About James

James is the Literature Editor of LeftLion magazine. He is also an academic and a writer who has been published in various magazines and books. This means he spends most of his time in front of a computer screen writing about life instead of living it. Therefore, do not trust a word he says.

A Geoff Dyer Moment with Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer is the author of Out of Sheer Rage, my favourite book of all time. In this, he attempts to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence but is tormented, exhilarated, and exhausted by the process.

‘Looking back it seems, on the one hand, hard to believe that I could have wasted so much time, could have exhausted myself so utterly, wondering when I was going to begin my study of DH Lawrence; on the other, it seems equally hard to believe that I ever started it, for the prospect of embarking on this study of Lawrence accelerated and intensified the psychological disarray it was meant to delay and alleviate.’

The book takes its title from a letter Lawrence wrote on 5 September 1914: ‘Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid – queer stuff – but not bad.’

Dyer tricks us into thinking he’s not writing about Lawrence but he’s writing about him all the time. Behind every vacillation and procrastination is an astute critical observation. For example, we find Dyer in a state of restlessness as he embarks on a move to Paris, or perhaps moving in with his girlfriend in Rome. These seemingly trivial details are annoying to the reader who wants explicit facts about Lawrence, not the bleddy author, but this is pure Lawrence. He was a notorious fidget arse. He never lived in the same place for more than two years. And then just when the reader is about to launch this self indulgent rant into the fire, Dyer gives us the connections.

‘And while he may not have owned a house, the Lawrences’ constant moving obliged them to keep making home. It is typical of Lawrence that, on the one hand, he became more and more anxious about finding a place to settle and, on the other, achieved the ideal condition of being at home anywhere: ‘I feel a great stranger, but have got used to that feeling, and prefer it to feeling “homely”. After all, one is a stranger, nowhere so hopelessly as at home.’

It’s full of subtle nuances like this that slowly reveal the essence of Lawrence’s personality. It’s also a commentary on the process and point of writing as well as the purpose of literary criticism. It’s with this in mind that Dyer reserves his greatest scorn for academia which ‘kills everything it touches. Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch.’

I reread Out of Sheer Rage every year and it gets better each time as my knowledge of Lawrence deepens. It also partly inspired our approach (Paul Fillingham and I) to the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre. We wanted to create an alternative to the linear biography and curate Lawrence’s life through artefacts rather than a rigid chronology. Just as Dyer’s book implores us to feel Lawrence rather than analyse him with cold detachment, so too we want the form of our project to reflect the content. If Lawrence was ‘was nomadic to the point of frenzy’ then our memory theatre must be nomadic too and retrace Lawrence’s footsteps across Europe and New Mexico.

Lawrence is impossible to pin down – either in movement or in classifying his work. He wrote plays, short stories, novels, travelogues, essays, poems, painted, and was pretty handy at DIY. Likewise, Dyer refuses categorisation. I saw Dyer give a talk at Nottingham Contemporary many years ago. I was sat close to the front row eagerly awaiting his entrance when a spindly figure turned up late during the introductions and sat down in front of me. He kept fidgeting. Everything about his presence was annoying. I was about to tell him to show some respect when the presenter called out ‘Now I’d like to welcome Geoff Dyer to the podium’ and the irritant in front of me got up.

In November I joined the Idler magazine ‘In Conversation with Geoff Dyer’ on Zoom. It quickly became a very Geoff Dyer experience. A week before the talk, co-presenter Victoria Hull asked if anyone had any questions. I replied and was asked if I’d like to ask Geoff the question myself. I said yes, even though I didn’t want to. On the day of the talk I was a complete bag of nerves, convinced I’d make a malapropism, or stutter, or the wi-fi would cut out, or the GF would interrupt and ask why I was idling about again instead of doing the washing up, etc. All of these possible permutations made the whole experience thoroughly unenjoyable. And of course, I never got to ask the question anyway.

Another distraction was obsessing about how close I was to Dyer in the weird, disembodied grid that is Zoom. He was one up, two across. A crossword clue away. Yet technically he was miles apart, calling in from Los Angeles. The problem with having 300 odd squares featuring strangers is I instantly wanted to know who these strangers were and if any of these strangers were more significant than the other strangers. And so, another distraction began: celebrity bingo.

It was while scrolling through the pages of other guests (while trying to memorise my question) I noticed a woman painting while the talk was going on. Not only painting but eating and painting. Did she not understand the etiquette of Zoom? Was she aware she was eating with her mouth open? What was she painting that was more important than listening to Geoff Dyer? Was she being deliberately obtuse? Of course what made her rudeness even more annoying was it meant I was focusing on her rather than Geoff Dyer. Fortunately, the talk was recorded and is now available on YouTube – minus the other guests – so there’s no excuse to get distracted.

The next Idler talk is Adam Buxton on 3 December. You can subscribe to the Idler for £39.95 (6 issues and free entry to talks) here.

You can visit the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre here or pitch artefacts and ideas to us on our instagram account: DHLawrenceDigitalPilgrimage here

Challenging stereotypes through comics

I’m worried about the world we live in at the moment. From Brexit to Covid to the US elections, we’re becoming increasingly fragmented and tribal. These divisions are amplified by social media platforms which were meant to enhance democracy by giving voice to everyone. But now that we can all speak; we’ve forgot how to listen. The world has become a very noisy place…

It’s for this reason, I’ve spent the last three years working on a comic series that aims to dispel myths around identity. Each issue has taken around two years of interviews and research. This is good old-fashioned s-l-o-w journalism, offsetting the immediacy of social media. If we want to challenge stereotypes, prejudice and simplistic thinking, we need to listen.

The project is called Whatever People Say I Am (yes, another nod to Sillitoe, gawd bless him) and each issue focuses on a particularly theme – the elderly, refugees, the unemployed, the lonely – and of course everything you presume to know about these types of people – that’s what they’re not.

The aim is to take the reader from birth to death (the last comic in the series is with someone who works in a funeral parlour) but at present, the comics are lobbed up online as and when myself and Paul Fillingham get a chance to finish them. We have three issues so far. The project has been funded by the Police Commissioner, City of Football and Kaplan College Inc (as well as the goodwill of me and Paul). But we’ve nearly run out of private investment so it will soon be time to continue with the Arts Council Grant form I started three years ago and gave up on.

This week we published ‘What is Coming‘ – the story of Syrian refugees who have settled in Nottingham. Some arrived here via the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement scheme (VPRS). Others through sheer will and determination. They are ordinary people living ordinary lives doing ordinary jobs who gave everything up for one thing: To live.

None of us know what is coming, which is why this project is so important to me. It’s not just about writing stories. It’s about changing perceptions and helping to ‘build a better world with words’. I want these stories to make a difference. As with the Dawn of the Unread format, we have included embedded essays so that readers can gain deeper context to the stories and learn more about the people involved.

These first three stories also have another function, to utilise research by Dr Loretta Trickett and make her findings more accessible to a wider audience. I work part time as a senior lecturer in digital humanities at Nottingham Trent University and I want the incredible work that goes on here to have a deeper impact on society to help bring about meaningful change. There’s no point hiding it away in journals that only a privileged few have access to. Therefore, we have taken her research into new and emerging communities and, along with the interviews, drawn out important themes to shape our three stories.

Now, get reading them. www.whateverpeoplesayiam.co.uk

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This is an abridged (and tweaked) version of a blog originally published at Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature on 4 November 2020