A good idea attempted is better than a bad idea perfected
— Don Letts
I don't want you to be on my side. I want you to be on your side.
- Henry Rollins (approximate)
All I've got to say has already been said
I mean, you heard it from yourself
When you were lying in your bed and couldn't sleep
Thinking, "Couldn't we be doing this differently?"
- Kate Tempest, People's Faces
Sometimes I revisit a story I think I got from a book from the indispensible Bloodaxe Books called Getting Into Poetry. Students at a sculpture course are confronted with a brusque tutor who answers all questions about how to go about creating a face out of clay by telling them to first form a sphere and then pulling off what doesn't need to be there and slapping on what needs to be bulked up. Having been hoping for something more, they look around at each other for a while and then get going, some of them gingerly, others fretfully, others like children at play, while he busies himself in his workshop as if they were not there. Some minutes later a student arrives full of apology, sits down and, greeted by little more than shrugs from her peers, asks nervously what she should do. The tutor looks up at her as if she were an inconvenience, and tells her she should start by making a cube and then take away what doesn't belong there and slap on what needs bulking up. The punctual students glance at one another. Eventually one plucks up the courage not to contradict the tutor so much as to point out the inconsistency. Inscrutably, he tells them all that whether they start with a sphere or a cube, they should pull off what doesn't belong there, slap on what needs bulking up, and make a face.
Bloodaxe books has meant a lot to me, though I suspect with my habitual regret and self-deprecation that it could have meant more; that what I for too long called the internet and actually represents the enclosure of most of what the internet promised to be (and it always promised more than it could deliver and may well frankly always have been a wolf in sheep's clothing), could have meant less: I might have read far more poems, and far fewer tweets. I hope that one day, through my work, people might come across Bloodaxe books, or Comma Press, or Verso Books (or indeed, directly or indirectly, Argo or Fra come to that); I hope that they may discover some of the music I enjoy, perhaps get something of a handle on the Czech language, fuck around with typewriters in a way that makes sense not only to them but, after the initial self-consciousness, of them, that they might take an old film camera or a sketchbook for a walk, even use Qubes OS, Debian, Emacs, set up rss, or get to know something of the digital languages and protocols and human conventions that map to them which give shape and meaning to our world for good and for ill as the protocols and conventions of the sonnet and the Elizabethan drama once did. I hope that I might one day be able to pass on my enthusiasm and passion for things I have discovered in my life, and that readers, viewers, listeners might be inspired to take their own trip, make more choices not only in their cultural life, in a way they might not otherwise have thought to do, even, or indeed sometimes especially, if they take them in different directions than I have gone in myself. I hope, mostly, that I might, by doing what I have been doing, which is to say by doing what makes sense to me (and of me), reverse the trend whereby I spend all of my time and energy doing things I fervently believe to be both meaningless and harmful to everything I believe to be humane and good, and which I experience as being contrary to my nature, strengths, and inclinations.
My own mental version of the above story will be idiosyncratic, perhaps even multiply "wrong". It's been some time, sadly, since I have read the book, which, though it is short, may well have cohabited with me in as many seven flats and houses and grotty basements without my having done much more than dip in to it as I put it on a shelf, or as I find myself paralysed by anxiety or between things, as I have been between things many times in my life, as indeed I am now. It's true too that I could have started this piece differently, and certainly better. I see its faults even as I write, though as I have been writing I have been rewriting, not so much correcting faults but updating and aiming for complete and unforced sincerity. The truth at the arhythmically beating heart of this story however you tell it, though, is that something becomes real when you start to get your hands dirty. Things become real when you commit. What works for me about this story (the version of the story, that is, which I have carried around in my head for some years now during which time I have irregularly written what I rather embarrasedly, privately, refer to as poetry with as many disclaimers as I can make even to myself, but more often stories, essays, gropings towards novels, and that galling class of writing known as the 'fragment'), is that you can imagine yourself into that class. You can imagine looking around the faces each variously aware of their own inhibitions. You can imagine them all being variously capable of taking on and picking those inhibitions off one by one in methodical snipes, if that's what you do in their inner landscape, or with a pinch of the fingers picking out individual weeds, pressing down the soil with the fingers of the other hand, while others still will treat them with ROUNDUP and get stuck messily in, not invariably at cost to either their self-image or their craft. You can imagine the tension and focus of the room being such that, though each student will hold back for a longer or for a shorter moment in time, each will begin to work the clay, perhaps until they become entirely occupied with the process, losing touch with that inner landscape altogether but in their hands and with their eyes.
