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Children of the sun by Max Schaefer

March 14, 2017

COTS2Max Schaeffer was born in London in 1974 and studied at Cambridge and Harvard Universities. Children of the Sun is his first novel.

1970: Fourteen-year-old Tony becomes seduced by Britain’s neo-Nazi movement, sucked into a world of brutal racist violence and bizarre ritual. It’s an environment in which he must hide his sexuality, in which every encounter is potentially deadly.

2003: James is a young writer, living with his boyfriend. In search of a subject, he begins looking into the Far Right in Britain and its secret gay membership. He becomes particularly fascinated by Nicky Crane, one of the leaders of the neo-Nazi movement who came out in 1992 before dying a year later of AIDS.

The two narrative threads of this extraordinarily assured and ambitious first novel follow Tony through the seventies, eighties, and nineties, as the nationalist movement splinters and weakens; and James through a year in which he becomes dangerously immersed in his research. After risky flirtations with individuals on far right websites, he starts receiving threatening phone calls—the first in a series of unexpected events that ultimately cause the lives of these two very different men to unforgettably intersect.

Children of the Sun is a work of great imaginative sympathy and range—a novel of unblinking honesty but also of deep feeling, which illuminates the surprisingly thin line that separates aggression from tenderness.

Schaefer’s descriptive powers are immense, and if there is a poetry of visceral violence it is here (along with a most heartbreaking, lyrical counterpart of tenderness which expresses itself physically). The novel opens with an intensely vivid description of homosexual encounter in a public toilet. The unrelenting realism of the sexual and the violent, often crossing into each other, forms a helix that can’t not draw a fascinated and horrified response from the reader. The dualism of this sort of voyeurism parallels the attractiveness of the S/M dyad, the ugly becomes beautiful, the beautiful and innocent something to be violated and destroyed.

The novel’s protagonist is James, a public school and university child of parents who look after him during his prolonged adult adolesence during which he is waiting to become a serious artist, a screenwriter no less. There are many like him in the world in which he moves, so obviously this is more than mere fiction. He is fascinated with the Nazi thug Nicola Crane whose brutal physiognomy and stance adorn the book’s frontispiece, a fascimile from Skins International fanzine, 1983.  Crane is one of a list from England’s recent history of far right thugs, stertching from the likes of Stuart Donaldson, psycho and front for the Rock against Communism band, Skrewdriver, to the more homely charms of our own Nick Griffin. (It’s important to note, for reasons that will become apparent that Donaldson and Griffin too were public school boys).  Jame’s researches take him and us on a journey along the contours of the 1970s through to the present factionalisms and vaguely articulated sense of such movements as the British National Socialists, the British Movement, the National Front, the British National Party, Blood and Honour, and sundry others. Insights into aspects their activities – such as military training sessions, infiltration into establishment instituions, music, ideologues, connections with strange European bearers of the mysteries of the swastika (which is the symbol for the wheel of the the sun, hence Children of the Sun, a blood-stained swastika flag touched by Hitler himself being lugged around London in a duffle bag during our encounter with these insights) – are brought to life with scenarios that border on the grotesque (I don’t want to plot spoil but I am referring to a gaga old  woman who is too scary to get a part in a horror movie) to the chillingly domestic with a young  and earnest Nick Griffin fresh from Cambridge with his leaflets and booklets and intelligent arguments.

Schaefer’s constructed his novel so that James’s research is embodied in a factual framework with a fictional narrative, the main character being Tony whose story begins and ends the book, the ending though with a contrived but satisfying twist. Tony, like almost all of the characters (at least half of whom are ‘semi-fictional’: the blurring of fact and fiction is not only a literary game, it’s largely what the book is about) is broken, violent, tender, inconsistent, intelligent but often inarticulate, swept along and never having the opportunity to grow up. Three kids offer him a glue bag to sniff: he takes it, “I was young once.” The structure is very straightforward and works for what the author is doing, certainly presents an uncomplicated reading of the narrative.

Regarding the history covered in the book, I think you’ll find it interesting, informative and so on, but I’d like now to turn to some aspects of the novel which lift it towards being very good indeed.

It’s about identity, markers, self and other. Of course, it’s got political and ideological aspects but there’s no didacticism, polemic or answer to a sneaked-in question. It lays stuff brutally on the table in a way that shows quite clearly some underlying patterns to the way we all think.  I have alluded to three elements: the erotic, the violent and the tender (the latter connected with joy). The tensions between these generate the power of the novel, of the individual. Identity is made of the private (erotic, tender) that may need the other to share with, yet always throughout the relationship of trust, except in the most marvellously paradoxical way right at the end, is precarious and fragile at best. Identity of self – perhaps only James’ boyfriend Adam and some of their middle class friends show a degree of adult autonomy – is the absence which initiates the time-honoured method of finding the self by losing it into the communal. At a gig on Nick Griffin’s Daddy’s farm,  Tony is drawn into the heaving, sweating dancing gang of skins, at first conscious of the erotic self that he must hide but then, he

….sees himself repeated in every direction like a hall of mirrors, and  understands that this will not wreck him, he is not distinct from it and floating fragile on its surface, but rather it is him, of him and he is part of it, the shouts, the salutes, the sieg heils coming from within and around him alike. With one force, one voice, he fills the courtyard.

