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Nightmare on sea: a strange, once-forgotten history of the Kent coast is a cult favourite

David Seabrook’s All the Devils are Here was first published in 2002 to relative indifference – but is beloved by a select few.

Has a theoretical practice been more watered down and lazily deferred to in recent years than psychogeography? The merest whiff of the word summons images of the lone meaning-seeker sallying forth with Kendal mint cake and PhD in pocket to divine the spirits.

Though tagged as psychogeography, David Seabrook’s strange and hypnotic study of the declining Kentish coastal districts of Medway and Thanet is more akin to its theoretical step-sibling of hauntology, the term spawned by Jacques Derrida to refer to a temporal disjunction in time and place, where a ghost can be perceived as “that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive”. Neither word features in All the Devils Are Here, but plenty of ghosts do. First published in 2002, the book’s rediscovery will hopefully install it as an urtext for the hordes of drifters following in its slipstream. Seabrook did not get hung up on analysis. While there are shadows of WG Sebald and Iain Sinclair here – the latter called Seabrook “the dole-queue De Quincey” and helped him find a publisher – this is less an enlightened perambulation than a fevered nightmare.

Initially met with relative indifference but beloved by a select few – including the Backlisted Podcast, which is responsible for its reanimation – All the Devils Are Here outshines most work of a similar ilk by being utterly committed to its subject: the portrait of a living hell inhabited by Kent residents past and present, including Charles Dickens, Carry On… film stars, TS Eliot, blackface boardwalk entertainers, John Buchan and retired rent boys. It is an archaeological dig, an exorcism, an occultist reading of wrongdoings in Rochester, Chatham, Ramsgate, Deal and Margate. It’s neither crime study, travel guide nor history text, yet somehow a bricolage of all – a Broadstairs Babylon.

That the author’s back-story is vague makes All the Devils Are Here all the more intriguing; the book feels like one of its own characters, dug up from a near past already fading from view. Seabrook studied Proust and later taught English abroad but biographical details remain scant – most of his writings were done by hand, largely unpublished and now believed lost.

Meanwhile the faded South East of the turn of the millennium – a place of dingy flats above cafes where hammer attacks took place, and clifftop houses where secret fascist networks formed – is the same one that recently turned away from Europe, to instead look inwards and backwards.

If Brexit is partly about returning to the pre-EU days described in the book – when, ensconced in the Albemarle hotel in Margate, an ailing Eliot envisioned The Waste Land (seeking a commemorative plaque, Seabrook instead sees a sign that reads “Toilets” and mistakenly takes it for the poetry titan’s name”), or when the 19th century artist Richard Dadd saw his father as the devil and stabbed him to death during a walk near Rochester – then God help us all, frankly. Thanet, so symbolically significant in the referendum, is now imbued with meaning the author could only have dreamed of. Nigel Farage would have been a great subject for Seabrook, had the author not been found dead, aged 48, in his Canterbury flat by police in 2009, after an apparent heart attack. He was two books into a promising career that, as in the work of Gordon Burn, merged fact and fiction with forensic flair. Forging links and detecting echoes is what Seabrook does best, his opening chapter segueing from the mental decline of Dadd to Dickens’s half-finished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), the subject of much speculation from the “Droodists” who have dissected the unsolved murder within:

Reality, with razor and knife, is about to gatecrash this fiction in a storm of arterial blood. In August 1843 Cloisterham/Rochester was to be shaken by news of a patricide just a few miles out of town. We’re talking convergence, convulsions. Call it palimpsestuous, this dark upon dark.

Further darkness follows, as Seabrook documents the area’s links with Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, a mob best represented by William Joyce, who ran an electrical shop in Whitstable and, as Lord Haw-Haw, broadcast rambling war-time missives to millions of listeners urging them to surrender to Germany.

Seabrook’s presence is ghost-like, a fleeting semi-cynical apparition who surfaces from his deep historical dérives to bemoan having to pay £3.60 to visit the relaunched Charles Dickens Centre. (“Harry Secombe as Mr Pickwick cut the ribbon… five hundred thousand pounds invested in sensor pads, soundtracks, video footage, laser-disc projections and full-size dummies. A new dawn.”) After fascism, patricide and mental breakdowns, the book’s remarkable final third is a grim portrait of a postwar homosexual milieu centred around one “Gordon Meadows”, a Deal-based septuagenarian and former rent boy, whose recollections are the key to unlocking another secret history.

In these catacombs of memory we find a dipsomaniac Charles Hawtrey, banned from every pub in Deal and rescued from a house fire “sitting naked on his bed clutching a melting telephone”; the writer Robin Maugham (“hung like an incubus, drunk as a lord”) who inherited wealth from his uncle Somerset and whose nine inch cock sends a young Gordon fleeing in fright; actor Peter Arne, battered to death by a homeless man he picked up; and famed boxer Freddie Mills, with whom Gordon has an unsatisfactory sexual encounter and was later rumoured to be the perpetrator of the unsolved “Jack The Stripper” murders of the mid-1960s. There are wealthy men of power, exotic Egyptian locations, acts of blackmail and underage boys. It’s semi-closeted life at its grubbiest, and all connected back to Deal.

As a conclusion broods on the horizon we’re left wondering who exactly Seabrook is. We take one step closer to finding out when our narrator, broke and possibly widowed, addresses the reader about “things I haven’t mentioned” as he enters a pub to pursue “a question of rent”. Here he encounters a man who relates an unnerving story, before the two depart, leaving the reader voyeuristically complicit in a dire sexual transaction. Such is the power of the prose, All the Devils Are Here is a matter of survival rather than enjoyment. Yet, like a Stockholm Syndrome victim, you may find yourself not wanting to leave the clutches of your captor. 

All the Devils Are Here
David Seabrook
Granta Books, 192pp, £10

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist