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Always Yearning for the Time That Just Eluded Us

Mark Fisher16 January 2017

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Mark Fisher's Introduction to Savage Messiah by Laura Oldfield Ford captured a vision of London paved over by neoliberalism, but where glimmers of a different world were visible through its cracks. We share the text in memory of his life and work – his brilliant, expansive writing. ‘Savage Messiah is written for those who could not be regenerated, even if they wanted to be. They are the unregenerated, a lost generation, ‘always yearning for the time that just eluded us’... So many dreams of collectivity have died in neoliberal London.’ 

‘I regard my work as diaristic; the city can be read as a palimpsest, of layers of erasure and overwriting,’ Laura Oldfield Ford has said. ‘The need to document the transient and ephemeral nature of the city is becoming increasingly urgent as the process of enclosure and privatisation continues apace.’ The city in question is of course London, and Savage Messiah offers a samizdat counter-history of the capital during the period of neoliberal domination. If Savage Messiah is ‘diaristic’, it is also much more than a memoir. The stories of Ford’s own life necessarily bleed into the stories of others, and it is impossible to see the joins. ‘This decaying fabric, this unknowable terrain has become my biography, the euphoria then the anguish, layers of memories colliding, splintering and reconfiguring.’ The perspective Ford adopts, the voices she speaks in – and which speak through her – are those of the officially defeated: the punks, squatters, ravers, football hooligans and militants left behind by a history which has ruthlessly Photoshopped them out of its finance-friendly SimCity. Savage Messiah uncovers another city, a city in the process of being buried, and takes us on a tour of its landmarks: The Isle of Dogs... The Elephant... Westway... Lea Bridge ... North Acton... Canary Wharf ... Dalston... King’s Cross... Hackney Wick...

In one of many echoes of punk culture, Ford calls Savage Messiah a ‘zine’. She began producing it in 2005, eight years into a New Labour government that had consolidated rather than overturned Thatcherism. The context is bleak. London is a conquered city; it belongs to the enemy. ‘The translucent edifices of Starbucks and Costa Coffee line these shimmering promenades, “young professionals” sit outside gently conversing in sympathetic tones.’ The dominant mood is one of restoration and reaction, but it calls itself modernisation, and it calls its divisive and exclusionary work – making London safe for the super-rich – regeneration. The struggle over space is also a struggle over time and who controls it. Resist neoliberal modernisation and (so we are told) you consign yourself to the past. Savage Messiah’s London is overshadowed by the looming megalith of ‘London 2012’, which over the course of the last decade has subsumed more and more of the city into its banal science fiction telos, as the Olympic Delivery Authority transformed whole areas of East London into a temporary photo opportunity for global capitalism. Where once there were ‘fridge mountains and abandoned factories’ out of Tarkovsky and Ballard, a semi-wilderness in the heart of the city, now a much blander desert grows: spaces for wandering are eliminated, making way for shopping malls and soon-to-be-abandoned Olympic stadia. ‘When I was writing the zines,’ Ford remembers, ‘I was drifting through a London haunted by traces and remnants of rave, anarcho-punk scenes and hybrid subcultures at a time when all these incongruous urban regeneration schemes were happening. The idea that I was moving through a spectral city was really strong, it was as if everything prosaic and dull about the New Labour version of the city was being resisted by these ghosts of brutalist architecture, of ’90s convoy culture, rave scenes, ’80s political movements and a virulent black economy of scavengers, peddlers and shoplifters. I think the book could be seen in the context of the aftermath of an era, where residues and traces of euphoric moments haunt a melancholy landscape.’

All of these traces are to be eliminated from the Restoration London that will be celebrated at London 2012. With their lovingly reproduced junk-strata, overgrowing vegetation and derelict spaces, Savage Messiah’s images offer a direct riposte to the slick digital images which the Olympic Delivery Authority has pasted up in the now heavily policed, restricted and surveilled Lee Valley. Blair’s Cool Britannia provides the template for an anodyne vision of London designed by the ‘creative industries’. Everything comes back as an advertising campaign. It isn’t just that the alternatives are written over, or out, it is that they return as their own simulacra. A familiar story. Take the Westway, West London’s formerly deplored dual carriageway, once a cursed space to be mythologised by Ballard, punks and Chris Petit, now just another edgy film set:

This liminal territory, cast in a negative light in the 70s was recuperated by MTV and boring media types in the 90s. The Westway became the backdrop for Gorillaz imbecility, bland drum & bass record sleeves and photo shoots in corporate skate parks.

Cool Britannia. Old joke.

‘Space’ becomes the over arching commodity. Notting Hill. New Age cranks peddling expensive junk. Homeopathy and boutiques, angel cards and crystal healing.

