Manchester, myth and music

Hey, that guest blog from Simon Bestwick was fun… I’d like to thank him for stopping by. I’d also recommend guest-blogging to those who might feel the urge to hold forth every so often but don’t want to make a commitment to a regular blog just yet. I started off that way with a guest slot at TTA Press, all about Machen, Misogyny and Madwomen in Attics.

Which brings me to my current post, which also as a lot of ‘M’s in it. As mentioned, I went up to Ladyfest Manchester in November and did a reading as part of the launch for the Rebel Dykes film trailer. This included a fragment of a novel that revisited the South London Women’s Hospital and a bit from my recent blog post on Rebel Dykes of the 1980s and the Sluts from Outer Space. The room was packed – the event had the atmosphere of a gig rather than a literary soiree… People even spontaneously sang out to the “Dykes of Brixton”. I was thrilled by the enthusiastic response by younger women, and also aware of how much I stand to learn from them in turn during this process.

So finally, here is the trailer we launched that night…

After the presentation, I got a drink and eventually turned my attention to the musical talent on the main stage. This started a train of thought about music and urban myth. Recently I saw a BBC documentary about indie music, Music for MisfitsSome of it I enjoyed, but I will also agree with Emma Jackson on the programme’s ‘restrospective sexism’ and how it ignored the sizeable input of women musicians. Where were PJ Harvey, the Voodoo Queens, Echobelly, and so many women who made some noise in the 1990s?

I always find it startling to watch historical documentaries about a period that I lived through, a time that had been a ‘now’ for me. While it could be seen as a part of growing older, I imagine this is also what is meant by the ‘making history‘. Myth isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As I writer I often deal with myths and draw inspiration from them.

But I’m wary when mythologising has the effect of flattening a lived experience and robbing it of ambiguity and nuance, or hiding major parts of that experience from view. A mythologised experience often stands outside the stream of time, as if the branches that extend into the present have been lopped off. It’s like a bug preserved in amber. In the case of the Rebel Dykes project, this is exactly what the film-makers are striving to avoid.

Meanwhile, musical retrospectives can be very seductive. You hear a lot of favourite old tunes,  they provoke a glow of nostalgia. But they often leave me unsatisfied, as if a big chunk of the story is missing. Friends I spoke with at the Ladyfest weekend observed that the Manchester segment of Music for Misfits and similar documentaries give the impression no real music has been made in the city since the days of the Smiths, Happy Mondays and Oasis.

But the music I enjoyed showed that was far from the truth. One of the bands, Factory Acts, also makes an explicit connection to their city’s musical heritage while striking out in its own unique direction. “Factory Acts are a Salford based dark electro, alt-dance duo. We exist at the edge of the analogue-digital divide, sometimes dreaming, always dancing.” I’ll say that I love a band where the bass plays lead…

And let’s have some rock ‘n roll theremin playing! You’ll see some theremin action at this performance from the Pussy Riot Revolution Festival in 2013.

Another brilliant band was ILL, which happens to include Rebel Dykes co-director, Harri Shanahan. ILL plays queercore riot grrrl style, spikey and discordant and wonderful. If I may indulge in some old fogeyness, I’d also say they’re rather like a 21st-century Delta Five. You can check out their Housewives Trilogy EP and listen to their signature song below.

And here’s a live performance, also from 2013’s Pussy Riot Revolution Festival.

I only caught a bit of the Galivantes after our presentation. But I liked what I heard and would like to see them again.

The night finished in storming style with hip-hop band Ajah UK – here are a couple of videos from them – a live performance of “Money Ain’t Your Friend” and a performance of “Don’t Step on My Shoe”.

During the event, further news about the attacks in Lebanon and Paris was just filtering through. Because I was at a gig myself, I felt especially emotional hearing about the attacks at the Bataclan. Many of us were also concerned about how the horror of these attacks will be compounded with racism and attacks on civil liberties, as well as military action by governments that will result in many more deaths.

It seemed very important to keep making music wherever we are and to oppose suppression wherever it descends. Though much has happened, been written about and analysed since mid-November, as an immediate reaction this comment by a French woman living in the UK still nails it: “My heart is with the world, no borders, no hierarchy…”

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Guest post by Simon Bestwick: Masada in Yorkshire

I’ve known Simon Bestwick since 2010, when we both appeared in the same anthology – Never Again: Weird Fiction Against Racism and Fascism. Since then, his sharp and scathing Facebook posts have enlivened many a grey morning. And now he’s here on the second stop of his blog tour, writing about a post-apocalyptic tale that enthralled him as a teenager and continues to influence his work.
Simon is the author of Tide Of Souls, The Faceless and Black Mountain. His short fiction has appeared in Black Static and Best Horror Of The Year, and been collected in A Hazy Shade Of Winter, Pictures Of The Dark, Let’s Drink To The Dead and The Condemned. His new novel, Hell’s Ditch, is out now.

