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Reading between the lines

Boring, boring Adams

Alex Standish prefers the football to the footballer's sermon

  • 'Addicted' by Tony Adams with Ian Ridley, CollinsWillow £16.99 hbk

In this autobiography Tony Adams suggests that his life has been shaped by two addictions: football and alcohol. Adams made his debut for Arsenal at just 17 in 1983, winning the league championship at 22 and being capped for England at 21. Then in the 1990s things started to go wrong. His marriage was breaking up, he was drinking before matches to calm himself down, he spent two months in prison for drunken driving. After hitting rock bottom following Euro '96, Adams joined Alcoholics Anonymous, learned to play the piano and speak French, and pronounced himself a reformed character, like his new chum Paul Merson.

It is an insult to Adams' football to describe his determination to succeed in the game as an addiction, an insult that is not mitigated by the fact that Adams is insulting himself. To be addicted to something implies that it has power over you, but it was Adams who made it all happen. The way he battled into professional football, despite his limited natural talents, is something I wish I could have done. He was the youngest player ever to captain Arsenal, and has now captained every team he has played for. I preferred Tony Adams before he was reformed. Adams took some blows, being comprehensively humiliated by Holland's Marco Van Basten in the 1988 European Championship and being 'Eeeaw'-ed at by fans everywhere for his donkey-style defending. Even with the carrots raining down on him he took it all pretty manfully: 'it motivated me', he says now.

But with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, Adams has since learned to 'admit that we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable'. Now he is convinced that he has been an alcoholic for a large part of his career, but throughout the 1996 European Championship he was on the wagon, taking the team to within an inch of the final (the inch being how far the stumbling Gazza was away from that cross). 'Powerless over alcohol' does not quite describe playing twice a week for a top-flight football club.

In AA theory you are recovering, but you never recover. For this reason Stephen Hughes got a wigging from Adams for spraying beer in the changing room after the victory over Everton which clinched last season's championship, and drink has been banned from the team coach. Adams is trying to have the bar at Highbury closed. 'The other players thought that I was a recovery bore, some kind of David Icke. I was so evangelical about this way of life that I was trying to give it to other people.' The other players are right. The public confessions of Adams and Merson have been turned into a moral fable for our times. The moral is spelled out in Adams' first reaction to AA: 'Until that point I had always thought I could master myself any problem that life had thrown at me. I was Tony Adams of England and Arsenal. I was strong. I was a leader.' Now Adams thinks he knows better, and is keen to confess all about the bad times when this strong leader wet the bed, but his original ambitions were more worthwhile than he allows. Better than being David Icke.

From rags to riches?

  • 'British fashion design: rag trade or image industry?' by Angela McRobbie, Routledge, £12.99 pbk

  • 'Need and desire in the post-material economy' by James Heartfield, Sheffield Hallam University Press, £7.50 pbk

With the publication of culture minister Chris Smith's Creative Britain, the idea that we have moved into a post-material society in which economies are driven by information and culture rather than material production is no longer restricted to leftfield sociology and cultural studies profs, but has become a component of official thinking. The advance of British pop music, art and film, and of London as a world cultural centre, seems to hold out not only the promise of a new and exciting future for working lives in the information age, but renewed economic prospects for Britain as well.

Both these hopes are reflected in Angela McRobbie's study of one of the cooler of New Britain's cultural industries. According to McRobbie, 'fashion consumption has risen dramatically in Britain from the early 1980s onwards (between 1983 and 1988 spending rose by 70 per cent)...with sales of £3.5 billion in 1994'. British Fashion Design seeks to make a case out of post-material sociology for the idea that the young self-employed British fashion designers are pioneering a new 'Utopian repudiation of what used to be known as the "factory clock"', determined 'to transform the world of work into something more than a life of drudgery and routine'. McRobbie describes the 'subcultural entrepreneurialism' of this new type of creative worker, driven by the dynamism of popular culture, and expresses her 'desire' that they will construct a 'new space of practice for creative labour'.

But can the British economy be successfully based on cultural industries like fashion design? In Need and Desire in the Post-Material Economy, LM books editor James Heartfield delivers a brutal exposure of the post-material society or 'creative economy'. While accepting that much of the product of Britain's cultural industries may be aesthetically of the best, he insists that 'this flower is growing on a dunghill of deindustrialisation'. The truth is that the creatives of the post-material economy could not exist without the all-too material world of production - and in the case of Britain, that production is increasingly moving elsewhere.