I wrote the original version of this text at the Summer Film School in Uherské Hradiště in Moravia over two years ago. The ideas for Marginálie, which was not yet Marginálie but The Mendicant (it would change following a discussion and vote on Loomio), were coming together.1 You may now be coming across this text in what will soon have become its present form on what may remain the only instance of the rough-and-ready Flask web application I have been writing, one that will serve up the texts and the "content" on the by now thoroughly misappropriated and thoroughgoingly weaponised internet, or indeed, because of what I hope
Marginálie Automat Svět may one day mean, you may have found it either unchanged or in some yet-to-be-imagined later iteration elsewhere, perhaps in a zine printed by myself or more or less anybody else, translated into any language a human could understand, or simply redrafted.2 The same text could, I could equally imagine, be excerpted in a book discussing digital culture, or a slide at a talk examining the civil society of Central Europe, or Britain, or it might be that some choice pull quote or collocation is flagged up on the screen of some agent at a three-or-four letter agency with some skewy metadata-completist algorithmic context. Whatever it becomes, the truth is that at that moment, what was to become Marginálie was bigger than the sum of its parts, and each of the the parts were (as they largely remain) in and of themselves bigger than I could comfortably take on. I was as terrified as I was energised by it.
I had at this time just ended my second hellish year as a notionally Montessori teacher. That mission-creep-meme-mascarading-as-sub-Orwellian-jargon, Brexit, and the Twitter-pimped electoral victory of a cartoonishly aggressive real estate agent and reality TV star in the presidential election in the US, had both by now been delivered through the black-box-ridden flow chart that is the disrupted and multifariously broken politics of the anglosphere.3 Everywhere I had looked for the past several years, I had seen the influence of oligarchs of various stripes, the world and communities around me formed to their arbitrary will. I had been getting my head around the idea of leading a creative life as a way of being the change I wanted to see in the world. This would have felt like more of a risk if it was not abundently clear I would never have any kind of life trying to play the game I was supposed to play, that the lives our putative leaders and "stakeholders" had decided might be available to me were a form of living suicide where I would dose up on psychopharmacological correctives in order to method act one of a number of roles I could not in good conscience and sound mind believe in.
"This morning", I wrote, "I stayed home" (in an imported Cotswolds static caravan Airbnb that reminded me, rather jarringly, of holidays in Britain as a child) "to write while Woodstock and the others went to watch a film." In the final weeks of the the school term I had been obsessed with ideas of organic community. Socially clumsy (I am autistic, variously neuro-atypical, a work-in-progress myself), I had thrown myself into a handful of attempts at finding like-minded people attending readings of the work of poets such as Miroslav Holub, attended talks by translators, and had been persuaded that this low-key film festival would be good for me as my ideas settled into place.
Perhaps it was. I had, so I now read this, what?, two years afterwards, been overjoyed to discover that a film, The Swedish Theory of Love had a section with the late Zygmunt Bauman whose thought I first began grappling with in a manner not so very different from the manner the various students in my mind are grappling with their sculptures, just before I first came to the Czech Republic fifteen years ago. Bauman had died the month Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the USA. I had found the Jeremy Bentham quote from which I took the title of Call Them Soldiers, a novel I conceived of during a personal crisis, arguably a 'breakdown', in a book by Bauman I had taken out of [the old Brutalist]\ Birmingham library in the middle of an unhappy stretch once I had gone back to Great Britain from my first stint in Prague in 2005.
