Among my mail last Friday was a review copy of Laurie Penny's forthcoming book and the latest issue of the New Statesman. Left-wing literary leafs, indeed.
Flicking through the NS, I stumbled on Penny’s weekly column and read it – enjoying her turn of phrase and agreeing with her on the state of the contemporary romantic relationship as depicted in David Nicholls’ novel One Day.
And then I flicked through the latest published collection of her columns, Penny Red: Notes from the New Age of Dissent (Pluto Press, published 20 October), and read the foreword by Warren Ellis. Something in what he wrote sounded familiar. So I returned to her column in the NS, then back to Ellis’ foreword, and made the connection.
In his introduction, Ellis includes the sentence: “Sometimes she makes you so angry in the way that makes you want to hold her head down the toilet until her legs stop twitching.” And in her NS column last week (12 September issue), Penny ends a sentence saying: “…a faster, simpler alternative might have been to hold his head down a toilet till the kicking stopped.”
Oh, Penny… Are there no original thoughts in your head?!
I wanted to enjoy her new book, I really did. I wanted to prove to Penny and to everyone else that I don’t take pleasure in criticising a sister feminist, and that my arguments with Meat Market (Zer0 Books, 2011) were not personal.
In summary, Meat Market was presented and sold as, well, fresh meat, yet some light Googling quickly confirmed the content was ripped from Penny’s old columns and was actually anything but fresh. Penny later told me: “Zer0 don’t say they’re [collections of old posts] but that’s what most of them are… To be honest this is such common practice in small scale writing that I can’t help feeling a little singled out.” I felt cheated by this. Penny continued to squirm, petulantly insisting it was not her fault that the citations were missing from some quotes in her book, quotes that I pointed out were actually sourced by other people. In addition, some quotes in Meat Market were purported to be from interviewees who subsequently told me Penny had never interviewed them for the book – despite at least one of the quotes being explicitly presented as interviewed for Meat Market.
Over the course of the 26 messages Penny sent me (messages conveying an increasingly paranoid, dramatic and pointlessly emotional tone), the amount of things that turned out to not be her fault in her own book made me wonder why she is incapable for taking responsibility for her professional work.
Penny Red is honest in the fact it is a collection of old columns. Although I do wonder when she will write something new, rather than keep capitalising on existing material. At £9.99 for the 68 pages of Meat Market, and £12.99 for the 211 pages of Penny Red, she’s not a cheap date. So I wish Penny would actually say something, rather than churn out rehashed books for no better reason than the vanity of having her name on a spine.
All this aside, what of the content?
Penny obviously writes well: she can produce a good turn of phrase and is adept at making the most miserable of scenarios sound picturesque. I’m not convinced she’s a journalist, although she might be a poet. Clearly she’s cornered the market in pitching up at London’s unfortunately frequent riot scenes, and writing about them in a verbose manner to make them sound like mighty battles of the people, rather than the messy and distasteful scuffles they really are.
She has an incessant desire to drop into every column the fact that she smokes roll-ups as if that makes her cool, and she likes to write about hanging off traffic lights with her “monkey instinct” as if this turns her into some sort of anarcho-acrobat. In Penny’s mock-Dickensian vocabulary, ‘cigarettes’ become ‘fags’, policemen become ‘coppers’, and ‘friends’ become ‘comrades’. While on one hand it’s interesting, relevant and eye opening to read witness reports from these contemporary battlegrounds, it quickly becomes exhausting to have to wade through so much prosaic waffle to actually access the information.
This book had the working title Riot Porn (based on an early listing on Amazon), and that’s exactly what the first section is. Penny is trying to create the impression that - despite her public school schooling, her Oxford bachelor degree, her internship in Parliament and the fact she inherited a stash of money (yet she frequently refers to herself as poor, a fact that made me hum Pulp’s Common People while reading) – she’s some sort of heroine of the disenfranchised youth.
To return to the “Riot Porn” issue, that is exactly what Penny Red is. It is smothered by the following type of phrases, which are literally ten a page - meaning the effect of her ability of write is diminished. “The kids start to sing, sweet and off-key, an apocalyptic choir knotted around a small bright circle of warmth and energy” (p16). “Everyone is stiff and hungry, and our phones are beginning to lose signal: the scene is Dante-esque, billows of smoke and firelight making it unclear where the noises of crying and chanting and the whine of helicopters are coming from” (p21).
Quite why Penny wants to paint herself as some anarchic bohemian, I don’t know. She summons up an image of herself shuffling bleeding from riot zone to police kettle, or swinging through the city from traffic light to lamppost with her aforementioned “monkey instinct”. Penny turns a student riot into a beautiful battleground, which it is not. Despite what she may think, Penny is not the Kate Adie of disenfranchised youth.
However, once we’ve ploughed through the turgid repetition of the first chapter, which focuses on the student and anti-cuts demonstrations, the tone changes and the book becomes less suffocating in its desperation to make a tasteless scene look romantic.
We’re presented with columns about the damage to society caused by page three, the misogyny of vajazzling (a word my spellchecker rejects, as do I), and a very good rant about the injustices being dealt to those who genuinely need to receive disability benefits. I also remember a column in the NS earlier this year that she wrote about how people misunderstood depression, which was excellent, although it’s not included in this book. You can access it on the NS website here, though.
There are plenty of other good columns, ones that tackle important issues in an informed, intelligent manner. There’s also quite a lot of frustrating columns in here, and on reflection I conclude these mostly seem to be the columns where she attempts to infiltrate an event (eg a gathering of the Conservative Future party, or barging into Tate Britain to observe a limp scuffle about the Turner Prize). Here, she seems to shout about her balls at being somewhere covert, but then doesn’t have a story to follow this up with. That’s not journalism, that’s vanity.
On the whole, I agree with many points Penny makes throughout her book. Clearly not every point, but then I’d be pushed to name one person who I agree with 100% on everything. Penny has the ability to provoke and rile, and I’ll be interested to observe over the next few years whether her career takes off and she develops her genuine ability to write well, alongside a journalistic nose for hunting out a story rather than reporting from the sidelines.
While reading Penny Red, I wondered how long it would be before Penny repurposed her existing writing a third time into The Memoirs of an Anarchist or some similar tract purporting to be the handbook for the student generation of protestors. I have no doubt that she will produce a further book, but I sincerely hope she actually comes up with some new copy for it. Otherwise even her staunchest supporters may start to lose interest.