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Wild in the Streets of Sleepy London Town

OnlyLovers [1]2,989 words

Dave Wallis
Only Lovers Left Alive [2]
London: Anthony Blond, 1964
Richmond, Va.: Valancourt, 2015

“In those days, before the death of the last square . . .”

At some point, I suppose with Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange,[1] the “youth in trouble” genre, already fairly exploitative beneath its standard moralistic framework,[2] mutated into a “cult of youth” format, ramping up the sex and violence (“ultra-violence” and “the old in-out”) and appealing directly to newly affluent teenagers themselves.[3]

Savage Streets 02 [3]Richard Nixon gives a 50s-style beatdown to Emilio Estavez?

The trope-naming Wild in the Streets came in the generation-defining year of 1968, but between it and Clockwork the Brits gave us Only Lovers Left Alive, which quickly disappeared while leaving a barely discernible trace of influence.[4] [4] Now, Valancourt’s 20th Century Classics series has brought it back to light, in their typically painstaking and scholarly fashion (with a new introduction by Andrew Tullis and the original, very Wild in the Streets of Swinging London wrap-around jacket photograph by Bruce Fleming[5]).

They describe it thusly:

A sudden rash of suicides quickly spirals out of control, as all the adults do away with themselves in a wave of existential ennui. With the “oldies” dead, teenagers inherit the world, suddenly free to smash, loot and love as they like. Motorcycle gangs hold wild orgies in abandoned apartments and prowl through the shambles of disintegrating London in search of disappearing stocks of lipstick, gasoline and food, now the currency in a new world of unspeakable violence.

Well, alrighty then!

With the “oldies” out of the way, the kids are alright, and Wallis lays on great lashings of u-v and the old in-out, but without the drag of Burgess’s cod-Russian slang.[6] As one review puts it, they “fight, f*ck and forage.”

As a grown-up might expect, the supply of food, drink, swank apartments, petrol, and, well, everything, runs low, and the teens perforce make their way northwards. Here, tribes and communities eventually emerge and take root as a “teenage survivalist state”[7] in Scotland. Thus, the ending is far more organic and believable than Burgess’ rather forced “and then Alex grows up” final chapter.[8]

Otherwise recalling The Wild Boys or Lord of the Flies, but written without Burroughs’ trademark misogyny, or Golding’s public school models,[9] Wallis presents a more plausible and even, perhaps, “more reader-friendly” scenario in which normal, ordinary boys and girls like you and me[10] romp together before finding themselves, out of necessity, reconstructing society along the lines of what Tullis calls “bucolic self-sufficiency.”

This may explain the surprisingly positive review given the book in Heatwave, a Situationist magazine. Although Wallis seems to have been the usual parlor pinko, OLLA postulates a more anarcho-syndicalist view of the underlying web of relations still living beneath, and here outliving (literally), the industrial carapace; “beneath the pavement, the beach,” as the ’68 graffito had it.[11]

The muting of the usual survivalist misogyny also explains its appeal to the Rolling Stones, whose misogyny was more like that of a teen idol “bad boy” (“Mother’s Little Helper,” “Stupid Girl,” and “Under My Thumb,” all on one side of Aftermath, but balanced out by Brian Jones’ “Lady Jane”) rather than Burroughs’ militantly ideological “Women are a biological mistake.”[12]

With Andrew Loog Oldham and Allen Klein still promoting the “bad boys” image, the book seemed tailor-made for the Stone’s riposte to A Hard Day’s Night,[13] with Marianne Faithful as the dolly with the fur coat and rifle on the back cover. Fortunately, unlike their riposte to Sgt. Pepper,[14] the film project (which would have involved Rebel Without a Cause’s Nicholas Ray) came to naught.[15]

Aftermath had been considered for the soundtrack,[16] but presumably the energies inspired by Wallis’ work were better invested in Jagger’s vampiric performance in Performance,[17] as well as the Beggars’ Banquet LP:[18]

Well, what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock n’ roll band?
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s just no place for a street fighting man

I mention Burroughs because, first, a little of Burroughs’ experimental prose might have muted criticisms that it “tended towards an adventure novel full of cliché and sensationalism.”[19] True, Wallis tends to a straightforward prose style, but like Hemingway or Chandler, it’s not without its moments of sudden uplift; a roving gang, intent on plunder or battle, turns a corner and confronts a market turned proto-rave:

The whole wide roadway was full of their own generation, who had now inherited the world, and they all seemed to be dancing.

