"People are intelligent and we shouldn't assume otherwise": Interview with Juliet Jacques on her radio show Suite (212)

On the afternoon of June 24th 2017, Jeremy Corbyn stepped onto Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage to introduce the politically charged hip-hop duo Run the Jewels.

On the afternoon of June 24th 2017, Jeremy Corbyn stepped onto Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage to introduce the politically charged hip-hop duo Run the Jewels. The duo had supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 US Democratic presidential primary, and now seemed just as enthused by the Labour leader, with Killer Mike – who earlier that month had encouraged the crowd at London’s Field Day to vote Labour – cornering Corbyn backstage to shake his hand. A month earlier, the Libertines and their support acts – fellow British rock bands the Coral and Reverend & the Makers – had been equally keen to grant Corbyn a slot at the Wirral Music Festival at Prenton Park stadium. There, an unlikely tradition had been born, when a crowd of roughly 20,000 began chanting the name of an avuncular sexagenarian socialist to the tune of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army.

Corbyn reached masses of people at both music events – some estimated that Corbyn and Run the Jewels attracted Glastonbury’s biggest crowd since the Rolling Stones headlined in 2013 – and at both, his message was essentially the same. At Prenton Park, Corbyn’s simplified rhetoric urged those watching to “come together in that brilliant cultural tradition we have. Working class communities that built football clubs. Working class youngsters that play music. And a government that cares about sport, culture and the arts, and gives you the space to play and rehearse your music.”

Although more wide-ranging, his address to the Glastonbury crowd returned to the same ideas, and to a line that had been at the core of his 2015 and 2016 leadership campaigns;

In every child there’s a poem, in every child there’s a painting, in every child there’s music … I want all our children to be inspired, all our children to have the right to play music, to write poetry, to learn in the way that they want.

These themes of cultural democracy, of a state inclusive of the arts, and of culture and politics as spheres that naturally intersect, are also at the core of Suite (212), a new radio show on Resonance 104.4 FM – that can also be found on SoundCloud and on Twitter – presented by Juliet Jacques. Juliet is a writer of criticism, commentary and short fiction, a filmmaker, and author of Rayner Heppenstall: A Critical Study (Dalky Archive Press, 2007), as well as her autobiography, Trans: A Memoir (Verso Books, 2015). She has written for publications including Sight & Sound, The Washington Post, The New Statesman, London Review of Books and The Guardian, for whom she wrote her transition blog A Transgender Journey, which in 2011 was longlisted for the Orwell Prize for blogs.

Whilst the notion that – as Corbyn put it in 2016 – “in every one of us there’s a poet, a writer, a singer of songs, an artist, a creative thinker” was greeted by some political pundits with derisive snorts of “don’t encourage them, Jeremy”, when New Socialist Culture co-editor Jack Frayne-Reid sat down for a long chat with Juliet over Skype about Suite (212) and much more, she quoted back Corbyn’s words as an exemplary of an approach to culture that in the current political moment is opening up new spaces for art and criticism to influence, and in turn be influenced by, politics. We talk about why Corbynism is the right time for Suite (212), how it fits a wider intellectual tradition on the left, and how Juliet’s perspectives on various artforms and their relationship to criticism shape the show.

NSWhat has your previous experience of doing radio been? My New Socialist colleague Kieran Morris mentioned that he enjoyed your appearances on a football podcast or radio show.

JJOh, Café Calcio? Yeah, that was on Resonance as well and that was with David Stubbs, who was on the Fall episode recently. That was a really good show and I did I think a couple of episodes with them in 2011 and maybe 2013 or 14. Sadly they’ve wound it down now, but that was a really interesting and intelligent football programme, and a good model for Suite (212) as well, because they were covering culture in a really unashamedly intelligent way. There’s no way you would hear football covered in the same way, even on the Guardian podcast or something, let alone the BBC. I mean, obviously Robbie Savage is one of the great intellects of our times, but…

So I went on that, I’ve been on Novara a few times, and Suite (212) is basically just Novara for the arts. I just shamelessly nicked their format.

NSI’m used to doing heavily edited podcasts. Do you pre-record the episodes, or do they go out live?

