Nature and Necessity Review

Nature and Necessity is a quick-reading yet richly detailed account of the Montague clan. Think E.M Forster writing about a North Yorkshire socialite with diminishing soft power as neoliberalism ramps up, the old-guard of the British entertainment racket die off and Paul Oakenfold thuds dimly somewhere in the background… It is Dostoevskian in form and scope but also thematically: it is bleak. Nihilism consistently wrong foots narrative second-guessing; the culminations of various character’s moves are as gloomy and disappointing as the drizzle of the novels central North Yorkshire locale and as gloomy and crepuscular as the drug-addled or jet-lagged outlook of its participants. It is the familial elaboration of a tension across the generations of a family — patrician old money giving way to a woman’s necessary standing and, it must be said, desperate precarity.  At the centre of the web is Petula Montague, the matriarch. She is orbited by her children Evita, the eldest, Regan and Jazzy. Regan is the closest, her and Petula are referred to as ‘the sisters’… Their closest neighbours were Seth and Jenny and their son Mingus Hardfield.
The principal setting is The Heights, the idyllic geographic throne of Petula that peers over Mockery Gap, not far from Shatby in North Yorkshire. She is at once domineering and enigmatic — her presence is insidious and ambiguous. She is the centre of the book in every margin. The children, Regan, Jazzy and Evita, are all defined in relation to her through woe, hate, love, anger, conflict, obligation or strife. Petula is a social Svengali and expert in game-theory-for-soirees — she is a savvy trader of ethereal soft capital — emotional, social, artistic, sexual… anything from coercion and cajoling to outright enforcement underpins her notorious parties. At which she seems to orchestrate a giddy dance of grudging or zealous obsequiousness with her flick of red hair, whiff of Chanel No. 5 and flash of a beautifully mendacious grin. Petula is an RSVP terrier, a femme Gunnery Saregant Hartman with vacant-laughs and vol-au-vents.       
 Men, realistically, do not fare well. There is an estranged husband, Noah Montague, whose influence is economic in terms of emotions and presence but generous in terms of wealth. Economic in man(y) ways. Then there is Jazzy, the willfully dour and calamitous illegitimate son of a generic Anycock. Jazzy devotes his time and energies to creating grotesquely indulgent art pieces, excuses for idle infantile destruction, before finding a martyr’s solace in Sisyphean farm-graft and the concomitant din of soliloquizing the injustice. Jazzy’s life is a doomed loop of burning and repairing the apron strings demarcating the family home. He is a moth to a flame — he is dull and his mother is bright, fiery and, it must be admitted, indifferent to his existence. The loopy stoned spiraling of Jazzy is accommodated more as a result of Petula’s convenience or logistical preferences than anything as twee as motherly love or, even, care. Then, there is Mingus, the liberally loquacious and pretentious offspring of the graciously accommodated working-stock help (Seth and Jenny Hardfield — geddit?) who, one assumes by the sheer indifference of the 90s Blairy credit funded YBA boom, finds himself above his station being fawned over in white cubes. Mingus is a New Labour (Thatcher 2.0) effigy. His parents ‘faithfully followed the monotony of suffering that was laid out before them’, his father, Seth, good with the land and his mother, Jenny, good for babysitting and casual conversation over tea — good because Petula enjoyed the opportunity to converse with ‘someone of no consequence’. Jazzy would spend a good deal of time with the Hardfields, Mingus in particular. Jazzy inherited two gaits from Seth Hardfield. One he knew and one he didn’t. Like Tony Blair elocutioning the toff from his voice, Jazzy adopted the accents, phrases and maxims of the local village lads. Mingus, by contrast, is less paralysingly self-aware. He is confident and extroverted but with pretenses of intellect and creative energy. Goddard stops short of framing Mingus in crude class and generational division, like a young Ken Barlow returning to the north after university, but only just. Mingus serves (in narrative but not diegesis) both Jazzy and Regan — the class issues embedded within are well observed textures to the main drive of rendering Petula’s two youngest children. It is notable that Mingus seems somehow more free and unburdened than his more privileged neighbours Jazzy and Regan. Mingus never feels as emotionally encumbered as Jazzy, trudging, aimlessly, perambulating through the heavy clay-mud of The Heights. Jazzy never escapes the gravity of his conflicted Oedipal bind.      
Regan too is doomed to an orbit that will return to the mother’s web — but, unlike Jazzy, she is the favourite. She enjoys more privilege, she is aloof and seemingly independent. She has the sense of entitlement to the world that is so powerful by virtue of her sheer obliviousness to it. Quite different to the illegitimate Jazzy, she has advantages to squander — such a difference, a world of difference between kin, a smart without a name, is observed wonderfully in his observation that ‘his sister was in no condition to take advantage of her advantages’. Regan doesn’t realize how lucky she is in terms of both the family politics and social standing — but her heart is a lonely one. Her appeal to the reliably priapic jocks from Cambridge is usurped by her mother’s charm when she visits home. But the class stratification installed by her mother also denies her a love that haunts her for most of the book.
Although Regan’s hardships are less obvious than Jazzy’s she is, perhaps, more condemned. By turns both Jazzy and Regan have their capers. Goddard has a knack for narrative momentum and picquing itchy curiosity for the next page. But their escapades along the zesty ramp of hope invariably fall flat and are nihilistically smothered by fate time and time again. Their persistence would be bittersweet and endearing were one not to consistently root for them quite so earnestly. Nature and Necessity is a proper novel. It vividly details the horrors and casualties in and around a family where proper is sought over, and regardless of, love, blood, right and wrong.

