Birkbeck English

The Guardian yesterday published a piece about the proposed job losses at Birkbeck, and our president, Joan Bakewell, has spoken in support of the English Department. I tend to keep schtum about my own experiences, because I’m terrified of looking like I’m disappearing up my own arse, but I think they are relevant to these discussions. They are very Birkbeck and I think perhaps unique. I’d kick myself if I didn’t share this now.

In 2005, when my wife and I had just had our first daughter, I decided to go back to university. I felt like I’d lost my way in my career. I wanted to write full time, so I’d gone freelance as a magazine journalist, rather than apply for more senior editorial roles that appeared to involve more management, but I’d ended up taking shifts as a sub-editor to pay the bills, and the stories I wanted to write barely broke even, in terms of the time they took. By 2005 I was essentially full-time on the arts desk at the Telegraph website and there was little writing involved.

My first degree was not great. A poet’s third in Japanese, which meant I spoke rudimentary Japanese and could do an amusing karaoke turn: My Way in a kind of performative pidgin. I had ambitions to become a novelist and had a sheaf of short stories on my hard drive. Katie was remarkably supportive. Her own career was far outstripping mine, and she was behind the idea of my trying to make a go of it.

I looked at creative writing courses, and my attention was drawn to Birkbeck. I didn’t know anything about Birkbeck beyond the posters on the tube, but the evening teaching would work well, because I’d be looking after the baby when Katie returned to work after her maternity leave. At some point I started looking at the syllabus for the MA Modern and Contemporary Literature instead of the MA Creative Writing, attracted by the reading list. My own reading was becoming more adventurous and this matched it. Did I know that I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of a better degree second time round? If so, I wasn’t admitting it to myself.

I applied, was interviewed and asked to write a sample analysis. I wrote 500 words on time in Iain Sinclair’s White Chappell Scarlet Tracings. I had no idea it was Sinclair’s first novel – I hadn’t yet learnt about context – but I knew I loved it. I was offered a place and started studying alongside a sixty-year-old retired taxi driver, someone who worked in political communications, another who worked in a second-hand book shop, teachers, charity-workers, finance people, you name it. We discussed Modernism with guidance from very calm and well-informed teachers, who treated us as equals, and went to the pub afterwards, and discussed more books.

I vividly remember working diligently on my first essay over the Christmas break in 2005, juggling looking after a baby while staying at my parent’s house. I remember getting 66, a mid-merit. I remember the feedback from Becky Beasley (now at Oxford), that I’d dutifully reproduced the secondary criticism (on Vorticism and the British avant-gardes, a topic on which Becky’s research is world-leading, though I didn’t know that at the time) and that I needed to step out from beneath it. I asked my friend Henderson if I could look at his essay, which had earnt a distinction. Henderson had followed his interests and written an absolute shellacking of Jonathan Carey. I remember thinking: “Oh. Wow. I’m allowed do THAT.” It was incredibly liberating.

Over the next five terms I took modules on the literature and philosophy of time, post-war fiction and Roger Luckhurst’s course on trauma, for which I wrote on Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, just out in the Metronome edition now worth hundreds of pounds. Our second daughter was born at the beginning of the second year so I was even busier during the day, attending infant swimming classes, music classes, and soft play centres. By night I became a literature monster.

The teachers – now colleagues – who led these sessions introduced me to critical theory, and helped me understand it and how to think with it. There were skills sessions on how to write essays, use libraries, archives and online resources. I became a better researcher than I’d ever been as a journalist, and learnt skills I now use in journalism. I discovered the British Library, and learnt how to burrow through a chain of texts spanning hundreds of years. I rediscovered J.G. Ballard, and wrote about The Atrocity Exhibition for my dissertation, supervised by Roger, who’d literally written the book on Ballard. As an old hack I couldn’t resist writing to Ballard to ask him directly some questions I wanted answers to. I received some postcards in response and Roger encouraged me to include them as appendices.

At some stage I’d hit upon the idea of attempting PhD study. I didn’t really have any desire to become an academic, but I’d been captured by the ideas and research and what it was possible to discover in books. My writing had improved. I asked Roger about the idea I had, concerning the nineteenth-century writer Charles Howard Hinton: it seemed like new territory. Roger suggested that I speak to Steve Connor. I’d attended a number of Steve’s lectures, so I was initimidated by this suggestion. Steve was the College orator, his intellectual range was increidble – books on Beckett, Postmodernism, Skin. He ran the London Consortium, an interdiciplinary and inter-institutional body awarding PhDs. Over the course of a meeting, Steve seemed to persuade himself that supervising my research on the work of the Victorian bigamist and theorist of the fourth dimension might be a good idea. To this day, when I mention that I was supervised by Steve, people in academia become slightly awe-struck.

Becky Beasley told me to apply for some College funding, which I got. In the evenings I attended seminars led by Colin MacCabe, legendary veteran of the “theory wars” of the 1980s, alongside the actor Simon Bird and a range of intimidatingly intelligent people working on topics as diverse as Judith Butler, Rastafarianism, the idea of the ‘gift’ and Iain Sinclair’s Placques Tournantes.

I spent the next five years very happily bouncing between home life with Katie and two, and then, from 2010, three infants, Birkbeck, the British Library, and occasionally the pub. I presented at conferences. I started writing a blog, encouraged to do so as a useful adjunct to research practice. I was contacted by an editor called Max Porter, who’d read something I’d posted online. He’d just started at Granta and was looking for writers. I pitched hard when we met for lunch and he liked one of my ideas. I sent him what I had and he told me what he wanted to publish, and I started constructing what I knew would be the collage that would become I’m Jack.

I was offered teaching at Birkbeck, and taught modules on the BA in Arts and Humanities. I had to learn fast: from Machiavelli to Marx. My students were yet more diverse than the PhD cohort. Some didn’t get along. I had to mediate while ensuring they all got what they wanted from the course.

I wrote a paper on Tom McCarthy’s work for a conference at Birkbeck, organised by my fellow PhD students, attended by Tom. Tom was interested in the paper and we talked. I attended a session for PhD students at Birkbeck about how to pitch your academic book project (Steve Connor had encouraged me to write a book from the get-go, another liberation in the world of PhD research). I pitched mine to Oxford University Press. They took it on. I gave papers at conferences on weird fiction, science and literature, the radical journalist W.T. Stead. I heard people speak about the sonic environment of a thirteenth century village; how Goodreads data could be used to investigate reading habits; liquid crystal displays; Tin Tin; the idea of genre. I finished my PhD and straightaway started turning it into the book.

Meanwhile, Birkbeck colleagues offered me the opportunity to teach at MA level. Carolyn Burdett backed me to be able to teach Victorian Literature to Masters students. I just about managed it, reading Middlemarch in two weeks. Jo Winning asked me to stand in to cover for her teaching on Robert Mapplethorpe. From Middlemarch to Mapplethorpe in weeks.

Steve Connor went to Cambridge to become the Grace 2 Professor in English, which was no surprise. They got the generative thought and eloquence from which so many at Birkbeck had benefitted. Roger Luckhurst, who had been “deep cover” as my second supervisor, invited me to be part of an application for research funding as a post-doctoral researcher. We won the funding and I worked with the Arthur C. Clarke Award and Roger for six months.