The novel had recently come alive again following almost ten years of moving from job to job, place to place, barely coping in any of them. The world around me was alluding to it every day. Though imaginatively it would occupy me for a long time yet, though it would sprawl into a series, and though I would spend a year or so writing drafts on a manual typewriter as well as in Emacs, creating a wiki of character, plot, a recognisably deranged polity and a culture to match, it was in retreat, as a prettily-packaged London-Underground-poster-worthy product in any case. For one thing, if it were to live, it would precisely have to live as a commodity, another must have at a time we must surely have reached peak commodity fetishism (iPhone 3, 4? the Apple watch?), and long beyond the point we might wisely have turned away from its grasp. Further and more problematically, it carried the original sin of being a work of literary fiction and, for marketing purposes, being identifiable as 'speculative fiction'. Though there might be a market for this, this market was as selectively defined as would be my 'matches' if I were to relent to Google's recent nagging and sign up for Guardian Soulmates (I had been in Britain for three months digging up my past lives):4 I would be writing for people whose manifest privilege derives from the social system I intended to critique.
But it went deeper than that. Slartibartfast once-glacial fjord deep. I had been marginal all of my life, an outsider looking in to the various communities and cliques and castes I was surrounded by in the English Midlands, at university, in North Wales, in Prague, as the spectre of Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher, and the Chicago Boys haunted Europe New and Old. My profile in this was not dissimilar to that of writers of a certain caste in any age, though the demands on marginal people in a rapidly-automating, deskilled, post-industrial landscape under the strictures of an increasingly game theorised post-Soviet-collapse neoliberalism had what the writers of The Wire called a 'Dickensian aspect' to them even before the dramatis personae of the Paradise Papers rolled out their Age of Austerity to punish the unfortunate for the End of History sociopathy of the bankers. I had never got much out of academic formal education and returned to it to go to university via Kidderminster College only reluctantly after my first McJob on a conveyer car wash in Stourbridge. Here it was, in the late nineteen nineties, that I experienced the roll out of the minimum wage and heard Alan McGee talking on AM radio about how New Labour's welfare reform would do for the chances of young musicians. Here it was, also, that I wrote hundreds of ideas for stories, novels, films, even museums and galleries and publishing houses, on credit card slips. Before Kidderminster College (Politics, Sociology, English), I had studied Sound Engineering at an old car factory in Wednesbury, and had enjoyed it, though I was in a mess. I was there when the first single to be recorded in a bedroom studio made number 1 in the charts - the other day I heard on BBC Six Music that 77% of producers and recording engineers work for free and the story has been the same in my lifetime across all of the creative "industries". At university I applied for stints working [for free] at publishers who wrote back to say they had recently been bought out. Following it, and still at the beginning of what would prove to be a ten year struggle for ineffectually psychopharmacological-based treatment for my (extreme yet cohort-contiguous) mental health problems, I discovered that my debt would count for more and for longer than my first class honours degree ever would (I'm still not paying it off to this day). I had gone to university at Nottingham where I saw the old Raleigh factory Alan Sillitoe had worked at replaced into a new management campus.5 I had never met anybody who made a living writing, and had seen nobody from anything like my background who did the same. And I was living in The Czech Republic, even further away from the publishers and the agents and the writers I had never met in Britain while I lived there; I was teaching, which meant long hours, and indeed literally no meaningful down time, similarly literally constant stress, and poor money. The Czech Republic's publishing industry had itself suffered badly from the abrupt introduction of market forces in the 1990s. In this last decade of his life, Bohumil Hrabal took to burying one of his own books (one that had once been pulped by the communists and was now being officially published for the first time), at a makeshift grave of Czech literature. When I attended a course in Contemporary Czech Literature a little over ten years on from this overlooked happening, I learned that no more than two Czech writers earn a living from writing. Czech is a minority language, a brief boom in translation from Czech when dissident writers (and writers who might be understood as dissident writers, shoved into a marketing pigeonhole), collapsed just as soon as the monolithic Western narrative moved on. I found, meanwhile, that Czechs were typically as keen to sniff out "spongers" as were tabloid journalists and tories with trust funds. Since I first came here in 2003, I have met, constantly, people who study management, economics, computer science; never the humanities. One friend who was studying sign language when I first came over switched to marketing, specifically Facebook marketing (and I don't blame her). I found little or no sympathy or understanding for the choices I was increasingly committed to making - increasingly unable not to make because of the moral aspect of my upbringing and education, and because of my temperament and my experiences in life. In returning to Prague, I was returning to some hybrid strength version of London or New York in the 1980s. Czech generations are out of sync with those discussed with broad brush accuracy in Britain and America. Woodstock, seven years younger than I am, views herself as something like a Generation X, as I do myself (I read Douglas Coupland's Generation X while riding buses and trains to Birmingham and back on a student pass the second time a 'nervous breakdown' curtailed my studies, at Sandwell College). Her parents, who moved into their flat on the day of the Revolution in 1989 having already learned, like many of their peers, how to get their hands on property both moveable and otherwise, are brutally efficient in their acquisitiveness. That I respect that does not mean that, in present conditions, I can emulate it, nor that, knowing all about what it means, I would like to. Having ridden the wave of "The Klondyke" in the 1990s, their values, albeit for different reasons, map absolutely to American baby boomers. Periodically, this led to some tension, much of it exacerbated by my own lack of faith in myself following years of failing to fit in or break even.