He can also create interesting characters, like Alf Neighbor, one of those phony friend of the working class “there’re doing it to us again, mates” newspaper columnists that every Brit paper used to have on staff.[20]

Alf also demonstrates Wallis’ subtle kind of modernist structure-tricks, when early on he announces to his readers (his “chums”) an intimation of the book’s ultimate themes:

“My advice is — live in the country, learn from the teenagers and if you want to murder someone then do it — present company excepted of course, chums.”

Another interestingly self-referential moment is a chapter where a stuttering, lovesick gang member (a useful “runt” in Jack Donovan’s terms) on a recon mission accompanies each dangerous moment with a mental rehearsal of how he will narrate it to the girl who ignores him.[21] His name: Charlie Burroughs.

As for sensationalism, despite the violence directed outward in the subsequent struggle to survive, the suicides themselves are all off-stage, and the rather jokey way the kids — and the government — refer to people who have “gone and done it” reminds me of the casual and perhaps unintentionally humorous suicides of the teenager motorcycle gang in the contemporary Brit teen/motorcycle/voodoo film Psychomania;[22] those teens, however, were convinced they would be reborn as immortals, and here the oldies most definitely look forward to oblivion.

I also reference Burroughs (William) because although Tullis doesn’t bring him up, I have to believe Wallis was an influence on The Wild Boys (London: Calder, 1971), Burroughs being in London at the time both books were written.[23]

Even the paperback covers strongly resemble each other:

4047989864_0becd22d76_b [5]

WildBoys [6]

Although Bowie’s supposed reliance on both Wild Boys and the cut-up method of composition is fairly well documented, [24] “Future Legend,” the intro to side one and thus to the title track “Diamond Dogs,” sounds far more like Wallis’ scenario of teens ransacking apartments and tony shops:

And in the death
As the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy thoroughfare
The shutters lifted in inches in Temperance Building
High on Poacher’s Hill
And red mutant eyes gaze down on Hunger City
No more big wheels

Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats
And ten thousand peoploids split into small tribes
Coveting the highest of the sterile skyscrapers
Like packs of dogs assaulting the glass fronts of Love-Me Avenue
Ripping and rewrapping mink and shiny silver fox, now legwarmers
Family badge of sapphire and cracked emerald
Any day now : The Year of the Diamond Dogs

Speaking of slimy thoroughfares, another writer not mentioned by Tullis, but surely relevant, is J. G. Ballard. Again, Wallis’ set-up resembles a kind of mash-up of two of Ballard’s favorite tropes, the sudden, unexplained apocalyptic set-up, and the rampage through modern, though mysteriously abandoned, apartment blocks or gated estates. The focus on the children (or at least teens) also calls to mind the earlier works of John Wyndham, such as The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village of the Damned).[25]

But unlike these quasi-Sci/Fi authors, whose apocalypses may be unexplained but presumably rely on some kind of physical cause, Wallis’ set-up seems quietly, extremely, “veddy” British. The “oldies” just decide to off themselves one day, apparently just tired of making the effort to live any more. [26]

In this, OLLA fits nicely into Valancourt’s mid-century Brit Lit series, as well as the interests of Counter-Currents readers. It seems to take off from the same existential musings as the more philosophical of the late ’50s “Angry Young Men,” such as those of Colin Wilson[27] or Bill Hopkins.[28] Indeed, the title of Margot Metroland’s memoir of the period strikes the Wallis note: “The Prophet of Exhaustion.”[29]

Their intense, engaged discussions of postwar nihilism and its possible cure by strengthening the Will having been ignored,[30] everyone just takes the other horn of Camus’ “only philosophical question”[31] and goes right off and tops themselves.[32] One jeering teen explains:

“They killed their God in the two world wars and in the concentration camps. Not even prize mugs like them could believe in the Loving Father after that little lot, so there were just left with themselves . . . see?”