JJWe don’t record all the episodes live - we can pre-record in the Resonance studio – but we record them as if they were live. I think it’s important to get everyone around a table. I’ve done long interviews with more than one person via Skype, and when you’ve only got the audio it’s hard to know when somebody wants to come in and make a point, and you have that fear of dead air on the radio, so if everyone is there you can see who wants to make a point. In the first couple of episodes I think you can hear that I’m still getting used to chairing a conversation in that format. I’d been on lots of radio shows – mostly on Resonance – but I’d never hosted anything, so I was sort of finding my feet, but I think increasingly as the series has gone on I’ve been working out how to make those conversations work. Novara, again, is a really good model.

NSIt could well be on their SoundCloud page, as one of their spinoff shows like All the Best (the political podcast hosted by former Corbyn advisor Matt Zarb-Cousin and Tony Benn protege Max Shanly, featuring such regular segments as Melt of the Week).

JJWe did discuss that. (Novara co-founder) Aaron Bastani helped me get in touch with Ed Baxter, who runs Resonance. I actually wanted to do a programme along these lines back in 2013, and initially the idea was just to call it Writers on Writing, but over the last few years I’ve got much more interested in the visual arts, other contemporary art, and revived an interest in art as film and video – which is a very longstanding thing for me – and had the idea of doing a much broader show.

NSYou’re a filmmaker as well as a writer, aren’t you?

JJThat’s a relatively recent development but yeah, making sixteen-millimetre film, as well as writing short fiction and essays.

NSHaving your own approach as an artist, as a filmmaker, how do you find that intersects with the critical dimension of projects like Suite (212)? In your first episode, ‘The Uses and Limits of Criticism’, you and your panellists discuss whether criticism is in and of itself an artform. And I think, at the very least, you conclude that it’s complementary to art.

JJYeah, I think that art needs criticism as much as criticism needs art. Particularly in film; there’s a long tradition of filmmakers who start out as critics – a lot of the French new wave people started out like that, and people like Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen. Over here a lot of the more avant-garde filmmakers in the ‘60s and ‘70s were also critics, and I think they really saw criticism as part of their practise. Most novelists get asked to do criticism at some point, even if they don’t find themselves wanting to do it. I think some artforms are maybe more separate – not that many musicians are also music critics as far as I know.

NSLester Bangs made an album or two.

JJ(Laughs) Oh did he? See, I haven’t heard those, which maybe tells you everything you need to know about them. Maybe that’s unfair, I should look them up.

NSYeah, I think he had a band called Birdland and it’s kind of protopunk.

JJOh yes, I have seen them! Is it Radio Birdland or something?

NSI’ve checked, and it’s just Birdland – and it was recorded in 1979, so perhaps not so much “proto-” as straight-up punk. But that is a kind of anomalous example. I can’t think of many.

JJYeah, I don’t know if Simon Reynolds or David Stubbs or Greil Marcus…I haven’t heard them make anything. But creative work and criticism can and do feed into each other and work in tandem. I’m doing a Creative & Critical Writing PhD – I’m in my third year of that – and before that I did a Masters in Literature & Visual Culture, both at the University of Sussex.

They have this very interdisciplinary approach, and I’m very interested in people working in those intersections. Suite (212) has largely been panels on a particular subject, but as the show goes on – and we’re hoping to go weekly in September – we’re hoping to delve more deeply into individual artists’ work and do more hour-long shows along the lines of the one with Chris Kraus, so that may allow us to do something a bit more creative.

NSCan you give a sort of summary of what Suite (212) is?

JJI usually summarise it by saying it’s a show that looks at the arts in their cultural, political, social and historical contexts. So, within that I like to think we’ve got quite a broad remit. For example, talking about the socio-political contexts – we’ve already done a show on Art, Artists & Gentrification with Alberto Duman and Laura Grace Ford. That felt like a subject we had to cover very early on in the show’s run because it’s such a pressing issue for anyone working in the arts and living in a city, which is most people working in the arts.

There’s some of the historical stuff – for example the show on the Russian revolution or the show on British experimental post-war fiction – but very much contemporary takes on those things. With the Russian revolution show it was really important to me not just to say, look, here’s an overview of Soviet art from 1917-91, but also to look at how it’s been received in the West. We’re a London-based and British-based show after all. So that’s broadly what it aims to do.

