“Anytime language breaks down, there’s always a possibility for a different reality”: A Conversation between Steve Hanson and Carl Lavery — Tobias Ryan

Published earlier this year by Erratum Press, Steve Hanson’s Last Days of Pompeii – Vol. 1 is a scathing satire on higher education and a clarion call against the inanity and complacency of modern life. Along with Carl Lavery, professor of Theatre and Performance at the University of Glasgow, we convened on Zoom to discuss the novel, its influences, the context which inspired it, and what hope remains of escaping the “fractal prison” of contemporary British society.

Steve Hanson: I’m from a little town called Todmorden, which isn’t too far from Manchester in the Calder Valley. I guess people know about it now because it’s got this whole green thing going on, but when I grew up it was just a post-industrial slump town. I came up from there, out of a working class background. My parents worked in factories, cotton print factories, sewing shops, while there still were some. I worked in factories a long time ago too, and basically I went to art school in order to escape the immediate present of those circumstances.

Last Days of Pompeii is a description of someone who’s disgruntled with being in higher education, but he’s also trying to write. And he writes this rather sick short story, which interleaves the chapters on his experiences. It’s actually a short story I wrote when I was about twenty, because I wanted a really crap short story and there was one there. It seemed pointless inventing one.

The character in that short story is called Tod, and his second name is Male. Basically the lead character is called Dead Man, and Todmorden, which is twinned with Bramsche in Germany, means “death murders” in German. So he’s “dead man from murder town.” But obviously it’s about him not escaping. He’s kind of reborn through this ridiculous sort of League of Gentlemen style story. Oddly enough, Harold Shipman, they think, might have done his first murder in Todmorden.

So, although it’s calculated to work so that anybody can read it on a facile level, there are things that I’ve encoded into it that might not be obvious to people, which there is in everything that I do.

The title, for example, comes from Bulwer-Lytton’s book The Last Days of Pompeii, which is a sort of unendurable Victorian novel, but he wrote a book called The Coming Race, which is really interesting. The epigraph is from that, which people talk about as being kind of proto-H.G. Wells. It’s got a sci-fi angle to it. It’s quite Jules Verne, really. But The Coming Race has a slightly whiffy, bad Darwinism to it, which I’ve kept on purpose. Whether that’s morally right or not, I don’t know. But there are only tiny nods to it in Volume I.

I wrote all of this as one big thing around 2018, so it’s a much bigger work, this is just the first part. Those sorts of allusions to Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race and things, they develop much more across the second volume.

Tobias Ryan: When you were in art school was there particular medium or practise that you focused on?

SH: When I was younger I did all kinds of stuff. I did photo work, image and text stuff, some in galleries. I ran a group called Manchester Left Writers and we did a show at Castlefield. I’m about to do another art show with somebody in June, which involves destroying a Jimmy Savile autograph with mushrooms and then eating it. I wrote for music mags for years and did strange music.

But writing always made sense. I’ve had poetry published. There’s more poetry coming out. I’ve done critical writing. I did a PhD eventually in the Sociology Department of Goldsmiths, hung around Goldsmiths a lot, taught there for a year. I taught in art schools for about 15 years until I gradually lost my faith in the whole ethos of it, which the book partly describes.

I interviewed people, Jeff Nuttall for instance, and hung around Bradford School of Art. Its surrounding atmosphere was very much coming out of ‘68. Really good friends of mine had been part of that world where they said, “well, I’m not gonna do anything.” Ne travaillez jamais. There’s fucking no way. Insurance and banks all that stuff, it isn’t going to survive. And then eventually it didn’t happen, obviously, and they kind of got absorbed back into art schools.

It had been something else, Bradford School of Art. Adrian Henri used to be a visiting tutor and would turn up; they used to get people like Cornelius Cardew to come in and teach sessions. They were still trying to keep the spirit alive. Even up to the early 2000s. So that really was my ultimately false idea of what art school was because I was in this strange little hidden lagoon. And for a while I managed to maintain it and went off to teach. And eventually I think when I was working in the universities, it got to the point where I’d had enough of it.

TR: Carl, can I ask you a little about your background?

Carl Lavery: I still work at university, by the edge of my fingernails, really. I have a very similar background to Steve, which is probably why his book disturbed me. There were a couple nights that I didn’t sleep very well because of it; it seems to have tapped into something.