My novel I’m Jack was published by Max at Granta and Tom McCarthy and Iain Sinclair both agreed to write blurbs for it. A three-year post came up at Birkbeck. Despite almost fucking up my interview by getting the time wrong, I managed to land the post. I started in 2015. Typically, I was trusted to dive in at the deep end and was given an MA programme to run: what students achieved on that programme will always be the proudest intellectual and professional landmarks in my life. The quite brilliant Esther Leslie, whose teaching on cultural theory I was covering, was impossibly kind as Head of Department.

In a decade, I’d gone from being a freelance sub-editor who was curious about postmodernism, to a novelist and lecturer with two books, read by his literary heroes, and three daughters. Birkbeck English made this possible (not the daughters, my wife did that pretty much on her todd).

I could go on to list how the colleagues who’d supported me, trusted me, inspired me and given me opportunities for those past ten years have continued to support me in my job; how the English Department at Birkbeck has been a spiritual and intellectual home. I could mention how colleagues I’ve asked to collaborate with, or taught with, or had a meeting with, experts in theatre, medieval literature and culture, technology, Modernism, screenwriting, how these colleagues have treated me immediately as an equal and in so doing invited me to step up to their level in intellectual terms. How they’ve given so generously of their time and energy. How they’ve become friends.

I could write essays about what I’ve learnt from Birkbeck students, about people, and about diversity of thought and background, because I know there is nowhere else you’ll encounter that mix of people; despite having lived in London for twenty years, I didn’t really know London until I encountered it in a Birkbeck classroom. We have an ethos that is both simple and radical: education for all. We live it in the classroom, and it is reflected in the people you find there. I could write about the sixty-six-year-old Ghanaian man who told me how his school teachers beat him; about the seventy-year-old conservative dentist who told me how discussing his writing in a workshop with a twenty-five year-old British Asian Marxist poet had changed his entire world view; about the Welsh former stripper with MS who worked with me on her two MA degrees, overcoming breast cancer in between. Colleagues in the School of Arts have established The Compass Project to provide routes into education for asylum seekers.

I could write about how woeful policy decisions at every level have betrayed this astonishing, occasionally utopian enterprise. We’ve been under the pump since the coalition government pulled funding for part-time education – something my colleagues protected me from when I was a student – and subsequent policy decisions have just made it harder and harder for us, as we’ve tried to persuade eighteen-year-olds to choose us over institutions whose reputations are one hundred years out of date. We know we’re great teachers, that we’ll treat them like adults, and that our work is of the highest standard. But we can’t give them bars, or ipads, or tennis courts. All the while, research again and again calls for more educational opportunities for adults in this country.

I have nothing to say about senior management, beyond the observation that the two most senior managers are, combined, remunerated at a level that would pay for fifteen new lecturers.

In addition to the books I wrote in those first years, I’ve written a second novel on the life of Charles Howard Hinton and edited a collection of Ballard’s non-fiction. Clearly, these have emerged form the same period of study and learning. Birkbeck English has broadened my mind, given me laser-sharpened research skills and created the atmosphere in which intellectual curiosity might become a professional intellectual life. It creates that atmosphere for everyone who walks through the door at Gordon Square. The word transformative is not marketing boiler-plate. It’s what Birkbeck English is.

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Ryoji Ikeda @ 180 The Strand

The first time I experienced a Ryoji Ikeda piece was at the David Toop-curated Sonic Boom exhibition at the Heyward in 2000. The work was in illustrious company – Brian Eno had a piece on the roof space, a weird thing where you wore headphones that picked up signals from wires strung across the space, a not-yet-quite-so famous Christian Marclay showed his Guitar Drag film and there were contributions from Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and the legendary Finnish duo Pan Sonic. The young Japanese artist’s piece stood out. You walked through a blindingly white plastic corridor, lit in hot white halogen, and experienced the oscillations produced as you transited between speakers emitting pure sin waves. It contained the essence of Ikeda’s work of this period: minimal to the point of microscopic attention to the physical bases of sound, procuring an intense relationship between space and the perception of sound in space, enveloped in intense light. It sounds chilly, but the effect was warm and immersive.

There’s a version of that piece in the current retrospective at 180 The Strand and the amplitude and intensity have increased in the intervening 20 years. The corridor is blinding: I had to raise my hands to protect my eyes to make it through. It’s an experience that verges on the properly sublime, an experience that is almost-too-much: the light is not at the end of the tunnel, the light is the tunnel. The limits of perception are the edges at which Ikeda works: his breakthrough recorded release, 1997’s +/- on Touch made big (small) waves in the sound-art/installation scene for just this reason. Tones at the upper limits of the human auditory spectrum strung out the ears: you became even more intensely aware of them once they had ceased. He pushed the aesthetic with 0°C and Matrix (for Spaces) on the same label. Pulses, bleeps and digital drums were programmed to repeat and stretch into blankets of sound that mapped the spaces in which they were played, responding to materiality with shifts in tone and texture. This was sound made within computers that used the specificity of digital processing to test the human response to it. It was made for CD and headphones.

If ever there was a sound artist whose work’s natural home is CD, Ikeda is it. I remember Mike Harding, label boss at Touch, telling me with some excitement that CD was the optimum medium for mastering silence, which could be achieved with a simple absence of digital information. Not so much vinyl. The spacious needle and groove vibration of vinyl that adds warmth and depth to a music like dub threatens to muddy Ikeda’s work, whose essential characteristic is precision: the ultrasonic microtone that reveals its true depth when juxtaposed with absence. The Vinyl Factory’s support for Ikeda is therefore curious, if enormously welcome. You can’t help but wonder why scratchy vinyl specialists, even if they’ve in recent years developed a strong practice curating installation work, are fetishizing this meister-bleeper.

At 180 The Strand a selection of Ikeda’s career highlights and two intense new pieces are arranged around a subterranean space that has been furnished for the purpose. You’re given shoe protectors on entry because you’ll be shuffling around on lots of thick pile black and white carpet, a cushioning attention to a third sense to enable the intensity of the sound and light to stand out while holding you in a comfortable tactile environment. I was particularly grateful for this carpet in the room which houses the data-verse trilogy, three floor-to-ceiling screens running films on a twenty-minute loop: I settled down in the carpet for the duration to allow complete submersion in Ikeda’s data-flood.

The physicality of the experience shifts in front of different pieces. A (continuum) places six vast Meyer SB-1 speakers around a large subterranean room with pillars. The rich, symphonic A tone, sampled from hundreds of sources, fills the space and body where it can. point of no return has a black circle painted onto a white screen, against which a strobing light intensifies the blackness of the circle. This is cosmic minimalism: pared back and framed in the intensity of physical forces, Ikeda’s evocation of the events horizon of a black hole. test pattern presents split barcodes, flickering and glitching across the floor in sharp monochrome blocks, a visual rendering of binary data to accompany the strobing audio piece.

The data-verse trilogy is the culmination, an overwhelming flow of data visualisation that looks like the mapping of the entirety of human knowledge by an advanced intelligence, building from the microscopic to the macroscopic: cells to stars and planets and systems. Rapidly sequenced still images flicker across the screens before sonar blips divert the flow into another direction.

In one passage the entirety of one huge screen is filled with multiple brain scans in motion. The pieces are sound-tracked by digital chatter and intense, pure tones sharply cut between distinct frequencies. The aesthetic would have Hollywood producers gasping: this is what they want their futuristic tech to look and sound like. Ikeda is about a decade ahead. These pieces deliver a statement of the perspective of the work: it is extra-human, or supra-human, utilising the points at which the external meets our perception to better scope the limits of what we are. The experience is intense, but also calming, a reset to the dominance of the internal.

