On tribal instincts and narrative dimensions
In an earlier era of tribal division and social collapse, Nile Rodgers memorably reminded us that ‘these are not good times.’ Though even he might be hard pressed to explain how they have subsequently got quite this bad.
It’s a vexing issue – tribalism, that is. The isolation of self behind a rigidly drawn perimeter fencing of fear and more often than not loathing. And it’s also clearly gatecrashed any cosy liberal consensus (if such a thing ever even existed) about society, progress and the future in the wealthier bits of the 21st century.
Which is not to say that it’s anything new either.
Atavism, the tribal instinct, has always been with us. But how to respond when it resurfaces in peculiarly unkempt, intolerant form, and in societies which had evidently been kidding themselves all along that they’d consigned this sort of thing to a distant past?
The other difficulty of course is that no one faction has a monopoly on this guttural default. It’s a pincer movement from both Right and Left, and faced with that, perhaps refusing to be co-opted can start to take on the trappings of a revolutionary act.
So much for context then. But what about the actual process? How did that backdrop, and some of its troubling, often confusing currents find their way into the novel Category Unknown?
There’s usually a moment when the honeycomb buzz of newspaper headlines, or these days just as likely of social media, starts to bleed into the background dissonance of white noise. The mind tunes out as the pop cultural current flatlines. Anyway, long story short, a version of that, both the venting and the tuning out, seemed to undergird the initial impulse behind the writing of what would eventually become Category Unknown.
Certain events in the wider public realm – Brexit, Trumpism – also clearly acted as some sort of a catalyst. These political eruptions laid bare faultlines which in truth had always been there in both polities.
All manner of folk were no longer shy (if indeed they ever were) about saying who they felt ‘belonged’ and who didn’t in this hoary old/new landscape. Go Home or Face Arrest, a Home Office remix of that timeworn classic, ‘Why don’t you go back to wherever you came from?’ But even that was barely the tip of the iceberg. An unholy confection of empire revivalists, conspiracy theorists and straightforwardly white supremacists were now explicitly setting the agenda in ways which all but their most zealous Conservative or Republican forebears might have baulked at.
But to return for a moment to that question of belonging. In a local register it seemed to hark back to the garden variety playground bluster of, ‘Where are you from?’ followed up by, ‘No, where are you really from?’ if the interim response was ‘Lewisham’. That clearly wasn’t the answer being sought. Something else was evidently in play. And that something was usually a spurious notion of ‘race’ and place backed up by a dollop of class, though it could just as easily extend to other markers too. Hair colour, gender, sexual orientation. Take your pick really.
Back then the way around it was often through humour and no little style. How you carried yourself, the music you listened to, your sporting prowess. The list goes on. And it seems notable now that in this pre-social media yesteryear there was still a commons with the space to breathe and develop away from the eviscerating scrutiny of a non-stop commentariat. People fought and loved and suffered and thrived, just as they have always done, but a truer sense of the quotidian progress made could be more readily gauged in the unruly commons of nighttime, of sound systems, raves, football terraces. And in those places, the indices were often stylistic.
Skinhead to suedehead to soulboy to…something.
Where you were really from was about attention to detail.
You know the sort of thing.
Tribal markings for sure, just not the obvious ones. Which was rather the point being made. It’s not the tribalism per se that is the problem. It’s the utter lack of discernment in its latest iteration, characterised by a desperation to stake out exclusive terrain where in fact none exists, and the only real game in town is syncretism. And when the town in question is the proud mongrel refuge of London, the absurdity of those manufactured tribalisms is writ even larger. The People v The Elites. (Which people, which elites?) A dismal Manichaeanism largely evacuated of nuance, subtlety, or humour. Critically, of historical depth too. In other words of the very qualities which distinguish any vernacular culture worth its salt. Where was The Battle of Lewisham in all of this? Or Southall for that matter? Where were the dissident outbreaks of Jazz-Funk, 2 Tone, Jungle, Sam Selvon and of at least seventy years of being the street style capital of the world?
Somewhere in the words still gestating there must have lurked a latent desire to address the sheer scale of this absence. A reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way, with a nod to history as if to a trusted old friend. An invitation to cast the net wider, and cast one’s mind back.
The seeds of the 2008 Lehman collapse and the global financial crisis that followed were sown, after all, in an earlier historical phase of laissez-faire. The 1986 ‘Big Bang’ deregulation of the City of London. So it was to that social restructuring that the story turned. The big economic questions and the even bigger philosophical ones. Asked, if not always answered, by spivs, students, seekers. In the mix too, style, sex, and a mongrel south London.
What else made the cut in that scattershot of early thoughts?
Timecoded snapshots of social mobility to go with an ever ready social implosion.
Here was ambition understood by ordinary kids as its own portal to experience, though always representing something of a leap in the dark. In fact it was from just such an unstable equation that the book’s four main protagonists gradually emerged. They’re on the cusp of a changing world and often products themselves of social convulsions.