I think the book articulates a deep resentment, which I think is absolutely justified, and it did that in a kind of deranging fashion. Part of my sympathy with the book is pathos. I’m from a very working class background. Nobody had been to university before, and then I ended up, strangely, doing a degree in French and philosophy, the reason I chose French being that my dad had said speaking a foreign language might be a good way to become a spy. That was the only academic advice my dad ever gave me.

I ended up at UEA with an interesting bunch of people, doing an MA and PhD in European Thinking and Thought, which brought me into a lot of the terrain that Steve had been brought into. But whereas Steve was brought into that via art practice, I stumbled on it through philosophy and because of UEA. Writing was massive at UEA and there was always this attempt by the people there, these academics, to think through alternative modes of expression that would be able to tap into the decentring of the philosophy itself. So rather than writing like fucking Hegel or something, you would try to express yourself in a way that would be, if not palatable, then possibly a bit lyrical. And I really think there’s a kind of an amazing dark lyricism in this book, which I responded to.

But there are several kinds of register in it, too. There’s a very flat register, a bit like Michel Houellebecq. It’s so flat.

SH: I think, in a way, I’m nervously trying to push him away and admit less that I’ve read it, taken it on board, and think he’s onto something. I’d rather he wasn’t. It’s actually got to that point where I’ve broken from an earlier version of myself, which was far more evangelistic about left wing politics and possibility and hope. Now I’m saying, actually, he was always on to something, unfortunately. He put us on notice about the end of the neoliberal period when the left hadn’t a clue. Or certainly the leftists around me didn’t. Many of his opinions are vile, but I suspect lots of the left just haven’t bothered to read him and don’t see the utopian dimension, or how he gets the way history has moved and is moving.

CL: There is something so realistic in that utter stylised dampening, though. And I kind of wonder if it’s repressed rage? I mean, how do you describe the inanity that we live in? How do you describe a sense in which nobody believes in anything anymore?

I’ve said to Steve that I see this work as a work of absolute realism about the contemporary university. You talk about this complete corporatization of any kind of politics and this thing which just swallows anything that was good and authentic and pedagogic about it. I think that’s why it’s painful for somebody like me, the absolute effective realism. It would be really interesting to read this book as a kind of Raymond Williams-esque attempt at expressing some structure of feeling, and to read it alongside things like The History Man and Kingsley Amis, charting this absolute worsening of what those books were tapping into, and what Steve is very rightly vomiting up. There’s a real sense in which this book has a lineage.

I’ve seen the dream, or the metanarrative that’s in there, which the unnamed protagonist of the novel discusses, I’ve seen that as the kind of fever dream academics would have by being deranged by the insanity that you depict so well in the first part of the book.

SH: The other side to that is that to live in Manchester is to live in the permanent and endless recycling of dead myths. There’s this constant recycling of Joy Division references, and everybody around me still seems to be able to manage to be excited about it, which I find bewildering and scary. Like they are possessed or not quite functioning people.

When I was writing the final section, they had these signs up which were just the absolute nadir of that recycling of dead myths about the Suffragettes and “John Robb buys organic food here” – and who fucking cares? All of that indicates its opposite. In a way you have to read everything in Manchester as completely opposite to what it’s telling you. If it’s telling you it’s completely vital – and here’s the reason why – it’s really telling you that it’s absolutely not. It was a globalising city at one point in the 19th century, but we’re still living with the consequences of what it did then. We might not survive them. This constant, uncritical positive celebration of Manchester is actually morally bankrupt.

TR: From the outside, not living there, that critique you’ve given of Manchester seems applicable to the UK in general.

SH: Absolutely. It does.

CL: I live in Glasgow and it’s exactly the same scenario.

I was thinking about the book again last night with the stuff that’s come out with Rishi Sunak and his wife, and this complete rip-off of the whole culture; it’s what the book’s prose is tapping into: a strange dialectic of impotence that I think many of us feel. It’s almost like if you haven’t been so deranged in the university as to have a breakdown, then something’s wrong.