It’s really a response to the fact that – as you know, because you’re part of this as well – I think there’s a really interesting set of political podcasts and broadcasts that have sprung up or become more prominent over the last few years. Novara FM have been going since I think 2011? You have Reel Politik and of course you cover film sometimes, although I think Reel Politik probably takes a more pop culture approach. Then you have Media Democracy, which I think is really, really good.

So there’s a nice archive of things, and all those shows are quite topical, but all of them you could go back through the archive and listen to things from a year or longer ago and, mostly, they’d still be relevant and interesting. And I noticed that within that there wasn’t much that was dealing primarily with the arts. Novara have done the odd show on culture, and (Novara editors) James Butler and Ash Sarkar are English Literature graduates – on today’s show they were talking about books and literature that have influenced them. But for the most part they don’t cover the arts particularly directly. I think by your own admission Reel Politik moved more towards politics.

NSYeah. It’s more than anything because the demand is there for the political stuff more than it is for the film stuff…


NS…as much as I love reviewing films. It’s something I personally enjoy; to dig deep into a movie with my co-hosts and guests. But the political episodes seize on something that the film episodes generally don’t in the same way.

JJAbsolutely, and I wanted to do something focusing on the arts because I feel generally that there’s not a lot of good arts coverage in this country. Well, there is; there’s loads of good print and website arts coverage. There’s very little good broadcast arts coverage. The BBC do a lot less than they used to. Something like Front Row, for example…firstly, I’m just not that into it. But secondly, it doesn’t really have the time or the space to really drill into things. And, thirdly, it doesn’t have that ideological dimension. It’s the BBC’s quote-unquote “neutrality”. I wanted to make something that’s not necessarily straight-up attached to the Corbyn project, but something that provides a very openly ideological and left-wing approach to the arts, and looks at things in real depth.

NSAnd I think in its own way that is complementary to the Corbyn project. I used the same word about the relationship of criticism to art, but I think that art and culture are complementary to politics, and specifically to left politics.

JJOh, absolutely.

NSThat’s something you talk a lot about in your episode on cultural democracy, where you lament the dearth of funding for arts programmes compared to, for example, the 1980s heyday of the GLC (Greater London Council). Prior to Corbyn, it’s felt like our political culture has all too often tended to treat creative expression as, at best, a distraction, or as just another means of generating profit, as seen with, say, David Cameron’s market-driven view of the film industry.

JJYeah, one of my favourite things about the Corbyn project, and the thing about it that moves me the most, is his engagement with art and culture. It relates to something that all the podcasts I’ve mentioned have talked about to some extent – usually as a point of derision – which is the way the New Labour people have tried to engage with culture; partly authentocracy, as Joe Kennedy calls it, but also this performative liking of what they think has mass appeal.

What’s been so refreshing with Corbyn is his absolute refusal to do that, which people actually find they can connect with a lot more. His statement that there is a poetry and a creativity in people inherently that is waiting to be unleashed to me seems like a much more appealing prospect than Tom Watson standing in his wellies at a Drenge gig, or Owen Smith knowing who Ant & Dec are.

The precursor to the Corbyn project for me was meeting John McDonnell at one of his People’s Parliament sessions in, I think, early 2014. And it was with Zero Books, so it was with Mark Fisher, Alex Niven, Rhian Jones and Dan Taylor.

NSOh, Rhian is one of my co-editors at the New Socialist culture section!

JJOf course! Rhian is wonderful – I really, really like what I’ve read of her work a lot. I’ve just got a lot of time for her generally. I think she’s great. I should get her on the show.

NSCan you explain for readers who may have got politically engaged subsequently what the People’s Parliament sessions were?

JJThe People’s Parliament sessions were a series of talks that John McDonnell and I think Jeremy Corbyn hosted at the House of Commons where they would have panels of people working in different industries; one week they had teachers, one week they had nurses and so forth. But one week they did one in conjunction with what was then Zero Books, and has subsequently become Repeater, and McDonnell introduced the session. He explained that he felt it was really important to do this and to get ordinary people into parliament, partly as a way of closing down this perceived gap between politicians and the public, and making people feel like they were being listened to. And for me it was a revelatory thing, because I was 15 in 1997 and had grown up in Surrey and the Labour Party just wasn’t on the radar. Even in 1997 it wasn’t even a consideration.

