Who is Stewart Home?
Aline of brightly painted stone cottages, out there at the end of the world, beyond Allihies in West Cork. The cottages have been extensively tampered with, knocked through, until they form a single unit, set square to the prevailing on-shore winds. The occupier, New York-born to a childhood in John Cheever commuting country, now reinvented as a Vietnam-vintage Irish citizen, removes all the offending oil paintings from the wall: jewelled landscapes in oil; lively, naive renderings of the headland on which the cottages have been built. Expressionist weather systems have been brought indoors, a wall of light in the smokey darkness. These endearing celebrations of place glisten in the firelight, when the rock fields they represent are lost in the inevitable sea-fret, the mist drifting down from the hills.
But they have to go, these images. They have to be stacked away in the reserve collection, along with the Fontana, the emulsion-on-hardboard multi-head portraits on which a generation of uncatalogued white moulds are breeding. The manifestos have been composed. It’s the time of the Art Wars (1990-93), and Tony Lowes, Philosopher, asserts that ‘to save the starving we must give up art.’ Wittgenstein, apparently, was of the same mind. That’s what it says on the stickers: ‘Problems are solved not by giving new information, but by re-arranging what we have always known.’ Tony has already sent out the yellow cards announcing the ‘Give Up Art Exhibition’. Art, being proscribed, is good news for the provincial printers; a blizzard of exposition is immediately required. The walls of the cottage are bare, the shutters barred. The extended family, in their isolation, out on the frontier, are into the golden hour of The Searchers. There’s nothing to do but wait for nightfall, the first yelps of the raiding party.
Meanwhile, the nearest neighbours (the only neighbours), are actually, so it seems, encouraging their horses to splash-manure the close-cropped grass, right in front of the cottages – and the twin sons of the strikers, primed, are waiting their chance to scoop the mess, still steaming, onto a shovel, so that it can be deposited right back on the doorstep of the equestrian scab. Feelings run deep. Bad karma between old comrades in pharmacology: the silence of the lambent. Buddhist hit-squads on the loose. Incidents with outdated firearms, spectacular curses thrown away in a Force Nine gale. The innate violence of the geology has been absorbed into a brooding, vengeful meditation: the Lincoln County range wars restaged as a blood-feud between those who have been artful enough to give up art (essentially, Tony Lowes) and the others. All the others. The ones without a slash of dollars, the ones with paint on their hands, clay behind then fingernails: a loose confederation of marginalists, New Age Romantics dug in against all reason. It’s hard, the weather and the landscape are final statements, stronger than any of them. A shaft of light, breaking suddenly from a mattress of cloud, empties their heads of theory. If all art activity on the Cod’s Head peninsula ceased – thirty years having produced two fragmentary travel journals, a terse culling from Wittgenstein, a children’s book (‘appeals to emotion more than to intellect’, San Fiancisco BEEF), and a plastic fortune-telling device derived from Raymond Lull – who would notice? Who noticed when it was in spate? An art strike in West Cork is a fantastic notion. West Cork is an art strike. West Cork is weather. Neither, unfortunately for the postman facing a six-mile yomp over mud and pebbles, is the strike an absolute. The documentation of nonactivity is necessarily extensive: tapes, stickers, black rubber balloons with ‘short philosophical slogans imprinted on them’. Mail art is basically junk mail without the production values. But it keeps Lowes in touch with a network of global collaborators, a conspiracy of the unheard, and with one man in particular, the sharp-witted London activist Stewart Home.
Home, in stark contrast to the brothers on the Celtic fringe, was a dynamo of invention, recycling Dadaist provocation into fugues of inspired counter-terror, then moving on. A suspicion lingers in the scorch marks that Home’s major project is Stewart Home: keeping his intelligence alive, gelling his retaliation in first. Home’s The Art Strike Papers are the ones you’ll find in Compendium Bookshop. The man who composes the post-humous testament controls history. In the fraternal spirit of a self-confessed plagiarist, Home lets it be known that the whole thing was his theft in the first place, lifted from Gustav Metzger, who outlined the original proposal in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition ‘Art into Society/Society into Art’ at the ICA in 1974.