Yet in one of the smudged photocopies of fanzines and the like that punctuate the novel, we have this in Square Peg no.12, 1986, ‘Why I’m a Skin’:

(a skin is) able to walk anywhere, his passport the astonishment of the sharp mind in the brainless stereotype…

…This animal’s only secondary sexual characteristics are his braces, worn up to exaggerate the width of his shoulders, down to emphasise the curve of his bum.

Another scene (I won’t describe it in detail, it is worth savouring) evokes a Tea Dance with an assortment of the oddest, weirdest, most outlandishly dressed and styled couples and it is here that explicit reference to the word joy is made. Tenderness exists elsewhere too in the little details of lovers’ rituals, yet for the most part it is trodden down (often literally) by sadism, often greeted by paid for masochism. Somehow in the Square Peg quotation and the desire by Adam – a successful BBC producer – to dress as a skin, and to go to S/M skin club and be utterly humiliated, and many other instances of the conflation of dress, power, identity, violence, eroticism, gender simply saturate the novel’s ‘content’ (at the level of ‘representing’ some attributes of the far right movements at a small period of history): James’ intuition that after all his searching in the British Library and other conventional research, he has to find whatever he is looking for by finding out how the virtually absent Nicola Crane feels.

England is not about England nor was it ever.

To me, there were some disturbing overlaps implied between the descriptions of the Fascist ideologues, the ‘thinkers’ and the counterpart in any demagoguery of the ‘far Left’. Even the mystical mumbo jumbo James gets sidetracked into studying then taking on board to the point of becoming paranoid has its symmetry between right and left.

The Nazi mythologies are well known, but it’s worth pointing out that you won’t have to click many times to find sites with Deleuze and John Dee sharing the spotlight. The use in the novel of the London Psychogeographical Society’s speculations on the pyramid at the top of Canary Wharf (reprinted in the novel) fits in these days with the more Waterstones texture of psychogeography (indeed Schaefer includes an opening epigram from Iain Sinclair’s Suicide Bridge). The Battle of Waterloo has an awful symmetry about it, and when the police throw a cordon around all the skins to escort them out of the station, they little know that half of the skins have turned, or always been, commie.

More traditionally, old school tensions rise. Piqued James turns on his lover, Adam: “This whole sub-skin thing. You get your rocks off by dressing on the ne plus ultra of the lumpenproletariat and pretending you’re powerless. It’s classic English guilt.” Complementing such traditional complaints, there is a diatribe elsewhere against petit bourgeois grammar schools yearning to be like public schools, and the pathetic guy Adam and James go to see for a whipping who turns out to be a wimp with a longing to touch public school boys. It’s these little touches – that public schools aren’t accidentally mentioned on many occasions – that do remind us that while all this stuff is going on there’s a class system out there, and an  elite grinding happily away. Fight on, boys.

Schaefer has a geat eye for the urban detail, just enough slant of something to conjure up the whole. London as, like the S/M tension, horribly fascinating and attractive, a wasteland and pulsing with life at the same time. He gives his more vacuous characters enough words to hang themselves with, his authorial voice an ironic comment rather than the ornate showmanship it may appear to be if you don’t see just how careful he is to maintain precisely the right distance while being intimately connected with every level of the novel’s workings. Some feat.

He’s a clever writer, but doesn’t show off. My guess is that the ‘solipsistic cunt’ who drove across Tottenham Court Road during the anti-Iraq war march is a character from Ian McKewan’s Saturday (also a novel about identity but, well, a bit different). Mind you, when James’ sister has a go at him for making his parents remortgage the house so they can keep supporting their lazy jobless pseudo-artist son, she calls him a ‘solipsistic prick’.

But remember, whatever, whether they’re real clothes, or clothings of ideas, concepts, fantasies, ideologies in the end they are all just skins. We are made of the erotic, the violent, and if we’re lucky, the tender. The rest is just “as if quotation marks swarmed about me like moths.”