Exquisite Corpus

An experiment using the Talk 2 Transformer neural network to collaborate on a short piece of writing, completing my prompts turn and turn about. Bold is me, regular the machine.

Images generated by cycling through This Person Does Not Exist looking for messianic grins and fleshy glitch artefacts

To create a new messiah. It was perfectly possible, insisted Avery. It had been done before, many times. The current challenge was the lead-time. A messiah was needed in the wild within twelve months. The job was to hew an individual from the raw clay of biography: documents, images, internet presence. Proof of success would be followers. There should be a literal trail: on the mantlepiece, a toothbrush, a razor blade, a pair of underwear with blood stains, a sample of their hair, a strand of their DNA. A constant feedback loop of interaction would be necessary to maintain credibility. Only the virtual would count. The messiah would not be allowed to speak to the public or take part in a traditional election. ‘The Messenger,’ the Times said on its front page. The Messenger. The Christ, as we would come to know it.

As did the anonymous administrators of the forum, some people objected to the call for an ancient, pre-Christian ‘messiah.’ Christ would not serve as the figurehead for the power elite. The Messiah would be, from the outside, an archetypal cult leader – charismatic, visionary, but controlling, also, because that was the key, was it not? Control. Always control. Those privileged few ‘made conscious’ of the inner working of the operation – the elite, apparently ignoring The Messiah – would know that he was spun from the most abstract materials, the swirling mesh of data about people and situations, essentially, without ever being alive – how then was he really manipulating their behaviour? In what way? We were all being preyed on – every person had to report his own actions to whoever was in charge in his particular way, or else – by what medium? – the silence and anonymity of an electronic blog would be questioned, the stridency of a personal Facebook post forced out into the light. He would control the internet, or she would. She was the ‘she’.

Proof of success would be followers, as he had said. They would grow this network in their online petri dish and watch the bacteria multiply, and they would tag all the bacteria and link their chats into surveillance nets.

From there, the watchful watched the bacteria grow to the point of infection. I told Avery that I was fascinated. I thought maybe he had some bugs that were smarter than the bacteria, but still infected by the same digital ecosystem. He said, “It’s not bugs. It’s a real intelligence agent. I would give that agent a sophisticated AI interface that would allow it to interface with the digital world. That would be the next version of the host.”

“Behold the parasites.”

Consider the pig

Of all the species we humans have domesticated, the pig reminds us most keenly of our prior, uncivilised state. It’s not just that the pig will revert to its undomesticated form within a generation of release from husbandry, the hair and savagery of the boar resurging from just beneath its soft, pink surface. It’s not even that the pig is so omnivorous, performing quite happily the function of a sewer and disposing of human waste of all forms through its own digestive system. The fact that we share an internal organisation, our viscera mapping so neatly onto those of the porcus, a fact not lost on those who would blur the distinction between short- and long-pig, is certainly an element in this uncanny relationship. What disturbs more than anything, though, is that the pig has been on the journey with us all along, helping us to clear the ground beneath our feet and to dig the earth for our crops. The pig has witnessed and collaborated in our behaviour as long as the dog and has offered far less in the way of affection to endear itself to us. The dog knows where the bodies are buried because it helped us dig the holes. The pig did away with the need for the holes.

An Alboniad

 Flat-pack Britain: whey-supplemental land of muscular hydroponics.
 Frazzled pound shop of yummy imperial mummies –
 And their Daves –
 Chomping at the bull-dog bit 
 From Hadrian’s folly to the Tunnel Sous la Manche. 
 Bitter seabord Britain and the bitterns that nest it;
 Norman Bretagne sailed their half-pound piece
 That hearty, silver heptagon of yore,
 Trawled from pockets, Liz-side up.
 Fit-bit Britain: ley-lines energise her car parks;
 Water-mill gymn bunnies vape on her forecourt,
 Illusion-smitten by Amnesiac flyers 
 Reviving 2-step: back to ‘04.
 NIMBY Britain: domain of privatised lives
 Dogged by Leylandii. Flatus-powered 
 Northern outhouses
 List, barely buoyed upon Camelot froth.
 Shake my hand.
 This was Blake’s land.
 Will you tickle my palm?
 Silicon Britain, Exurban MILF epicentre;
 Tom, Dick and Mohammed – Jedis to a man –
 Thrup the bitcoin Boudicca beneath grey-fade union flags;
 Crypto-Cromwells take the knee; Pixel roundheads abound;
 Regicides weep for the insta.
 Plebiscite Britain, Yolkmen denied their ploughs,
 A Britain of half the talents, half the wit, idiot-village:
 Everyman watches the watching. Everyman! Button-hungry
 And judged.
 William Morris arcs through the pylons here,
 Nature-trail families take the Happy Meal.
 Call-centre swordsmen, stone-stuck,
 Chant at the screen: 
 One-nil, to the Albumen!
 Woodwork-dwellers they were
 No longer: lice and worms drawn out
 By the acid rain that douses all 
 In the Magna Carta and rights.
 One among them – a testifier – can recite lengthy passages by rote
 While her colleagues stand proudly by, 
 before the incantation summons some
 John Bull of The Den, an obvious golem,
 Clagging the vacuum with silty threat.
 What they wish for is unclear
 Though their sense of justification is acute.
 They respond to the whistles and they find a camera.
 The rites continue. 

A Call for the Dead


I picked up the book on my father’s bedside table when I left my parents’ home to return to London in 2016. Someone had bought it for him when they had heard he was ill. Our Game, a le Carré from 1995 in the Penguin Modern Classics paberback edition. I began reading it as my train pulled away from a chilly, misty and sparsely peopled Darlington platform.

The narrative of Our Game orbits the relationship between Tim Cramner, a retired secret intelligence service desk officer, and Larry Pettifer, his agent, a charismatic and wild Winchester College chum whom Cramner ‘turned’ as a student. It is structured so that Larry is revealed only very gradually and through Pettifer’s memories: we have him first as voices on a phone and through aliases. We know that he has disappeared. We learn more as Cramner himself tries to piece together what has happened to his friend, talking to shared acquaintances and re-examining his own recollection; we learn of Larry’s backhanded courtship of Cramner’s younger lover Emma, an act that is equal parts revenge and whim; of their elopement; of the tense attraction between Tim and Larry, not quite sexual, but not quite chaste either (given the ambiguity of ‘turning’ we should hardly be surprised); and of Larry’s friendship with Checheyev, a maverick former KGB agent and loyal defender of the brutalised Ingush people.

Confession: I had never read a le Carré before. I had, snobbishly, thought that because it was so popular it couldn’t be so good. More fool me. On reading Our Game I was taken aback by how rich it was in complex and ambiguous motives, defined by the constant search for certainty: for moral certainty, for factual certainty, even for subjective certainty. It was an undertaking far more comprehensive than the telling of a spy story: this was a narrative driven by philosophical inquiry into the limits of knowledge in a shifting world. As I have read on into le Carré I have discovered the extent of this project: a half-century of surgical examination into the relationship between subjects and their states; into global geopolitics and morality, both collective, and individual.

I raced through Our Game, trailing Cranmer as he reconstituted the shape of a series of events from limited resources, a type of story I would come to realise was typical of the author. I read with haste until one morning, travelling to work on the tube, I reached p.123 and discovered the final corner my father had turned over, the point at which he had ceased to be able to read, a little upward tick triangulated from the bottom corner of the page; a material mark of the death of his faculty for reading that came a week or so before his physical death; a paper fish-hook.