But the oral tradition is still the favoured one in the far West. Mrs Christa Lowes is a formidable presence, a woman of power, part Native American, part Texas oil. She doesn’t have much truck with revisionism. The past, for her, was last night. And she regrets it. Asked for her opinion of Stewart Home, who she never met, she got it down to a single word: ‘Asshole!’
For a more rounded sense of the lad it’s a good idea to catch his stage act. Fists clenched, tense but unafraid, he launches himself out of the shadows and onto the platform. At 32, the former boot boy was a man among men. Or, that’s how Richard Allen might choose to break in a new face in one of his New English Library Skinhead shockers. It’s an Allen pulp hologram that Stewart Home is impersonating. But impersonation is too weak a term for this stranglehold on the mike. It is more like a willed act of occult possession: William Blake becoming Milton so that he can recompose the older poet’s faults. Home, over-age, is an envenomed revenger, fast as flame, burning up the feeble avatars of Allen’s formulaic prose – letting the ghosts through, the instigators of riot.
Single button strategically undone at the throat of the small-check Ben Shermans, slippery bomber jacket zipped to the V, No 1 crop eliding to suedehead: the performance of a performance. Stewart Home rampaging from the cover of No Pity. The tasty venue? ‘Upstairs at the Garage’, an evening of sponsored disobedience, just off Highbury Corner. The mob of liggers sweating in this toilet-box, slopping up orthodox doses of the black stuff, are confronted by an ironic account of the Class Warrior on the toot. And some of them don’t like it, they are there for the sounds, the freeform headaches. They didn’t palm their complimentary tickets for this filth. The cold sober rush of Home’s amphetamine prose is delivered, with no prompts, straight into their faces, in a word-perfect articulation of the printed page. No fumbling with sheets of paper, no mumbled apologies – the business. There’s been nothing in the annals of performance art to match this tension since Jack the Hat barracked Dorothy Squires in the same gaff, back in the Sixties. The dump was known then as The Tempo and fronted by Freddie Bird, a well-respected face, who witnessed the current Mr Squires (a pre-Bond Roger Moore) doing a runner, before the bouncers moved in.
Home’s praxis is the stuff of London: confrontation, violence, ‘the poetry of the inarticulate’. He was born on the southern fringes of Merton (close to the parklands once tended by the bucolic poet Chris Torrance), then transplanted to Notting Hill (crucible of all the counter-culture follies he was later to deride). An instinctive autodidact, Home was soon weeviling through bookstall fodder, from skins and sorts and bikers to the half-forgotten magi of the Gothic, to Black Mask, Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, punk, Situationism, Lettrisme, autistic and apocalyptic surrealism, and any other ‘ism’ that could be gutted and turned to advantage. The apprenticeship was over: ‘I ceased to be a Neoist and moved to Stoke Newington.’ stoke Newington, grudgingly admitting the very different agendas of E.A. Poe and the dissenting double-agent Defoe, was a kind of Interzone between the brazen hustle of Dalston and the embattled privacies of Hasidic Stamford Hill. The sprung ribs that split away from Stoke Newington Road concealed nuclear pockets in the secret history of our culture: Alexander Baron’s The Lowlife (1963), set in a terrace off Amhurst Road, which was where the poet Tom Raworth (‘Raworth is the man in the Island with the word in his mouth’ – Ed Dorn) operated in his Matrix Press days. A few hundred yards to the north Jack McVitie attended his farewell party in Evering Road. By the time that Home moved in, the cells of the Angry Brigade had given place to a slightly-peeved raft of left-inclining journos and TV researchers trawling the kite shops and kitsch huts of Church Street. There were also a couple of surviving barrack pubs that gave house room to the more imaginative Class War tendency.
