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Review: Jeremy Reed’s West End Survival KitAuthor: Simon Sellars • Feb 8th, 2010 •
Category: alternate worlds, biology, body horror, boredom, CCTV, celebrity culture, conspiracy theory, consumerism, cyberpunk, death of affect, entropy, Hawkwind, inner space, Lead Story, psychopathology, reviews, surrealism, surveillance, technology
Jeremy Reed at the JG Ballard Memorial, 2009. Photo: Rick McGrath.
West End Survival Kit, by Jeremy Reed. Furze Hill, Hove: Waterloo Press, 2009. ISBN: 978-1-906742-07-2.
JEREMY REED IS A HUGELY PROLIFIC poet, novelist, biographer and spoken-word musician, the author of 15 novels, 16 poetry collections and 14 works of non-fiction since 1984. Yet despite that phenomenal output, he remains an exile in British letters. According to Reed, ‘People have reacted so nastily to me and tried to airbrush me out of the picture… The establishment never forgave me, because I used to give readings in heavy make-up’. That’s not a working method that was ever going to appeal to Sir Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate, who famously dubbed Reed ‘that effete little pseud’. He also sledged him as the ‘David Bowie of the poetry circuit’, an especially backhanded insult, given Reed’s sartorial style and the fact that among his back catalogue are biographies on Lou Reed, Marc Almond and Brian Jones. In fact, the latter provided one very revealing insight into the mind of Jeremy Reed. Once asked what he thought was the defining moment of the 60s, he replied: ‘I’d say it was the first time Brian Jones wore a girl’s polka-dotted blouse. It had never been done before’. In the same interview, he derided ‘the barbiturate poetry of Andrew Motion and those post-Larkin poets. Very grey, very drab’. And so the stage is set.
Following the pattern of this exile, whenever there is talk about the latter-day British writers who enjoyed the friendship, patronage or thematic repertoire of J.G. Ballard, invariably the same names are mentioned: Will Self and Iain Sinclair. Not Reed. Yet Reed and Ballard enjoy a long and very intriguing relationship. Reed’s science-fiction novel Diamond Nebula (1994), set in the 23rd century, even featured a film-director character obsessed by Bowie, Ballard and Warhol:
Her eye was arrested by an open photograph album … David Bowie at the Rainbow Theatre, 1972; at the LA Forum in 1976; Hiroshima, 1973; LA Amphitheatre, 1974; Wembley, 1976: the images seeming to have been chosen for their visual diversity and metamorphoses. Over the page were weirdly angled shots of Ballard getting into his car at Shepperton after the publication of Crash; and then the publicity photographs of him that had appeared on the jackets of High-Rise and Myths of the Near Future, together with a series of solarized images in the manner of Man Ray, in which the writer’s head was superimposed on Brancusi sculptures. Cindy flicked through the obsessive preoccupations: Warhol screened by black glasses on a couch at the Factory, and then seen filming Edie Sedgwick and Gino Persicho in Beauty 2; and a few pages on, isolated, filming Chelsea Girls.
Jeremy Reed, Diamond Nebula.
These aren’t the ordinary images of Ballard (let alone Bowie) that get bandied about. They are cult snapshots, taken by a writer with a fan’s eye for obscure detail surrounding the object of worship. As an alternative biography, then, of its three avant-garde celebrities, Diamond Nebula is a tantalising work, drawing on Reed’s main obsessions: style, flashy pop, mutation (both psychic and physical), cult fame, inner space … and Ballard. In the preface to the book, Reed describes ‘Ballard as the chief proponent of the futuristic novel … seen as the person most receptive to occupying a colony that looks towards the arrival of mutants from another galaxy’. Reed talks of creating an environment in which ‘the external world provides a backdrop to the exploration of inner space, a vanishing-point rather than a structure for continuous reference’, and with further reference to the ‘geography of the unconscious’, it’s easy to realise the superficial similarities with Ballard’s own working methods and obsessions.
Jeremy Reed speaking to Nicky Singer at the ICA.
In interview, too, Reed always pays his dues, recording his writerly debt to Ballard’s ‘visionary present’ – an especial act of linguistic engagement that ‘transform[s] the universe into its imagined equivalent’ and provides an instruction manual in ‘blowing up the social structure’. He sees Ballard’s work as a hotwire to the pure, uncut imaginative spirit that also powers the work of Stephen Barber and Edmund White:
They all have that very charged language. When I began as a writer, Ballard was the writer who had a new language that I was looking for, the way he crystallised the modern world into images. It’s something that he has never lost. Ballard is not part of literature at any level, he’s got no concern about it at all. He’s a rogue gene which is what attracted me to him from the start. And work is all he is, what he writes is so integral to him. That’s all he does all day, write all day and live in Shepperton.