In November, I returned North to visit my mum. I told her about the fact that I’d been reading the le Carré, told her that I was finding it comforting, a point of communion with my father. We spent half an hour kneeling in front of a bookcase talking about his reading habits. She told me that she remembered him being gifted a first edition by a friend who had worked at GCHQ in the 1960s and 70s. We dug around on the bookshelf and found it: The Honourable Schoolboy (1977). My mum told me to take it. There was also a hardback edition of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and I took that as well. I began consciously pursuing my father into le Carré. Reading The Honourable Schoolboy this process found a name. This reading became a taking of ‘backbearings’; an attempt to establish the form of a compromised network through the patterning of its absence.

The Honourable Schoolboy – the least well known of the Karla trilogy – opens in Hong Kong and describes the withdrawal of the service from its home in the Colony, a withdrawal that has been compelled by the compromise of the Circus by Bill Hayden’s treachery. This narrative commences from a point of loss and describes the gradual rebuilding of the work of the Circus; the moment at which Smiley and his team switch from defence to attack:

His theory — he called it his premise — on how intelligence could be produced with no resources, was the subject of an informal meeting held in the rumpus room not two months after his accession.

I found it immediately useful to figure my own grief in this way, to think of myself as an agent in a network – in this instance, a family – attempting to produce intelligence with no resources – in my case, trying to think and feel my way around our loss. All such bereavements must be structured this way, the loss of no one person having been experienced by their loved ones before. I turned to these books for distraction, as intellectual stimulation, and in them I found a powerful emotional and psychological crutch.

The world of le Carré’s Circus is a world of family. Karla inserts the traitor Bill Haydon between George and his promiscuous wife Ann. Karla himself is finally pressured to defect through the discovery of his daughter, secreted in a Swiss sanatorium, a young woman driven mad by her father’s phantasmal existence. The novels are steeped in familial tragedies, betrayals, losses. As I began to map the shape of my grief I noticed that family relations provided more than explicit emotional background for the narratives but were metaphorically structural to the world of espionage le Carré described: the American secret services are “the cousins”; the women who work the Registry are “aunties.” When they run agents, George and Karla have a pastoral role as vicars and priests. The network of the secret world is translated into the more familiar and intimate terminology of the family.


At the close of Our Game, Cranmer has trailed Pettifer back to Ingushetia. He has made contact with Pettifer’s allies and is party to their experience of war. Pettifer himself is absent, as he has been throughout the novel, advancing backwards towards death. It is assumed that he has been killed but there are no remains to demonstrate the fact of his death one way or the other.

Cramner gives a rich eulogy to an assembly of Ingush villagers. It concludes with an expression of uncertainty that he has been understood:

“Whether Checheyev translated my words faithfully I never knew. Nor, if he did, how they were received by my audience, for another delegation was arriving and the ritual was already being repeated.”

Here was language as ritual: all that remained for Cramner was repetition. I thought of my own eulogy to my father, rehearsed as I wandered the garden, edited and checked with my mother, my brother and my wife. My growing suspicion that these novels, in working to reveal the sub rosa, to unconceal that which is occluded while veiling aspects of truth, are narrative treatises into death and mourning – that around which the only certainty is that the ritual will be repeated – was given a further shove two pages later:

A dead man is the worst enemy alive, I thought. You can’t alter his power over you. You can’t alter what you love or owe. And it’s too late to ask for his absolution. He has you beaten all ways up.

Then I remembered something Dee had said to me in Paris, and I had deliberately chosen not to hear: maybe you don’t want to find your friend, but to become him.

I met a friend whom I hadn’t seen since the summer, when we first discovered my father was ill. (I saw the same friend on Friday for the first time this year). I told him about my le Carré obsession. He recommended A Perfect Spy. “That’s the one you want. That’s the one about his father.”


For a while I worried at the Freudian elements in le Carré: the idea of all these family relations, the notion of the name of the father (I’d been teaching Jacques Lacan and at one stage I wondered if Oliver Lacon’s name was a nod to the psychoanalytic theorist), the ecumenical terms, state authority as the symbolic order, the intelligence services as its functionaries.

A Perfect Spy did little to dispel this angle to my reading, even as I resisted it. I knew it was a kind of academic sickness: who else but an Eng Lit academic would become obsessed with reading in this way? The problem was, A Perfect Spy was the perfect book for this, based as it is in le Carré’s relationship with his own father, Ronnie, a middle-class fraudster. The le Carré cypher in this novel, Magnus Pym, goes AWOL after his father’s death. His former colleague Jack Brotherhood (more family) remarks: “Rick’s dead so Magnus is free. He’s one of your Freudian types who can’t say “Father.” (80)

At the close of A Perfect Spy, Brotherhood is closing in on Pym. He arrives at the house of Syd, a proto-UKIPper, with a union jack on a flagpole in the front garden of his semi, and a former member of Rick’s court. In Syd’s front room there is an absence; a mark on the carpet where something recently stood. As readers, we know it’s the green filing cabinet that Magnus Pym has at his b&b, the same green filing cabinet that his father entrusted to him when he was arrested; that Magnus has previously broken into when it was stored in a cellar. In the Lacanian scheme we’d figure this as a ‘purloined letter’ but it is surely also an object that we can identify as a crypt: a locked storage vessel in which Rick has hidden from one and all – himself included? – the evidence of his criminality and the distress his nefarious misdeeds have caused; the filing cabinet of Rick’s unconscious.

Crypts take me in a slightly different re-reading of Freud. The crypt is the defining discovery of Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok’s ‘renewal’ of psychoanalysis and the result of an extensive examination of the Wolfman case. It provides a model for visualising the no-place in the mind in which the traumatic event lodges itself:

‘The words that cannot be uttered, the scenes that cannot be recalled, the tears that cannot be shed – everything will be swallowed along with the trauma that led to the loss. Swallowed and preserved. Inexpressible mourning erects a secret tomb inside the subject.’ 

In order to access the crypt, in order, indeed, to locate it, they propose decryption of the language that oozes under analysis, language implicated in ‘the active destruction of representation’.

In a hinging point in A Perfect Spy that mirrors that of Edgar Allen Poe’s Purloined Letter, Syd gives away the significance of this absent object through his body language, by glancing at the mark on the carpet at the key point in Brotherhood’s interrogation. I’m very familiar with this lift: it’s one I myself have replicated and I’ve been expecting it. As I’d been reading the novel my eye had been drawn to two uses of the word ‘purloined.’[1]

Would an author versed in code-writing leave this material so carelessly scattered for the critic so minded to find it? Or, quite the reverse, is this not carefully scattered, just so the critic will find it? Is it the perfect cover; weaponised authorial misdirection? Is the letter hidden in plain sight?


John le Carré has remarked: ‘By inventing George Smiley I tried to conjure up the specter of my father.’ As any le Carré fan will know, my readerly wish for a clean exit for Smiley has been confounded numerous times. Smiley wasn’t finished at the end of Smiley’s People. Not only did he anchor the Secret Pilgrim, a loosely connected set of short stories, he was afforded a kind of deus ex machina role in 2016’s A Legacy of Spies, checking in by phone, that most haunted of media.