Hackney was the logical progression: straight down, out of the fondue into the furnace. Home has managed a ten-year tour of duty, and Hackney, in return, has provided him with his richest material. A seething nexus of contraries, warring factions, stone-crazy extremists, spiritually refined storm-troopers, doctrinally-costive freethinkers, junkies, dysfunctionals, sour gays, art trash, all competing for Space on the spectral airwaves with the revenants of their long-dead predecessors. There were abundant squats, good property rotting into the swamps, housing co-operatives scammed by Buddhist operators, conceptual gangsters, bent freemasons dabbling in psychic geography, and bureaucratic incompetence and corruption on an Otto Dix scale. Home had simply to tune himself in and let rip. The books wrote themselves. He was the most effectively invisible provocateur since Alexander Trocchi quit the scene.
The art of the Thatcher era, as Home recognised, was the art of the proposal, the preemptive handout. The actual event or manifestation was usually no more than the excuse for some lively post-mortem documentation. We’re talking audiences that could be counted on the hands of one of the X-ray martyrs. Audiences that were not sure if they’d witnessed a performance or a road accident. Nobody remembers whether they were actually there or whether they read about it later. Found objects, xeroxes of empty rooms in which nothing was about to happen, were part of the overall strategy. Much of which seems, in retrospect, designed for the promotion of the alien consciousness that is sometimes known as Stewart Home. If such a creature exists in the real world. And is not a multiple, a brand name like ‘Karen Eliot’ or ‘Monty Cantsin’. This is that disputed territory where art activism doubles with the traditional anonymity of the serial pulps, where the austere gamesmanship of Marcel Duchamp parallels the mercifully bestowed pseudonyms of the Sexton Blake Library.
Take the cover shot on Red London, Home’s most recent publication. Is the Home who poses on the Northern Sewage Outfall (cropped and tilted against a brutal geometry of spikes and pylons) the author throwing a moody, or is he deconstructing the classic NEL ‘Skinhead’ saga? The photographer. Marcel Leilenhof, is far too good for cosy mass-market dreck. Their skins always looked like office-boys kitted out from a Littlewoods catalogue. The Home image is too intense and resolved for pastiche, the location is too well chosen. The identity that is pantomimed is a quantum leap from the black-clad Futurist doing interesting things with a glass of water on the dustwrapper of Defiant Pose. Home’s impersonation is uncanny enough to land him with primary aggression on the Teviot Estate – where the unsophisticated stone-throwers haven’t bothered to keep up with the latest bulletins from the Frankfurt School.
South of the Teviot the game gets darker, you’re moving towards the Island, that sunless remnant overshadowed by the vanity of Canary Wharf; dead-end wards targetted by Derek Beackon and his lumpen followers. The heartlands of blood and bullshit. Here the risks for the photographer are of a different order, as Leo Regan discovered: ‘The more I got into it, the more complex it got ... you find yourself offering to stand bail for someone who has been involved in a vicious, unprovoked attack against a group of Asian waiters. That’s when my head began to ache.’
Regan’s photo-essay, Public Enemies, engages with the skinhead mythos in a way that is very different from the splash headline moralising of Richard Allen or the joyous agitprop riffs of Stewart Home. What he uncovers is the bleak domesticity of paranoia, the open-mouthed (anti-semitic sinus trouble) yawn of disbelief. The ‘you what?’ scowl of endemic suspicion. The Oi rictus. This BNP rump can’t called political in any real sense; they feed on anxiety, a childlike nostalgia for flags and slogans. They are only tolerated because they excuse subtler corruptions, elements that can portray them as cloven-hoofed monsters of the coming apocalypse, while themselves playing the race card at every possible opportunity. The skins are botched Little Englanders with no England left, internal exiles with zero status. Strip away the comforting uniforms and you have unreconstructed Tebbitry – without gold half-moon specs.