Just as today, the oldies relied on endless gabbing on about The War to justify themselves (our “Greatest Generation”) and keep “the young” under control:

“It’s a good thing really they started doing it. There were all getting so bored without another war they’ve soon started one. . . . Look at the way they kept going on about the war, films about it, parades, bugles on Nov. 11th, plays, T.V. films, the lot. Making out how brave they were once, living in the past. When we wouldn’t sit around and clap any longer they made out there was something wrong with us. . . . When we wouldn’t clap anymore, they had to look at themselves and what they saw started them off doing it . . .”[33]

Highly recommended for anyone who can’t get enough of that uniquely British ’60s sci-fi/Mods on motorbikes genre, or who likes to speculate on the ultimate fate of a nihilistic society such as our own.

Notes 

1. Heinemann, 1962; 50th Anniversary Edition, with foreword by Martin Amis, compiled and edited by Andrew Biswell, Burgess’s biographer, 2012. This special edition restores the text of the novel as Burgess originally wrote it, and includes a selection of interviews, articles, reviews and other previously unpublished material.

2. Hollywood quickly learned how to produce titillating movies — from marijuana to incest among the hillbillies — that were either “instructional” or “educational.” As usual, Ed Wood produced the most sincerely delusional, from Glen or Glenda to The Violent Years (“These aren’t teenagers, they’re morons!”).

4. At least in America. Here, as the oldies die off the economy goes from bad to worse: “People aren’t buying tellies” sighs a storekeeper who soon offs himself. A supposedly luxurious flat the teens commandeer for a party contains a pile of “E. P. pops.” British teens, like their parents, seem to have been relatively impoverished right up to the ’70s; thus, the EP survived in the UK longer than in the US, allowing teens to buy albums on installments, while LPS in the UK didn’t include songs already released as singles (and even “greatest hits” packages had to include one or two “rarities”) so as to appeal to teens as special Christmas or birthday gifts. It “just wouldn’t be the done thing” to rip off the teens, unlike the more Judaic US record business; hence the differences in the US and UK LPs of the Beatles and Stones (as well as the “mono mixes” that the UK groups still did well into the ’70s, since teens couldn’t afford “new” stereo turntables).

4. According to Wikipedia, “The novel lent its title to the 1981 album by the Wanderers, a new wave act featuring Stiv Bators and Dave Tregunna both later of the Lords Of The New Church, and a 2006 song by English band The Long Blondes. Marco Pirroni of Adam and the Ants named a record label after the book. It is also reported as having been a favorite book of Doors singer Jim Morrison. A 2013 film directed by Jim Jarmusch appropriates the same title, but is not an adaptation of the Wallis novel.” Indeed, a Google search for the title alone brings up only the film for the first few pages.

5. You can see the full wrap-around jacket and a shot of the street-scene photo shoot here [7].

6.  Although arguably, that may have accounted for Clockwork’s continuing interest, at least among the literati. The only neologisms — rather than charmingly dated Mod slang — are “soo-soo” for the oldie departed, a government PR attempt to “deglamourize” the act that catches on but fails to do bugger all to stop it; and “combing” for the foraging of goods from abandoned stores or flats (“flatting”).

7. Reviewer [8] at Goodreads.com.

8. The tale of two endings, British and American (the one Kubrick used) is told in the 50th anniversary edition, op. cit. Needless to say, Burgess and his editors have different memories.

9. Also the model for Lindsay Anderson’s if…. (1968; itself based on Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct of 1933 (the same year as the pre-code Männerbund epic Wild Boys on the Road) and starring future droogie Malcolm MacDowell, bringing us full circle back to Clockwork Orange.

10. “Look Buffy, a book about us!” — cover of Lisa Bernbach’s The Official Preppy Handbook (New York: Workman Pub., 1980).

11. See, for instance, Colin Ward’s Anarchy in Action (London: Freedom Press, 1982), who argues that there’s no need to “figure out” how to “create” an anarchist society, since it already exists under all the rules and regulation superimposed on it by the State.

12. Actually, Burroughs positions “softened” from women being “a basic error, and the whole dualistic universe evolved from this error.”(The Job, 1974, 116) to humanity in general: “Women may well be a biological mistake; I said so in The Job. But so is almost everything else I see around here.”( “Women: A Biological Mistake?” in The Adding Machine; Calder, 1985, p. 124)

13. Rather a sci-fi title, come to think of it.

14. See “Sympathy for Their Satanic Majesties” by Colin Liddell, here [9], and my “The New, Weird Britain: Some Reflections on Colin Liddell’s ‘Sympathy for Their Satanic Majesties,’ here [10].