Over the years, David Cornwell has shared with his readers more of the detail of his relationship with his father. In an interview with Pierre Assouline in 1986 he discussed A Perfect Spy in noticeably Freudian terms:

We live much of our lives beneath the surface – like icebergs. Most of our thoughts and desires are unexpressed […] I finally realised I would not be able to write about my father until I was able to balance our respective guilt and responsibility […] The novel became a sort of catharsis. I exorcised my father. (86)

Ronnie Cornwell

What is it, I wonder, that his work has offered me? I’m drawn to a line he turned in reference to the war photographer Don McCullin. It’s a useful gloss to what he’s really about.

In a grey, confused, elusive, ever-compromising world, he has the gall to think of life and death and the purpose of existence. (18)

This has been my discovery, care of that novel at my father’s bedside. That a literary project of fifty year’s standing that purports to be genre fiction, is in fact a grander undertaking.  And where has it led?

In le Carre’s first novel, A Call for the Dead, he records ‘that secretly elevated state which immediately follows bereavement.’ (31) It is an astute description of something I have been fortunate enough to experience only once.

I can understand why father so liked le Carré. There’s great pathos but little sentimentality. Le Carré puts it this way:

The dead and nearly dead, like the mad, are free, but their freedom is no use to them. (19)

I continue into le Carré, religiously turning corners as I go.

[1] This seemed an incidence of this unusual word greater than one would expect in any novel, although it is entirely consistent with incidence in printed works of the period of approximately 0.0000135%. This seems rather more likely, therefore, to be an example of confirmation bias than the authorial direction I’d prefer it to be.

Time to Cry

In early 2017 I gave a brief paper at the symposium “Politicians and Other Performers” organised by my colleagues in Theatre and Drama at Birkbeck, Louise Owen and Fintan Walsh. I am not a scholar of performance but I wanted to think about an increasing tendency towards public displays of emotion by British politicians. It seemed to me that emotional displays were increasingly commonly deployed as part of the media armoury of prominent political figures and I wanted to begin to sketch a history of this. Highlighted themes for the symposium included “authenticity and sincerity” so the topic seemed appropriate.

What had prompted this line of thought was seeing Nigel Farage crying in a BBC news segment in which he visited Brussels. His tear-streaked face had been lit by the sun as he stood among the graves of the war dead, and spoke of his great interest in bravery, his own experiences of fear, and his upset for his children, who had been bullied for having the name Farage (implying that he too had received similar treatment as a child).

The effect of this was not to elicit sympathy from me. I had little doubt that Farage felt sorry for himself, and his children, and felt emotional about the War dead, but I found the production of tears in a BBC interview hard to swallow. A bit of research turned up another instance of Farage weeping, this time for still cameras, at the Tower of London Remembrance Day poppy memorial. The then-Ukip leader described the installation as “awe-inspiring” and helpfully directed his tear-filled eyes at the camera.

I remembered distinctly the weekend in 2010 when the notoriously emotionally strangled Gordon Brown cried in interview with Piers Morgan when asked about the death of his daughter in infancy.

Brown further told Morgan that he was an “open book,” a claim which was at odds with what we’d all seen. No one put it better than Gordon Burn in his book Born Yesterday: The News as a Novel, which narrated the events of 2006. Burn described Brown as “an analogue politician in a digital age […] Watching Brown struggling to uncloud his countenance became the recurring bad sight of the year: a car-crash moment waiting to happen at each and every photo-op.”

Again, it was difficult to doubt the sincerity of Brown’s emotions in his interview – bereavement is always traumatic, losing an infant horrific, and Brown, however stoic or repressed, is a human being. What was clear, though was that this was a managed interview, that he’d elected to “go there” for the cameras. The emotions were authentic, and also performed.

Two days later Alastair Campbell became choked when quizzed by Andrew Marr about the Iraq inquiry. Perhaps Campbell was showing solidarity with his boss, muddying the water, sending the message that it’s perfectly normal even for big beasts to become emotional. The effect, though, of seeing two men whose reputations had been based upon their swift rage and over a decade of obsessive media management, submitting to tears in the artificial surroundings of the TV studio, gave the distinct impression of performance emoting, managed for display.

Campbell responded to this on his blog. I present this without comment:

GB will not have enjoyed opening himself up in the way it sounds like he did. But there is no harm at all in people seeing that when all is said and done, he is flesh and blood the same as everyone else. I had a bit of an unplanned ‘moment’ myself this morning, which judging by the volume of traffic online seems to have been noticed. I thought hardly anyone watched those Sunday political shows any more. With a new novel out – Maya, which I may have mentioned here a few times already – I had agreed to do Andrew Marr on the BBC and Adam Boulton on Sky, and I knew of course I could not expect them to restrict the interviews to me talking about what a rollicking good read my novel was (even if the reviews are saying exactly that).

The Independent newspaper had canvassed responses to Brown’s tears from members of the public. James Thomas, 27, a teacher at Wellington College, a noted private school, responded to the emotions as if leaving a tripadvisor review: “It was the first time I’d ever regarded the man as a human being, capable of emotions, which was pleasant to see. It was very moving when he spoke about the death of his child, and looked over at his wife on the verge of tears.”

Michael Wager, a customer services consultant from Cheltenham, offered a more media critical view: “Given that Brown has not fielded questions about his family and private life in the past, it is strange that he agreed to face them this time. I don’t think his tears were contrived, but it came across like this was driven by his PR team.”

In a search for the ground zero of this in British politics I landed between microphones and a church-yard, in Sedgefield, in county Durham, just over three months after his election and at a seminal moment for Tony Blair. Standing before the cameras of the national press, aware that he was addressing the world, Blair gave his response to the news of the death in a car crash of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Watching this performance today, the distance we’ve travelled is all-too apparent. Blair is consummate: he’s learnt the bones of the script but is speaking around it, from the – projected – heart. He even manages to control a near-choke in his voice. He hits the right notes, opening with his feelings, full of pregnant pauses. If you listen to the audio alone, it’s perfect, and when you add in the facial expressions, the range of brow-furrows and blinks, it is slightly too actorly to be vicarly, but he is certainly leading the service. I can imagine this being used as a training piece: “See what he does at two minutes fifteen. Straight to camera.”

When I gave this paper, I routed in two directions. As an obsessive reader of J.G. Ballard I am always drawn to the lines from his introduction to the French edition of Crash, which have served as something of a summary statement not only of his own practice, but also of the points at which it intersected with more theoretical approaches to life in a heavily mediated world.

I think that the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decade. Increasingly their roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind – mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the preempting of any free or imaginative response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel.

Farage is like a cartoon version of a Ballard character, or perhaps one imagined by an advertising executive specialising in Tesco xmas ads. Ballard would surely have disdained the crass, shire populism of this pub bore; on the other hand, he’s an arch media performer and conforms to a more idiosyncratic Ballardian archetype: the downed pilot.

For me, this is the key moment in Farage’s career: the moment he is born again after a near-death experience, bloodied but more determined.

The other route I went in was to think about the kinds of techniques that allow for the emotion to be accessible to performers, so I read a bit about Stanislavski, drilling into his reading in psychology. The most intriguing response was from an attendee who suggested I look at Ivan Pavlov’s influence on Stanislavski.

Which, I guess, brings me round to the reason for this post: the latest iteration of televised crying from a male politician. Matt Hancock on the Good Morning sofa is a fitting addition to the canon.