There’s a darkening, a complete darkening, of that psycho-geographic, Patrick Keiller-esque project. It’s as if Patrick Wright picked it up in the 90s, Keiller ran with it a bit in the 2000s, and then, as you’ve said, that project is now completely defunct. There’s that, and there’s also a real awareness of the city, but there’s not even a way that you could psycho-geographically negotiate the place now. In a way, your book is even more savage than Laura Oldfield Ford’s Savage Messiah. At the end of that 2018 Verso collection, she says something like there is a class war going on in the UK, and there’s only one side fighting it. She’s talking about the class war we’re seeing with Johnson and all that, the insanity of that, but then the university itself becomes a metonym of the fucking absolute madness that we are living through now in the UK.

SH: It’s fractal, really.

CL: 100%. It’s fractal; it’s a shard of absolute chaos.

SH: I wanted to give you something which isn’t going to make you feel good. The only way to blow it apart was to be really, really fucking rude about it, you know? And I’m still troubled by how rude I am towards it because there are still great people working within the standard frame in universities. However, I just got to the point where I thought the only thing you can do is deliver a splinter into the eye now.

There’s also a link between Pompeii and my previous book, A Shaken Bible. That was a very particular piece of experimental work, an early version of which had a big essay in the back in which I talked to Andrew Shanks about Jan Patočka, the philosopher. The reason it got renamed A Shaken Bible was after Patočka’s idea of the solidarity of the shaken. If you read the papers in which he describes that idea for the first time, he talks about metanoia, he talks about how in these extreme circumstances what you end up with is a breakdown, out of which you can start to piece things back together again. As you were saying, Carl, the people in the university who have had breakdowns are the ones to be trusted. I mean, it’s completely awful for me to take that context and apply it to this because he was talking about such extreme repression; they basically hounded him to death. But a very solid core of the critique of HE in Last Days … is about insistently saying: actually to lose your faith in this is faith. If you don’t lose your faith now, you’ll probably be management in five minutes, and are therefore not to be trusted.

I dug out this little piece recently from The New Left Review, from about 1980, by a guy called Dan Latimer. He reviews Frederic Jameson’s original paper on postmodernism, and in it he’s fantastically rude about the universities, Latimer is. He says something like “students turn up to classes on modernism, where the literature is squeezed to death in the tweedy arms of the professors,” something like that. And then he says, basically, that the students pretend to stare into the horror of the void for a couple of years, and then they get back into the game, and they’re looking for the two-car garage and Redwood hot tub. After that he describes the whole financial scene in America and Wall Street, and he calls it “a berserk obsession with the bottom line.” It’s a beautiful use of the word berserk. But that was ’79-80, I think, and he’s really describing what everybody got later on. So, there’s a wider disaffection than just the university in me, I think. And it’s to do with questioning how you make meaning in this wider, nuthouse situation, which as we all know got even more dangerous and crazy in the opening months of 2022. It’s about the futility of trying to make wider meaning in a present that’s covered by all those shadows.

CL: One thing I did find really interesting in the book, and I’m not sure I can explain it very well, but I really felt, at the end of the book, in its language, the images reminded me of Rimbaud and his use of language in Illuminations and Une saison en enfer. What I thought was fascinating was that the language becomes kind of like crystal. And when it becomes crystal, it opens up so many different perspectives, as if some little act of resistance, this kind of language that you can’t eviscerate because it’s already crystal.

SH: The ending is like that because you can’t really end ranting. You have to give people some place to go which is theirs. That way of writing, which is almost like speaking to yourself in your head, really, and a little bit more chopped up, is developed more in the next volume. When you described the way things are more generally and how that reflects inside the university, or how Manchester is just like everywhere else, it is fractal. It’s like every part of it reflects all of the other parts. But with writing like that, there’s a difference between crystal and fractal. It’s a prism; the thing that I want is a prism. I want to give you something, actually, that you can look in from lots of other sides and take other things from. That’s the difference. This fractal madness that you’re caught in all the time is not a prism. In fact it’s a prison. It’s something you’re locked into. So, something needs to be attempted, whether it can succeed or not, where you give people something that they can still inhabit. You know he can’t be that ranting person, and ultimately it can’t be Houellebecqian either.