Not necessarily an easy read , some times confusing , the narrative jumps and because there are so many characters I was sometimes confused , but also enchanted too . Knowing very little of the national front / skin head movement nor understanding the fetishising of the skin head look , I found this an amazing story . Politics , betrayal , obsession , kink , secrets . maybe I should reread to really understand all of the layers

This debut novel promises to address that oft noted but rarely explored nexus between the subcultures of neo-Nazism and homosexuality. It does so through the lives of two men: Tony and James. The former joins a skinhead gang as a teenager, at the same time gaining his first gay sexual experiences. The novel traces his life through the major milestones of 1970s and 1980s British fascism, including cameo appearances from some well-known figures. Several decades later, the novel traces James’ endeavour to research that earlier period. Perhaps because of the inevitable autobiographical turn of first novels, the rendering of James’ life is more nuanced. The detrimental costs of his research to personal relationships is addressed. And we are given a supplemental narrative charting his full discovery of, and revulsion with, the sexual depravity of his boyfriend. The reader is not permitted to be so familiar with Tony. The third person narrative is a factor, of course. And it must be said Tony’s meetings with various archetypal fascists (some real) shine a light on that underworld. But the reader never truly understands how Tony comprehends his politics and sexuality, let alone how he reconciles them (if at all). It remains nevertheless a fascinating subject, and the inclusion of newspaper cuttings between each chapter heightens the sense of looking with considerable curiosity into a goldfish bowl.

A really well researched, thoughtful and well paced book, combining the recent past with a look at a previously under mentioned history of the right wing. The writing flows without interruption, challening ideas and actions. For a first novel it’s an example of how to establish yourself as a seriously professional scribe.

I haven’t read something this amazing in a long time. Children of the Sun…you get deep into the book and while reading really do see the events taking place. The writing is noticeably enjoyable to read, but doesn’t distract you from the story or characters. Sometimes it verges on being a prose poem, but doesn’t quite become it. This really works well. The dialogue, the events are all very believable. The characters and their dialogue also does not end up being any sort of proselytizing–the author doesn’t feel the need to prove “Just because I wrote a book involving nazi skins doesn’t mean i’m a nazi!” I’d stop reading having to get off a train and the book’s characters and voices would still be with me for 15 minutes or so, changing how I was feeling and seeing the world around me.

“Children of the Sun” is fictionalised but accurate – Schaefer has certainly put the necessary research into this and there were no cringeworthy bits that usually crop up with depictions of the far right (from posh plays to The Bill). Various aspects of the British fascism are portrayed accurately but without descent into unnecessary trainspotterish detail. Some brushes with anti-fascists are described in similar ways to how they have been told to me as well.

The heart of the story is the interplay between two protagonists – one a contemporary of Crane’s on the far right, another a young researcher who is obsessed with Crane after his death. Although violence and sex are certainly part of the narrative it’s not a football hoolie book which is hagiographic and uncritical.

There is also a good depiction of the paranoia that an obsessive immersion in this material can induce…

The book is not something to read on the train as lurid news clippings and far right agit prop are reproduced throughout. Crane still exerts a morbid fascination on many from beyond the grave – both on the far right and in aspects of gay subculture. I saw him around on a few occasions whilst studying in central London in the early nineties and can confirm he seemed like someone best avoided. The fact that he was living something of a double life doesn’t really detract from this. Clearly a novel about his life will raise more questions than it answers, but it is a good read and I’d definitely recommend it if you have an interest in this sort of subject matter.

Britain’s gay neo-Nazis in the 70s and early 80s. Haunted by the politically and sexually ambiguous image of the braced and booted skinhead, it is filled with brilliant evocations of period atmosphere.

Those who can recall Anti-Nazi League marches and gay London in those days will feel all the joy (and the mourning) of recognition, but you don’t need to have been there: the whole point of good writing is to make you feel that you were, and Schaefer does it wonderfully. The sheer frumpy horror of occult, middle-class British Nazis celebrating Hitler’s birthday, for example, is splendidly, hideously believable.

Schaefer’s double narrative gives us Tony, ducking and diving through life as a secretly gay skinhead who, by the early 80s, inhabits the queasy inner circles of the NF/BM; and James, a posh young writer in 2003 who becomes almost  necromantically obsessed with Nicky Crane, a deceased luminary of the BM who was repeatedly outed by the anti-Nazi journal Searchlight (with, for a long time, no apparent effect). Many press cuttings are set in the text, bearing witness to the bizarre reality of Crane’s brief heyday in post-punk Britain as both Nazi thug and gay icon.