But the admiration cut both ways. According to Rick McGrath, Ballard provided blurbs for 12 of Reed’s books and wrote forewords to two others, more JGB endorsements than for any other writer. One of the forewords was for Reed’s latest collection of poetry, West End Survival Kit (2009), possibly the last writing Ballard had published, in which he enthuses about Reed’s ‘talent … almost extraterrestrial in its brilliance’. For Ballard, Reed is ‘Rimbaud reconfigured as the Man who fell to Earth, a visitor from deep space whose time machine was designed by Lautréamont and de Sade, and powered by the most exotic fuels the imagination has ever devised’. That’s a very dense sentence, pricking imagistic sensors of recognition in almost every one of its 36 words: Bowie, Roeg, symbolism, science fiction, surrealism, film, sadomasochism, inner space…
And so it is with these poems, which are compacted like diamonds, an intent signalled by this excerpt:
firing ideas at me like big hitters
for work we do
shape-shifting architecture into words,
the way 10 million atoms colonize
an inked full stop.
Jeremy Reed, ‘Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream’, West End Survival Kit.
The back cover gives no real description of the contents, save for general endorsements from a stellar cast: Ballard, David Gascoyne, David Lodge and Seamus Heaney. We are led to believe that this is a collection of free-standing poems, and reading them is simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. Reed is obsessed with both surface flash and the hidden layers of meaning inherent in modern urban life, with which we constantly negotiate and are in dialogue with: the meaning of ‘junk DNA’ and the enigma of Michael Jackson, the sigils in corporate signage, the mental cross-chatter engendered by rapid communications technology. His street-level descriptions are often as unfathomable as conspiracy theory, and shot through with a selection of barely glimpsed, constantly rotating characters (including a first-person narrator), invariably described within a mesh of techy jargon:
meditating in front of his mezzanine.
His girlfriend paints her toes
in Howard Hodgkin moods,
reads Holy Anorexia and grooves
at being air
she’s molecules wired to neuronal drive.
He’s into ‘dark matter’, lab neutrinos,
generating energy in the sun.
Jeremy Reed, ‘Astroparticle Physicist Chills’, West End Survival Kit.
The writing is a rush, a blur. It’s slippery, emphasised by quick-fire, three-line stanzas:
They share headphones on the new R.E.M.:
a shimmering slice of post-modern pop,
impersonal as an airport lounge,
riffy, mid-tempo anomie
for the 21st century.
He wears a Titian red Gucci jacket,
as though it’s cut out of the sun,
and she two dollops of mauve eye shadow
co-ordinating with her top.
Jeremy Reed, ‘Endgames’, West End Survival Kit.
Certain motifs begin to gestate a picture in the mind as you gradually learn through half-remembered, diaphanous glimpses that Mars and the moon have been colonised; dispossessed astronauts wander the Earth; drugs are rampant; and technological virtuality is encoded into the very fabric of everyday life. By the end, you are left with the inkling that the poems are perhaps not free-standing, but part of a continuous (albeit fractured) narrative, illuminated snapshots of a mordant near-future world seen from multiple, cross-linked perspectives. They could be interior hallucinations, or the exterior unspooling vision of CCTV cameras all over the city, but whatever they are, they are engendered by Reed’s very effective trick of repeating a motif, phrase or word from one poem to the next, but never more than two poems in a row. Subliminally, you become aware of a deep, unfolding narrative, even if consciously you assess that you are reading two poems with very different characters:
ten miles above Cape Canaveral.
He journeys back in his neurology
to pink skies over the oxygen plant,
graffiti discovered on a rock face —
RAD51D — the king’s returned —
and gantried higher up a gold statue
Jeremy Reed, ‘Red Planet Blues’, West End Survival Kit.
Someone’s got the dangling hexagonal
under scrutiny for cell death
like a registration number
on a top security Jeep.
She’s paid to disinform. Each day
Jeremy Reed, ‘Drug Giant PA’, West End Survival Kit.
Given all the Ballard associations, it’s tempting to read Ballardian themes into the work (the damaged astronauts fit well) and the densified prose method strives to convey as much meaning as the ‘condensed novels’ in The Atrocity Exhibition. Vaughan from Crash (and Atrocity) even makes an appearance, enmeshed in a shady deal with the clone of Princess Di:
H.R.H. has a contract out
on this blonde afterlife simulacrum:
Di as an endlessly repeatable clone.
Vaughan knows he’s watched. The Jeep outside
has on-board machine guns, a snoop
positioned in it with a cold black eye.
Jeremy Reed, ‘The Reckoning’, West End Survival Kit.
Jeremy Reed – photograph courtesy Waterloo Press.