Ever since then, in the Blair and Brown and Miliband years, I’d just thought, there’s nothing here for me. Meeting John McDonnell made me feel like, oh God, I didn’t even realise there were people like this in the party! I’d never published with Zero, but a lot of them were my friends. I had a contract with Verso to do my memoir (Trans: A Memoir, published in 2015), and Verso and Zero were very close. So when John McDonnell became Shadow Chancellor, and was clearly the kind of second-in-command of the party, I thought, this really makes all the cultural work I’ve been doing worth it, because what I’d been doing for several years by that point was trying to use writing and use culture as a way of pushing left-wing ideas. Or, at least, that was one thing I was doing it for.

NSIn one of the episodes of Reel Politik you’ve appeared on, you talked about how it was much easier to essentially smuggle left-wing ideas into the mainstream media under the auspices of culture writing than it was in straightforwardly political writing.

JJAbsolutely, yeah. I was still doing a column for the New Statesman at that point and I’d written about things like the Commune of Paris, the creation performance artist Sanja Ivekovic – who’s politically very interesting – I interviewed McKenzie Wark about the Situationist International, and these are all people or subjects I would like to cover again on Suite (212). But culture did seem like a way of keeping this flame alive which had been extinguished from mainstream political discourse.

You look now at the Corbyn project and the people online who are supporters of it – some of them are people you’d think of as more straight-up political journalists, like Gary Younge, Rachel Shabi, Dawn Foster. But a lot of them are people like me, Owen Hatherley, Alex Niven, I’m sure there’s more…

NSDan Hancox?

JJYeah, Dan Hancox, Huw Lemmy as well…who you would think of as people who are working in culture. Working in the arts and culture gave us a way of finding each other, developing ideas and a lot of the ideas now that are feeding into the Labour project through things like The World Transformed are coming from people who are also very engaged with the arts. So in creating a space like Suite (212) what I’m hoping is that we can make that crossover more explicit, and I think that’s a lot more productive than saying we’re making a politically neutral arts programme, because I don’t think such a thing can exist, really. It’s a bit of a cliché that art that isn’t explicitly engaged with politics and ideology and social issues is kind of conservative but, y’know, I think it is, largely.

NSHave you been impressed, then, by The World Transformed, the Momentum-affiliated festival that’s run concurrently with Labour’s annual conference for the last two years? Is this the kind of intersection of left politics and culture that you find to be an inspiring development?

JJYeah, I think it’s a really good thing. The Cultural Democracy show we did on Suite (212) came pretty much directly out of something that happened at The World Transformed. A lot of the Arts for Labour stuff was happening at TWT rather than the Labour Party conference, and it makes sense to me that that would be the case. I haven’t actually been either year, for various reasons, so it’s been a bit frustrating for me from that point of view, as I’d like to be involved, but what you’re seeing happening at TWT is lots of left-wing work that felt like it was being done in lots of different silos over the last decade or so – through Verso Books, through Zero, through various not necessarily single-issue protest movements – suddenly the space has emerged where it can all come together, you can have these much bigger exchanges, and because of the direct link to the Labour Party you get a sort of praxis emerging which wasn’t really possible before.

Through the wilderness of the Miliband years, people were trying to set up some sort of…not necessarily new left-wing party, but space where things like that can happen, and I think the most successful of those was the People’s Assembly movement. But even then, because we live in what is such a two-party system, if there was going to be any sort of transformative change it had to happen within the Labour Party. And obviously that space has opened up over the last two-and-a-bit years.

With Suite (212), I wanted to do a similar thing to what The World Transformed is doing. I thought, I know that there are an awful lot of people out there with interesting things to say about art and culture and politics, and it’s just a matter of creating a format and a space that brings them all together.