There are wonderful set-pieces: the young Nick Griffin, already the politician, is obliged to feign enjoyment of a skinhead band; James, fleeing the hardcore scene, has to retrieve his specs from a lover busy taking on all comers; Tony denies his new lover when other skinheads appear in their underground carriage. However, Tony isn’t made to pay the price for this betrayal – and this indicates the basic flaw running through the book: Schaefer can’t stop wanting us to love his heroes. Real drama is ruthless: Tony and James need to be kicked about the storyline with bovver boots, not handled with kid gloves. You cannot seriously have a skinhead pick up a college boy for a session of boot-licking/beating atop a thrillingly authentic swastika flag, then conclude by revealing that our Nazi really just wants a cuddle: “Tony wraps his legs around the bundled sheets and murmurs to them in the dark, as if they were Chris, staying.” This cheap, soapy stuff is, sadly, a dominant tone.

Nicky Crane was clearly a psychopath. The tale of a modern young man’s obsession with this dead maniac must surely be a glorious black comedy or the full, post-watershed psychosexual monty – preferably both. But rather than going for Genet or Mishima, Schaefer keeps things in Russell T Davies territory. His discussions of sex are positively arch (there’s nothing like Nick and Leo in The Line of Beauty here). There’s very little actually described apart from boot-fetishry and mild beatings, which by the end makes these fixations unintentionally funny.

Schaefer’s unwillingess to let things ever get truly edgy undermines the whole climax of the book. Here, the double narrative flows at last into one as James steels himself, after much business with email and webcams, to finally give himself into the power of the terrifying “real Nazi” he’s met on a gay dating website, the erstwhile comrade of the scary Nicky Crane. But the tension is completely bogus, since we already know for certain that nothing bad will happen. The final scene is indeed risibly soft-centred.

The author: 3:AM: Children of the Sun has been widely reviewed on what we might call the far left, but are you aware of any specific reaction from those the book covers, namely the far right? I take it you didn’t invite Nick Griffin to the book launch?

MS: I’m not aware of any reaction whatsoever on the far right. I’m trying not to feel hurt…

No invitation was extended to Griffin. In fact, one of the decisions I made early on was that the research would not extend to making contact with any such individuals. Given the ton of neo-nazi material I had to work from, not to mention secondary sources, it didn’t seem necessary, and I felt it might compromise the project (not to mention me) in a range of ways. Besides, avoiding personal contact seemed pretty consistent with the plot and structure of the book overall.

3:AM: The title appears to have given rise to some confusion as to its origin, Stewart Home for instance pondering 60s pysche classics, but it’s actually derived from post-war nazi occultist Savitri Devi. Can you say a little on why you chose it?

MS: It wasn’t my original choice. The working title for the book was Ian & Nicky, but while it had the support of a few writer friends, my agent and publishers hated it — as, to be fair, did most everyone else I happened to ask. Finding a title we could all agree on was an extended process (and one during which Granta couldn’t have been more patient). I’d tried a few times to come up with alternatives, including trawling through the manuscript for likely phrases, during which I considered and rejected Children of the Sun among several others. My main concern was its overfamiliarity, both per se and for the other titles it echoes. But then my agent suggested it independently (on the basis that beyond the direct neo-nazi reference you mention, it ‘captured the lamentable vainglory of these people but also their sympathetic innocence’, as well as refracting on James, the young researcher in the present-day strand of the narrative), and while we continued to discuss several others, Children was the one that stuck. It has grown on me.

3:AM: I suppose I should ask then, why Nicky Crane?

MS: I hope the book might answer that at least in part… I first became aware of Crane when a friend mentioned him over dinner, and the obvious contradiction in his life made me curious enough to start some research — I thought he might make a good short story. But the research quickly became a lot broader. So he was an entry to the subject for me, and he performs a similar function in the book.

3:AM: You use the life and death of Crane as a device for the book, both in the retelling of the past and the more recent present. Regardless of his crimes and actions as part of the far right, did you ever pause to think about what effect this might have on those to whom he was a son, a brother etc.?

MS: I thought about it, but to honest I didn’t pause for very long. For a start, there’s no information about him in the book that wasn’t already publicly available, with the possible exception of the date and place of his death. Moreover, Crane himself talked very publicly about his sexuality and his Nazi past — he did it on TV, and in The Sun. And in the end there’s very little of Crane in the book; he’s as much an absence as anything else.

It’s interesting that you ask that question specifically about Crane when several other real people appear, or are mentioned, in the novel. Was there something about how he’s treated in particular that made you uncomfortable?

3:AM: Well, no, but it was more the fact that he’s dead. In the book there’s both your text as story and the introduction of clippings of the era borrowed from a number of sources, which punctuate between chapters. One of which shows how Searchlight constantly sought to out Crane while he was an active member of the more militant end of the far right. Do you think those around him were really oblivious to it, despite this, or if it was more convenient for them to turn a blind eye to it?