But in the end, the most obvious reference point seems to be the glistening, cypher-filled, pop-artefact worlds of William Gibson. The characters in West End Survival Kit come on like Case from Neuromancer crashlanding in London (which has merged with Tokyo, as it did in Reed’s 2008 novel The Grid), as if Case was too burnt out to even care about fixing his damaged neurosystem, too jaded to even muster up any more passion for his beloved cyberspace. In her review of The Grid, Bidisha wrote that ‘one wishes Reed would produce a scholarly work about Jacobean theatre instead of an inexpert cyber-romp. His next work should be excellent, but it shouldn’t meddle with the future. Reed’s seriousness and intelligence emerge when he drops his coolness and cleaves to the past’. But this sounds more like the kind of genre snobbery Ballard was forced to endure when he, too, dared to write science fiction. Reed does post-cyberpunk very well: he has a real feel for the imagery, the characters and the worldview, and like both Gibson and Ballard, he is interested in the next 5 minutes rather than the next 500 years. For Reed, too, science fiction is the sociological study of the present. Yet he infuses this with his own ‘extraterrestrial’ brand of theatricality, poetic sensibility and mutant, gender-bending attitude to create a hybrid form. As science-fiction poetry, it recalls the work of Robert Calvert, the late Hawkwind lyricist and lead singer, and another tortured anti-hero whose own life story could easily inhabit the Reed pantheon.
Towards the end of West End Survival Kit, Reed ties it all up with two poems about, of all things, the history of Pink Floyd. And given all of the above, it makes perfect sense. As the poem identifies, the classic-era Floyd, despite being saddled with what people assumed was an intergalactic persona, was always more about inner space than outer (like Ballard’s anomie-infested astronauts), producing a brace of albums that reflected with sensitivity on battered individuals like their founder Syd Barrett, as in Wish You Were Here, and the assorted lunatics in the cast of Dark Side of the Moon. The Floyd poems make a fitting coda to Reed’s painful folio of snapshots from a numb world. They solidify his eulogy to people too disconnected, too exiled in their own minds to ever tread ‘meaningful’ paths through life, but who nonetheless retain a unique sense of self allied to their damaged intelligence:
Barrett’s the rock astronomer
boating the Cam’s lime green spine,
wristing downriver like a water-boatman
listening to voices, his schizophrenia
big in the mix
like invasive radio.
Echoing slide. It’s paranoia synthesised –
their moon trip – dark side in reverse.
Barrett’s still running through a corridor
As undertow, a brain damaged psycho.
The music road maps inner space.
It’s like a river knocking at the door.
Jeremy Reed, ‘Brain Damage: a short history of the Pink Floyd’, West End Survival Kit.
It’s out there somewhere, while the London rain
slashes the light-polluted scuzz,
wacks down fried leaves, keeps me inside
this rainy, orange October day,
retrieving the Floyd’s mission to locate
the alien in the psychopath.
Outside my window a wet jay
jabs at a red berry gash.
I go out on their dimension,
beamed by the music’s escalating curve,
back to my youth and Apollo
cargoing human hardware to the moon —
their weighted boots grating on dust,
Pink Floyd the terrestrial soundtrack
to space conquest, a white plateau
opening out to three astronauts
learning by hesitant degrees to trust.
Jeremy Reed, ‘Wish You Were Here’, West End Survival Kit.
West End Survival Kit is not wholly successful (although it’s pretty close). It briefly falls flat, for example, when Reed makes reference to ‘psychogeography’, a loaded concept degraded through cultural overuse that, although undoubtedly inherent within the work, sounds inauthentic when actually named and nudged up against his own dream geographies. Yet mostly, Reed’s innate ability to explore new genres, new forms and new plans of attack in the hope of creating something extreme and unique makes the work well worth reading. As Bidisha implies, it is probably this genre slippage that is the real cause of Reed’s exile, but somehow, given the figures with which he identifies, you get the impression that on some level that’s how he likes it.
‘Video surveillance sights the street. The city leaks pathology…’ We know exactly what Jeremy means, though we may never have thought of our everyday world in these terms. The poet is our extraterrestrial visitor, calmly surveying everything, the highspeed neural networks of his poetic gift assessing the landscape, making only the most important connections, linking the present moment to the most vital possibilities of itself … Use this volume of poems as a guide-book to the present, to the real world of possibility that most of us ignore. It’s the poet’s job to be a seer, to seize us by the shoulders and force us to out-stare the mirage. Reading these poems, I find myself marvelling at their cleverness and brilliance, and saying: ‘…yes, yes, absolutely.’
J.G. Ballard, foreword to West End Survival Kit.
West End Survival Kit can be purchased direct from the publisher.
Jeremy Reed performing with Itchy Ear as The Ginger Light, ‘a progressive poetry act’.
Jeremy Reed – photographer(s) unknown.
Thanks to Shane for help with research for this article.
Bidisha (2008). ‘The Grid, by Jeremy Reed’. The Independent, 28 September.
Carter, Randolph (2006). ‘Dreaming with his eyes open’. 3am Magazine.
Lachman, Gary (2006). Jeremy Reed: A supernova in orange and purple ink. The Independent, 30 July.
Reed, Jeremy (1994) Diamond Nebula. London: Peter Owen.
———- (2008). West End Survival Kit. Furze Hill, Hove: Waterloo Press.
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