Guest post by James Horrox
In his 1980 memoir Personal Copy, Ray Gosling recalls a lecture he gave to a group of Nottingham University architecture students sometime in the winter of 1964. Entitled ‘The Darkness of Virtue’, apparently in homage to Jean Genet whose work he was reading at the time, the lecture developed Gosling’s theory that all activities can be classified as either an orgy, a crucifixion or an abortion. By way of illustration he proceeds to unleash one of my favourite pieces of social commentary in the English language.
The following remarks appear in the context of a broader discussion of his and D.H. Lawrence’s differing sentiments on the ugliness of England’s industrial north. Whereas for Lawrence, the scars of the Industrial Revolution that mark the landscape of Lancashire, South Yorkshire and the Midlands are a blight on England’s once green and pleasant land, for Gosling, they are scars that should be worn with pride. While I don’t particularly share this view, it’s an incredible piece of writing; but more than that, it provides a way of understanding, a way of seeing, which departs in a potentially fruitful way from standard academic pleonasm to offer a valuable, if unorthodox framework of analysis.
“The slum is awful,” Gosling writes, “but it has a purpose, it is a something, as a crucifixion is an event. There may be no meaning to it, but there is an order, a purpose, a pattern out of which, as in death, there is comfort. The magic of darkness.”
And so we (I) can turn our crucified towns, on wicked rainy days, like Bilston and Bacup, Blackwood and Ilkeston into a romance, tragic and solemn, merry and bright notwithstanding the ugliness. A crucifixion is a world that can be so black that when a break comes, a tear of goodness, it shows. When God pricks the black out, the light can be so bright, angelic, pure, white, innocent, wise and beautiful. Slums have been noted as milky ways of good company, of comradeship, life and laughter, with real people, helping hands in times of trouble.
A crucifixion is a grand anachronism: an event or a place so ugly that it gains a gripping fascination. It fills the eye and moves receptive organs. Life in it is bleak for, however many stars of goodness, no milky way ever shines like the sun. Stars only shine because of the darkness. A crucifixion is like the Church of England prayer book used to be – during a service, moving and emotional and they let you say “Amen” at the end of the vicar’s prayer.
A crucifixion is a graveyard service, the rough and tumble of working in a factory; death; black blood; Dracula; the formal dance; the narrow canyons of a manufacturing district or the City of London, with workrooms between the monumental tombstones – in memoriam; the sweatshops of Queen Victoria’s reign; the reasons for Karl Marx, like Scrooge, Dickensian – and if you cleaned its buildings would they not fall apart? The Ritz, a grand hotel, a very posh district, a Mayfair of rich folk, of villas in mock gothic glory, private roads and pomp, hypocrisy and poverty. The Tatler, The Field and The Gun. A Rutland flat hat. The foxhunt; a backyard knife fight; the formal restaurant meal. A mug in the greasy spoon transport café; a pawnbroker. A boarding house breakfast at Blackpool; the stock exchange. Coronation Street; a gentleman’s smoking room club. The entire nineteenth century; the pub wedding party. Pit tips at Gedling; untidied heritage; Liverpool. The Trip to Jerusalem; traditional bookshops; backstreet life. Steptoe and Son – I would later have added Alf Garnett and Enoch Powell. Indoor public baths. The bell on an alarm clock.
All these things, Gosling writes, have style and purpose, and “manners” to their purpose. “You feel that if you hate them, they will hate you back. They make you feel something.” As time rolls on, and as these things gradually become memories, we come to feel a certain affection for them: “We prize our crucifixions: with all their faults, all the misery they caused, they were as much our history as the palaces of the Czars, preserved by the Soviet Russians.” Thank God Lawrence didn’t live to see the England that emerged in their place, Gosling muses: “our modern world of neutered non-events and plastic non-life”. Here, now, we have “exchanged the animal for the vegetable for the mineral. Exchanged the crucifixion for an abortion.”