MS: Well, we know the far right has happily accommodated other people whose sexuality was an open secret — such as Martin Webster. And one thing that’s clear is they can’t have been oblivious to what Searchlight was suggesting, however they responded to those suggestions. In fact, Ian Stuart admits as much in one of his last interviews, which we reproduce in the book: “I used to stick up for [Crane] when people used to say he was queer”. So it’s not denied people used to make those claims — Stuart merely refused to believe them, or at least to say he did. And the question becomes what’s at stake in such claims of knowing, or not-knowing, or knowing-that-not (and who’s making those claims, about whom and to whom)… which is the sort of thing Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote about brilliantly and at length, and won’t boil down to a simple either-or.

An obvious point: nobody disputes that Crane was about as hard and violent as skinheads got. If you were a Nazi comrade of his, would you want to be the one to confront him?

 3:AM: The use of the clippings follows a certain trajectory, where you show how the Blood and Honour scene evolved from almost apolitical street punk to full-on Rock Against Communism. At certain points, Mensi [of the Angelic Upstarts], a noted anti-fascist, is almost swept up in it in response to the antics of the liberal left and its treatment of working-class youth. Was this deliberate?

MS: The clippings had a couple of obvious functions. One was to provide some level of background information to readers less familiar with context than, say, you — particularly once I’d got rid of James’s journalism, which performed a similar job but did rather drown things. My hope with the clippings was that as they’re somewhere between image and text the reader would feel freer to skip them if s/he wanted to. So in that context I certainly wanted them to tell at least some of the story of how Blood and Honour evolved.

I think that at the outset there were two things going on fairly separately. One was Skrewdriver’s career, and as you say they did start as a pretty apolitical (other than being dutifully ‘rebellious’) punk group. The other was Rock Against Communism, which was a staggeringly literal response by the fash to the success of Rock Against Racism. RAC was an statement of intent before it was a real music scene — they kept announcing its arrival, and hoping to find some bands to make it happen. Ultimately those two things converged, because Skrewdriver were a failure and Ian Stuart reinvented the band as a big fish in the tiny Nazi pond. But for a long time he was refusing to have anything to do with RAC or the National Front, at least publicly, because he was holding out for more mainstream success. I guess it’s a pathetic, tiny version of the old cliché: if Hitler had sold more paintings… except that there was nothing unique about Skrewdriver; if they hadn’t done the job something else would have come along. The fact they’d had a sort of career before they turned Nazi made them easier to sell, of course.

Besides background info I hoped the clippings would add their own colour and immediacy, as artefacts rather than descriptions of the subculture. And if you’re paying ridiculously close attention they also relate to the way James’s own research and theories end up heading, and bounce off the text of the novel in a few ways. But that’s closer attention than I realistically expect the reader to pay.

3:AM: The book’s title aside, it dwells quite extensively on the role of occultism within far right circles, which generally isn’t something the wider public associates with nazi skinheads, though the bulk of the music scene’s fanzines do tend towards Celtic and Norse mythology for their titles. Why did you feel the need to dwell so extensively on this aspect of the subculture?

MS: I suppose because it is part of the subculture, but as you say hardly the first people think of. Lunatic occult beliefs were very deeply rooted in the Third Reich itself — in the whole myth of the Aryan race, for a start — and they’re very present in neo-Nazi discourse as well. One tends to rationalise this stuff, and of course I wouldn’t for a moment deny the socioeconomic context, but the Nazi occultists are far from a little group off by themselves, whom the mainstream will have nothing to do with. Colin Jordan and John Tyndall both associated with Savitri Devi; Combat 18, the ur-thugs, put her on the cover of one of their magazines. Order of Nine Angles material turns up in Scorpion, the closest thing the British far right has to an intellectual journal. And so on.

Beyond that, of course, it has a narrative function, in terms of James’ trajectory.

3:AM: I suppose any discussion of homosexuality and the far right can’t avoid the curious life story of Richard Barnbrook, who started out as an acolyte of Derek Jarman at the Royal College of Art in the 1980s (making ‘art films’ like ‘HMS Discovery’) but more recent has come to prominence as pretty much the second in command of the BNP as its London Assembly Member and Barking ‘organiser’. Scope here for fictional dissection or just a curious footnote in the ever bizarre goings on of the far right?

MS: I don’t think I’ll be attempting a fictional dissection of Barnbrook myself — the fact that he crossed paths with Jarman is the most interesting thing about him. Beyond that he’s a fairly lousy politician: his group of councillors in Barking were thrown out wholesale in the last election, by which point he’d already been suspended for making false claims, and he now seems to be on the losing side of some factional squabble within the party. Martin Webster’s allegations about Griffin are just as notable if you’re looking for that kind of thing, but even if they were true, I have no great desire to claim Griffin for the team.