Regan’s album playfully catches the skins at their New Man duties, bent over an ironing-board or mooching through a Municipal Gallery (in the expectation of being eavesdropped by Alan Bennett?). The women bring in the wages by running the claims desk down at the alternate SS (Social Security).
This is a tribe of scapegoats by appointment to the culture at large, boastful losers. They are decadents, style-warriors, spending more time under the clippers than Barbara Cartland’s poodles. Self-mutilation is their fetish, head to toe tattoos: the DIY chapter of sado-masochism. They have chosen to become part of the decaying city, treating their own flesh like the walls of an underpass, inking it with misconceived graffiti. They rubbish themselves, literally. An ugliness theatrical enough to provoke hate, the element by which they are defined. They are outcasts, keepers of a flame the size of a gutted matchstick. Their beliefs are irrational, occult. They exist for the ruck, the shock of enlightenment, with no future, no afterlife. Regan’s essay provides a Pooteresque celebration of their routines, but the accurate record would be the mugshot, the surveillance footage through which they slouch, weathered to the murk of low-pressure urbantism, recognised and identified as individuals only when required as evidence by the prosecution.
Home was not interested in simply xeroxing the demonology of the skinhead. Plagiarism not pastiche was his bag (in high art they call it ‘selective quotation’ or ‘homage’). Having sampled Peter Cave’s biker novelettes, and the works of Mick Norman, Alex R. Stuart and Thom Ryder, he nominated the 18-volume Richard Allen Bildungsroman as his template. Delivered from the bourgeois neurosis invention (the demand for fresh ‘product’), his charged and spiteful prose could repossess the reactionary melancholy of Allen’s paperback originals. He could subvert Allen’s mechanistic cynicism with a parodic menu of violence and polymorphous perversity. The NEL hack fed into his terse (never more than fifty thousand words) fabulations a meltdown of tabloid horror: the metafiction of misrepresented event chopped into blocks of X-ray prose, with just enough narrative spit to link sub-cathartic eruptions of mayhem. Allen was never more than a cod moralist, directing his female victims towards curiously relieving acts of masochism: ‘the woman would be subjected to extremes of intercourse.’ His underlying programme was fascistic; having at the outset distanced himself from the furies he was arousing in his school-gate clients (‘In the interests of sanity let no one be under the mistaken impression that the writer sympathises with antisocial behaviour, cultism or violence for the sake of violence’), he later welcomed the status that a ‘top ten’ paperback conferred. His authority figures are remote but benevolent, Old Bill as unreal as Dixon of Dock Green doing it all by the book, feeding tea to the cop-killing teenage psycho Joe Hawkins. (‘Seriously, though, I’d like to see what a dictator could do in this country. Slums wiped out, harsh measures to curb the grab-all boys, savage sentences for injury to persons, hanging for child rapists ... the birch for young offenders like these skinheads.’)
Stewart Home, reclaiming the primitive energy of the genre, feeds into the impoverished form anarchic tremors of pornography, the necrophile city aroused by its own dead tissue. He intercuts orgasmic spasms with improving passages from Marx, Hobbes, Richard Jefferies – as antidotes to premature ejaculation. Or he spices the diminishing returns of onanism, serial buggery and coprophilia, with raptures read aloud from Hartmann the Anarchist – who strafes the Thames from his airborne condom-dirigible.
Richard Allen, laureate of Plaistow, laboured to pervert the last gasp of the proletarian novel (no longer sexy enough for hardback publication), while cultivating a stockade in deepest Gloucestershire. With what the poet Paul Holman very perceptively describes as ‘the genuine pulp writer’s trance’, Allen’s cutups of tabloid scare stories did achieve moments of prophetic vision. The shamamstic fireplay of a consciousness at the end of its tether, written out. His suedeheads of the early Seventies, boot boys travestied in mohair, moved in on the Stock Exchange: the first jackals of the Greed Generation (‘an antisocial, anti-everything conglomerate affecting status as their protective cover whilst engaging in nefarious pursuits more savage, more brutal than other cultists we have seen rise – and fall – in this past decade’).