NSMark Fisher made the same point – not long before he very sadly died last year – about the left’s organisational weakness necessitating its use of the Labour Party as a vehicle for socialist change, in a lecture that I think is available on YouTube. And one of the best events I attended at The World Transformed last year was Acid Corbynism, which was inspired by some of Fisher’s writing. When he died, I was just not aware of him at all, and I saw all these people I respected Tweeting about him and thought, God, I should probably check him out. And I have subsequently read Capitalist Realism and watched some of his lectures and read some of his old blog posts (on his website, K-punk). His work is great.

Around the time he passed away I was feeling extremely disenchanted with Britain’s left-of-centre media – this was before we launched New Socialist, and before my podcast was really in a position to have many people I admire on as guests. And when somebody as brilliant as Fisher dies before their work has received the appreciation it should, it’s easy to get frustrated at the institutional constraints that held them back. I was thinking, what if, instead of trying to extend olive branches to (Conservative MPs) Jacob Rees-Mogg or Anna Soubry, those with sizeable platforms used them to promote the radical and exciting – but much more obscure – ideas of people like Fisher?

JJI think it’s really overdue. There’s an awful lot I could say in response to that. This is something that’s come out of Twitter, as much as I don’t particular enjoy it as a medium. I’ve become connected with so many interesting writers, artists, musicians, critics, through that and there are a lot of people who I’ve met through living in London and going to things and then through the Somerset House studios, where I work now. There are so many interesting voices that aren’t being amplified.

It’d be very easy for me to do an arts show and get someone on like, say, Martin Amis, and have a bit of a go at him. But we don’t need to hear anything more from Martin Amis.

NSDefinitely not.

JJ(Laughs) There are lots of interesting voices who I think could do with amplification. At the moment, Suite (212) doesn’t have a particularly big audience; we’ve got like 300 followers on Twitter, which I think is partly due to the fact I don’t really Tweet much. But Resonance has a big audience, and we’ve already got a nice mixture of guests on. For example, the show on British experimental literature; we had Jonathan Coe on, who is a very established writer, and then we had Jennifer Hodgson, who’s edited this volume on Ann Quinn recently (The Unmapped Country, published this year by And Other Stories), and people don’t know Jen so much, or at least not yet. But both those voices were given equal time to talk about subjects that interested them.

So, when I put together panels, I try to put together a mixture of people who have different audience levels, and maybe some mid-career people I feel could do with becoming part of the national conversation. I mention Jonathan Coe…there’s a sort of Guardian Review clique of writers, and it’s not that they’re bad writers necessarily. Some of them like Jonathan are people I broadly like. But they’re largely white, they’re largely middle-class, they’re largely Oxbridge. They’ve all been around for quite a long time, and politically they’re largely fairly centrist, or fairly liberal.

In culture, as in politics, I want to see, if not a changing of the guard, then at least an opening up to diverse voices; more people of colour, more LGBTI people and queer people, more women, more people from outside London, more people from outside of the traditional universities. You can find these people in a lot of arts coverage, but not so much within the arts coverage of major newspapers and political publications. The New Statesman’s culture pages are a lot better than their politics pages, but I think there’s a similar problem there as well. There’s quite a staid kind of circuit of literary writers in this country, and I want to do what I can to prise that open a bit.

NSIn your episode on the Fall (the influential Mancunian post-punk group, whose singer and only constant member, Mark E. Smith, died earlier this year) you said Suite (212) tends to do deal more with so-called high culture than with popular culture, and that the Fall were exceptional in that you thought you could, well, make an exception for them and dedicate an entire show to their work. Why is that you gravitate towards high culture? Do you feel that pop culture is already adequately covered, even sometimes from a left perspective? And why were the Fall the exception?

JJYeah, I think there is quite a lot of pop culture coverage – when Novara do culture, for example, it’s generally pop culture. Something has happened to culture over the last twenty years which is largely a consequence of big changes in funding models, that means you tend to get a handful of really big-name artists in pretty much any field, whether it’s what’s traditionally considered “pop culture” or “high culture”. Then there are a lot of mid-rank people who twenty years ago probably would have found it a lot easier to make a living and reach an audience than they do now. Those are the sorts of people that I want to bring into the show.

You have to have a sort of doublethink around these pop culture/high culture distinctions, because they simultaneously don’t exist and sort of do. You have to think about them very, very critically. That’s why doing a show on the Fall was nice, because they’re a band who straddled that for a very long time and were consistently interesting and intelligent and innovative, and reached a big enough audience to be culturally significant without ever becoming huge. One band that you wouldn’t necessarily think of comparing the Fall to, but is actually quite an interesting comparison in terms of the divergence of their career paths, is REM.

