Ken Edwards

Reality Street Editions 2007 106 pp £8.50

Brother Paul/Paul A. Green


Nostalgia, of course, is literally (from the Gk) a “home-pain” - but where’s home? Maybe it’s only on the home-page. And we’re the lost ratty pigeons of post-modernism... Or vampires sleeping in doorways. In a lost city of black light. No direction home, boys….

Such are typical neuro-linguistic activities /image-chains generated by the texts of Ken Edward’s new book Nostalgia for Unknown Cities, which appears not long after the re-emergence of Iain Sinclair’s anthology City of Disappearances. For this could be fractal fiction, in which a sentence – take a sentence, any sentence, they’re all good - triggers complex patterns of association, whorl-holes of ambiguities in which a narrative (perhaps even a narrator) might be hiding. Negotiate the narratisations of Ken Edwards, construe the constructions of his consciousness, his cunning kennings. As they used to say in the old variety shows: now yer see ‘im, now yer don’t.

So my starting point, as my eye scans the signage of the page, is personal. And as KE states in a wary preface, “the starting point is the first person, that arbitrary signifier for the whole concatenation of processes and functions that we call the self: the pandemonium, the ‘heap or collection of different perceptions, unified together by certain relations ‘(Hume). And in the unfolding of these accounts very soon the first drifts into the second, and the second into the third…. It may be a proposition of these texts that cities dissolve the myriad fleeting selves of which they are composed, that paradoxically in doing so they counter also the individual terror of annihilation and lead perhaps to new models of consciousness.”

The mode of consciousness operating in the writings of NUC has antecedents. Fade in the dream-time montages evoked by William Burroughs’ pan-demonic cut-ups, his elegies for lost boys of dystopia, his transmissions from doomed cities “on worn-out film, dim, jerky, far-way” (Nova Express). The title of KE’s first magazine originated in WSB’s exhortation to “storm the Reality Studios”; while the texts of American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, like Charles Bernstein , which made their UK debut in the journal’s stapled pages, used the sentence rather than the lyric line as a structural device, fragmenting any holistic narrative and continuity of authorial persona – because, from the post-modernist point(s) of view, qua Roland Barthes, Monsieur/Madame l’Auteur n’existe pas.

Moreover, the narratisation of NUC – unintentionally or not (although we’re supposed to be very careful about Authorial intentions) – implies questions about “models of consciousness” related to the academic debates between philosophers, psychologists and neurologists over the last couple of decades. Daniel Dennett, on the basis of recent brain research, examines Hume’s “certain relations” between our perceptions and argues against the Cartesian assumption that there is a single point of consciousness, a privileged viewpoint in the Screening Room of the Mind that directs operations, “writing” the definitive script of our private movie.

Nostalgia for Unknown Cities

Brother Paul:

Throughout the 1980s I used to see a fair bit of Ken, in the buzz and burble of the London poetry underground, until our world-lines diverged. He lived in a small apartment at the top of a brick tower in Southwark. Getting there involved the usual underpasses, graffiti threats , bus fumes and mush of street noise. The High Street shops were always busy. Especially BOBY’S HALAL MEAT LAND. A caliphate of meat, feeding South London.

The tower was in a side street, at the end of a row of terraces. It may have been a Victorian “Industrial Dwelling”, erected to provide salubrious accommodation for honest artisans. Now an old man called Jimmy sat hunched on the stairs just inside the darkened entrance, his eyes flickering in the half-light. He’d murmur softly as you carefully sidestepped him, a gate-keeper checking you into the mysteries of the Tower.

It was cosy in the book-fortified brick tower, listening to the World Saxophone Quartet or Philip Glass. Ken was particularly kind to my young son Titus , showing him a well-preserved collection of model cars. And one summer, an excellent party happened on the roof. I posed and orated over the rooftops, glass in hand. We might have been launching a small book. I can’t remember. But it felt grand, like we were launching a Titan.