So Richard Allen is the one to blame, the tribal magician whose power of ‘seeing’ brought fiction to life – the knuckleheads in Savile Row suits of the Thatcherite freemarket. Even the Cotswolds, where Allen hid himself away as a country squire with a secret life, suffered as its energy field was warped by the Great Ear of Cheltenham, the hut system of Anglo-American spookery, tappers and buggers who feel obliged to record everything. Electronic abortions, misedited sound-bites, bred and spilled: the corpse gardens of Gloucester, a cult of Hell’s Angels, racist shenanigans in local politics, meningitis, necrotising fasciitis. The birthplace of Brian Jones. The malign triangulation of royal residences.
Meat and drink to Home who is gleefully stomping the bollocks out of what he perceives to be an effete and self-regarding culture. He gives the name of the professionally enraged right-wing turncoat, Paul Johnson, to the antihero of Pure Mania – a priapic chancer who dabbles in video porn while collecting his small business enterprise allowance. He floats a hymn of praise to the Docklands Light Railway on its fantastic shunt through Image City by populating its driverless carriages with hot sorts who thrust their phone-numbers into the bulging pockets of Johnson’s sta-press strides. Home, in his delicate madness, wants to fist all the fat-cat totems, to play god with such composites as ‘Marion Calder’, to dance on the grave of suicided literary novelists, pack the Booker banquet with vagrants.
Naturally, the very people he abuses most are the ones who rush to embrace him. Home represents that ‘edge’ they need for their jaded publishing lists. The brighter young editors beg for typescripts (immaculate and camera-ready: Home is an anarchist with an answering-machine and an ex-agent). When the shock wears off, they bottle out, make their apologies and leave, fax back a wrist-slap for his ill-mannered presumption, the lack of coherence.
It’s an exercise in futility to complain that Home’s novels (which should in any case be read as a single sequence) lack depth, characterisation or complex plots: that is the whole point. The project operates within its contradictions, subverting the spirit of redundant industrial fiction, while honouring the form. The blagger’s homage. Crystals of sex/violence decorate the text at regular intervals – the distance between them, like the boastfully conjugated male organs, can be measured in inches. Even the lyricism is strictly disciplined. Incidents of sexual congress could be rubber-stamped: ‘DNA codes were being scrambled and unscrambled across the muscular structure of his bulk ... Together they had reached that peak from which man and woman can never jointly return.’ Time is saved. The vanity of ‘originality’ is circumvented.
Home’s response to the carping of the clerks is simple: ‘The only character in my books is the place itself, London.’ He could be quoting from the poet Stephen Rodefer: ‘My programme is simple: to surrender to the city and survive its inundation.’ Home’s language feeds on metropolitan restlessness, movement, lists of trains and buses, gigs in pubs, rucks outside phone kiosks, the epiphany of the grease caff. (He recalls sitting in one of his Soho favourites, watching in fascination the trembling hands of recently-serviced businessmen, trying to get themselves straight, scarcely able to bring a cup of tea up to their mouths.)
The city of memory is defined by its fugitive bibliography (‘a complete set of Petra Christian ... the likes of Abe Merit, Clark Ashton Smith, C.L. Moore, Sax Rohmer, H. Warner Munn and William Hope Hodgson ... an Australian edition of Beyond the Barrier of space by Pel Torro’) or by the brands of whisky it takes to energise the drifter, the psychic geographer. Decisions as crucial as compass-bearings taken at the crossroads. Home’s maniacs are all ‘100 Pipers’ men (the spirit of Richard Allen) – where the master of the roman noir, Derek Raymond, doses his nameless policeman on regular shots of Bell’s (‘ring-a-ding’). Raymond’s London is an Alzheimer’s fog trespassed by vividly realised instants of clarity (taste, touch, smell). The two writers divide across the generation gap. ‘100 Pipers’ is a conceit, a literary allusion; Bell’s means just what it says.