The first four or five REM albums, up to Document, are as distinctive in their own way as the Fall’s earlier records are. You can recognise the Fall very quickly and you can recognise early REM very quickly. And, of course, REM, after making several albums in that vein, did Green, which is their sort of transitional album, and then they go quite stadium rock by the time you get to Automatic for the People and Monster. The Fall could’ve done that, especially in the late ‘80s, when they’re appearing on Top of the Pops and having quite big hits, but they’re also doing this quite strange stuff that we talk about in the show, like making a ballet. And they decided not to take that option and to carry on doing what they were doing. As John Peel said, it was always different, and it was always the same.

They found a way to stay relevant, but without making this contrived reinvention or deliberately pursuing a mainstream audience. I can’t really think of any other band who strikes that sort of balance. Any band on the leftfield side of the Fall would probably be a bit too obscure, and not have enough of an output for us to focus on them in that way, and any band who got bigger than the Fall would probably be a little bit too “pop culture” to fit the show’s remit.

The other thing about the Fall is that they were a very, very literary group. Mark E. Smith would probably have been a sort of spikey poet, had he been around in the thirties rather than the eighties. He would’ve been not a million miles away from Wyndham Lewis, spitting venom at the (W.H.) Auden/(Stephen) Spender group or the Bloomsbury set or the T.S. Eliot/Ezra Pound school of modernist conservatism. I feel that comes across in the music and, as we talk about in the show, there is a popular intellectualism about the Fall. That’s what links what I’m trying to do with Suite (212) to bands like them, and to things like the Corbyn project; in all those cases, the starting point is that people are intelligent and we shouldn’t assume otherwise and we certainly shouldn’t let the assumption otherwise govern what culture we give them.

There’s a great line somewhere…I think it might’ve been in a Charlie Brooker column, before he melted. The line was basically that ITV just assume the worst of people and then give it to them. And there was a very interesting thing in one of Charlie Brooker’s old Screenwipe programmes for the BBC. Funny as it sounds now – because Brooker has become quite boring – a lot of those shows, which were on 12-13 years ago, were really good. I don’t know how much of them you’ve seen…

NSI’ve seen all of them. I loved them as a teenager.

JJSo you’ll have seen the one where he talks about youth television, and how awful and patronising it is, and how no young person could possibly like it. He sits these sixth formers down in a cinema – there’s about 30 of them – and he gives them placards with the word “bored” on, and says “hold these up when you get bored”. Then he shows them a bunch of different things, and the thing they’re by far and away most interested in is the Adam Curtis documentary The Power of Nightmares (2004).

And again, I feel Adam Curtis has maybe lost his way by this point, or become a bit predictable, but whatever you think of Adam Curtis, he’s certainly never treated his viewers as if they’re stupid.

NSI think I’m still at a place with Adam Curtis where I’m not quite knowledgeable enough about his subject matter to not be entirely overwhelmed and amazed by the way he presents them as a filmmaker. But whilst I’m bowled over by his films formally, I could see the charm wearing off once the holes in his analysis become more apparent to me, as they do on occasion.

JJI found the last film very frustrating, and this is an interesting issue to me with Suite (212) as well. The last film, Hypernormalisation (2016), needed more editing, and it needed to be working within a structure. If Hypernormalisation had been three one-hour episodes like his old BBC2 series in the nineties…I mean, not all of it would’ve been good, because I had some real political problems with parts of the film…

NS“Patti Smith did neoliberalism.”

JJYes, exactly. I mean, for fuck’s sake. And it tips a bit too far into the sort of Angela Nagle-esque “SJWs did Trump” near the end, but the stuff on Middle Eastern politics is really, really good. That could’ve been one really good hour-long show in a series, but I think he suffers from not having to work within a structure.

