It’s twenty years or thereabouts since I moved from the country to my Nanna’s fibro by the sea, ninety minutes by train from the city. I have been reflecting recently on how keen I was back then, how desperate to be in the world, how openly and straightforwardly desiring, how hungry. I thought there were great secrets of adult and urban life and I wanted to know those secrets, the weighty undercurrents that drove the world and seemed absent or obscured from my position in the rural towns I had lived in up to that point. The grown up city was real life and I wanted one.
That my Nanna, or my folks, or my neighbours, or the people parking near the beach had real lives didn’t impress me. Their lives, I dismissively shrugged, were small and kept small by their own design. These were not what I coveted, no, I coveted a life writ impressive by the grand narratives of our age. I wanted to catch the biggest waves and ride the tube and tell the story by the fire when the bottle went around. This was a youthful vanity and one I hope I’ve made up for in the time since.
Seeking weighty undercurrents can be a pointlessly harmful means of promoting self growth and in my youth I took to fetishising pointless harm, thinking that it made me sexy, or cool, or bold, or piratical in some way that didn’t need spelling out. I grew past this thankfully, for the most part, but it took some time. Along the way I gathered a number of talismanic references to bolster my faith in the project: books and records and movies and pictures that supported the romance and grandeur of becoming Rustichello. Amulets to justify my misapprehensions of specialness and certainty in my path, self-objects for coherence and continuity and confidence.
These amulets are still here. They remain on my bookshelves and on the walls and on my ipod, nostalgic installations as foundation and buttress. But as foundation and buttress they begin to be ignored, taken for granted, made landscape. For me two of the most landscaped self-objects are Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming and Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces. I devoured these books in 1992, believing they were central to the great unknown things that I was seeking. I reread them a number of times during the nineties, building-in faith in situationist critiques into my everyday sense of dissatisfaction and despair. I loved these books with an unbecoming zeal, but then I put them aside and I can’t say that I’ve looked at either since the Sydney Olympics.
I got them down the last week after I read Mackenzie Wark’s The Beach Beneath The Streets. I’ve always liked Ken Wark, envied Ken Wark, wanted to be Ken Wark. He seemed to be riding the waves I watched from the beach, and riding them with the poise I yearned for, with the grace of knowingness. There weren’t any better books about Australia in the 1990s than Virtual Republic. From his wave Ken Wark saw Howard the shark and quite sensibly went to New York and has tried to construct a liberation based digital politics, pretty successfully and with his characteristic modesty and rigour.
The Beach Beneath The Streets is plenty worthy. For me, Wark is particularly focused on the utopianism of situationist thinking, even more so than Greil Marcus, and its access to liberation in the everyday doings of being alive. He’s not so interested in big R revolutionary change (correctly when you think about Paris 1968) but in the spaces produced through negotiation and failed negotiation, navigations of agency. Wark is hopeful for people, and doesn’t find fault with co-option –that’s just another kind of space.
But for me there was a surge of curiosity about my nostalgia for England’s Dreaming and Lipstick Traces, their role as foundation and buttress. I pulled down Savage and remembered the cold nights spent absorbing the mythomania Savage builds around the Pistols and the Clash and all the others. I remember how much I admired the contrarianism and the vivacity of their interventions, the sheer balls of it all. With Marcus too, I was overwhelmed by adoration, for the intellectual complexity and for the wonderful obscurity of the whole set of ideas. These made complete sense in light of my quest for the undercurrents. They assured me that I had found the context for my romance: a discourse at once creative, vaguely revolutionary, wonderfully convoluted and hard to explain but marked and demarcated by the noisy, masculine, insecure frothings of Rotten, Strummer, et al.
With hindsight I can see that these ticked all my boxes and it’s no surprise I fell for them so completely. What has surprised me was how unexciting I found reading England’s Dreaming and Lipstick Traces during the last week. They felt as if they had little relevance, intellectually interesting and narratively engaging but somehow divested of the romance and authority that I once had provided and derived from them.
It was clear to me this morning, as I searched for the picture of the two cowboys, that these books were no longer amulets, no longer self-objects. They don’t need to be, the idea of a life writ large is so ridiculous now that I can scarcely believe I managed the self confidence to believe it. They are no longer foundation or buttress, because the thing they founded and abutted is no more, there is no need to appear sexy, or cool, or bold, or piratical. I’m not hungry anymore. I just am those things.