Ken Edwards

He hypothesizes that there are “multiple drafts” of mental events, constantly ongoing in steady states of permanent re-vision. “Consciousness” is simply the by-product of neurological happenings. Our subjective experiences, or qualia, don’t have any autonomous existence as ghosts-in-the-machine. Yet our private experience is experienced holistically and would seem to insist that it’s vivid, integrated and singular.

This tension is reinforced in the paradoxical experience of reading the book. The narrative POV and temporal sequence are constantly shifted. The causal links between one sentence and the next are frequently broken. However with the exception of the second section, the sentences are formed and punctuated according to standard grammatical & syntactical practice (admittedly with a preference for passive voice and impersonal verbs). In that respect there are often similarities with early surrealism, the measured prose of Breton’s Magnetic Fields or Soluble Fish. As in Breton’s Nadja , the text is punctuated with photographs, snapshots of streets and buildings. Yet as the author admits, each photo could be “standing in for a photograph of a fictional city.”

For each sentence, while clearly referencing our consensual world of urban dogshit and gridlock, dwells in its own micro-world. As if it contains a discrete quantum of memory trace. (Maybe there’s an analogy with digital audio sampling – each perception as a separate datum, a tiny slice of the wave-form of consciousness)

Then, soon as you start extrapolating, the centre of the narrative shifts. The reader’s inter-activity with the text becomes hyper-activity, you’re trying to attend to everything clustered around your (hypothetical?) “focal point of consciousness” in a quest for some unifying subtext while the Qualia of “Ken Edwards” just keep on coming…. And you can’t stop feeding in your own reconstructions.


Writing is a time-art, reading is a time-trip so maybe the best way, the key to the highway, is to walk you through the texts chronologically, as a meta-temporal tourist tracking up the memory-alleys. Yet in this first piece there is also an explicit autobiographical theme. The writer returns to the place of his birth, in Gibraltar, “charged with an unwelcome task," the delivery of “(his) father’s ashes in a plastic box, carried as hand luggage.”

This action underpins the text but only surfaces momentarily, in fragments. "Persistent damp mist hid the family names that my father was destined to join. Portliness was a quality shared by the school chums who turned up to the afternoon event. Reclaimed land provided the location, the sea having given up its mystery to quotidian human affairs. Resemble nobody, I told myself. But that wouldn’t work here.”

Perceptions of the cityscape are constantly overlaid (or undermined) by memories of dreams (or dreams of memories). “Climbing the hill once again, making quite good sense of all the bits, we hoped that eventually all would come together and make some kind of a picture. Coloured lights, projections of the neon signage above the ice-cream parlour on the other side of the street, while the early hits of Del Shannon, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers made their flourishes as they slowly entered the mythical dimension. Daily encounters with buildings, which hour by hour became invisible, buildings that erased themselves even as they dizzied us with the glint of their windows…” The narrative melds together childhood terrors (a one-legged man, “The Invisible Man” on flickering monochrome TV) with entries from some spectral Baedeker’s guide to this necropolis of peeling stucco and overgrown catacombs.

Ken Edwards: Gibralter

Brother Paul:

My father’s ashes were in a dull purple plastic vase, transported up the M4 in my tatty white Vauxhall. Like KE I nagged myself about their security. The will instructed me to have them scattered to the winds in Putney Vale Cemetery, on Wimbledon Common, where my mother’s ashes had been released over a decade earlier. I was due to meet Anne, an old friend of the family, to join me in the rite and arrived an hour early, under a grey sky, the vase cradled awkwardly under my arm, as I wandered down the avenues of trees and masonry.

Eventually we met and were guided by a well-intentioned cemetery official who gently took the urn from me, presumably because he’d been trained in sprinkling skills. He’d checked the records and located the spot where my mother’s ashes had been dispersed. He led us to an avenue of firs adjacent to a high wall, with the roar of the Kingston Bypass on the other side. Like a water diviner, he moved the urn in front of him as if to locate the exact spot, near a small bush. “I can sprinkle the ashes in the shape of a cross,“ he said. “He was a High Anglican when he died, “ I said to Anne. So he swung the inverted urn, as if it was a thurifer, leaking pale smoke, ghost dust. It created a wavery cross, a cryptic glyph in the grass, already drifting as I gazed. There was nothing more I could do.