With Suite (212) I do really like working within that hour-long structure. I could do it as a podcast, and record things that are as long as they need to be, and I’ve got a lot of time for that as well. It’s the sort of Chomskyan model of the media; if you’re trying to popularise ideas that haven’t had much time given to them, it’s a benefit to you to have more time and space to unpack complicated ideas. But with Suite (212), an hour is long enough to get under the skin of something, but it also imposes a kind of structure, and I like to think we’ve struck a good balance with that.

NSAbsolutely. So, the mention of Adam Curtis seems like as good an opportunity as any to segue into the show’s approach to film. It’s a medium you haven’t yet dedicated a full episode to, but Suite (212)’s namesake is a 1975 film by the visual artist Nam June Paik. What does that choice say about its cinematic sensibility, as well as the show more generally?

JJNo, we haven’t done anything on film yet, and that is something I really want to rectify. When we go weekly there’ll be more scope for it. With a monthly show, it feels like the most important thing to do is to discuss these socio-political issues around the arts and then…I don’t want to say more niche stuff, but you can go down different avenues when there’s more time.

In terms of the film itself, I enjoyed it when I watched it the year before last. It looks at how the media works, and it comes from this avant-garde position, and it brings in a lot of big names from the 1970s New York avant-garde scene. The show is named after that film and it’s probably not as much of a ringing endorsement as that would sound. Choosing a name for the show was difficult. There were certain things I toyed with; it would’ve been fun to just straight-up call it “Cultural Marxism”. But that would’ve been a bit misleading – the show comes from a broadly left perspective, but it’s not a strictly Marxist show.

Suite (212), a bit like Novara with their name, sort of alluded to something interesting without tying the show to anything too specific. I thought of just calling it Artists on Art and I wanted something a bit less literal than that, and Suite (212) the film kind of brings that in.

I definitely want to cover film and video art more. The thing with that is that it would be nice if people could actually see the films. It’d be great to do a video version of Suite (212) where we could play clips from films and then, of course, it’d be wonderful to do more with video art. Film does feel like a bit of an oversight at the moment: we’ve done literature, art and music. I want to do some shows on architecture at some point. I’d certainly like to do an episode with Douglas Murphy, who’s a very good friend of mine.

NSIn your first episode, one of your guests said they thought it was very interesting when they arrived into this sort of cultural scene you inhabit and found that “everyone was always talking about buildings.”

JJWe talked about the Mark Fisher sort of circle earlier, and Owen Hatherley and Douglas Murphy were both part of that. I wasn’t; I kind of came to it later. But I think a lot of people there had a real interest in architecture and there’s a sort of line that would include bands like Joy Division and the Fall, these quite modernist post-punk bands, but also novelists like JG Ballard and films like Chris Petit’s Radio On (1979) that would all be reference points for that group. I really should have been part of that group and, of course, I was eventually, but after a lot of the blogging scene had passed.

But we were all very interested in architecture, particularly architecture as this intersection between post-war social democratic and further-left politics, and the arts, in a way that doesn’t really feel like it’s allowed to happen anymore. Very deliberately, that link’s been broken.

NSAnother offhand comment in one of the episodes that piqued my interest was when you mentioned at one point that for a while you read books by only two publishers. I’m sure this was hyperbole, but which publishers were you alluding to, and how vibrant a cultural and intellectual atmosphere existed on the pre-Corbyn left?

JJThe publishers were Dalkey Archive Press for fiction and Verso Books for non-fiction. A lot of that stuff was happening during the Miliband period – that point that I mentioned when I was only really reading new stuff from two publishers, that was the turn of the decade; 2009/10.

NSVerso published your book, Trans: A Memoir.

JJThey did. Dalkey Archive published my other book, on Rayner Heppenstall, which I talk about in the British experimental literature episode. But I think between 2010 and 15 – and, again, I think this is partly a product of social media – lots of people who were interested in literature were finding each other – and I was definitely part of these circles – and then realising that there was not just an audience for more innovative and exploratory fiction, but a network of people who would write introductions for it, promote it, or even write it.

And so, during that period you had a lot of interesting publishers spring up, like Galley Beggar, Influx Press, And Other Stories, and loads of others. There was a really interesting, vibrant literary culture. Again, it was doing in culture what people were trying to do in politics, but finding more difficult. It felt like a kind of precursor to that; this idea of cultural democracy, which came from Raymond Williams, who was as much a cultural critic as anything.

