'Wasteland ruptured by erratic flare-ups of euphoria'

Savage Messiah
, Laura Oldfield Ford (£19.99, Verso)

On Savage Messiah's back cover The Indepent quote suggests that we read '[t]his black-and-white, cut'n'paste-style zine' as a series of 'psychogeographical drifts', which I'm not at all sure is really possible. Whilst Ford occasionally namechecks some situationist ideas, or offers quotes from the likes of J.G. Ballard, the majority of this marvellous book forms a nostalgic autobiography, whose narrator moves from squat to squat, visits pub after pub, and experiences both drug-induced epiphanies and frights in a 1980s London landscape.
It is not only the text that gets bleary-eyed about the past, the whole book is a pastiche (or appropriation?) of 1970s zine culture: lots of faded xerox collages, typewriter text and bad (no, truly bad, not ironically bad) drawings. The text is also nostalgic for the recent past before the book's setting, and occasionally interjects little social histories in the stories being told.
It's hard to believe the book gathers up zines published from 2005 onwards, although I guess there must be lots of readers like me who are also nostalgic or at least warmly inclined towards a rather romanticised view of their teenage London years. The chapters (originally specific issues of the zine) I like the most are those set in Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove; others will be drawn further east or north to the other London Borough hotpspots of counterculture and lingering hippydom they were part of or wished they were as they looked onÉ
Like others before her, Ford glamourizes the harsh realities of squatting, drug use, hunger and general hand-to-mouth existence on the edge of homelessness. The book could cynically be read as one long celebratory binge framed as psychogeography, a celebration of poverty and addiction with the author wallowing in her own cesspit of desire. Her world narrows to acquaintances, occasional friendships, and endless long walks, moves from one temporary abode to another. She is angry with the police, with society at large, but most of all angry with herself, although this is sharply contrasted with sunset euphorias and street-urchin epiphanies as she comes up for air, ready to grab her pen and glue stick.
If I sound cynical, well I am. It's hard to take this kind of work seriously any more, even if it's possible that Ford is making us question the present through the past. Yes, I had a good time in the 70s and 80s in London, yes it was easier to drop out, to live cheaply, to slip unobserved through the not-yet-yuppified city; but 30 years on it doesn't seem like a very practical place to want to revisit, isn't the answer to anything we might be asking or having to deal with in 2011. There's something strange too about Verso publishing this kind of stuff now and giving it a certain kudos, yet at the same time neutering any credibility or hipness it might have had in its original published form.
If I sound less than cynical it's because I like finding my own past mythologised by others, I like revisiting the London I once knew, like coming across references to places I once frequented, people I feel I know even though I never have. There's no way this is psychogeography nor great art. I resisted Mark Fisher trying to brand it 'hauntology' in his Introduction but he might be right, particularly in the sense of something coming back to haunt us. In this case the joy of life lived off the radar only a few decades ago, a world forgotten by the businesses and bankers who now own us, who many of our contemporaries have become. I  long, with Mark Fisher, that 'there might be a rupturing of this collective amnesia'. Ford may help us remember.
   © Rupert Loydell 2011