How dare I think I could write?!
To write a novel, in my view, you have to believe two things. One, that you can write a novel. Two, that, once you write a novel and make it everything it can be, you will have a chance of publishing it, of finding an agent, a publisher, a public. Call Them Soldiers is set in a firewalled England (primarily in a malware-Smart City Manchester rather than London) with a formal contractual constitution and a Leviathon-like network intelligence, the Eudaemon; this plays citizens in their private and public lives as if they were decreasingly multicoloured stones on a Go board.6 Call Them Soldiers first came to me a handful of years after university in the middle of this century's first dishonest decade when I shifted from being on the outside looking in in the outside world to doing much the same on social media. Back in 2009 the Eudaemon, at that time known as the Condoit, was a piece of work. In the first few drafts this time around, it hit its singularity stride and from the perspective I had chosen to view it, I saw how people, once marginalised, were dropped as dead weight by more or less anybody who might have been able to help them; institutions, filters, and former friends flipped the Bonzo bit on them. For this "speculative fiction", I had not had to speculate much at all. This was what I had known all my life: Twitter was its purest expression, but the mental hygiene and habits of its target market precede it; anthropologists could have studied for years any time up to the advent of everything this century and not once struck a community where something like Twitter could be met with anything but shock and disdain long before anything like GoFundMe could become a mainstream way of paying for medical bills.
My girlfriend, Woodstock, had been to Uherské Hradiště Film School a number of times. This time, it struck her that something was missing. The cinemas were full, more or less. But people were not out on the streets as they had once been. The town and the bars were empty. She could show me the town, yes, but not the festival or the atmosphere she had known. She was older of course, but, since she was still as enthusiastic about films such as Tron, wich I had not seen, it was more than that. It struck her as odd. I had not yet returned to teaching 19 and 20 year-olds as I would the following year. When I did, I would have the chance, once again, to see them see the world from the fragmented perspectives of their various echo chambers. Some years before, I had been to a different film festival - one dedicated to Creative Commons animated films made using free and open source software. There, a Pirate Party representative stood up with what was unlikely to have been his first beer and talked about intellectual property and what it typically means for our viewing habits, which tend to skew to the industries of a handful of "uninteresting" soft-power-proactive countries such as the USA, UK, and Japan. All of this seemed reasonable enough as an introduction to a film The Pirate Bay: Away from Keyboard until it came to another point, which was to dismiss the point of cinemas and film festivals all together since technology and peer-to-peer software could enable us all to watch films from the comfort of our own living rooms. It was my assumption, on hearing Woodstock talk about the decline of the festival that many of the people watching, who might also have been staying at AirBnbs, might retreat to virtual spaces instead of mingling all evening. I tended to do something similar myself, and found such mingling difficult, still I believed very strongly that we ought to support decent independent cinemas, gather as ad hoc congregations, and either risk or embrace meeting people dissimilar to ourselves. Periodically I tried to find such spaces.