I guess the other thing Barnbrook demonstrates is how close artistic subcultures, including queer subcultures, have come to fascism over the years. If you want to play six degrees of separation from Jarman to Griffin, he’s probably the winning move but hardly the only one. You could go via Psychic TV to Coil to Current 93 to Tony Wakeford, who used to be in the Front. Or via Marc Almond, who was apparently initiated into the Church of Satan by Boyd Rice, who also worked with Current 93. Or straight from Psychic TV to Nicky Crane, who appears in their ‘Unclean’ video. Or use Stevo Pearce, whose brother ran the Front alongside Griffin in the ’80s. Or Richard Moult, or … well, you get the picture.

3:AM: One review speculated that Thomas Pynchon could be an influence, but what reading up had you done on previous literature that covers the far right, for instance Richard Allen, Dougie Brimson or John King?

MS: I certainly read Richard Allen, but he doesn’t do Richard Allen as well as Stewart Home does Richard Allen. I’d read Home first, and so when I got round to him Allen just seemed like Home-doing-Allen minus all the qualities Home had added — like political intelligence, and jokes.

With King of course I was interested in how he covered the far right, but I particularly wanted to see how he handled violence. There are a couple of big set-piece fight scenes in Children, between the skinheads and the anti-fascists, and I hadn’t written that kind of stuff before. King turns out to write fights in an impressionistic way, building things up through fragmentary glimpses and sensations. I realised I needed to be more systematic — more Muybridge than Monet — perhaps because I was writing far from my own experience, or perhaps just as a matter of taste: certainly in cinema, I’ve always preferred action sequences shot and cut in such a way that you completely understand how they play out in time and space — think Peckinpah or Woo, even De Palma, versus post-MTV montage.

I’m not sure I ever read Dougie Brimson, but I did read a bunch of non-fiction books by (or ghosted for) other sometime faces: people like Steve Hickmott and Chris Henderson. Hooligan memoirs are their own sub-genre, hovering somewhere around true crime. Most of the books I read were pretty dreadful, but they certainly helped.

 3:AM: You manage to tip-toe around various locales in London, be it 1970s Plumstead, the wind against concrete of Kidbrooke Estate or more recent Soho. However, to what extent were you or weren’t you conscious to avoid what David Peace has termed ‘Blue Nun syndrome’ in all that?

MS: I think that what Peace is referring to is a waving-around of period signifiers — the kind of details that are now so overdetermined they’re almost a shorthand, like films set in the ‘80s whose characters live in a constant wash of Culture Club and Duran Duran. Which seems to me more of a risk when you haven’t done enough research. My problem was the opposite; I did too much, and I was certainly in danger (and this is no better than Blue Nun Syndrome, merely different) of putting too much of it in. In earlier drafts of the book, instead of clippings, I had excerpts from James’ work: there was for an example a very detailed 10,000-word history of the early days of Skrewdriver, which I ended up cutting out entirely. But I did need to go through at least a good proportion of that research process, because as I say I was hardly writing from personal experience, and so it was a scaffold I had to have in place to build the novel, even if I took much of it down when I was done. And there’s still a great deal of precision in what happens when and where. There’s a line in the book where Tony’s hungry near Victoria, and somebody says: ‘There’s a Burger King opposite the tube entrance, or a Casey Jones in the station.’ That’s forty-five minutes or so of research right there.

3:AM: The anti-fascist combatants in the book are portrayed sympathetically, again how did your treatment of them weigh on your mind as perhaps a countervailing moral force to the actions of the nazi contingent?

MS: It’s interesting you say that. Certainly my own sympathies were very much with the anti-fascists, but with one exception they don’t really have a voice in the book; you see them entirely through the eyes of Tony, my Nazi protagonist, when he’s fighting them. I didn’t go to any deliberate lengths to make them sympathetic — my general approach was to show what characters said and did, and trust the reader to respond to that rather than editorialising — but perhaps my feelings about the anti-fascists (which boil down to a recognition that fascism in the UK has historically been most effectively stopped on the streets) came through somewhat. The Remembrance Sunday fight, and the Battle of Waterloo, drew heavily on accounts by some former members of AFA, so those sections do arguably give an anti-fascist version of history.

3:AM: The book begins with an Iain Sinclair quote and has David Peace on the cover. Key influences do you reckon? What other authors writing about recent social history from a fictional vantage point do you enjoy?

MS: I think for anyone writing about London and particularly its non-mainstream history, Sinclair is by now an inevitable influence, whether directly or through his general percolation (in the same way that Pynchon will be there in the background of any literature of paranoia, whether or not the writer’s actually read him). Certainly Sinclair’s presence in the novel goes well beyond the opening quote. As for Peace, I actually made myself avoid reading him while I was working on the book, because I was worried I’d get pulled too close into orbit.

