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

City Arts Commission: ‘Choice Gossip for Retail Later’

Over summer I’ve been running writing workshops in the Meadows and Central library, Radford Care Group, and the Marcus Garvey Centre, gathering stories inspired by Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. The commission was for a City Arts project called ‘Words of Wisdom’ which aims to bring older and young people together through literature.

Anyone who has ever stumbled across this blog or my work (with Paul Fillingham) will know how important Alan Sillitoe is to me. I explored the enduring relevance of his debut novel in a commission for The Space called The Sillitoe Trail, brought him back from the dead in ‘For it was Saturday Night’, a comic in my literary graphic novel serial Dawn of the Unread, and presently I’m working on a new graphic novel called Whatever People Say I Am, which aims to dispel myths around identity and give voice to those deprived of the right to speak. He’s popped up elsewhere, but you get the point.

For the City Arts project I broke Saturday Night and Sunday Morning down into four areas: Work, Factory, Community, Relationships. Groups were provided with relevant quotes and extracts which we read and analysed together. These then served as inspiration to reflect on our own lives. The stories that came out were incredible. Here’s a few from our work themed sessions: Life as a pig farmer and the sadness of befriending one animal and discovering the next day it was off to slaughter; a young female locking herself in a toilet to avoid the advances of a lecherous boss; knocking on doors to inform people they had contracted a sexually transmitted disease and having water thrown over you; working at the Greyhound Stadium and hiding tips in your blouse; physiotherapist in a rehab unit working with miners with head injuries; hungover female bitumen workers grafting every hour of daylight; a textile worker who kicks his wife in his sleep because he still dreams he’s sat at his machine working the pedals.

Any analysis of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning rightly focuses on the wonderfully quotable antics of Arthur Seaton, the hard drinking, anti-hero at the heart of the novel. But for this project I wanted to give Mrs Bull a bit of a focus. She may not slug her guts out at the lathe, but she certainly puts in a shift at the yard where she is known as the “Loudspeaker” or “News of the World” for “her malicious gossip” which “travelled like electricity through a circuit, from one power point to another, and the surprising thing was that a fuse was so rarely blown”. Mrs Bull watches people head to the Raleigh factory in the morning and afternoon with one main purpose: “to glean choice gossip for retail later”.

Gossip is a contentious term. Did Mrs. Bull serve an important social purpose in keeping her community in check or was her gossip malicious, with the intent of feeling superior over others? This was perhaps one of the most interesting discussions to come out of our sessions, particularly in light of recent feminist debates about being heard and supporting each other, such as #Metoo

In Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women, Silvia Federici has traced the origins of gossip and found it originally meant godparent, “one who stands in spiritual relation to the child to be baptized”. Later it referred to companions in childbirth, then a term for female friends with strong emotional connotations. It is only recently that it has been used as a derogatory term.

We decided to call this project ‘Choice Gossip for Retail Later’ as a nod to women like Mrs. Bull who’ve been given a hard time over the years but also because this is what we were doing in our sessions: we were gleaning gossip from each other, sharing stories, listening and talking, evaluating and questioning our respective experiences to create a sense of togetherness through words. That choice gossip has taken the form of a series of illustrations with audio recordings which will be released bit by bit over the coming months. You can decide for yourself if this gossip is worthy of retail on 12 November.

Words of Wisdom: Choice Gossip for Retail Later, 12 November (6pm-8pm), City Arts, 11-13 Hockley, Nottingham. NG1 1FH   

Book tickets from Eventbrite here