the globe bedecked the railings around a well-maintained community building. Few and far between are the English villages that can justifiably lay claim to a significant connection to world literature, and the United Nations bunting seemed fitting in the context of the thoughts flowing through my head about what Hamburger’s writing career symbolised in terms of high culture, translation, and poetics. The bunting seemed like an accidental homage to the village’s most distinguished late resident, a community that respected literature with a capital L as well as the values underpinning internationalism. I wanted to take a picture of the bunting in front of the charming brick building but stopped myself as soon as I realised from an open door that it was in fact a primary school. Instead, nourished by the warm glow the gesture radiated, I moved on before raising any fears.

I was striding ahead as my friend lagged behind. She had sustained injuries from a fall the previous day in Dunwich Village. I had been striding then, in the direction of what I thought was Dunwich Heath, when out of the blue I heard an inexplicably strange sound like a large box of books hitting the deck. I turned round to find my friend sitting upright as if she were a doll cruelly rejected by its fickle owner. Sobbing helplessly and beside herself, both my Dad and I were also at a loss – in his case mainly because he couldn’t assist physically as these days he has only one of the shoulders he was born with. Nothing was broken, but she had scraped her knees in a way that made me shiver. Sensitivity around the knees explained her slowness in Middleton. Her pitiable limp was genuine but equally was an expression of the moment. I didn’t push her far, though, since no sooner had we arrived at the boundary of The Old Rectory than we agreed it could not have been the Hamburgers’ residence. Neither of our phones were playing ball; we gave up on searching for facts and threw ourselves open to the vagaries of (fairly lame) deduction. And then my friend’s phone offered the information that Hamburger had been laid to rest in the parish church. We turned back on ourselves in the direction of the village green.

We had little luck there either. Most of the graves were at least 150 years old; their desiccated surfaces and the simplicity of the design indicated as much. Hamburger’s grave was nowhere to be seen. Foolishly we walked up the – perhaps infelicitously named – ‘War Memorial Path’ (I read ‘War Path’), but realised that neither the Hamburger family nor the church itself would wish to lay a German Jew to rest in the vicinity of English war heroes, mostly as a result of the fact that relatives neglectful of the more subtle lessons history has to offer might protest against the interment of any German subject there. We ignored the crucifix, thinking that Hamburger’s Jewish identity – to our knowledge neither privately observant nor professed – may not have been religious but was undeniably cultural. Hence his family’s forced migration from Nazi Germany, as The Rings of Saturn and String of Beginnings: Intermittent Memoirs 1924-1954, the poet’s account of his early years, relate. We also had little expectation of discovering a Star of David in an archetypally Anglican churchyard in this most English of counties. That is, a Star of David that signified the resting place of someone Jewish.

We left the churchyard – time could not take much more futility. In any case, Dad had been far too patient and required lunch. Before closing the wooden gate I was surprised to see that the visual assemblage of the nave’s stained glass window contained two Stars of David. I read this as a sign for us to take our leave and forgo any further trespass.


5lb for £5


One of the black huts used for selling fish on Aldeburgh beach provided a neat counterpoint to pages 53-59 of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. The tide seemed to be turning on one of the natural histories of destruction described in the book: namely, the herring industry. This was nearly thirty years after Sebald had written the book and nearly a century after the height of herring fishing in the North Sea. Perhaps the point of decline was not so irreversible after all. Yet with Brexit looming, perhaps it is also best not to get our hopes up.

Archiving Time (4)

We entered the study proper. This is where the archon attends to the business of everyday life. It is also a space of precious artefacts. The messy stuff of life sorted on one side, a life curated on the other where the bookshelves are situated. A constantly shifting curation of books, booklets, pamphlets, recorded material is ‘faced off’ (in the bookseller’s lingo) in line with the archon’s current remembrance of time past. Like drawers being opened here, there and everywhere. Some of the titles already archived under the aegis of our existing project have found their way into the study proper, the inner sanctum of the inner sanctum, the beating heart of a rainbow-coloured ark. Archiving liberates the hidden into the faced-off. You look at the book looking at you, there’s a moment of instant recognition, its contents or some idea of its contents hove in sight on the horizon of your mind. The practice of remembrance.

The archon has always mockingly demanded I prove my gay credentials in order to gain entry to this study. But to some this would not appear to be an exclusively gay space. Some of its shelves are clearly dedicated to a writer who, on the face of it, would not feature with any prominence in a queer archive: W. G. Sebald. Alongside books by Sebald are books written in relation him and others still associated with his work, chief amongst whom is Walter Benjamin. The archon rejects outright Benjamin’s queer credentials, reminding me that he has read something claiming he was not only unconcerned by gay matters but actively homophobic. I have known Benjamin’s writing for years, and struggle with the idea he used writing to denounce others – to him, apparently the unassimilable Other – who were also persecuted by the Nazis. A troubling queer nexus. Sebald, on the other hand, was by far the most progressive writer of his generation, recuperating hidden queer lives alongside the lost lives of European Jewry. The archon has written about queer Sebald himself, and finds many affinities with a book on the very subject by Helen Finch, Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life, a battered copy of which rests on the top shelf of the by-and-large Sebald bookcase as if taking precedence, jammed with notes and obsessively underlined in the archon’s inimitable style. The queer drawer in the Sebald canon is unlocked and open for business. (I reviewed Helen Finch’s book for the journal Textual Practice. It’s a very fine title indeed, bracing, exciting, opening up new avenues rather than dead-ending them. An important quality when you’re talking queer.)