Brother in the landWritten in the 1980s, Robert Swindells’ Brother In The Land is set in the fictional Yorkshire town of Skipley in the aftermath of a nuclear attack

It’s told through the eyes of Danny Lodge, a teenage boy. His mother is killed in the attack, but his father, and his younger brother, Ben, have survived. There’s no sign of the authorities, and new subcultures are already emerging: the traumatised, near-catatonic Spacers; the ‘Badgers’ hiding in their fallout shelters; and the deranged cannibals called the Purples. When the authorities do show up, help is the last thing they provide.

The local Commissioner and his soldiers are establishing a feudal society: their HQ serves as their castle, the rest of the population as their serfs. Opposition arises in the form of a local smallholder, Sam Branwell, and MASADA, the Movement to Arm Skipley Against Dictatorial Authority. When Danny’s father is killed, Danny, Ben and Kim, a girl Danny’s own age, join him. Branwell is a kind and humane man; his second-in-command, however, is Keith Rhodes, Danny’s hated Games teacher from school, whose ruthlessness, and contempt for those he sees as weak, serve as both an asset and a liability.

MASADA overthrow the Commissioner, establishing a more just communitarian settlement. Crops are planted; Kim’s elder sister, Maureen, becomes pregnant, her child hailed as ‘the first of many’. For a while, there is hope.

But when international aid arrives in the form of the Swiss, they see only a Communist organisation and deprive them of weapons and transport, leaving the community isolated and defenceless in the face of the coming winter. Further blows come in rapid succession. Radioactive contamination causes their crops to fail. Rhodes and his men set off, ostensibly to search for supplies, but never return. The community begins to fall apart. Maureen gives birth; her child is born without a mouth, and dies almost immediately. Branwell dies the same night.

Danny remembers Holy Island, off the coast; clinging to the hope they can survive there, he sets off with Kim and Ben. He runs afoul of Rhodes; the former teacher prepares to kill him, but is shot down by Kim. Soon after, Ben dies of radiation sickness.

Brother In The Land is a bleak novel; it isn’t quite as in-your-face horrific as films like Threads (is anything as horrific as Threads?) or adult novels such as James Herbert’s Domain, but it’s more than harrowing enough.

However, unlike much post-apocalyptic fiction that takes pains to emphasise the appalling consequences of nuclear war, Brother In The Land isn’t content to simply leave its characters to suffer and struggle for survival, but asks instead what kind of a society we should strive to create. The social order which, according to conventional wisdom, should be the default in this kind of ‘survival situation’ – the authoritarian, militaristic one of the Commissioner and his men, where democracy and personal freedom are sacrificed in the name of security – is identified as pernicious and malign. Branwell’s community, democratic and consensual, is not only a viable alternative, but the only sane one.

In a film of the Mad Max variety, Branwell would be portrayed as well-intentioned but hopelessly idealistic, unable to realise his outdated Utopian ideals in the harsh realities of a fallen world; here, instead, he’s a wise, principled figure, a man of peace and reason who’s nonetheless clear-eyed about the need to overthrow the Commissioner. Swindells was an active member of the CND at the time, and continues to campaign on behalf of the Green Party; how much of him may have been in Branwell is hard to determine, but neither translate opposition to nuclear weapons into an unworkable pacifism. Instead they reluctantly accept revolution as a necessary tool in the absence of a peaceful alternative. What ultimately defeats him is the nature of the post-apocalyptic world itself: the crops would have failed whoever was in charge.

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Out now: discount this week at the Snowbooks website 

It’s a remarkable read for young people, and an extraordinary book that left a lasting impression on me. Its brutally honest depiction both of life in the aftermath and of the struggle to try and build a better society in the ruins is yet another of the influences on my new book, Hell’s Ditch.

The original novel – the one I read in my teens – ends with Danny leaving behind his account of what’s happened before setting off with Kim on what’s probably a doomed and futile quest for sanctuary. Swindells later added an additional, more optimistic final chapter, in which they reach Holy Island, find a community run along similar lines to Branwell’s, and manage to survive; by the end, Kim is pregnant, and the child, if it’s a boy, will be named for Ben. Both versions conclude with the same line: ‘…for little Ben, my brother. In the land.’

Simon Bestwick