An antihero for our times

When asked, I’ve often named my favourite book of all time as a Russian novel from 1907 called Sanine by the Russian writer Artzibashev, which I have read several times since my father gave me a copy many years ago. Oddly, most Russians I’ve met have never heard of the novel or its author. 

The story centres on a young man, Sanine, who returns to visit the small provincial town of his childhood after years of travelling. Importantly, the author makes clear Sanine did not spend his formative (i.e. teenage) years there, in the very first paragraph;

That important period in his life when character is influenced and formed by its first contact with the world and with men, was not spent by Vladimir Sanine at home, with his parents. There had been none to guard or guide him; and his soul developed in perfect freedom and independence, just as a tree in the field.

Right away the independently-minded Sanine finds himself at odds with those around him, starting with his family who to him seem more conformist and small-minded than ever. When his mother asks how he has spent his many years away, he replies:

I ate, and drank, and slept; and sometimes I worked; and sometimes I did nothing!

His mother’s reaction is one of frustration and disappointment:

It pained her to think that her son did not occupy the position to which, socially, he was entitled. She began by telling him that things could not go on like this, and that he must be more sensible in future.

He is appalled to see the self-destructive behaviours around him – his beautiful young sister Lida in a hopeless affair with Sarudine, a handsome cavalry officer, master-seducer and all-round cad who sees her as little more than a fresh notch on his bedpost. Then we have Sanine’s ‘nice guy’ friend Novikoff who in turn is in love with Lida, bombarding her with futile romantic gestures and proclamations, yet utterly failing to generate the raw sexual attraction of his more cynical and skilful rival. Lida finally gives in to Sarudine’s charms, loses her innocence to him and falls pregnant, only to be immediately abandoned by the officer.

Racy cover for Sanine

Sanine’s very essence is one of non-conformity, going wherever his instincts and desires lead, largely unaffected by the reactions and opinions of others. In a sense he has risen above the petty concerns, obsessions and relentless neuroses of those around him. Indeed in Gilbert Cannan’s preface to the book, Sanine is described as a man who has ‘escaped the tyranny of society’. His favourite pastimes are hanging out drinking and philosophising with his like-minded friend Ivanoff, mingling with peasants, enjoying nature and seducing country girls, including various peasant girls and family friend Sina Karsavina. He follows his passions without apology, answering to nobody.

And yet he does have moral standards – it’s just that they are his own. He calmly tells Sarudine exactly what he thinks of him in light of his dishonourable conduct towards his sister. Sarudine later formally challenges him to a duel via his messengers. Sanine declines the invitation but, when Sarudine turns up in person, punches him in the face with such force that his good looks are ruined.

Lida and Sina are critical of Sanine for turning down the duel, with the implication that he is cowardly. Sanine is depressed by this.

Human stupidity and malice surrounded him on all sides. To find such qualities alike in bad folk and good folk, in handsome people as in ugly, proved utterly disheartening.

As far as Sanine is concerned, he dealt with the situation in the best way possible. He responded to Sarudine’s challenge. He just did so on his own terms, not Sarudine’s. By using non-lethal force he has avoided the pointless death of either man. He cannot understand why so many around him think otherwise. 

There are other characters who rub up against Sanine and his worldview; Yuri, the hot-headed student and would-be revolutionary who takes himself so seriously it ultimately costs him not only his peace of mind but his life. Soloveitchik, the forever anxious, spiritually troubled Jew who, in another dark turn, Sanine persuades to end his own troubles. Indeed, this somewhat alternative view regarding the sanctity of human life, against the prevailing Christian values, also crops up when Sanine suggests his sister get an abortion. 

Despite the various apparent contradictions, Sanine’s actions are all consistent with his philosophy. Death resulting from a duel, either Sarudine’s or his own, would be a stupid and pointless waste. But Soloveitchik really seems too delicate for life, a temperament unfit for this world, condemned to eternal fearfulness and sadness and apparently unable to change. Sanine simply proposes a way out, reasoning that death is preferable to such an existence. Lida on the other hand has her whole life ahead of her, hence suicide would be a tragic and absurd decision, from which Sanine successfully dissuades her. Instead, getting a secret abortion would be the logical and astute move as it would allow her to start life afresh, just as if her dalliance with Sarudine never happened, with no shame or burden other than any she might carry in her mind.

Sanine stands alone against the mores of the society he has chosen to revisit. Instead of taking up an occupation and planting roots he does as he pleases, living moment to moment. Rather than marry or start a family, he seduces country virgins for sport (some might suggest this makes him no better than Sarudine – the counterargument being that whereas Sarudine makes false promises of commitment to get what he wants, Sanine is unfailingly honest. He deceives no-one).