Attention to detail.
SUS laws, serious racial tensions and a pitiless economic environment ripe for Hobbesian predators. These are their growing pains. And it’s ambition which both carries them through the tumult and at other times sets them on a collision course with one another. There are no guarantees that they will succeed in their endeavours yet in very different ways they all make that leap into the unknown. Where they begin and where they end up is part of the wider story of change, at times fairly extreme, scorching its imprint on society at large.
The story served as a reminder that along with the deregulation of the public sphere which marked the Thatcher years, the most authentic urban enterprise zones could actually be found in the illicit nocturnal economy of leisure, pleasure and warehouse parties. Style, music and ambition went hand in hand, and as ever there were winners and losers in this nascent enterprise culture. A repurposed topography where history was already being supplanted by ‘experience’, the accent now shifting towards the individual and their atomisation into a basic unit of consumptive desire. ‘Lifestyle’ annexing that bit of politics previously given over to self-invention. An uneasy tango between entrepreneurialism and historical depth. Between those who were able to surf this speculative wave and those recast as remaindered stock. A dance as old as time, as old as this city itself.
Behold that topsy turvy world, the one which predates yet accurately predicts our current condition, where the algorithm is king and the soul is reborn as the ghost in the machine.
No question in this author’s mind that underpinning all of this was a certain distaste for the selective amnesia of most identity politics in its current iteration – in particular concerning a widespread inability or unwillingness on the part of its acolytes to draw upon well-established modes of radical collectivism. For instance upon the social breadth and pragmatic urgency of earlier Civil Rights, anti-racism campaigns, or long before that of their antecedents in the radical imprint of the Chartists, the Levellers, the Suffragettes and in any credible form of anti-imperialism, from C.L.R.James’ ‘Black Jacobins’ to the 19th and 20th century Indian independence movements. Equally, it’s hard to disregard the myopia of so many on the self-appointed ‘radical’ fringes in their failure to anticipate the predictable weaponisation of ‘white identity politics’ (as thinly veiled racism) by the canny and utterly ruthless ideologues of the Right. All of which begs the question: who would want to belong to either of these camps anyway?
Category Unknown emerged then as some kind of dissident fraction.
As a reminder of elsewheres, other times, when yes, people fought, and suffered, but sometimes also thrived as well.
Where the flipside of deregulation was a no-holds barred approach to culture, and life. And if there were casualties, then there were also many instances of culture, community, and love outliving the dismal Thatcherite encomium that ‘there was no such thing as society’. For all her best efforts there evidently was still such a thing, and the novel wanted to pay homage to that defiance, albeit against a backdrop of growing solipsism, and its eventual morphing into full-blown self absorption. Ironically enough the very qualities so prized today by iconoclasts and influencers alike.
Category Unknown is also a love letter to London and to what the poet/philosopher Fred Moten might term its ‘undercommons’. And if it started with distaste, as the story developed it headed somewhere else entirely. Perhaps it’s similar in intent to what those kids are doing. A leap in the dark without any preconceived idea of a final destination. Otherwise, frankly, why bother? A life with no mystery ain’t much of a life at all. And it’s certainly no fun, which, for all the challenges faced by the wider vernacular, was something it was never short of.
Style and music, Saxon Studio. Or soul and funk ‘all dayers’, a distant memory of Farahs, moody Lonsdale and repurposed ‘Recs’ (Recreation Centres). It’s the ritual spooling out with the anticipatory static on those old Streetsounds records, or the needle lifted for a rewind of the Dreadest cut. The recomposition of self for an everyday operating beyond a law of diminishing returns. Whereas the only shrunk-fit detail that actually mattered in this world was the art of ‘breaking seals’ by running one’s thumbnail across shrink-wrapped Japanese Jazz Funk imports.
Equally the story might just have been inspired by one of the many mixtapes held on to by this author through the tumult of life itself. Sonic portals to yesteryear, but with a residual current permanently in excess of the allotted 60 or 90 minutes. Corrupted soundtracks to memory itself; unreliable witnesses to life as non-linearity, as loop, but also as modernism, in all its glorious contradiction. For the mind pushes relentlessly forward even, perhaps especially, when the body is mired in customary idiom. Customs after all can be changed, but even an unwillingness to do so can generate its own type of creative frisson. And as with life, so it has been with the writing. Ultimately, nothing is wasted. Or in the immortal words of The Wire’s Lester Freamon: ‘All the pieces matter.’
Which brings us back full circle to where we began. To those tribal instincts and their narrative dimensions. Yet this time offered up as part of the cut and thrust of an unruly commons, quick with its hands but playful too. The dialectic, in a bespoke incarnation, with a timebending soundtrack and some moody sportswear thrown in for good measure. Growing pains and lives in flux. The very stuff of social drama really. And for this author at least, that gorgeous, rich confection felt like it contained all the ingredients for a story well worth telling. After that, it more or less wrote itself.