As for other writers, I should say first of all that these days I don’t read nearly as many novels as I’d like to, or should. Much of my reading now is research for the next book. But Neil Bartlett has certainly beaten some important paths. There’s Hollinghurst, of course, at the other end of the social spectrum from most of this conversation… And I can’t really think about writing about history, or place, without Sebald hovering somewhere.

1970: Fourteen-year-old Tony becomes seduced by Britain’s neo-Nazi movement, sucked into a world of brutal racist violence and bizarre ritual. It’s an environment in which he must hide his sexuality, in which every encounter is potentially deadly.

2003: James is a young writer, living with his boyfriend. In search of a subject, he begins looking into the Far Right in Britain and its secret gay membership. He becomes particularly fascinated by Nicky Crane, one of the leaders of the neo-Nazi movement who came out in 1992 before dying a year later of AIDS.

The two narrative threads of this extraordinarily assured and ambitious first novel follow Tony through the seventies, eighties, and nineties, as the nationalist movement splinters and weakens; and James through a year in which he becomes dangerously immersed in his research. After risky flirtations with individuals on far right websites, he starts receiving threatening phone calls—the first in a series of unexpected events that ultimately cause the lives of these two very different men to unforgettably intersect.
I had never understood the Hindu nationalism if the BJP in India until I read of the belief in the Four Yugas being used as a justification. There’s also a pagan interpretation – the rolling hills of ye olde English countryside.

Plus loads of violence and racist jokes: ‘Bloke walks into a pub with a crocodile, goes up to the bar and says, “Do you serve niggers in here?”‘

To the blacks’ almost dutiful sounds of outrage, Steve climbs inside with his mates following.

`Governor goes, “Course we do, we’re not racist.” So the bloke says, “I’ll have a pint of lager and a nigger for the crocodile.”‘


….sees himself repeated in every direction like a hall of mirrors, and  understands that this will not wreck him, he is not distinct from it and floating fragile on its surface, but rather it is him, of him and he is part of it, the shouts, the salutes, the sieg heils coming from within and around him alike. With one force, one voice, he fills the courtyard.

(a skin is) able to walk anywhere, his passport the astonishment of the sharp mind in the brainless stereotype…

…This animal’s only secondary sexual characteristics are his braces, worn up to exaggerate the width of his shoulders, down to emphasise the curve of his bum.

“This whole sub-skin thing. You get your rocks off by dressing on the ne plus ultra of the lumpenproletariat and pretending you’re powerless. It’s classic English guilt.”

“Tony wraps his legs around the bundled sheets and murmurs to them in the dark, as if they were Chris, staying.”

She leans back her head, closes her eyes, and recites: ‘When justice is crushed, when evil reigns supreme, then I come. For the protection of the good, for the destruction of the evil-doers, for the sake of firmly establishing righteousness, I am born, age after age.’

She tells him of the cycle of ages, the Yugas, as laid down in the great epics of the Aryans, which repeats through all eternity. She traces the inexorable decline from the Krita Yuga, the Age of Truth — the Golden Age, whose memory all cultures, from the Greeks and Japanese to the Sumerians and Romans, some­how preserve — to the current, fourth, Dark Age, the Kali Y uga, the Era of Gloom, in which human selfishness and con­ceit allows man to overrun the planet while its once-thick mantle of forest declines. Whole species of proud wild crea­tures are killed off, replaced by an obnoxious and expanding stream of dreary, vulgar, worthless two-legged mammals, and everything is done to encourage that mad increase in number and loss in quality. Everything is done to keep the sickly, the crippled, the freaks of nature, unfit to work and unfit to live, from dying. Thousands of innocent, healthy animals are tor­tured in search of ‘new treatments’, so that deficient men, whom Nature has anyhow condemned to death, might last a few more months. The healthy are made unhealthy through joyless work, overcrowded homes, lack of privacy, unnatural food, their brains softened by advertising and propaganda. Lies are called truth and truth falsehood, and the speakers of truth, the God-like men, are defeated, their followers humbled, their memory slandered, while the masters of lies are hailed as saviours.

And she tells him of Kalki, the last One, the Destroyer, des­tined to clear the ground for the building of a new age of truth. It was Kalki of whom, with that unfailing cosmic intuition, the Fiihrer said, ‘I know that Somebody must come forth and meet our situation. I have sought, and found him nowhere; and therefore I have taken upon myself to do the preparatory work; only the most urgent preparatory work.’ She tells him that Kalki, unlike Hitler, will act with unprecedented ruthlessness. He will spare not one enemy of the divine cause: not one out­spoken opponent, nor even one of the heretical, the racially bastardized, the unhealthy, hesitating, all-too-human: not a single one of those who, in body or in character or in mind, bear the stamp of the fallen Ages.