The Casino Always Wins

I've been wary of the addictive nature of social media for years. Like a gambler, we slot emotional hope and attentive energy into the affective node and wait for payback - likes, loves, re-tweets, shares, more than before. But it is never enough. As per the old truism, the casino always wins. Except our casino is not a glittery neon behemoth on the outskirts of town - it is a small glowing rectangle - less than a second away, lurking on the devices we rely on to contact our family and friends.

When we share we are using our emotional and cognitive energy. But, of course - the payback is seldom. We never quite hit the jackpot like we once did. Just recall how we use our social media: we check, twitching and fevered, for updates - but how often do those updates, those interactions, that endorphin jacuzzi dopa-mine, warrant our efforts? 1/10...1/20? We spend a lot of energy on such things, hoping for attention, but the payback is scant. We put in more than we get out.

I believe that social media monetizes both loneliness and relationships - social interactions feed the revenue streams of the technocrats. Yet, at the same time, so does the striving, often never responded, call for some feedback, attention or interaction. So, if, for the gambler hope and winning are the cruel dynamic mode - hope, before let down in the search of an occasional win - then, for social media, hope is the loneliness and the effort of relieving it and the win is interaction and attention. Of course, it is a fool's pursuit. The casino always wins.

In Irresistible: Why we can't stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching, by Adam Alter, the Moment app is described. It monitors a user's screen time. Not phone calls, but time spent using the seductive cyan touchscreen or staring at it. With a set of approximately eight thousand users the average screen-time each day was three hours. Let's be good little reductive capitalists for (a) (M)oment... How much is your three hours worth? (UK minimum wage is £7.20 - so minimum, £21.60 per day) Would you pay that for a service that shares staged disingenuous holiday snaps, political hot-takes, snide moral one-upmanship, and avocado fetishisms? When I see fellow writers and academics (no doubt assuming their time and energy market rate is more than the UK minimum wage) I wonder if the deal is as good as it seems. People say social media is necessary for self promotions in the gig-economy of intellectual labour - yet, I do not know of anyone who has got a gig through these vampiric platforms.