Here we’re closer to a “stream of consciousness”. It’s second-person, a voice talking “you” up, urgently telling you that you exist(ed) as a continuous present. Structurally it’s the un-broken Joycean qua qua Beckettian sentence, the Molly Blooming marathon of filibuster on a steady roll… Is this the Freudian “Talking Cure” as a walking tour?

And/or is this the monologue of the Ballardian overloaded man, lost in mediated Random Access Memory, the brain pathways worn down by the non-stop data-flow of compulsory Leisure Consumption: “yes you must see the old cemetery and here you are this the place this must be the place to which all data trails tend the place where all income streams flow here you are the very place a famous composer is here and you are here at the end of all narratives the place sanctified by history upon which stands the old opera house definitely worth a visit…”

The city is unidentified, perhaps because the anti-author keeps thieving bits of its identity to sustain the reconstruction of his lost metropolis, which keeps dissolving in dream-time bloody flux: “you peered into the cemetery from the gate near the bridge below the other bridge near the national theatre (a “Mecca for culture lovers”) the poor people names carved from memory were rounded up here were walled in were driven out were slaughtered in their hundreds and thousands the terrible days the terrible years glass shattered blood in the runnels breasts hacked off eviscerations performed in the classical fashion by the approved method children terrified belongings scattered names misplaced businesses ransacked all tidied up now…”

Brother Paul:

1986. Ken has set up a series of readings in a little community centre at the end of his street. I’m doing a jazz-poetry double act with my old mate, Vincent Crane. It’s very small-scale. We’ve brought the keyboard and PA with us on the tube. After some delay, we have two paying members of the audience, so we begin, the usual barnstorming through neo-dadaist tributes to Sun Ra, a touch of thinking man’s rap, plus warblings and hootings on my golden saxophone.

Despite our hard work, the couple leave, with cheesy smiles, at the intermission. KE, nevertheless cheers us on into the second set, pays us enough to go home in a cab and takes us to the pub afterwards . At which point Franny, a short cheeky artist from Shoreditch, turns up. She last saw us perform in the sixties. “Oh shit. I’ve missed it…”


The travelogue apparently moves to North America, to the past tense, the omniscient voice-over, the measured delivery of the short sentence, the full stop and the paragraph. The narrator shares an apartment with his companion. They do the sights. Perhaps they’re in Chicago. Everything is weirdly defamiliarised. “A flag flew at half mast, possibly because a favourite comedian had died the day before.” The day breaks down into a series of micro-events and mediated statements. “Dogs nosed their grocery bags. Local people showed pride in their neighbourhood.” Relationships are ambiguous:” They had repeatedly been told that the way they talked was lovable but the effect they produced was that of alienation.”

The effect indeed is of an incessant and anxious self-surveillance as an existential exercise (as in the film I Heart Huckabees?), mapping the ongoing paranoia and disorientation of the information age. “He dreamed he was locked out of his computer, having deliberately committed a violation.” ”She often felt nostalgia for an event even before it had ended.” Individual micro-events are logged succinctly, with a kind of over-lit clarity, yet the relentless shifting of context and the suppression of back-story and closure carefully assassinate character development and annihilate any notion of plot – although these strategies also create an ambience where the protagonist/victim seems to be enwebbed in a tangle of conflicting conspiracy theories, overlooked by “the mysterious decaying industrial structures at the horizon.”


This is surely the Drowned World of New Orleans, presumably witnessed through secondary sources. “On the radio JC Bach followed CPE. Then John Lee Hooker singing ‘Tupelo’. The poor people had no place to go.” The pressure of events has forced the narration into longer sequential passages, as brute causality makes a come-back: "The violence that followed the floods helped persuade many to move north. And when they did decide to leave they took people with them that that otherwise had no means of getting out of the city, even though they were piled on top of each other in the van and had to drill holes in abandoned cars’ gas tanks to get enough fuel to leave…”

The narrative cuts in and out of police witness statements, fragments of sermons and biblical rhetoric about the utopian heavenly city, veering back constantly however to clips of the raw sewage actuality. "They designated a storm drain as a bathroom and some of the kids built an elaborate enclosure for privacy out of plastic, broken umbrellas and other scraps; the officials responded that they were going to take care of them, and some of them got a sinking feeling…”


The opening of the LA section is interrogative. Short brusque questions, like a cross-examination at the checkouts at Walmarts or in the DA’s office, quickfire bursts from good cop and bad cop. “She got fiscal in a mall. You want to go fiscal..?” Like “going postal” presumably.