Despite her own hopes for the new fashion designers, Angela McRobbie has to admit that they are really engaged in 'a new kind of rag trade'; that subcultural entrepreneurialism 'could conceivably be seen as informal, unofficial job creation schemes'; and that successful graduates from such schemes move on to exploiting the labour of less fashionable Greek Cypriot or Asian women in the sweatshops of London, Nottingham and the Far East. The spectre of deindustrialisation haunts her study too: in the very same sentence in which McRobbie notes the boom in consumption of British fashion, she points out that 'employment in manufacturing in Britain has none the less declined as large-scale production has relocated to...south-east Asia'.

The strength of Need and Desire is that James Heartfield endeavours not simply to reject post-material sociology or reduce it to economics, but rather 'to take cultural studies in its maturity seriously as what it is - a theory of society as a whole, as it is refracted in our cultural lives'. The fashionable theory of a post-material society makes a virtue out of the limited character of productive investment. Heartfield argues that from the point of view of real economic advance (not to mention the abolition of 'drudgery and routine' in working life) the products of Cool Britannia are literally wasted in the flamboyant cultural display of a new leisure class.

Peter Ray

Friends of LM can buy James Heartfield's Need and Desire in the Post-Material Economy at the reduced price of £6.50 plus £1 p&p. Phone (0171) 269 9224 for details

Black to basics

  • 'Primitivist modernism: black culture and the origins of transatlantic' by Sieglinde Lemke, Oxford University Press, £36.50 hbk

  • 'Basquiat: a quick killing in art' by Phoebe Hoban, Quartet, £12 pbk

Sieglinde Lemke, a professor of American studies at Berlin's Free University, argues that 'blackness' is a progressive and utterly modern force. She also values Afro-American music critic Joel Rogers' statement that 'Jazz is rejuvenation, a recharging of the batteries of civilisation with primitive vigour'. Lemke's premise is that the decline of Western civilisation at the end of the nineteenth century has been stemmed by a timely injection of culture originally derived from Africa. She cites Pablo Picasso's painting 'Les demoiselles d'Avignon' (1907), jazz music, Afro-American dancer Josephine Baker, and critic Alain Locke's 1925 text The New Negro. Black culture, Lemke argues, has set the parameters of twentieth-century life.

Linking primitivism with backwardness is racist in her view (even those Westerners who wish to plunge themselves into primitive backwardness are accused of 'romantic racism'). Lemke's hybrid 'primitivist modernism' is a modernism that is emptied of progress and a primitivism liberated from any negative connotations. This is the philosophy of 'now', a stance she sums up by quoting Picasso's alleged description of Josephine Baker as a reincarnated Egyptian monarch: 'the Nefertiti of now.'

This perspective of 'now', which inflates the value of immediate impressions, is responsible for Lemke's distorted conceptions of culture. Lemke believes that hybrid culture is powerful enough to undermine racism and wishes to demonstrate that hybridity is now fundamental to 'white culture', not just 'blackness'. Because she can only envisage the present, however, she has no conception that hybridity has always played a role in Western culture. From Heraclitus and Ovid down to Regency chinoiserie, hybridity is a longstanding tradition in the West.

Lemke cannot tolerate the idea that her 'white culture' and 'blackness' are themselves only two facets of a far greater hybrid: universal human culture. No matter how far primitivism and modernism mingle and blend with each other, for her they remain separate entities. No matter what they do, it seems, blacks will always be different in her eyes. Is this attitude so very different from that which Lemke is happy to denounce as romantic racism?

Lemke tries to hitch black New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat to her 'primitivist modernism' bandwagon too. But Basquiat's story demonstrates that his motivations were, like his own blues heroes, entirely modern and he had little inkling of primitivism at all (except via other artists). Basquiat's art career lasted only 10 brief years from 1978 to 1988, when he died of a drugs overdose at the age of 27. New York Times art critic Phoebe Hoban lists the sources that Basquiat appropriated for his own work: a dictionary of hobo signs from the 1930s; chemistry and mathematics books; Gray's Anatomy; dinosaur books; old masters like Leonardo da Vinci and modern artists like Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol; television cartoon characters and children's scribbles; African, Haitian, Mexican and Brazilian folk art. In addition, he imported motifs from the blues and jazz scene, Hollywood movies and drug patois. Interviewed by art museum curator Marc Miller in 1982, Basquiat patiently explained that he was only linked 'genetically' to Haiti, through his father. His own roots were entirely American. Like Lemke, however, Miller was convinced Basquiat was inspired by primitivism, despite his denials: 'I've never been [to Haiti]. And I grew up in, you know, the principal American vacuum, you know, television mostly.'

Much of Basquiat's style was anticipated by European primitivists like Jean Dubuffet and Kurt Schwitters. Basquiat did not invent a new art genre, so much as update an old one with the 1980s theme that only money matters. By then nobody could seriously talk of the aesthetic value of art without sniggering. But if art has no aesthetic value, its rocketing financial value could serve as a substitute. Hoban suggests that his art dealers secretly organised the bidding up of Basquiat's paintings at auctions. And Basquiat himself would illustrate his paintings with the © symbol, ironically marking his legal possession over his 'product'.