Media and high finance on the one hand, faux-mysticism and superstition on the other: all the strategies of the hopeless and those who exploit them in Restoration London ... Space is indeed the commodity here. A trend that started thirty years ago, and intensified as council housing was sold off and not replaced, culminated in the insane super-inflation of property prices in the first years of the twenty-first century. If you want a simple explanation for the growth in cultural conservatism, for London’s seizure by the forces of Restoration, you need look no further than this. As Jon Savage points out in England’s Dreaming, the London of punk was still a bombed-out city, full of chasms, caverns, spaces that could be temporarily occupied and squatted. Once those spaces are enclosed, practically all of the city’s energy is put into paying the mortgage or the rent. There’s no time to experiment, to journey without already knowing where you will end up. Your aims and objectives have to be stated up front. ‘Free time’ becomes convalescence. You turn to what reassures you, what will most refresh you for the working day: the old familiar tunes (or what sound like them). London becomes a city of pinched-face drones plugged into iPods.

Savage Messiah rediscovers the city as a site for drift and daydreams, a labyrinth of side streets and spaces resistant to the process of gentrification and ‘development’ set to culminate in the miserable hyper-spectacle of 2012. The struggle here is not only over the (historical) direction of time but over different uses of time. Capital demands that we always look busy, even if there’s no work to do. If neoliberalism’s magical voluntarism is to be believed, there are always opportunities to be chased or created; any time not spent hustling and hassling is time wasted. The whole city is forced into a gigantic simulation of activity, a fantacism of productivism in which nothing much is actually produced, an economy made out of hot air and bland delirium. Savage Messiah is about another kind of delirium: the releasing of the pressure to be yourself, the slow unravelling of biopolitical identity, a depersonalised journey out to the erotic city that exists alongside the business city. The eroticism here is not primarily to do with sexuality, although it sometimes includes it: it is an art of collective enjoyment, in which a world beyond work can – however briefly – be glimpsed and grasped. Fugitive time, lost afternoons, conversations that dilate and drift like smoke, walks that have no particular direction and go on for hours, free parties in old industrial spaces, still reverberating days later. The movement between anonymity and encounter can be very quick in the city. Suddenly, you are off the street and into someone’s life-space.

Sometimes, it’s easier to talk to people you don’t know. There are fleeting intimacies before we melt back into the crowd, but the city has its own systems of recall: a block of flats or a street you haven’t focused on for a long time will remind you of people you met only once, years ago. Will you ever see them again?

I got invited up for a cup of tea in one of those Tecton flats on the Harrow road, one of the old men from the day centre I work in. I took him up Kilburn High Road shopping and watered the fuchsias on his balcony. We talked about the Blitz and hospitals mostly. He used to be a scientist and wrote shopping lists on brown envelopes dated and filed in a stack of biscuit tins.

I miss him.

I miss them all.

Savage Messiah deploys anachronism as a weapon. At first sight, at first touch – and tactility is crucial to the experience: the zine doesn’t feel the same when it’s JPEGed on screen – Savage Messiah seems like something familiar. The form itself, the mix of photographs, typ face-text and drawings, the use of scissors and glue rather than digital cut and paste; all of this make Savage Messiah seem out of time, which is not to say out of date. There were deliberate echoes of the para-art found on punk and postpunk record sleeves and fanzines from the 1970s and 1980s. Most insistently, I’m reminded of Gee Vaucher, who produced the paradoxically photorealistically delirious record covers and posters for anarcho-punk collective Crass. ‘I think with the look of the zine I was trying to restore radical politics to an aesthetic that had been rendered anodyne by advertising campaigns, Shoreditch club nights etc.,’ Ford says. ‘That anarcho-punk look was everywhere but totally emptied of its radical critique. It seemed important to go back to that moment of the late ’70s and early ’80s to a point where there was social upheaval, where there were riots and strikes, exciting cultural scenes and ruptures in the fabric of everyday life.’ The return to the postpunk moment is the route to an alternative present. Yet this is a return only to a certain ensemble of styles and methods – nothing quite like Savage Messiah actually existed back then.

Savage Messiah is a gigantic, unfinished collage, which – like the city – is constantly reconfiguring itself. Macro-and micro-narratives proliferate tuberously; spidery slogans recur; figures migrate through various versions of London, sometimes trapped inside the drearily glossy spaces imagined by advertising and regeneration propaganda, sometimes free to drift. She deploys collage in much the same way William Burroughs used it: as a weapon in time-war. The cut-up can dislocate established narratives, break habits, allow new associations to coalesce. In Savage Messiah, the seamless, already-established capitalist reality of London dissolves into a riot of potentials.

Savage Messiah is written for those who could not be regenerated, even if they wanted to be. They are the unregenerated, a lost generation, ‘always yearning for the time that just eluded us’: those who were born too late for punk but whose expectations were raised by its incendiary afterglow; those who watched the Miner’s Strike with partisan adolescent eyes but who were too young to really participate in the militancy; those who experienced the future-rush euphoria of rave as their birthright, never dreaming that it could burn out like fried synapses; those, in short, who simply did not find the ‘reality’ imposed by the conquering forces of neoliberalism liveable. It’s adapt or die, and there are many different forms of death available to those who can’t pick up the business buzz or muster the requisite enthusiasm for the creative industries. Six million ways to die, choose one: drugs, depression, destitution. So many forms of catatonic collapse. In earlier times, ‘deviants, psychotics and the mentally collapsed’ inspired militant-poets, situationists, rave-dreamers. Now they are incarcerated in hospitals, or languishing in the gutter.