Although affected by what surrounds him, at his core he is unshakeable, an individual of considerable mental and physical strength and resilience. Like his friend Ivanoff, with whom he loves to put the world to rights over a beer, he refuses to take anything too seriously, going through life with a carefree levity. What’s the point in worrying or being sad, he would say. Life is to be lived, the moment is to be enjoyed. If you could get out of your head for just a moment, you’d see the beauty and wonder that is all around us.

Men always build up a Wall of China between themselves and happiness”, says Sanine in one memorable quote.

I was gripped by this novel when I first read it 20 odd years ago, and I’ve read it many times since. Friends to whom I recommended it seemed to feel the same. One even coined a saying for challenging situations – “What would Sanine do?” That the book made such an impression isn’t surprising. Sanine as an archetype has great appeal, especially for younger readers. Like other writers including Artzibashev’s predecessor Lermontov, author of Hero of Our Time (a Russian novel resembling Sanine in many ways), Norwegian author Knut Hamsun and many more, Artzibashev has created an appealing protagonist in the individualist antihero. Sanine feels immediate and present, and in translation is highly readable, despite being over 100 years old. 

Of course this type of character has long held popular appeal. Sanine gets a mention in Colin Wilson’s book The Outsider, an analysis of the antihero / outsider archetype in literature through the ages. Few things resonate with young men quite like the rebel going his own way, breaking free from the expectations and constraints of society, taking what he wants along the way, not least the maidenheads of young women.

Although I still think the novel is a masterpiece, my feelings about the protagonist and his philosophy have shifted a little. Whilst I have no doubt changed and hopefully matured over the last two decades, society – and by society I mean the Western world – may have changed even more profoundly.

If Sanine is ‘a man who has escaped the tyranny of society’, considering such a character over a century later obviously requires re-examining what ‘society’ is today. This is all with the obvious caveat that this is a novel set in a small town in provincial Russia, at the start of the 20th century during the final years of the Romanovs. Revolution was around the corner and society was indeed upended on a vast scale as imperial Russia gave way to 70 years of communist rule. 

All that said and without going into subjects well beyond the ambition of this post, I simply want to imagine who Sanine would be today, in the modern Western world – which I’d argue to some extent includes Russia since the USSR’s collapse and subsequent 3 decades of Western influence. Sanine was at odds with the prevailing orthodoxy of his time, which was built around things we’ve already mentioned – religion, marriage, family, career, obtaining and maintaining social status, as well as adherence to the customs and codes of the time, i.e. duels fought by the nobility.

A duel being fought somewhere in Russia

As a thought experiment, let’s place the Sanine of 1907 provincial Russia directly into the modern world. Do we still find him at odds with ‘society’? He tells his sister Lida an abortion is the best option for her. This was a huge taboo then. Though admittedly still a contentious issue, in the secularised West today, being ‘pro-life’ often seems the more controversial opinion. In any Western European city at least, Lida would be unlikely to face social condemnation for such a decision, and she’d certainly have the support of the state.

What about Sanine’s unapologetic individualism and pursuit of simple pleasures? Right wing / reactionary thinkers would argue that this is exactly why our civilisation is falling apart. What’s the end result of a society filled with Sanines? Falling birthrates, less marriage, fragmented families and communities – a hedonistic world where everyone is simply out to get their rocks off with no thought for the future. In a word, collapse. Weimar Germany perhaps. Is selfish pursuit of pleasure a rebellious or dissident position today? Hardly. You could make a solid argument that mainstream Western media encourages these attitudes.

How about the somewhat shocking scene where Sanine convinces Soloveitchik he may as well end his life, if he’s so unhappy? Unbelievable as it might seem, the Canadian authorities today might not only approve Soloveitchik’s decision, but do the work for him.

So is Sanine ruined for me? Far from it. As a character he isn’t defined by his surroundings. I always understood Sanine as the manifestation of a strong spirit who refuses to bend to the whims of society (AKA The Current Thing), acting in loyal accordance to his own moral framework, no matter if it clashes with the widely accepted / dictated moral framework of the time. I’m fairly sure he would abstain from taking a unproven ‘vaccine’, especially in the face of mandates or heavy coercion from the state aided by the mainstream media, quietly and without fanfare resisting all pressure, whether social – i.e. being labelled a ‘granny killer’ – or institutional, i.e. being threatened with restriction of his personal freedoms. Being a free spirit, he’d find a way around that too if needed.