Free-associating explorations of urban surrealism have carried Home a long way out. There are those who see the Teviot Estate in Poplar as part of ‘Hither Scotland’: the eastern approaches splitting into defensive blocks, obedient to the kind of astrological patternmaking K.E. Maltwood proposed in her Guide to Glastonbury’s Temple of the Stars. Brief eruptions of BNP activity in Millwall teased the more intrepid photo-thieves into Brick Lane (an entirely different scenario) for what seemed like the underwritten rehearsal of a Homean stand-off, the sort of thing Red London would have sorted out in a couple of brisk paras. The mysteries of the Poplar zodiac remained largely uninvestigated until they came to the attention of a more persistent breed of journalist, stringers from the London Psychogeographical Association.
Stewart Home, having banged out his regular two thousand words per session, acts as an ambulant distributor of libertarian and polemical leaflets and chapbooks. He sacks the stuff around town, dropping it where it will do most damage. The fliers of the London Psychogeographical Association (emanating from Kingsland High Street) are the most provocative of these throwaways. In one editorial (‘Nazi Occultists Seize Omphalos’) they explain, very persuasively, by map and triangulation, how Derek Beackon (the name itself is suspect) made his bid for power by subverting the great Greenwich leyline as it runs down from the statue of General Wolfe (one of the introducers of freemasonry into the North American continent), through the Queen’s House and over the Isle of Dogs. Beackon, ‘an adept of Enochian magic ... devised by John Dee’, sited his ‘lair’ at Mallon House, Carr Street, Limehouse, so that he could ‘tap into the powerful leyline running through his front room’. The Isle of Dogs was already a vortex of negatives, a black hole created by the deliberate misalignment of Canary Wharf; an anomaly in which any mistake could breed. Ragnarok waiting to happen.
The years of the Art Strike were fruitful ones for Stewart Home: the novel Defiant Pose in 1991, a book of short routines, No Pity in 1993, not forgetting the Neoist Manifestos/Art Strike Papers also in 1991. Tony Lowes held true to the purity of silence, weather watching, tending the drowned asparagus beds. He had gradually cut out all distractions, the long-meditated fictional projects that might by now have swelled to a Vollmannesque outpouring: research, the heaping of image on image, travel, pain. It was over. He built himself a cupboard into which he could withdraw to plug into the Net, cyberspace – where all lines lead to Switzerland. The trip at your fingertips.
These days Tony concerns himself with accumulating information about Victorian water-gardens, with conservationism, saving the Cod’s Head from the bulldozers of the developers. Visitors come away with the T-shirts. The paintings are back on the wall.
The books discussed in this article include:
The Complete Richard Allen, Vols I-III (ST Publishing, £6.95 each, 1992, 1993, 1994,0 9518497 1 9, 0 9518497 5 1 and 0 9518497 7 8).
The Festival of Plagiarism by Stewart Home (Sabotage, 40 pp., £1.95, 1989, 0 9514417 0).
Pure Mania by Stewart Home (Polygon, 217 pp., £7.95, 1989, 0 7486 6035 6).
Defiant Pose by Stewart Home (Peter Owen, 167 pp., £13.95, 1991, 0 7206 0828 7).
Neoist Manifestos/The Art Strike Papers by Stewart Home (AK Press, 112 pp., £5.95, 1991, 1 873176 15 5).
No Pity by Stewart Home (AK Press, 144 pp., £5.95, 1993, 1 873176 46 5).
Red London by Stewart Home (AK Press, 160 pp., £5.95, 1994, 1 873176 12 0).
Public Enemies by Leo Regan (Deutsch, 112 pp., £12.99, 28 October 1993, 0 233 98830 0).