`And we like to hope,’ she says, ‘that the memory of the One-before-the-last — of Adolf Hitler — will survive, at least in songs and symbols, in that long Age of earthly Perfection which Kalki, the last One, is to open. We like to hope that the Lords of the new Time-Cycle, men of his own blood and faith, will render him divine honours, through rites full of meaning and potency, in the cool shade of the endless regrown forests, on the beaches, or on inviolate mountain peaks, facing the rising sun.’

`Everything’s fucking connected. We know that by now, surely? Chaos theory: you have a wank and there’s an earth­quake off Sumatra. Doesn’t tell us anything, apart from maybe you should wank less. I think I’m drunk. Come on, darling,’ he said to Tom. ‘Let’s go.’

The houses lining the road had gone; it led now between wild grass and trees. I had the intense feeling that I was walk­ing back through history and might never see a town again, before I realized this was Hampstead Heath. The sun made occasional low winks through the trees to my left, and shone off the bodies of passing cars, which I took as confirmation that I was still in the same time after all. There was a strange, mounting silence, less an absence of noise than a thing itself, swelling thickly into space. I could feel its substance as I stepped into it: it shivered, as if living. I felt the need to get away from the road; I thought that way I might longer pre­serve my grasp on this palpable silence-thing, and somehow examine it. I stepped off the path into grass and mud, lurched a little as I remembered to attend to where I walked. What I saw ahead could have been the entrance to a forest: it was not a London park of level surfaces and formal plans; it was barely London at all. As I stepped between the trees I had the vague idea of news reports, the bodies of lone ramblers, victims of malefic rituals or damaged minds, and wondered if now was the best time to be doing this; but if there was a threat I could not feel it. Yellow light rippled across me in patterns; the bark of trees was damp and scarred; my boots churned the mud, where water glinted in tiny pools. The land rose sharply and took effort to climb. The sun came through gaps, heating patches of air like puffs of breath warm on my face. I passed over whole dioramas of labouring insects, with their vast appalling discipline, and there was a scent building, rich, sweet and heavy, as if it were summer and this a field of flowers. Ahead of me, on the crest of the rise, the sun glowed through bare branches so vividly they thinned into absence before it; as I walked they moved across its surface, and it pulsed. I didn’t have the vocabulary to tell myself what I saw; I had never paid attention to the garden at home, didn’t even know what trees these were. I grasped at names: oak, elm, hazel, ash; fern and ivy; peonies, dandelions, daffodils. What did you call these bright yellow autumn flowers? The silence was unbroken and yet also filled with the manifold hum of bees — was this even the time of year for bees? I felt them anyway, an impromptu retinue, rustling the air at my neck. The sun that waited at the top of the slope was full in my face and gave off an unexpected heat. Dark green needles of grass wove vivid carpets on the higher ground. So this was how it felt, revelation: shimmering light on the beckoning crest of a hill, the colours of things sat­urating, a fine accruing surface detail, as if looking close at a familiar painting and seeing for the first time the texture of the oils. That inner intensity you knew as a boy and had since for­gotten spilling and flooding into the physical world, into warmth and colour, the vibrant thrum of awoken nature. I stumbled up, found the summit, swayed in place as the sun­light pounded me. The land fell away ahead, and all across it I could see meadows unfurling in emerald and gold, thick mantles of trees, their dense canopies merged, falling and rising over distant hills. A vast flock of birds swirled in the sky; a squirrel nudged my feet without fear; a pair of dogs, their fur thick and black, and the size, it seemed, of donkeys, lumbered from nowhere up the path towards me, smelled something on the wind, gave a laughing bark, were gone, plunging through waist-high stalks like the waves of the sea: I walked forward in their wake; the ground dipped and rose; I bobbed in the tall grass. I knew what vision I had been granted: Imperium, the new dawn, the Satanic aeon; the return of the golden age long lost to algebra, industry, abstract thought, foolish insistence on the pre-eminence and commonality of man. The dogs were wolves, the wolves what men could be, and they chased the power to conquer galaxies.

Nicky Crane was alive, and before me, now, the city burned: I had reached another crest and there it was, far below and tiny, its dull anaemic greys glistening with the reflected red of the flames consuming it, the air, even here, thick with the caramel taste of burning flesh. And through its smoke, the risen sun. The old age never died; it was in retreat; it slept, while all the time its ancient guardians, LOKI OKKULT GESELLSCHAFT, LUPINE OPERIE GERULI, LEGATI ORDINIS GALAXICI, tended it with secret rites, sacrifice magnified by powerful relics passed on in unwritten rituals of initiation.

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