Hancock, the Pooterish head-boy on whose ill-prepared shoulders landed the health crisis of a generation, seems torn between laughing at the fact that a patient called William Shakespeare from Warwick has been located – the idea of the porosity of the fiction-reality border made flesh in a nominative call-to-national-pride – and weeping with relief for himself: “So many people…” But mainly me. He doesn’t manage to produce any visible tears – only emotionally-labile professionals like Farage can pull off that trick – but he has the gestures.

A patient called William Shakespeare from Warwick has been located – the idea of the porosity of the fiction-reality border made flesh in a nominative call-to-national-pride.

Freeborn Dom

 Is John Dom departed, and is Lilburne Cummings gone!
  Farewell to Lilburne Cummings, and farewell to John Dom...
  But lay John Dom here, lay Lilburne Cummings here about,
  For if they ever meet they will fall out. 

Durham: 21st Century

 He reads his greats reclining in his den.
 He dreams of government by better men.
 Gell Man sings hymns of Odyssean ways.
 Sun Tzu describes the strategies in play.
 He loathes the wheel that crushes freeborn folk
 And yearns to save them from their heavy yoke.
 The Mays, the SPADS, the Blob his frequent plaint:
 Those oafs! They’re blind to all elitist taint.
 His library the bleeding edge on them.
 His hideaway, a rural outpost kind,
 And near to pubs and common wat’ring holes
 Where freeborn folk express their heartfelt yen
 To leave the union, leave it far behind,
 And in so leaving salve their aching souls. 

Durham: 20th Century

 From the perspective of the booth he sees
 the flower of Durham’s youth,
 mildewed and black-flied
 and only rarely mixed with slugs and leches.
 They hand over to him hard-earned,
 deriving from parents or weekend jobs.
 They range from the cocksure to the
 surly but they calm at the booth,
 by-and-large, as they give up their spond:
 they all want in.
 Phil is free to roam and survey
 the bar upstairs, the dancefloor down;
 he keeps an eye on the lads on the door.
 In late '87, it nearly killed the place,
 a proper charver, Spennymoor lad,
 kicking off, was forcibly ejected,
 put on his head instead of his arse,
 and cobbles not noted for being forgiving
 the calls of “night-night son”
 took on a darker hue
 when said lad’s death was pronounced
 in the Journal.
 He likes the count at the end of the night
 and the sense of being in the control centre.
 He’s watched the film, Phil urged it on him,
 Jane Fonda won an Oscar for playing
 a prostitute. Wonders which was the inspiration
 for the image, hard-boiled noir or slappers?
 This being Durham, land of the Prince Bishops,
 final home of Cuthbert’s travelling corpse,
 gown spilling from the Castle and Cathedral,
 town cabbing in from pit villages,
 some of them Cat 4, black-lung places,
 some of them named for the Normans who built
 the vast edifice on the hill,
 Petit Me (little sea), Chester-le-Street,
 and the Saxons who named Consett, 
 (Phileas Fogg crisps, remember them?)
 and the Danes, who sent Cuthbert on the run,
 but only made homes in Raby and Ulnaby
 well to the south – this being Durham
 the latter seems the more likely. This stuff sticks,
 ancient history, perhaps, a classical education,
 to get him out and beyond, to the south,
 where he plans to modernise his learning. 


 The door to Stone’s room must be kept open,
 his teaching no longer covert,
 a dossier compiled by women’s officers
 has recorded his reputed acts:
 his extra-curricular tutelage brooks no further encryption.
 This is the compromise that Exeter accepts.
 For now, at least. Dom coughs and is told to enter
 (“Don’t lurk, I hate lurkers”) and takes his seat
 Alongside Pet on the sofa, ready for the ding-dong.
 Stone likes to argue, Dom too,
 Advocating for the devil or whichever side
 Takes the fancy of each: morality
 Is for bores when there is cut-and-thrust to be had. 


Freeborn Dom came out to play,
 Alas, alack, alack-a-day,
 He had a lot too much to say,
 On education.
 His bold and brave statement
 That race and attainment
 Were in close alignment
 Had... implications.
 Dom’s “truth” was a challenge to liberal cant.
 His tome ragged; it became a rant
 Co-opting experts to supplant
 Meek right-think.
 But Dom had read only certain books,
 Not everything; and where he looked
 Defined his thought, which brooked
 No contest.
 Disqualified science lurks beneath
 Reason’s camouflage of racist belief
 (intake of breath and sucking of teeth -
 I’ll put it out there:
 It all depends on the sources you use
 The same as if reporting news
 You can cut your cloth to support your views
 If you’re a  "maverick" ). 
Fuck Lacan and fuck the Blob,
Fuck the Beeb - Turbo, shut your gob!
Don't peer under the bonnet
Coz what you'll find
is NO oedipal shit -
are you out of your mind?
Read popular science and biographies
Of great men and their great strategies.
Fuck Princess Nutnut, and fuck your views,
Up with Caino! Fuck the rest of you.

Don’t Applaud. Either Laugh, or Don’t, by Andrew Hankinson (Scribe)

There’s a joke Louis CK tells at the climax of his 2013 stand-up show Oh My God. The set-up works like this. “Everyone has a competition in their brain of good thoughts and bad thoughts.” There’s the part of your thinking that is rational, of your better nature, what you believe – this he calls “of course.” And then there’s the morally dubious, lesser mind – “I don’t believe it, but it’s there” – this he calls “but maybe.” His first example is that “of course” children with nut allergies should be protected, it’s essential to have their medication to hand, you should always check labels, etc. “But maybe, maybe… If touching a nut kills you, you’re supposed to die.”

Written down, it’s harsher than it is in the telling, but I think it still works. It made me laugh out loud when I heard it, despite the fact that I’ve been party to a panicked rush to A&E. As a parent, I recognise its sentiment all too well: getting worked up at inconveniences of providing for everyone’s kids, mainly because you’re perpetually tired. Also, where did the proliferation of nut allergies come from? Had all those kids my age just died because there were no adrenaline shots available? You’re not supposed to say these things, but you think them. The joke identifies and gives form to the ways the worn-out caring mind allows itself release through verbal and conceptual play and transgression. We could easily assign it to a psychoanalytic scheme: it’s explicitly a joke about the super-ego and the id. The big angel and the little devil. The devil often has the best lines.

One reason the joke does not work so well on paper is that CK’s consummate skill as a stand-up lies in large part in his facial expressions and tone, and his ability to morph between open and empathetic and wicked and mischievous and back to innocent. You have to say that those skills are tested to breaking point now that we will always picture him using them in the context of asking women if he can masturbate in front of them, but it doesn’t mean that the skills themselves disappear overnight, nor that his jokes are no longer able to occupy the morally murky areas of our quotidian thought processes. The context has changed.

The question of whether or not we are implicated in his actions by continuing to laugh at him is equally intriguing. As I say, I laughed at that joke when I watched it again but there were others at which I couldn’t raise a smile and yet others I remember not finding funny in the before-time. The dismissal of art on the grounds of morality requires absolute standards in the field of morality. Absolute standards in the field of morality tend to make hypocrites of us all.

CK develops the “of course, but maybe” routine cunningly. In his third example, he says “of course slavery is the worst thing that ever happened.” The entire audience – an audience that knows the kind of material to expect, the kind seasoned comics like to think of as “cultivated” – winces. Groans threaten to consume laughter. He calls them on it: “Listen, listen, you all clapped for the dead kids with the nuts. So, you’re in this with me now, you understand?” The audience laugh again: they’re implicated and he knows it. It’s a very telling joke, I think, in the context of CK’s career – this is a comic who constructs and plays with situations of compromise and moral relativity to implicate his audience in his act. It’s artful in the context of joke writing but takes on a different valence in other areas of life.