It isn’t hard to imagine Sanine’s disapproving mother berating him for endangering those around him by not wearing a mask at all times. Instead of scorning him for not partaking in a lethal duel, those close to him might instead shame him for not getting ‘the jab’, yet Sanine’s logic and reasoning remain exactly the same. We return again to Sanine’s glum thoughts about those around him.

Being the rebellious spirit he is, he might choose to defy the prevailing ‘hookup culture’, not to mention the depopulationist agenda, and get married and start a family. The bigger the better.

I’ve had something like writer’s block in recent years, putting writing aside to focus on other things. Firstly I believe a writer shouldn’t really bother writing without something important to say. Secondly, I feel what I do have to say might, for now, be better left unsaid. It’s hard to keep up with our rapid descent into what the dissident right have nicknamed ‘Clownworld’. Third, as an afterthought, I’ve never liked the idea of being overtly political in my creative output. The politics of the day come and go, but certain ideas remain timeless.

Clownworld, characterised by domination of the media and seemingly every Western cultural institution by the far left, abetted if not spearheaded by globalist-technocratic leadership, seems to originate from the United States of America. The UK, the rest of the ‘Anglosphere’ – that is to say the English speaking world including Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as most of Western Europe, tend to be culturally downstream from America. Whatever happens there usually reaches us before long. Once it was the Hollywood movie industry, Coca-Cola and Levis Jeans. Today it’s the domination of big pharma, ‘gender theory’ and all its offshoots, such as gender ‘pronouns’ (now seemingly ubiquitous in Western academic and corporate culture) ‘critical race theory’ and all its offshoots, such as the conception of ‘whiteness’ as some sort of pathology, ‘body positivity’ (the endorsement of obesity) and so on ad nauseam. It’s as if the West, in other words the European-founded world sits mouth agape, ingesting the non-stop stream of cultural sewage coming from the USA, and the stream has only intensified with time. 

There is a compelling argument that many of the ideas bubbling under the surface in Sanine’s world, right on the cusp of erupting into full-blown revolution in Russia, are in fact the direct origin of the current dominant Western culture via the Frankfurt School and the left’s ‘long march through the institutions’, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.

Today we find ourselves in a zeitgeist well advanced beyond the non-conformism of the 1960s ‘hippy era’. We’re told small families or better still no children at all is a good thing, because of climate change you see, not to mention the fact that absolutely everything is racist – but only in the context of the current ‘redefinition’ of racism. Freedom? We’ve never been freer – small children can even choose what gender they want to be. So much for God’s design!

The idea of a novel about a modern technocratic dystopia, something like a current version of 1984, Brave New World or Zamiatin’s We hardly seems original now. I genuinely hope that much of what I’ve written in the couple of paragraphs above will date poorly. And yet it does seem that just when things can’t get any more ridiculous, they do. Still, I can’t help but suspect that not too far in the future, the period of time when we were told women are men and men are women (and indeed can give birth and menstruate) will be remembered as a bizarre footnote in history. We can only hope.

By definition, the antihero transcends the zeitgeist. When the majority tolerate or even defend what they know is wrong, either from a desire to virtue-signal or some other type of moral cowardice, then by default opposing tyranny falls to those unafraid to stand against the tide. They might not be paragons of virtue or morality themselves – but betraying their own principles, at least, is alien to them. Far from being an anachronism shaped only by the environment and era into which he was born, for me at least, Sanine holds up as an antihero for our times.

Brutal Beauty

[update – Ashley Wales, one half of former music producers Spring Heel Jack, was a resident in Nightingale. He kindly shared his memories with me, I’ve included them at the bottom of this post.]

I grew up in Islington, North London, but used to hang around the more deprived neighbouring borough of Hackney, getting up to no good like many teenagers. One of many memories that stand out is running around Hackney Downs with a couple of friends at dusk, trying to come down after taking too much LSD. It was the early nineties.

The cold air hit my face and I felt better at once. Although still hallucinating heavily, I was grounded by my closeness to nature – grass under my feet, the open sky above me. Across the park, spaced evenly apart in the distance, stood the towers of the Nightingale Estate. As the sun set, twinkling lights festooned the tall blocks as one by one, the inhabitants illuminated their homes. To me, this sight was every bit as beautiful as the sun setting over a forest.

