In Your Face

Stewart Home, Defiant Pose

Penny-Ante, 304pp, £12.99, ISBN 9780978556471

reviewed by Anna Aslanyan

Defiant Pose, first published 25 years ago, was written over a couple of months in 1989. 'I felt that if I wrote quickly,' Stewart Home says in his afterword to the anniversary edition, 'the text would have a greater sense of pressure and urgency.' Despite a two-year gap between that moment and the book's publication, the 1991 blurb claimed: 'Defiant Pose is a story straight from today's headlines.' Many of them remained front-page stuff in 2016.

In fact, a quick look at the recent papers provides ample analogies. 'Segregation at “worrying levels” in parts of Britain' answers the concerns of a character who says: 'These drug-peddling ethnics are corrupting our upstanding white youth with their degenerate habits'. 'The task of repelling the tide that threatened to swamp the unique identity of the British people', to quote another character, echoes the headline 'London is gone – all Islamic'. The vivid descriptions of what law enforcement officers get up to while on duty chime with 'Hundreds of police accused of sexual exploitation'. As for 'Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets form an ancient kingdom which must free itself from the tyranny of Westminster and Brussels', it now features on tabloid pages, in one form or another, in any given week.

The plot of this anti-novel, set in London, revolves around its anti-hero Terry Blake, a skinhead and an anarchist raised on Marx, Hobbes and Mickey Spillane. A working-class warrior, Terry wears Union Jack briefs, thus 'attacking the very basis of this standard’s power', and fights for his nihilist ideals, 'exposing fascism and democracy as the twin faces of capitalism.’ The book's main agenda is to examine close links between anarchism and fascism, two ideologies determined by their fetishisation of the state; something Home later did more thoroughly in his theoretical work Anarchist Integralism: Aesthetics, Politics and the Après-Garde, published under the name Luther Blissett.

Terry's anti-state activities lead to widespread riots, and he watches the Houses of Parliament burn while getting a blow job as he floats down the Thames, reciting 'Fiery Flying Roll', a 1649 pamphlet by the Ranter Abiezer Coppe. As the afterword helpfully points out, the scene is 'a parody of romantic “Sturm und Drang” tropes, but at the same time it draws quite consciously on Klaus Theweleit’s theorizing about the malformation and externalization of the fascist ego as described in his two-volume dissection of Freikorps literature Male Fantasies‘.

Parody is what this book, like most of Home's art, is all about. To subvert the bourgeois genre of novel, the heavy artillery of pulp fiction is systematically deployed. Each fight ends with either 'the satisfying crunch of splintering bone' or 'gouts of blood and the occasional piece of broken tooth'; each fuck, with a 'love hole' and/or 'dark rim of pleasures' filled with 'liquid genetics'. Theory is shelled with such readymade formulae as 'come culture [...] the ultimate in fluid discourse'. Also under fire are 'literary' novels, for instance, A Clockwork Orange, 'middlebrow nonsense that bandied (but never shamelessly exploited) so-called ultra-violence.'

All that is swung with enough panache to convince you that the best thing one can do for literature is parody it, and for art in general, to be 'radically inauthentic'. That being Home's motto, since finishing he has, to mention just a few of his projects in no particular order, written reams of prose and journalism; read some of it to audiences while standing on his head; had himself photographed in the poses his mother took in her 1960s modelling shoots; recorded the punk album Stewart Home Comes in Your Face.

The characters in Defiant Pose are a motley crew: skinheads and hippies, security agents and graffiti artists, corrupt cops and inept intellectuals. Most of them can be easily spotted in London today, despite the changes brought on by the advance of digital technology. The occasional smartphone notwithstanding, these types are forever part of the city. There will always be Terry Blakes walking these streets, chanting: 'Ministers, Fat Parsons, Vicars, Lecturers and Monarchs have been the chief instruments of all horrid abominations which cry for vengeance.'

The book (chosen by both Face and Gay Times as their pick of 1991) is also brimming with sex. Business as usual rather than transgression, it's especially useful as a stimulant for ruminations on a range of revolutionary subjects, from the basis/superstructure theory to polemics with Andrea Dworkin. 'The future of the fuck and the orgasm had more to do with the relentless drive of post-industrial production than old-fashioned penetration.' The back pocket of Terry's sta-pres is always bursting with notes given to him by various birds in the hope of getting a bit of his 'fuck stick’. (In the original manuscript they had phone numbers of London cop shops written on them, but Home's publisher didn't appreciate the prank.)

Another recurring theme, as relevant now as then, is class; a phenomenon that the UK's Conservative party had pronounced extinct just before the book first came out. The rumours of its death proved to be exaggerated. Class is, of course, a relative value: in the eyes of a toff character 'Blake was as proletarian as pie 'n' mash', despite coming from a lower-middle-class background. Another character, a self-styled anarchist leader who pretends to shoplift books to earn his comrades' respect, thinks: 'After the revolution everyone would be middle class and the traditions which the European bourgeoisie had bequeathed to the world would at last become a truly universal culture.'

'While all of the now-classic avant-garde strategies are grist to the Homean mill, that which the Situationists called détournement, a kind of plagiarism that openly declares its unoriginality, is perhaps the key,' the cultural theorist McKenzie Wark says in his foreword. Home pioneered Situationism in Britain until the practice got hijacked by the mainstream. No wonder 'pro-situs' – members of 'the theoretically coherent group My One Flesh' – get an especially vitriolic treatment in the book. 'Deboredom', that realm of rich kids slumming it in Hackney, has now given way to hipsterdom, and psychogeography has been replaced by digital media networking, but the inarticulacy of some of their proponents continues to amaze. Opposite them, in the right corner is 'a tiny Third Positionist sect known as Cockney Nation', soon to be disbanded by its Führer. In its wake come 'the assembled troops of the United Britons Party', followed by 'the highly secretive cadre movement known as AC Thor 33' – more flash-forwards to the recent news of dictionaries struggling to choose between 'fascism', 'xenophobia', and 'alt-right' as the word of the year.

It's difficult to resist playing this spot-a-headline game when reading Defiant Pose, especially in London. The setting of the book may have changed, and yet bagels in Ridley Road Market are still not as good as those in Brick Lane; the Samuda Estate on the Isle of Dogs, although privatised now, is still in a run-down condition; Sandringham Road, while no longer Hackney’s front line, still 'lies uneasily between the north and east axes of the city'. Not to mention London transport, which slows down the pace of the narrative at every turn; despite some improvement over the years, it has recently 'ground the capital to a halt'.

One thing that stands out more than the pulpiest passages in the book is Home's journalistic style, factual and straightforward; mixed with repetitive porn and crime cliches, it generates truly avant-garde prose. Much of the book reads like a news report written on speed with an Oi! album playing in the background. Simplicity and repetition are both used (not just here but in most of Home's fiction) to counter the traditional novel with its overwrought sentences stamped into the page by their own cold weight. Not so with Defiant Pose. A quarter of a century on, it's still a fiery roll flying in your face.

Anna Aslanyan is a journalist and translator. She writes for a number of publications – including 3:AM magazine, the London Review of Books blog, the Spectator and the Times Literary Supplement – mainly about books and arts.