I looked back at CK’s sets after reading Andrew Hankinson’s new book Don’t Applaud. Either Laugh or Don’t, an oral history of New York’s legendary Comedy Cellar. The Cellar features heavily in Louis CK’s successful sit-com Louie: the titles feature CK arriving at the subway station in the Village, grabbing pizza, and walking into the Cellar. In other scenes he is doing bits of his stand-up, with the Celllar’s brick wall tight behind him. The club has been a home-from-home for a roll-call of New York’s most significant comics since the 1980s, many of whom appear in the pages of Don’t Applaud: Jerry Seinfeld, asking to the doorman Hassan to park his Porsche; on one legendary occasion, Amy Schumer, Dave Chappelle, and Chris Rock appearing on the same billion-dollar-bill as Seinfeld.

Don’t Applaud is Hankinson’s second book. His first, You Are Raoul Moat, You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life was an ambitious piece of hybrid non-fiction. For those who don’t remember, Moat was the Geordie bouncer who shot and killed a policeman on his release from prison, because his girlfriend had started dating a copper. He then went on the run, pitching up at Rothbury in Northumberland, with the rolling news media hot on his heels, before taking his own life. (I’ve always thought it an astonishing though apt coincidence that Moat dragged a chaotic media circus to the town where the late novelist Gordon Burn had a country cottage.) In 2010, Newcastle United fans hymned Moat at St James’s Park, re-using the old “He Kills Coppers” song memorialised in Jake Arnott’s novel of the same title. It’s a fine line between folk-devil and folk-hero.

In that book, Hankinson reproduced transcripts of Moat’s audio-diary, a tape-recorded confessional. In other sections he used the second-person voice of the title to produce an effect not unlike that experienced in the choose-your-own adventure novels of the 1980s. You Are Raoul Moat positioned the reader in unusually and uncomfortably close proximity with the troubled protagonist and enacted the kinds of moral and ethical complexities we face in real life, without offering resolution. How much agency did Moat have? How were his victims effected by his actions beyond the first flush of the media attention? To what extent was he the victim of his own actions or those of others? What were the roles of the media and police in the situation as it unfolded? How would you feel if this happened to you? You weren’t hectored by these questions: you experienced them.

Don’t Applaud consists almost entirely of transcriptions of interviews conducted by the author with people connected to the Cellar. Hankinson started writing about the venue in 2013 for a magazine feature and maintained contact with the owner, Noam Dworman, continuing to interview him up to 2019. It is fair to say that this is considerably longer-form than most contemporary journalism. There are also brief section introductions, when required, and on occasion, chapters consist in simply relating an event that has occurred, in bold type. “The night before,” reads Chapter 198, “Louis does his fourth spot back. A few people walk out.” (Chapter 186 records his first set back at the Cellar. “As he walks onstage the crowd cheers and claps.”)

The book is structured so that the events discussed are encountered in reverse chronological order: we read interviewees’ accounts of different moments in the club’s history, starting from the most recent and working backwards as the chapters count down. This Time’s Arrow strategy brings a couple of effects to bear on the narrative: the form of the book has the force of a line of argument all of its own. By reversing the passage of time, Hankinson presents us with a story that reveals implicitly how we got to where we are: every situation lands already exploded, then transforms and coalesces as evidence accrues. This seems every bit as ingenious and bold as his use of the second person in You Are Raoul Moat. Hankinson’s not here to lecture the reader, but to understand. His formal gambits are experimental in the true sense: what might we learn if we look at things this way?

What’s more, the reverse chronology means that the elephant in the room is top of the bill: Louis CK is headlining, whether we like it or not (for CK’s second spot back at the Cellar, owner Noam Dworman puts up a sign warning punters: “Swim at Your Own Risk: We Never Know Who is Going to Pop In”). Were the chronology past to present, we’d spend the entire book waiting for the looming presence of CK, his sexually inappropriate behaviour threatening from the back pages. I don’t think it’s too much to say that postponing this would have the effect of making the entire piece seem like waiting for CK to take his dick out and that would give him a power over the narrative reproducing the power he enjoyed over the women on the receiving end of his masturbation kicks. As it is, we get that up front and told from multiple perspectives. Ted Alexandro who used to warm up CK uses him for material: “He’s lost… He’s lost everything. It’s not fair that men should lose everything in a flash, and by everything I mean hardly anything, and in a flash I mean a decade later.”

The book is dotted with specific jokes and their aftermaths. Hankinson reproduces with permission audience complaints, with the jokes themselves gradually resolving in the rear-view mirror. Sam Morril’s joke about an alligator is exemplary of this. A child called Lane Graves was killed by an alligator at a Disney amusement park. Sam Morril “asks if anyone has heard about the baby who was killed by an alligator. He doesn’t use the child’s name. He says baby instead of child. He says he doesn’t want to come across as a right-wing nut, but maybe if the baby was carrying a gun? He asks if anyone watched the televised funeral. It wasn’t televised, that’s part of the joke. He describes what he saw. Erika stands up and walks out of the showroom. On her way out she complains to Liza [Treyger, the MC]. Liza tells her people are offended by different things and she can leave if she wants. She leaves. She cries. She tweets, Comic @sammorril makes part of act joke about 2 yr old being killed by alligator in Disney. He should be boycotted. I left immediately.” The inevitable happens on twitter, with Erika receiving abuse.

The joke as it is written is undoubtedly dark and would be extremely distressing for anyone who knew the child to hear. It is also, even as written and without development, self-evidently about the perpetual threat caused by American gun laws and the heinous hypocrisy of the corporate media as much as it is about children, or death, or alligators. Hankinson has already included an email exchange between Erika and the management of the Cellar, in which Erika has stated: “I would expect all human beings would be offended by a sicko making jokes about a 2-year-old baby’s tragic death, saying his mother probably said ‘later gator’ at his funeral etc.” Before that, we’ve had Hankinson’s interview with Erika, in which she has expanded upon her position. And before that, we have had Sam’s permission to Hankinson to tell the story. Sam gives permission but he’s worried. “He says being taken out of context is scary. The author understands. A book is different from a room.”

The unique situation of the room is a theme of the book. In a telling introductory interview with Stewart Lee, Hankinson asks Lee about his idea of Bouffon clowns drawing a circle around themselves on stage, or Paul Provenza’s idea of the stage as “inverted commas.” Lee responds: “Yeah, but that doesn’t work anymore because the circle’s been punctured by YouTube and Twitter, and the stage is being filmed from an angle on someone’s phone that removes the inverted commas.”

It’s a strange moment for comedy, and one that Hankinson’s book is uniquely placed to interrogate. The puncturing of the circle of the room is a distortion of context. Cultural historians are very concerned to recreate context, and our contemporary moment is likely to provide a rich seem for cultural historians of the future, as they discern the complications of context we experience with the distortions of time and space made possible by tele-technologies of media reproduction.

It seems useful to think of stand-up as a kind of contract between performer and audience. Problems occur when one party or the other feels that the contract has been broken. The contract in a stand-up environment is under perpetual re-negotiation against the context of norms predominant outside of the room, but the fact that it is a negotiation is its great power and strength. The kind of comedy that thrives in rooms like that at the Cellar frequently wrong-foots us by transgressing or questioning our taste and standards. Any demands for absolute standards or uniform taste seem quixotic at best. The contract essentially says: “Be flexible.” Or, “Swim at your own risk.” Or, as Hankinson’s title has it, borrowing a line from Colin Quinn: “Don’t applaud. Either laugh, or don’t.”