The Nightingale Estate seen from Hackney downs

The Nightingale Estate seen from Hackney downs

Nightingale was built in 1968 and comprised the six towers seen above, plus a surrounding sprawl of medium-rise terrace blocks. Even without the influence of drugs, I always found these buildings captivating from nearly every perspective – standing at the base of one tower and looking up, then across the wide open space toward the other towers, or on the few occasions I was inside one, contemplating the view from high up. The blocks sat on a large, raised plateau and were arranged in such a way that no tower stood directly in the view of another. I was impressed by the scale, the uniformity and the repetition – of the towers relative to each other, of the twenty-two storeys in each tower.

I wasn’t alone in this aesthetic appreciation – throughout the mid to late nineties, Nightingale served as the setting for music videos by numerous bands including Travis, BlurSuede and more. It featured on several EP covers by experimental drum and bass outfit Spring Heel Jack. My musical backdrop for this period wasn’t indie and Britpop bands, but rather the Jungle pirate radio stations like Weekend Rush FM, broadcast from an illegal rig at the top of one of Nightingale’s towers.

Nightingale seen at night

Nightingale seen at night

Blowdown of Nightingale towers

Blowdown of Nightingale towers

Between 1998 and 2003 all but one of the towers were demolished, paving the way for a wide scale regeneration of the whole estate. It’s a curious fact that these towers existed for no more than 35 years – the first to be demolished, Farnell Point, lived just 30 years. By most accounts the inhabitants of Nightingale were content, at least in the early days. Many came from cramped houses and were very happy with the relative large size of their new homes and the high-rise views across the city. I remember an interview with one delighted family who’d moved from almost uninhabitable council housing in a neglected industrial town in the north of England. Residents had everything they needed, including local shops and a youth club.

As time went on however, the estate fell into disrepair and crime levels rose. The sprawling, labyrinthine nature of developments like this, many built in the 60s and 70s, became an argument for discontinuing them. As one resident elegantly put it, with its masses of buildings and walkways, by its very nature Nightingale was ‘designed for skulduggery’. The estate’s demolition set a country-wide pattern, with local authorities deciding that packing council tenants into vast blocks and stacking them vertically in high towers didn’t work well, and so across the UK, these mighty structures crumbled down elegantly upon themselves in carefully controlled detonations.

Of course high-rise blocks are anything but consigned to the past, especially in major cities like London. The difference is, the kind now being built are expensive, luxurious, and available only to those who can afford them and the panoramic views they provide.

wide angle shot of Nightingale estate

Designed for skulduggery

Nightingale was the inspiration for the fictional housing estate Broadlands in my forthcoming novel The Release. Without my very real memories of a place that impressed me so strongly, I doubt I’d have been able to describe the setting for this story in quite the same way.

Ashley Wales of Spring Heel Jack shares his memories of living in Nightingale and his feelings about its demolition.

“It’s great to see some pictures of the Nightingale Estate. I lived in Rachel Point from early 1987 until its demolition in 2002 and was one of the last residents to move out before its blowdown. That was the reason we used photos of the estate for our sleeves, the cover of the Sea Lettuce was the view from my front room on the 15th floor facing east. The photos we used were all taken by Steven Parker, an old friend of ours.

I have great memories from my time living on the estate and still have dreams about it after all these years. Every time I walk across the downs there is a big gap in the sky where the six towers used to be, the view is just not the same anymore.

It was not all great though and was a fucking tough place to live, lifts breaking down, people using the communal areas as a toilet, and anti-social residents making your life difficult, basically the same as the rest of Hackney. But on a sunny day it was beautiful and majestic. The downs was just across the road and you could have been somewhere exotic, and you didn’t mind that the council had basically given up on the estate by the 80s.

I remember watching the blowdowns of the other blocks, Embley and Southerland point, standing on my balcony with my daughter and thinking “Jesus, all that concrete and it has just vanished in a cloud of dust.”

When it came to the blowdown of Rachel point I took my daughters to watch it, but Hackney Council were so pleased with themselves for getting rid of what they considered a problem estate that they held a party for local dignitaries like Trevor Nelson and council officials with champagne and cake, while the residents of the estate were treated like dogshit. It really upset me to see the block I had lived in for all those years reduced to rubble. I didn’t feel like celebrating. It was my home for better or worse.

Weekend Rush, the Downs festival, the fantastic views, friends who are no longer here and some great parties. I miss it still.”


The Power of Repetition

(This article is also published on the Honest Publishing website)

Gonna take all my money
Gonna stick it up my nose
Gonna stick it up my nose
Gonna stick it up my nose
Gonna stick it up my fucking nose *

* from ‘Fucked by Rock’ – full lyrics here 

If I had to explain the brilliance of the above lyrics by semi-self parodying UK hard rock group Zodiac Mindwarp, I’d put it down to repetition. The message– that he’s gonna snort all his money up his nose – is reinforced with three repetitions of the same line, then turbocharged by the addition of ‘fucking’ the fourth time round, for extra emphasis.