15. Check out the story, from the Stones POV, here [7].

16. The oldies eventually start to favor a pill called “Easaway,” like the “little yellow pill” that “helps you on your way/ Through your busy, dying day” in “Mother’s Little Helper.”

17. For Jagger’s vampiric relationship with Brian Jones see my review of Paul Trynka’s Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones, “Welcome to Club 27: Brian Jones & the Myth of the Rolling Stones,” here [11].

18. The inner gatefold photo of the band lounging around a Medieval Tymes dining table suggests the home invasions of OLLA.

19. Wardle, Irving, “The Day of the Teenagers”, The Observer; Jun 21, 1964

20. Eventually, they all became professional Tory curmudgeons, like Albert Norman in Derek Turner’s Sea Changes (see my review here [12]).

21. Wallis also knows he needs to avoid explosive consonants and sibilants, unlike Thomas Harris, who in Red Dragon has the Tooth Fairy avoiding fricatives and sibilants (which are the same); see my “Phil & Will: Awakening Through Repetition in Groundhog Day, Point of Terror, & Manhunter, Part 2,” here [13].

22. See my review, “Evola on Wheels: Psychomania as Hermetic Initiation,” here [14].

23. One odd detail strikes the Burroughs note: the “fabulous uniforms” worn by one of the improvised militias, described by a female fan as “tight red tunics and snakeskin trousers. . . . Gives you a kick just to look at them.” One can see what Jim Morrison may have gotten out of the book.

24. See my discussion of Bowie and Burroughs in “Curses, Cut-Ups, & Contraptions: The ‘Disastrous Success’ of William Burroughs’ Magick,” here [15].

25. At one point an oldie is confronted by a teen gang whom he regards as “staring children,” a motif that recurs throughout. Another resemblance to Wyndham: a government portrayed as first covering up and then utterly incompetent. A surprisingly libertarian note for a pinko like Wallis. On Wyndham, Dfordoom writes [16] that “It’s extraordinary the extent to which Wyndham anticipated the survivalist movement. In both The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes those who survive the initial disasters form themselves into tight-knit self-sufficient communities and they must defend those communities from those less provident individuals who threaten to swamp them. And they defend those communities with guns. In the post-apocalyptic worlds of John Wyndham anyone not prepared to arm themselves with guns has no chance of long-term survival. . . . The novel is also absolutely scathing in its condemnation of the incompetence, short-sightedness, stupidity and outright malevolence of British government. . . . Wyndham . . . portrays government as not merely useless in such a crisis, but as a positive hindrance. So it is quite possible to interpret The Kraken Wakes as a pro-gun libertarian novel. Perhaps it’s the fact that Wyndham’s style is so English and so cosy that has led people to overlook the novel’s more startling features.”

26. “ahhh, the Brits and their particular brand of alienated ’60s sci-fi lit”) — reviewer [8] at Goodreads.com

27. Whose fiction is also being reprinted by Valancourt. See “A Heroic Vision for Our Time: The Life & Ideas of Colin Wilson” by John Morgan, here [17].

28. See the articles by and about Hopkins on Counter-Currents here [18].

29. See “The Prophet of Exhaustion: Being Yet Another Remembrance of Bill Hopkins (1927–2012), Part 1 (here [19]); Part 2 (here [20]).

30. The ghost of the AYM appears only when one teen mockingly puts on “his Laurence Harvey voice.”

31. See Greg Johnson’s “A Leveling Wind: Reading Camus’ The Stranger,” here [21].

32. “Bill Hopkins was one of the seven young Englishmen who, distressed by the suicide of the British Empire and moral squalor of the Little Britain, were collectively known as the “Angry Young Men.”” — Revilo Oliver, “Beyond Good and Evil: Bill Hopkins’ The Divine & the Decay,” here [22].

33. One rather recalls the rebellious Teddy Boy, Number 48, in the finale of The Prisoner: “He is a young man dressed formally yet with his shirt open, a bell around his neck and a flower in his hair. He is lectured by The Judge about the follies of youth and how rebellions are pointless. In reply, Number 48 simply laughs, but seemingly out of genuine amusement rather than hostility. He starts to sing the spiritual song “Dem Bones”. The Judge tries to silence him, but fails to do so, and the masked delegates, reacting to the indiscipline and confusion, fall into confusion and disarray themselves.” — “Man who sings “Dem Bones” in last episode of The Prisoner?” Yahoo Answers, here [23].