It is a violation of the contract to rupture its temporality. The words in the air are transformed by their transposition into text – as Hankinson’s remark acknowledges – or their fixing in video, the temporary autonomy of the room pulled out from under them. Shifting the room into the infinitely networked and, despite all appearances, much more permanent because textual space of twitter, rips up the contract. The moment of ambiguity, of expectations in a state of quantum suspension, is flattened into inevitability. Various occasions when the Cellar has participated in the alteration of the contract, having welcomed cameras into the room, lead to earlier controversies, including one involving Seinfeld.

Another theme of the book is Noam’s position that it is not his job to be a boundary policeman. Included at Chapter 183 is an essay describing his argument for freedom of expression: it’s a sharp piece of polemic, coining the word “indignigasm,” inveighing for fairness and against censorship and confessing to the “fear that if the mob comes for me, I’ll blink.” Hankinson complicates Noam’s stated position by introducing and discussing over the course of the book various instances where Noam himself has behaved inconsistently, intervening in different ways to question acts about their performance: not quite a censor, but perhaps a bit of an overseer. We always get each side of the story and often a third or fourth perspective.

Indeed, the Cellar tries to formalise such discussion by hosting debates. At one the British-born columnist Andrew Sullivan, a gay, conservative Catholic, who was earlier this year released from his job as a columnist at the New York Magazine, describes the environment of free speech in terms of an opposition between analyses derived from Marx that privilege ideas of structural oppression and those that celebrate the rights of the individual of the enlightenment project. It’s a summary that would surely be complicated by philosophers and academic historians of ideas – I can’t help but think that complainers are individualising structural analyses – but it is a useful framing for discussion. The fact that it took place in a comedy club seems admirable.

An extended interview with Lynne Koplitz describes the writing of and response to her rape joke, which I had not heard but which I looked up to watch on Netflix after reading about it because it was described by Joan Rivers as a “game-changer.” You may not like Lynne Koplitz’s rape joke, but I think if you’re interested in comedy it will be worth seeing. This interview is followed by an exchange with Noam concerning a debate at the Cellar responding to the question “Is American Conservatism Hostile to Women?” at which a pre-Trump Ann Coulter was a panellist. They discuss opposition to having Coulter in the building. Unsurprisingly, Noam defends the decision.

Hankinson details arguments, disputes – Kurt Metzger had his eardrum popped for calling a female member of the audience a cunt – but also acts of kindness and friendship, the business of running comedy clubs, the history of Greenwich Village. The narrative runs back to the Club’s founder, Noam’s father Manny Dworman, an Israeli folk musician. Manny loved discussion and debate: he would push books on his friends concerning topics he wanted to discuss. Manny believed discussion the height of human civilisation. Interviewees queue up to tell the author how much they loved him.

The comic Hood Quaim-Maqani, an American-Iranian, tells Hankinson about his suicide bomber joke: “But then I say, ‘Well, if you’re going to be that kind of a crowd, I’d like to start off tonight by doing something in the name of Allah.’ I would lift my shirt, show the bomb. That’s when, pre-9/11, the crowd would just explode with laughter. And then I’d go, ‘Wow, thank God you reacted that way. Not all crowds get this kind of humour. I did this joke two weeks ago in Israel and cleared the entire plane.’” Manny, says Hood, “would see it, and he was deeply conservative in the opinions he had, but he was also a humanist.” Robin Williams checks that Hood is going to stop doing the joke.

Donald Trump Jr is in the audience one night, being loud, and another audience member “pops” him on the head with a glass. Manny’s partner Ava recalled Trump requiring Manny to apologise, and thinks it maybe happened on Entertainment Tonight. It’s a slight cameo but it prompts the thought of another, external threat to the transgressive mode of stand-up: Trump’s use of the rhetorical figure of paralipsis, and its structural similarity to the CK joke at the top of the piece. “I’m not saying: I’m only saying”; a transgressive space opened up in language and then plausibly denied. Trump, of course, also deploys the vulgarity of the stand-up. When rhetorical transgression is routine in political discourse, when inverted commas are placed around the stump, the context surrounding the stage is shifting, bigly.

There are those who, in the face of the prevailing political conditions, would reduce any discussion of freedom of speech to either opposition to, or support for, abhorrent views, as if it is the right to expression itself that has given rise to the irrational thought processes that precede the utterance of the indefensible. Freud’s writing on humour makes clear its special relationship to the unconscious: if you’re more empirical than that, my understanding is that it is uncontroversial to accept that we don’t always have control over what we think. The unconscious is definitionally where the weird shit happens before we rationalise and get all enlightenment on it. Stand-up comedy seems one of the few forms that acknowledges and plays with that aspect of being human. Its not the thought, or the joke that’s the problem. It’s the context, or the actions, or intent of the people behind jokes.

The discussion of freedom of speech has further become politicised: mischief-makers who identify as “classical liberals” having, apparently, cherry-picked a bit of John Stuart Mill, defend an absolutist position as a pillbox on the beach of the culture wars. It’s a shame that this is ever taken at face value rather than for what it is: a playground taunt, the lowest grade form of humour, designed to provoke the response it inevitably gets – the distracting indignigasm. Meanwhile, boundaries of taste and morality are policed by “progressives” who have internalised as a material truth an understanding of offensive language as traumatic, little allowing for the forms of offensive language that might even be therapeutic.

When he was dying from cancer, my father made a series of jokes about his own imminent demise that I do not think would transcend the room we were in when he told them. Tiring of visitors, he suggested the erection on the front lawn of a black flag to ward away well-wishers and offered to piss in a cup from across the room. (The Macmillan nurses, his perfect audience, thought it was quite droll). I found these black jokes cathartic, powerful, excruciatingly brave. I enjoy thinking back to them because they give me an opportunity to think of him as stoical and able to rise above it; they provide a screen for the grimmer moments also logged in my memory. I am simultaneously terrified that I will not be strong enough to joke my own way out and provide my loved ones with hopeful distractions. Welcome to gallows humour! Try the veal, it’s to die for.

I would love to be able to discuss with Erika the intensely powerful emotional possibilities of black humour, its tradition in Jewish culture, in Surrealism, in satire from the Greeks through Swift to Ballard, throughout the North of England and most frequently in stand-up. Jerry Sadowitz is not for everyone but I love his act. I would like to discuss this, in the spirit of Manny’s creation. I believe in that discussion, and I’m scared of it. The internet is different from the room.

What emerges by the close of Hankinson’s book is a nuanced and multi-layered portrait of a place of discussion and dispute, of hierarchy and money and offence, yes, but a place primarily of life and music and food and people and filthy jokes. Perhaps on occasion it’s been a boys’ club for egotistical white guys, but most of the time it has been peopled with New Yorkers gay, straight, female, male, black, white, Hispanic and middle-eastern; some of them making jokes, some of them laughing, some crying, some earning a crust and some making a mint. Hankinson gives them all voice in his portrait of the Cellar, a recreation of the diversity of opinion, the spirit and bustle of the room. It’s a fascinating social historical document and a profoundly humanist achievement, studded with ingenious gags and touching anecdotes. Please read it. I’d like to talk about it.