An abortion is tasteless, has no smell because the room’s anaesthetised. You can’t hate it, you can’t love it… It has no aesthetic, it is an anaesthetic. […] It is giving a man a bath, a toilet, hot and cold, central heating, television and taking away his freedom without putting him in prison. Today we have the technological, scientific and human resources we need to make our lives more exciting, more free, full and happy than they have ever been. And no Big Daddy – no need for the rich man to overlord you from his castle… We are all equal. Life can be smooth. We shall neuter industrial horrors and call work play.
[…] Our towns are becoming places where we meet only by design. There is little accident, little haphazard or chance encounter. We’re becoming so we don’t have to touch or smell each other. A city without Crucifixion or orgy: without either purpose or meaning of a kind that can be immediately understood. Castrated of any spontaneous excitement, any love by people across section lines. This is what I call an abortion: a non-life. It is as modern as the hour…
An abortion is a clean kitchen. A new town. Police panda cars. Good television. Chinese restaurants. Suburbs. Coventry precinct. Industrial museums. Muzak in the crematoria. Preserved heritage. The milk bar. Bully Butlin. Net curtains. Hire purchase. A bypass. The lido. Love with a contraceptive sheath. The Soviet Union. The architecture of the Co-op. A motorway caff.
Maybe these notions are merely notions, says Gosling: “not a truth but a party game.” Certainly, the academic world would have little time for such poetic phraseology. But poetic modes of expression (poiesis – “to create”) should by no means be summarily discarded as a form of understanding, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, or indeed any other discipline which claims to study human experience – social or otherwise – whose subject is by definition fluid, protean, largely non-rational, and in a state of constant mutation. True, such an analysis will never be “precise” in any formal sense, but the tools provided by poetry (metaphor, simile, imagery…) are capable of activating a great deal of content in very few words, in a way in which the turgid prose demanded of traditional academic analyses cannot.
Gerard Manley Hopkins used the terms ‘inscape’ and ‘instress’ to refer respectively to “the unified complex of characteristics that give each thing its uniqueness and that differentiate it from other things”, and “the force of being which holds the inscape together, or the impulse from the inscape which carries it whole into the mind of the beholder”. These essential features of a phenomenon can never be grasped without adopting an intellectual posture to the greatest extent possible in harmony with the phenomenon itself. This is precisely what is gained when we eschew, as Gosling does, a mode of expression that strives for objectivity, detachment and precision, in which words are corralled into singularity of meaning, denuded of their power to move the reader and stir feeling and memory.
On the other hand, Gosling suggests, “[m]aybe all I said was life should be fun and let ourselves be open. Fill all your holes fabulously, said Mr Genet. There can be no code of rights, no bill of liberties. What life should be is an orgy.”
An orgy is the life of an English gentleman in the eighteenth century. Tom Jones and good Queen Anne. An orgy is infectious: everyone joins in. You do the hokeykokey and you shake about. The whole of the eighteenth century. The night Forest won the cup. (Until the police arrested H.H. – that was a crucifixion.) Disco dancing when it’s gone a little wild. The Wine Lodge on a Saturday when the trio plays. A pub crawl. The piano at the back bar of the Napier. Mr Jackson, the grocer’s shop on Piccadilly. A delicatessen: an old open market square: a coaching inn: Goose Fair: Christmas: Lyon’s tea shop: Woolworth’s normally: an Indian restaurant because you get some taste: a hot sensation: Petticoat Lane: Sneinton Market: fast trains with buffets: Skegness on Bank Holiday: The cremation of Nehru. […]
An orgy is an event, a fiesta, something fabulous. (How awful those words were to become.) We have yet to learn, us English, that pleasure is to be taken. Every freedom we have is licensed, and we worry if to enjoy ourselves is in order. Licenses are abortions.
James Horrox is a freelance editor, translator and occasional writer, originally from the north of England, now based in Los Angeles. He has taught at Manchester University, the University of Salford and the Open University, and published on various humanities and social science subjects.