CL: I think as a reader that kind of paradigm of dialectics does tend to exist in those crystal images at the end. It’s really beautiful, but it’s very tricky. You say: “The trillion ton lake of Black Stars has taken the sky off, it will pour in on us all.” “In a nanosecond the sleet turned to hailstones like marbles. Then needles fired from a trillion blowpipes.” That’s really beautiful and very strange. The thing about crystal language, too, unlike the fractal, is that crystals break. Anytime language breaks down, there’s always a possibility for a different reality, I think. And also in crystal there’s a kind of chrysalis type of thing as well. Weirdly, the artificiality of the language, and that it can shatter and break, actually opens up to something. I hesitate to call it authentic, but it’s certainly not that folded in fractal from which there’s no escape: things might shatter and open up into something else. There’s hopefulness in the language, not in the tone, but certainly in the language.

SH: Absolutely. I mean, there’s a longing; there’s a huge unsatisfied longing for something else. Most people I talk to, the good guys, the people I trust, they’ve got this huge, huge longing for something really fucking different. In my poetry collection Proceedings, there’s one little section where I say “the thing that everybody wants is not this.” What do we all want? Not this.

CL: There are also brilliant little maxims that run throughout Last Days … like kind of Nietzschean maxims: “Here, to fail is to succeed;” “If the uncanny were to be found, or the terror in the everyday, it lay in meeting these disingenuous individuals.” I really love all this. “Humans. They could bring their shit in, but they could never manage to take the debris out;” “He didn’t want it to be like this. It wasn’t always like this.” These little studs, they’re so interesting for the reading experience. There are so many discursive little narratives, introjections, things never really resolving; it whorls around in this crowbarring of heterogeneities.

TR:  Does that swirling continue throughout the second part?

SH:  It was written as one thing, so yes, but that end moment with the strange fading out was an obvious place to end Volume I. It carries on, though, and he’s back in the university. He’s exam invigilating, there’s stuff about that, doing it to make money, and he’s also writing other things. There’s a point in Volume 1 where he says this draft is shit, it needs the bin; no, what it needs is its own characters to come back into the story really violently and reorder it. So that’s what happens: those characters actually come into the narrative and start to violently reorder the present.

But the whole thing, without giving too much away, has got more of a structure. With this idea about fractals, you pull back and you see the full shape of everything. And it’s much less about the university at the end, than it is a bigger historical thing. But that comes across through the fiction he’s writing, while his everyday present is deteriorating at the same time. It’s also partly about the dangers of the megalomania of engendering these characters when you’re absolutely powerless, as a kind of diagnostic of some of those things. There’s a kind of implied warning in some of it around that. Writing like this has more than a whiff of megalomania. So be warned.

It’s a distinct second volume as well because there’s a shift. The first story he writes, which is this really crap thing about a chicken factory, just introduces you to the general atmosphere, the crappy intellectual temperature of things and to the structure, which is almost epistolary: a little bit of short story, a little bit of narrative, little bit of short story, little bit of narrative. And there are these notes he’s writing on his phone, and then there are those headlines which I got from Reuters news feeds.

CL: Another thing which is very fascinating to me, and I don’t know what you think about this, is that there are moments of the 19th century in this book. Not in terms of realism, but in terms of these little moments of what Schiller calls, borrowing, I think, from Stendhal, la promesse du bonheur, this kind of moment of happiness. There’s a really beautiful moment when you talk about snow, with reference to Mark E Smith. So while the end of the book really reminded me of Rimbaud, moving into a dark symbolism, the bit of snow reminded me of a 19th century Impressionism. When I look at those pictures, I feel that happiness in the aesthetic, because in the same way as snow rebirths the world, as you mention in the book, so too do those paintings of the Impressionists in the 1870s, in this promise of happiness.

SH: I agree, there are tiny moments. That’s where the longing is. It’s really blatantly obvious to everybody that the whole world needs rebirthing, but it’s not going well, you know. And the people who are on hand in this maternity hospital are fucking headcases, they’re psychopaths.

CL: I think that’s what I respond to. The book gives a structure of feeling of a certain type of person who is deranged by all of these structures and who can’t fit into them. It does feel sometimes that the only solution is exit.

SH: Yeah. It is. Well, that’s how I feel most of the time. But there isn’t one, an exit, or certainly no one’s sent the memo around here if there is …

Steve Hanson currently works for the Arts Council. LastDays of Pompeii (Vol. 1) is available now from Erratum Press. Twitter: @yesitizess 

Carl Lavery teaches theatre and performance at the University of Glasgow.