Of course repetition in music is nothing new. Choruses repeat, as do lines within choruses. Repetition is powerful – repetition with an added twist, even more so. What better way to make something stand out than have it change while everything else around it remains the same, again and again?

Repetition is common in storytelling too. The difference is, unlike the identical repetitions of musical choruses, or that found in numbers and mathematics, stories can only really use this second modality – each repetition bringing a new nuance or twist. Stories repeating identical segments wouldn’t work. You’d get films with the same scene looping like a damaged DVD, or novels with duplicate chunks of text as if caused by a major printing error.

Stories reflect real life. Real life never repeats exactly. No two occurrences are identical, no two mornings ever exactly the same – something is always different. There are examples of storytelling exploring this theme consciously – a well-known one being the film Groundhog Day. A literary example is the novel Remainder by Tom McCarthy. Unable to get this highly original, mould-breaking story past the gatekeepers of the UK publishing world (no doubt precisely because of these qualities) McCarthy eventually found a publisher in France. It tells the story of a man recovering from a serious accident, putting the £8.5 million compensation settlement to use trying to reconstruct a short scene from fragments of his memory in the hope that it will trigger the recollection of more lost memories. No expense is spared – he rents a large house, actors, costumes, even a project manager to ensure everything is in its right place.

With each increasingly feverish reconstruction, something isn’t quite right – a detail out of place here, an acting slip there and the whole scene is ruined, meaning he has to start all over again.

There’s a lot of truth in this. How many of us have tried to recreate a great experience we once had – for example, revisiting the same city only to be disappointed? At best the attempted recreation, even if enjoyable in a different way, just isn’t the same. Nothing can be recreated exactly.

Repetition also works well in comedy. One proponent who really understands this is Stewart Lee. It would take a better mind than me to explain how something not inherently funny at first becomes exponentially funnier after the fourth or fifth repetition – but it does. Lee knows this, and uses it again and again (and a-fucking-gain).

These are all examples of (self) conscious use of repetition, but I believe it isn’t always so deliberate – rather a device that emerges as a natural facet of storytelling. In my short story LM039, a narcissistic scientist tries to teach a lab monkey to speak. Each attempt has a different outcome, rarely the desired one. In Flap Trap, a pervert chases voyeuristic thrills on escalators with a mirror strapped to his shoe. No two outings are the same, despite the repetitive and Sisyphean nature of his chosen hobby.

In my short film Kickoff, the initial moment of quiet signifying the ‘calm before the storm’ as a protest heats up is repeated at the end, with the protagonist describing another short silence immediately before the pent-up passion erupts into violence – a ‘bookend’ effect whereby the story ends in the same way it begins.

Storytelling is filled with repetition. Repetition is more powerful even than the dramatic pause. Used together, they are doubly powerful. Joseph Heller, Ernest Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut are all writers known for using repetition.

I’m still looking for suitable homes for my two novels*. This, as any writer aspiring to publication well knows, is an undertaking filled with repetition. The repeated rejection is banal, but at least no two rejections are exactly the same (even if your submissions are). I’m confident I’ll get there because I can stomach a lot of repetition. Who knows – maybe one day I’ll make money from writing. I could spend some of it supporting struggling writers. Or I could just stick it up my nose. Stick it up my nose. Stick it up my nose. Stick it up my fucking nose.

*Happily I did get this one published.

Kickoff to screen at CineFringe Film Festival 2014

cinefringe short film festival logo

Kickoff gets its first 2014 screening, and its first showing in Edinburgh at the 5th CineFringe festival. Films selected will screen at the Fringe Cinema at Sweet Venues in Grassmarket in August 2014 as part of the wider Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We’re very happy to get into this one – huge kudos to the volunteers who run CineFringe, making cinema a part of the Edinburgh Fringe along with comedy, theatre, arts, dance and music. Screening details to come.

Kickoff screening at Berlin Raindance Filmmakers’ Feierabend, Thursday 24 October

raindance berlin film festival logo
Happy to announce the very first Berlin screening of Kickoff, which will take place on the evening of Thursday 24 October at Katerholzig, venue of one of Berlin’s most famous (and sadly soon to be closed) techno clubs.

Having been unable to attend London Raindance, I’m glad to have the chance to present it again here to an audience of Berlin-based filmmakers and film lovers. Only 6 euros on the door for a great evening of short film and networking – more info here:

Facebook page here:

See you there!