No Pedestrian Access To Shopping Centre

Still, the mood of Savage Messiah is far from hopeless. It’s not about caving in, it’s about different strategies for surviving the deep midwinter of Restoration London. People living on next to nothing, no longer living the dream, but not giving up either: ‘Five years since the last party but he held his plot, scavenging for food like a Ballardian crash victim.’ You can go into suspended animation, knowing that the time is not yet right, but waiting with cold reptile patience until it is. Or you can flee dystopian London without ever leaving the city, avoiding the central business district, finding friendly passages through the occupied territory, picking your way through the city via cafes, comrade’s flats, public parks. Savage Messiah is an inventory of such routes, such passages through ‘territories of commerce and control’.

The zines are saturated in music culture. First of all, there are the names of groups: Infa Riot and Blitz. Fragments of Abba, Heaven 17 on the radio. Japan, Rudimentary Peni, Einsturzende Neubauten, Throbbing Gristle, Spiral Tribe. Whether the groups are sublime or sub-charity shop undesirable, these litanies have an evocative power that is quietly lacerating. Gig posters from thirty years ago – Mob, Poison Girls, Conflict – call up older versions of you, half-forgotten haircuts, long-lost longings, stirring again. But the role of music culture goes much deeper in Savage Messiah. The way the zine is put together owes as much to the rogue dance and drug cultures that mutated from rave as to punk fanzines; its montage methodology has as much in common with the DJ mix as with any precursor in visual culture. Savage Messiah is also about the relationship between music and place: the zine is also a testament to the way in which the sensitive membranes of the city are reshaped by music.

This sombre place is haunted by the sounds of lost acid house parties and the distant reverberations of 1986. Test Department . 303. 808. Traces of industrial noise.

The roundhouse was easy to get into, and the depot itself, disused for years is lit up with tags and dubs.

You can hear these deserted places, feel the tendrils creeping across the abandoned caverns, the derelict bunkers and broken terraces. Midsummer, blistering heat under the concrete, Armagideon Time(s), a hidden garden, to be found, and lost again.

Superficially, the obvious tag for Savage Messiah would be psychogeography, but the label makes Ford chafe. ‘I think a lot of what is called psychogeography now is just middle-class men acting like colonial explorers, showing us their discoveries and guarding their plot. I have spent the last twenty years walking around London and living here in a precarious fashion, I’ve had about fifty addresses. I think my understanding and negotiation of the city is very different to theirs.’ Rather than subsuming Savage Messiah under the increasingly played-out discourses of psychogeography, I believe it is better understood as an example of a cultural coalescence that started to become visible (and audible) at the moment when Ford began to produce the zine: hauntology. Towards the middle of the last decade, Simon Reynolds and I started to use the concept that Derrida coined in Specters of Marx to label a series of – predominantly but not exclusively – musical artists whose work expressed a sense of broken time. The specters here were not so much ghosts from an actual past; they were instead the traces of futures that had never arrived but which once seemed inevitable. The most striking sonic parallel for Savage Messiah is the London audio-poet Burial. Like Savage Messiah, Burial’s music invokes a sense of London after the rave: the long comedown of night bus journeys, the keening pain of being yourself again now that the collective ecstasy has faded. This is London seen through the rheumy eyes of ravers fifteen years on: the former warehouse spaces where raves or free parties were held have now disappeared behind redevelopment facades; the old gang are married off, drug casualties or worse. ‘The London I conjure up ... is imbued with a sense of mourning,’ Ford says. ‘These are the liminal zones where the free party rave scene once illuminated the bleak swathes of marshland and industrial estates.’ So many dreams of collectivity have died in neoliberal London. The brutalist tower blocks that feature on so many pages of Savage Messiah recall the abandoned promises of what Owen Hatherley has called militant modernism – a new kind of human being was supposed to live here, but that all had to be cleared away so that the restoration could begin.

Haunting is about a staining of place with particularly intense moments of time, and, like David Peace, with whom her work shares a number of affinities, Ford is alive to the poetry of dates. 1979, 1981, 2013: these years recur throughout Savage Messiah, moments of transition and threshold, moments when a whole alternative time-track opens. 2013 has a post-apocalyptic quality (in addition to being the year after the London Olympics, 2012 is also, according to some, the year that the Mayans predicted for the end of the world). But 2013 could also be Year Zero: the reversal of 1979, the time when all the cheated hopes and missed chances are finally realised. Savage Messiah invites us to see the contours of another world in the gaps and cracks of an occupied London:

Perhaps it is here that the space can be opened up to forge a collective resistance to this neoliberal expansion, to the endless proliferation of banalities and the homogenising effects of globalization. Here in the burnt out shopping arcades, the boarded up precincts, the lost citadels of consumerism one might find the truth, new territories might be opened, there might be a rupturing of this collective amnesia.

Mark Fisher