The archon’s Sebald library – joyously open, a site of explicit and unashamed reverence, with all the permanence of an official archive – contrasts markedly with my own collection. A few years ago I deposited all the books I own by, on and about Sebald in a large plastic box and placed them under my bed. My doctoral thesis on Sebald had been rejected by a publisher with a finality I have since been incapable of reversing. The manner in which my investment in Sebald’s work has been ‘archived’ is the negative of the archon’s liberated gesture: but I don’t know how and why, except to say it is too painful to face all those books on a daily basis, and so they have had to ‘go under’, literally and metaphorically, in order that I can move on without periodically stumbling across the career-destroying failure they collectively embody. No doubt they have assimilated themselves into some form of crypt, the very kind about which Abraham and Torok wrote in their work on psychoanalytic melancholia, the perspective on which my thesis had been based. I suppose I will make my peace over time.

Such is archiving time. The box under my bed is a crypt, rarely opened, gathering dust. How its presence doesn’t disturb my sleep is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it does; I just haven’t realised it yet. Ironically the box is not entirely ‘closed-off’: it is clear, I can see the books if I make the effort, and so they remain open to a kind of reading. Still, a phase of my life lies beneath me as I write now: time, archived.

Our move into the study proper resulted in corresponding changes to the form of the list. As mentioned, the room in question is ordered in a way that highlights the significance to the archon of the authors and their works, chiefly Sebald. The suggestion was made to distinguish such authors from others on the list: so far, Sebald’s books are in bold and aligned right, another inner sanctum within the same. Colm Tóibín followed suit (although more of his books are located elsewhere in the flat and will be added later: the archive needs order!). The archon acknowledges the queer cultural weight, as it were, of Edmund White, but considers his most recent work as part of a discrete decline, the author resting on his laurels. White gets his own highlighted section within the list, but reluctantly so, a mark both literal and metaphorical of the way in which an oeuvre can assert itself on archival practice against the archon’s governing will. This applies even more in the case of Armistead Maupin, whose literary value is far outweighed by his works’ general value to queer culture.

All this raises the spectre of the literary. Literature/writing. Literature the institution against writing as a general practice. Sebald is literature, Maupin is not. If this seems to install a hierarchy at odds with queer theory’s resistance to high/low distinctions, then this queer archive is stepping aside for a moment to recognise the potential within ‘literature’ for the kinds of analytical depth particular readers yearn for in their self-actualisation. The movement of contradiction within my argument here is loud, it bellows back at me the thought that Maupin’s so-called ‘general value to queer culture’ has facilitated the self-actualisation of millions, Sebald barely at all. Surely the two writers could hardly be compared in this respect? Where does this leave the literary? Literature’s institutional force of recuperation, disseminated through sophisticated tropes, devices, stylistics, means something, even if it reaches fewer readers than Maupin’s devoted audience. (This is a blog, a testing ground. I can be vague. Alternatively, the reader can view the foregoing as leaving crucial questions deliberately open – or exposed. The archive can’t and won’t resolve them even if it seeks to frame the objects it incorporates into its transparent enclosure. The present parenthesis marks an impasse in the context of this post. A parenthesis is an interpolation in the flow of discourse – from the Greek parentithenai ‘put in beside’ – but for want of knowing what follows, for having been sidestepped by what issues from archiving time, it will function here more like an ellipsis…)



Thus spake the archon!


When Chris and I archived for the second time, I had the (random) idea to  pick out, randomly- and hopefully serendipitously and pertinently- groups of 5 “naughty” (please read for that: thinking outside the hegemonic/heteronormative box) books, especially books that the straight academy like to dispute as “that cannot possibly be homoerotic” et al.. blah, blah, blah…they HAVE to dispute (from psycho-social deep insecurities in their selves:”Oh my God{subconsciously, in a fear reaction}”I might be gay”: you hear their strangulated inner voices crying this plea). This is boring and stressful. I am working, here, from the PRO-LGBT/gay/queer place/space/time where EVERY TEXT IS (at least possibly) gay/queer UNLESS THERE IS REASONABLE evidence that there is opposite-sex affect. This is only temporary; it is NOT heterophobic because it, briefly, corrects an institutionalised (and,thus,internailesd homo/transphobic) imbalance. In short, it turns the tables:)! {deal with it !}. …. Imagine saying, in a literary class, with (putative?)…

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