But let's now turn to this passion for self promotion. I accept that we live in a world of normalized disingenuousness. The vacant mirror snap stare and the grinning selfie facade is commonplace - as is social climbing via online sycophancy. We glibly re-tweet gesture politics #JeSuisCharlie #ICantBreath #Westminster #Solidarity yadadada. This is the rub for me. I could bear online 'social' self-entrepreneurialism if it was frank and honest. BUY MY BOOK is preferable to the din of smarmy smug lefty promotion. The hot-takes and 60 character put downs that exploded on the platforms in the aftermath of the Westminster attacks troubled me. I found it difficult not to be cynical about the busy ethical-trumping and event romanticization that seemed so prevalent. In between glamming up the jet-set #PhDLife or #Writerproblems, the passive-aggressive showing off (replete with filtered selfies, city-fawning and ubiquitous feline presence) felt utterly, and shamefully, opportunistic. Because - during tragic events what purpose do these posts serve other than to expose the user to others for attention and interaction. Surely the use of the hot hashtag is the junky's jump on the good shit?

Thank-you for arguing the toss about media coverage or the opinions of others, thank-you for that covert self-promotion veiled as outrage, moral high-ground or pithy gesture politics with your Patreon account linked in profile - how altruistic of you. But then, addiction does manifest as selfishness doesn't it?      

Burgers (Future-Steak)

The burger is of Germanic origin: Hamburg. Hannah Glasse’s 1758 recipe for ‘Hamburgh Sausage’, served with bread beneath it is, perhaps, its genesis. By 1847 the Hamburg America Line served Hamburg steak, the burgers cooked to order on the gasoline range of the sandwich cart. The meal was humble and good value (freshly cooked meat aboard a train today is reserved for a few specialized and luxurious excursions into re-living railway nostalgia). Yet, one could argue that the Hamburger never quite took off till the personal and bespoke attitudes of the 19th century provoked a phobic response in the burger business.

In the post-modern American époque, the Reagan period, when rapid and aggressive expansion, globalization and large-network efficiency were the business foci de rigueur, the burger got pimped. The humble, Germanic émigré, transformed into the orphaned dish of multiple component parts we understand as the modern burger; in all its dried, limp and corn-syrupy fatigue. The burger became its own razzle-dazzled pimp: garishly dressed in artificial Sesame Street hues – it’s prospect always a fleeting memory, a shadow of good sustenance, in comparison to its dissatisfying and cruelly anti-climatic let-down of a gastronomic experience. The burger became removed from its earnest simplicity and, via reconstitution under the forces of globalization, became a vivid simulacrum, like it’s own hyper-real advert: vibrant visuals with little taste.  

The vertiginous compound meal, the composite dish of minced beef sandwiched between pre-processed doughy buns with distractions of cheesy unctuousness, swinesque crispiness, pickled crunch sourness or dent-a-kill sugary condiments, mustard, ‘tomato’, relish, onion or occult special sauce, never realized its potential till corporations spread it too thinly. Burger chain burgers, the frantic, agitated, and stress-frazzled piles of de-personalized flesh ’n’ polystyrene melancholy inevitably found their moribund nadir re-territorialized to Barlesque hipster-chic haute-novelty.

A burger is the pre-primed ideal of post-Fordist capitalism – one could say it is meta-fordist. The burger is a nexus of Toyotan Just-In-Time manufacturing. Each component of the towering feats is a complex exercise in Fordist technique. The bread-buns, be they bleached clouds of corpo-uniformity or artisanal sepia-to-saffron butter-puffs of brioche sweetness, need a factory’s worth of preparation. The carb-packaging requires multiple levels of process, effort, transport and refinement. The old phrase of ‘making bread’: bread making, especially making bread big time – baking – was always a hard graft, complex, involved and hierarchical. Yet, such things are merely the sandwiching of the main attraction. Buns are not even condiment, distraction or side. They are but buns, brackets of the main attraction – the begrudged practical necessity of their presence is all that keeps them at the sides of the stage.