Long before Basquiat started stalking Andy Warhol he blew his radical 'graffiti artist' cover in an interview in the Village Voice in 1978. He was never attached to New York's black community. His drug habit may have exacerbated his dependence on his dealers, but his aim to have '15 minutes of fame' was voluntary from the very beginning. Basquiat was unique, strutting the New York art scene in his paint-splattered Armani suit but deigning to wear no shoes. Basquiat actively sought celebrity status, but how come he succeeded? If there is any lesson to be drawn from his art, it is that the honorary primitive is still valuable to an art world which has abolished every standard except gold.

Aidan Campbell

Listen up

  • 'Ambush at Fort Bragg' by Tom Wolfe, BBC Worldwide Ltd, available as a double cassette, £9.99, or on a triple CD, £14.99

While everybody at the cutting edge of publishing is heralding the internet as a replacement for books, Tom Wolfe has gone back to the roots of storytelling, asking Frank Muller to read out the two hours and 45 minutes of his latest novella on radio and for CD and tape. For those who have been waiting a decade for a follow-up to Bonfire of the Vanities, this is classic Wolfe: a well-observed satire on the state of the media at the end of the 1990s.

For the anguished members of the liberal media busy condemning the various failings of modern institutions, the judgement is harsh. A media team decides to investigate the murder of a young US army ranger (who just so happens to be gay) following the army's seeming refusal to find out anything. It doesn't take long for them to decide who was responsible - three other rangers who liked to hang out in a strip joint and drink beer.

The main bulk of the story concerns the media team's entrapment of the 'culprits' and how it shamelessly relies on sharp editing and judicious use of different camera angles (perhaps a familiar theme to regular LM readers) to ensure that its own particular version of the truth comes out. As an insight into the world of the 'redneck trio', accused in a trial-by-TV of murder, it's a fascinating reversal of what you would expect. One of the soldiers in particular gives as good as, and often better than, he gets. Perhaps the most satisfying element of the story is the rendezvous with reality towards the end when the implications of what they have done dawn on Irv Durtscher, the producer. His tortured self-realisation gives the final few chapters an added twist that is well worth sitting up for.

David Nolan

Tom Wolfe's new novel A Man in Full is due out on 12 November (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)

Pregnant with meaning

  • 'Menachem's seed' by Carl Djerassi, Penguin, $12.95

Carl Djerassi, professor of chemistry at Stanford University, winner of both the National Medal of Science (for the first synthesis of an oral contraceptive) and the National Medal of Technology, took to writing fiction late in life. Menachem's Seed, the third in a series of 'science-in-fiction' novels, has at its centre illicit sex, fertility science and a story of stolen sperm. An Immaculate Misconception, Djerassi's first play, is the stage adaptation of the novel.

Like his other work, this novel explores Djerassi's interest in the experience of women who pursue a career in science. Melanie Laidlaw, the widow of an eminent scientist and an accomplished scientist herself, is the director of a foundation which funds scientific research into human reproductive biology. In her late thirties she is all too aware of the ticking of her own biological clock. Laidlaw meets Menachem Dvir, an Israeli nuclear scientist at one of the Kirchberg conferences on science and world affairs (based on the Pugwash conferences). Dvir is a married man and functionally infertile. During the ensuing affair Melanie acquires some of Menachem's sperm without his knowledge and uses it to fertilise her own eggs via the experimental ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) treatment.

Where Djerassi's earlier novels concentrated on female contraception, this story focuses on the treatment of male infertility. He discusses in some detail the biological functions of nitric oxide, introducing its use in the treatment of male impotence (the basis for Viagra), and the ICSI treatment, which involves the fertilisation of a human egg with a single sperm. It is interesting, as Djerassi himself notes, how changes in research interests in the field of human reproductive biology reflect changes in society. In the past, female contraception, which was celebrated for the increased freedom it brought, was the major area of research. Today infertility treatment and the treatment of male impotence dominate the field.

The presentation of scientific fact through dialogue is effective, all the more so because of Djerassi's understanding of the field. Djerassi's style makes the ideas accessible, a refreshing break from the dry, passive language used in scientific papers today. All dialogue and little description, Menachem's Seed reads more like a script than a novel, which is where the dramatised version has the advantage. One of the highlights of watching the play was the ICSI treatment itself, which the audience could view on a television screen 'as it happened' under the microscope. Fascinating viewing.

Caspar Hewett lectures in science and environmentalism and evolutionary theory at Newcastle University

Reproduced from LM issue 115, November 1998

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