The one place I did get close to finding something like what I meant by community in the town that time was in a tea house that evening. I was embarrassed when a friend of Woodstock's - a guy I liked but who worked at a huge multinational and many of whose instincts are distant from mine - asked the lad working there, a young father, if he owned the place, the implication being 'why else would you waste your time here, you seem all right'. His answer was a beautific "I make tea" that, for me, spoke volumes. Tea houses meant something to me when I first came to Prague when there were more of them. Their centre of gravity in those days was far East of Vienna. The hipster cafes and gastro pubs of present-day Prague mean far less to me both because of the kind of people who go there and the kind of conversations they have, and the kind of people who often set them up. This was the kind of lad who wants to meet people, make them feel comfortable, fall into conversation, play the kind of music they love. We need to value such people, however they are doing it.
Marginálie was making itself felt at this moment. This was very much against my will. Who the hell am I to write a "Zine", itself a euphemism (a clever one, to myself) for something like a literary journal?! Who the hell am I to write attempts at criticism, at political commentary? Who the hell am I to accept submissions, make open commissions, perhaps suggest changes?! But then, who is anybody to do any of the things that most need doing? And who will do it if we don't, whoever we are in this instance?
I could trace back the genesis of Marginálie. To the idea rather than the reality of punk zines. To the desperate, angry, half-grandiose-half-stoned ideas I came up with in the period after having been sacked from a job in a school some months after I had become passionate about investigating the realities and implications of mass surveillance after the Snowden revelations kicked up some of the fascinations I had had after "9/11". I could pick out the fusion of interests that came together at that moment: git and open source software development, samizdat and the Czechoslovakian underground, punk, Python. Ultimately, though, Marginálie came out of a series of moral crises with profound moral conclusions as crisp and deterministic as the teeth of a ratchet. This all like a panned out fractal in a 1990s music video: it was a reverse-engineered solution to a projection of a world ostensibly a few decades from where we are now, the kind of world that appears to us to be in beta in Hong Kong but to which most of the world might be upgraded to with little downtime or infrastructural disruption overnight; indeed occasionally, if you pay attention, you see wormhole open up as somebody comes to tell you what the future will look like and then gets spirited away, tag muted, or disappeared. William Gibson once said the future is here, but it's not evenly spread? It is plainly now true, but while it is true on a macro scale, where Prague is more in the future than is Wolverhampton, it is true on the micro scale, and there are people you commute to with who are what people would have once understood as being generations ahead.
I wasn't working with my hands, though there are periods of time I could have been born into where that would be what would make most sense of me, and, having recently made a couple of rings for my girlfriend, I fancy that's another craft an I in some parallel universe could claim as his own. I was writing and, barely believing it myself, would soon be writing code. Both as an amateur. Both as somebody who has something to say. And that kind of thing it essential in any community that sincerely desires to keep itself sane.
What Automat Svět is is a call to consider this very act of creation, this very commitment, to be important. It is a call to encourage others to do the same. It is a call to glance around, see where the others around you are in their own engagement or otherwise with the things you, and perhaps implicitly they, consider to be important. It's a call to go out and kneed into that clay, get your hands on a piece of green wood and get carving, put words down on paper - in the blank pages of a novel on the metro, on a shopping list on the kitchen table, in a notebook bought on an impulse and stuffed regularly, with embarrassment, into a handbag or laptop case. It is a call to experiment with personal computing - no less important in fact if computers will continue to shape your life more than the buildings and institutions you might once have relied upon as second nature. It is a call to engage with books and films and music and people as if they all mattter. As if they are worth investing in. It is a call to place value where you believe it to belong when you think about it if only for a moment.
It is a call, especially, to get yourself out of the tracks that are made to so efficiently direct us to one place or another. It is a call to see beauty in struggles towards beauty and to engage in that struggle.
I have been getting my hands dirty for some years now in various ways. For some months now, though, I have been eyeing up the clay, the tools around me. I can picture precisely the face I want to sculpt. I see it when I close my eyes. I see it when I open my eyes. I feel it watching me.