The meat is the burger-real. It reveals the extravagant negation of economy that euro-cuisine consistently re-fetishizes. Aged, hung, fresh, local, rare… these are the shibboleths of anti-capitalist withdrawal and cultural conservatism. The meat must be somehow unique, have provenance, a post-mortem luxury of hanging and aging akin to fine wines and whiskies, whilst all along, and despite such pernickety predilections, be presented in a minced-up, ground-down, patty-mushed and heat-seared discus form. The burger itself, the patty, is a queer thing. It fails, glams up, indulges and negates itself. It is neither cut not product – it is burger, at once indistinguishable from its primary butchered familiarity yet uncannily other. The burger is too cultured, too artificial to be mistaken for steak. It is an impossible compound, it is multiple cuts, multiple parts, advanced meat recovery provides protein materials beyond the quaint simplicity of mere butchery. Machinic efficiencies reclaim the flesh of bovine skeletons.

For the squeamish pescatarian or noble vegan the burger is an uncanny valley of gastrohorror. The burger doesn’t present the distinctly animal appearance of unprocessed meat. There are not joints, bones, fat or form. The musculature of its original corporeal origins erased, in its place stands vertiginous possibilities of flesh. The burger is the unthinkable, the lamella, of capitalism’s machinic impersonality. The ground meat no doubt polygenic, of multiple animals, parts and, in some occasions, species – all harvested in myriad mysterious ways. The burger harbours the horror of sci-fi: unrecognizability – the deeply horrifying prospect of epistemological ambiguity overtakes the sheer explicitness of gore.

The burger patty, contra-steak, is stoically post-human. Its weirdly optimized production and form has a futural streak – a future steak. Normal steak is too beastly, too animal, too fibrously carnivorous in bite to be comparable; our soft incisors are too weak for real meat. The steak reeks of antiquated ways – it seems overly mammalian, crude and base. The burger is speed, efficiency and optimization; it is the Jetsons, the mystery of science, engineering, technology and sly corporate finesse. Steak is Fred Flintstone, it is the self-winding wrist-watch, the map, the phone-call, the human-controlled automobile, the real fire: its pleasure is precisely the sentimentally for yesteryear – an indulgence retrospection and nostalgia: the pantomime rehearsal of bygone ways, the dignities of inefficiency.    

The patty, the pixelated bovine avatar, the meta-Fordist-Frankenstein nexus of vertiginous processes and networks, is all the more satisfying for its synthetic optimization: pre-ground, pre-mixed, curated, arranged by an unseen Svengali-systems. Re-made and re-modeled, seasoned and pre-masticated protein presented with maximum sear-surface for carcinogen charred smokiness and blood-oozing rareness. Its profile of blackened exterior and pinkish soft interior betray the paradoxical brief of the future-steak. Its beef must ham it up (hamburger not beefburger) in the new wave of gourmand burgers. The hamming-beef must be Isserley close to human – replete with undertones class stratification and eugenics. Our cows must have come from good stock, breeding, a heritage of being grass fed and free range. Our mooing-ideal must have a level of luxuriant idle happiness: an idyllic pastural bovine-bohemianism of somnambulant grazing around, well, Hereford, ideally. Before the diner’s imaginary lacuna of the slaughter one imagines a Cider With Rosie tranquility, chirping hedgerows, long hazy summers of late evening violets and a quieter, more relaxed way of life in those halcyon years between the wars… Such fictioning is the Menu’s Con – the MC that, before the burger’s arrival, tells a story at once unimaginable and resolutely incredible. A story of heritage, origin and provenance that is irrefutably incongruous with the horror of machinic consistency that lurks between the buns.

One should be cautious of the nostalgic turn that pervades cuisine. The meat atrocities of corporate efficiency are let downs, they are cons, but future-steaks are not necessarily doomed to forever being uncanny impostors. The next big thing is often called a ‘young pretender’ – before the game changes, before a paradigm shift. The supposed superiority of small-scale, localism, heritage and desirable inefficiencies could be challenged by the cool efficiency of large networks: the burger, the nexus of esoteric processes and occult saucery, should stop dressing itself in vintage and be the unashamed future-steak it is. Highly automated gastronomic luxuries, that exceed the possibilities of local and small scale cuisine – as unthinkable as overseeing one’s steak cooking on a train – are just around the corner.