Then the density of detail becomes overwhelming. The women are “too beautiful”. The style is addictive. “It is after all, what you want, a crisis of the self whose blood now flows backwards. It’s a signifier of what? It may not mean, not even. There were chimes of all sizes and there was information all tuned to different needs: computers, dolphins and dreams. A cohort of young lesbians were in attendance…” The Lang Po post-prose mimes the post-modern production of the world’s biggest economy, a poetics of semiotic superflux, all hustle and flow, glistening writerly surfaces, a glaze of tropes to take us trolling through a prolapsed world. We surf the waveforms of the frosted speech. KE immerses us in, “a city where permanence is unknown, whose capacity to render void or least unstable any sense of comfort is well documented…”

New Orleans

Silver Lake, L.A.


London – perhaps Peckham overlaid with Walworth overlaid with a blur of the West End, or the End of the West? This was my turf. Hard to locate a specific residential area but there’s a definite strategy in the writing, a use of recurrent leit-motifs, obsessive riffs that just won’t go away and keep intruding into reflective consciousness, as raw existence habitually does. These include: serious problems with plumbing (“Water was pouring through the bathroom ceiling via the light fittings.”); dogs (variously old, sick, howling, defaecating); street rubbish and broken furniture (“The supply of used mattresses seemed inexhaustible.”) ; serious problems with public transport (“They were told there were no trains because lightning had struck the signal box.”); and an ongoing observation of contamination, staining , spillage, soiling, notably by takeaway birianis. Overheard voices keep breaking in, surreal vox pops: “You need a licence to touch someone’s face.”; ”I seen a clink in the market.”; “She ain’t Leroy’s girl-friend, she’s too small for Leroy.”


In the midst of this, there are intermittent glimpses of various cultural happenings: “Art works projected on to a suspended sheet, striated by light from the Venetian blind. One performer showed everyone his penis, flickering briefly against a ‘no signal’ video screen; “Then he made his excuses and slipped across the river to listen to a man roaring around the room, pausing to sonically trace the contours of a Patrick Caulfield print.” ; “Many dismal events above pubs were recalled in which no books had been sold.”


In the Ballard story Concentration City the protagonist Franz finds that the apparently infinite topology of the city eventually curves back upon itself. You always come back to where you started from. There’s no way out. Likewise Edward’s cityscapes - especially the London scenario - seem to enclose the reader , However, KE’s fractal mapping of urban experience is very different from Ballard’s measured extrapolation of a metaphysical concept. As you navigate the avenues of words, a barrage of messages constantly in your face, you’re seeking, but never quite finding a definitive route through the maze. The world is perceived as a random assemblage ( “random” is the vogue adjective among the friends of my teenage son) in which the interaction of micro and macro events is never totally predictable but frequently shocking and aweful.

“As I came through the City, thus it was…” runs the refrain of James Thompson’s epic of romantic Victorian nihilism The City of Dreadful Night. Thompson’s nihilism is prompted by the Death of God, which leaves the City as a conglomeration of meaningless voids, a theatre for futility , and it would be tempting to read Edwards’ Cities in the same way. Fanny Howe's comment on the book stresses the “disgust and dread” driving the observations but I can find wonderful absurdist humour, not always noirish, and a battered but determined sense of ethical imperatives. Perhaps this is conditioned by my memoir of the author as a good bloke, which may in turn have been cued as a kind of false memory syndrome by the text , but I don’t think so.

©Paul A Green 12/2007




CC Audio Features

Culture Court | Film Court | Media Court | Features

Culture Court | © 1998-2008 | Lawrence Russell