It's time now to slap the clay on the board and get working. It's not always going to go well. I will slap a fist full of clay over a malformed eye yet, rip an ear off and get the wire out to work the back of the head down, going too quickly too far. Perhaps I will regularly feel the need to punch the poor recalcitrant Eysenkian throwback full in the face or have to walk away for a cup of tea or a smoke to change my perspective.
The fact is that, however unsightly or unconvincing or embarrassing or 'why did he bother any of this?!' this thing will be as it takes shape - and to some it will of course be some of all of those things - I have committed and it is honestly of me and is indeed honesty itself and it will soon be time to show it to the world.
Trust this enough to read on despite all of the thumbprints and the asymetry, you may begin to understand precisely what this means.
Whatever, this is or will become Automat Svět Issue Zero, and I hope that as you read it, if you commit to read it, it may help you to grapple with your own thoughts on a few things worth thinking about as much as it has helped me to grapple with mine.
- Krozruch, Prague, January, 2020
I now call it Automat Svět. Conceptually it is more or less the same thing but this settled first a minor issue with a domain name while I was changing to a new server which has been donated by a friend, and also permitted me to draw a psychologically-useful line in the sand both between myself and the master status "marginal" which I hope to explore, yes, but also gain some distance from, and between myself and all of the early attempts to put this into shape. Marginálie, I decided, was vapourware. Since marginalia (as marginalie) remains a post type within the database and since I will be performing various kinds of exegesis of the works of Bohumil Hrabal, the notion of notes from the margins (marginální poznámky) will certainly remain. Of the other original titles, The Mendicant is worth discussion if only because the need for a class of people who do much as one of Hrabal's set described in the centrally important and typically unpublished afterword (meaningfully attributable only to a collective) to Too Loud a Solitude has never been greater. The Prague Review meanwhile was dismissed because of the origins of The Paris Review, which has otherwise been a very strong publication.↩
I doubt the above is well-expressed enough that it would make anybody feel they could not improve it, write their own version of what they think it means, or simply remodel it to their own ends. Such a remixed or simply rewritten piece might be an introduction to a zine by practically anybody who is capable of reading or indeed listening to this. If anyone did think it was beyond them to work as an editor in this way, imagine simply running a spellcheck (I often don't), paring down some of the hifaluting language, or removing the footnotes. I mock them regularly, but one of the tasks we had to do at a Steiner college I used to work at was form a ball out of clay and then pass it to a colleague to finish. A lot of people find it difficult not to own even that. I don't know if I am up to it and there will be pieces here I am suitably invested in to be tighter with the licenses. They are all I have and if I were not so economically marginal I might feel freer about them but contributing to the commons does not tend to help people to live. If it did we wouldn't be in the shape we are now in.↩
This is not in fact such a recent phenomenon if we examine the electoral fortunes of Ronald Reagan, Jesse Ventura, and Arnold Schwarzeneger. Some of these might look like outliers, but I remember reading some time around 1999, and discussing in an A-Level politics class, that Ventura, an ex professional wrestler whose mandate hinged on "deregulating stuff" and who advised Arnie to start the day with a workout, had won with the largest turnout of anybody in America at that time. At the turn of the century. That said, Carole Cadwalladr is certainly worth reading for her analysis of the state of democracy, and there are others - though they are too often overlooked on the information super thoroughfares and you'll have to navigate your way off map down the side roads, slowing down not only to watch for the cameras, and then treck a while to find some of the places they hang out.↩
I recently described The Guardian as a lifestyle dating application with a bolt-on newspaper, and though I read it regularly - typically now sanitised with rss or blockers for the worst of the malware - it was only half in jest.↩
The corkscrew library was said to be sinking as soon as it was opened as the architects had forgotten to give any thought to the books. They weren't alone, of course, and maybe they will soon be done away with.↩
an analogy I will develop elsewhere in terms of a notion I have of what it means to support local and community bookshops, record stores, libraries, publishers, and artists of all kinds. In terms of Call Them Soldiers this passage relates to a demozaic clustering of types of people, silos or buckets of demographic, temperamental, racial, religious and ideological types all moving together geographically as well as they move together algorithmically, until we see a Manchester with its many well-defined zones: the secular Christian Quarter, the Secular quadrant, a notorious Pagan sector etc.↩