Saturday 26 January 2019

All the Devils are Here by David Seabrook  (Reviewed by THOMAS}
Kent juts out from the rest of England like an elbow. In David Seabrook’s stumbling psychogeographic tour of this elbow’s tip (Margate, Broadstairs, Deal), he portrays it as teeming (although ‘teeming’ seems perhaps too energetic a word) with people elbowed to the margins of English society, margins at which, paradoxically, this sense of Englishness is most defined: mad persons, alcoholics, louche millionaires, well-connected fascists, octogenarian ex-rentboys, spent eccentrics, writers either unacknowledged or forgotten. “Hell is empty and all the devils are here,” wrote Shakespeare in The Tempest of (ostensibly) another haunted paradise and ‘isle of noises’, and Seabrook is at his best when nailing a persistent cultural misery in a single sentence: “Staccato laughter strafing the Casino Rooms just off the High Street, where audiences are entertained by comedians such as ‘X-Rated’ Jimmy Jones or Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown, big men who tour England ceaselessly like lardy takes on the Ancient Mariner, bringing none of the poetry and all of the guilt.” Seabrook’s position is not lofty, however: he lived almost all his life on this elbow, never more than an hour’s bus-ride from the locations mentioned, an outsider himself, culturally irritable, full of sympathies but excluded from involvement by his own uncertainty of motive and by his insecure role as second-hand witness to pasts of which only decrepit and partial residues remain. Although Seabrook ostensibly seeks and relays facts, albeit fragmented second-hand facts, these facts seldom reach any conclusion other than their enervation. Knowledge will not save us from that which we do not understand. “I can connect / Nothing with nothing,” wrote T.S. Eliot in ‘The Waste Land’ while recuperating from a mental breakdown in Margate. On visiting Chatham, Seabrook gives a discursive account of the painter Richard Dadd, his experiences accompanying Sir Thomas Phillips on the “cultural commando course” of a Grand Tour, his murder of his father and subsequent confinement to Bedlam, concluding his account of a visit to the now-neglected park in which the murder took place with the observation that “it’s a place that won’t quite fit on the heritage map. Kent police exercise their dogs here.” Seabrook is to Sebald what a queasy stomach is to a headache. Whether analysing literature or exposing the private lives of third-rung celebrities, Seabrook is always an intruder, his observations always gossip, with the ambivalences of fascination and repulsion always inherent in gossip. Seabrook’s mind is desperate to make connections between the details he observes, but he seems aware all along that there will be no overall shape to, or conclusion to be drawn from, these details. Towards the end of the book he spends an uncomfortable number of pages recounting the details in an unsolved series of murders with which he has evidently become obsessed before returning to his interview with the faded rent-boy which forms the connecting thread of the final part of the book, entitled ‘Tombatism’, a word coined by a character in Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood from a combination of ‘tomb’ and ‘rheumatism’. Edwin Drood was never finished, its mysteries irresolvable, inevitable consequences, in Seabrook’s cosmology, of being set and written in the elbow of Kent. David Seabrook was found dead in his flat in Kent in 2009. Most of his writings are lost. 

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