But in the absence of a political movement that could draw these things together, running parallel to the idea of it, people were working through culture and, again, the gains of that have been seen quite slowly, but you’re starting to see interesting things happen now. Like Ann Quinn, who’s one of my favourite writers, and has been since I first read her back in 2004. Her politics are hard to pin down, but she’s a very visceral critic of English middle-class norms, and sexual norms in particular. Suddenly, thanks to And Other Stories, and a network of writers on Twitter who are all like, “oh yeah, we really like Ann Quinn! We thought nobody else did!”, that book has done incredibly well, it’s sold really well, it’s got a hell of a lot of coverage, and people are going back to Ann Quinn.

Dalkey Archive published all of Ann Quinn’s stuff in the noughties, and I think all the Ann Quinn editions I’ve got are theirs. They republished her; she’d been out of print for twenty, thirty years. You got the sense that there were these new possibilities and that people could create things for themselves that would get around the conservatism of the literary industry. Then we’ve seen a parallel project in political media, which started at the same time with Novara, but really feels to have sort of kicked into life in the last two, three years.

NSWhat episodes do you have planned for Suite (212). One that you mooted in one episode of the show, that I found an enticing prospect, is ‘the Misuse of George Orwell’.

JJYeah, I absolutely want to do that. Due to our schedule that’ll probably have to wait until the next series in September, but with that I want to reclaim Orwell from the Orwell fans, apart from @Orwell_Fan; Simon Hedges, he’s great. I find Orwell an interesting writer, a complicated writer, not always a good writer – there’s lots of his stuff that doesn’t particularly interest me – but he’s been turned into this sort of secular saint.

As I mentioned earlier, I wrote this book on Rayner Heppenstall, who was one of Orwell’s closest friends and former flatmate. They stopped living together after Orwell attacked Heppenstall with a shooting stick, and Rayner happened to write about this in one of his many memoirs, after Orwell had died. This was in 1960, and already the canonisation of Orwell had happened. Heppenstall, I think not entirely fairly, has this reputation for being a very difficult character. He’s a really beautiful writer, or at least his earlier stuff is. I find him very interesting. But having a go at Orwell after Orwell had died was received very badly even then.

That canonisation of Orwell has continued apace. He’s used by the most appalling reactionary dullards to justify some very, very counterproductive and very boring and joyless opinions in a way that I’m not sure Orwell himself would’ve approved of. But even just talking about it in those terms isn’t ideal; Orwell was a writer, he was a human being, he was right about some things, wrong about others. But I think he would be really appalled by how much his work has been taken on by people who just want to use it to bash the left.

NSHe was certainly anti-communist, but people appropriate his work to denigrate any form of socialism or social democracy.

JJAbsolutely, and his anticommunism came out of a very specific set of experiences in the Spanish Civil War, which he writes about quite intelligently. The Road to Wigan Pier…in the first half, there’s the sort of social anthropology aspect of it that I don’t think has dated very well; this Etonian bloke going to Wigan. But that half has a lot of very good writing, and it’s no more Orwell’s fault for John Harris or James Bloodworth than it is the Beatles’ fault that Oasis liked their records.

NSHave you read Mark E. Smith on Oasis?

JJ(Laughs) Yes, I have, yeah.

NSI’ve never really liked Noel Gallagher. Liam’s alright, I like him. I feel sorry for him, actually – it’s always our kid this, our kid that, always his fault. I’d hate to have a brother like Noel. What’s he doing? Liam is Oasis – he’s handsome, he’s a good frontman, great voice. What does Noel do except write Beatles-type tunes?”

JJThe Mark E. Smith memoir, I read in a day the day before I did the show. I hadn’t got around to it, and it’s endlessly hilarious; I mean, it’s so funny. There’s a whole chapter about football coverage that’s called Crisp Man that I think you’d like.

But the second half of The Road to Wigan Pier is just Orwell castigating every brand of socialism that he can think of. In France at the same time there was a real effort at a popular front approach to socialism, and my sympathies are much more with that. Nonetheless, Orwell was a much more interesting and nuanced thinker than he’s been portrayed as by certain people within the English media.

NSThe Dads.

JJYeah, the Centrist Dads. And he’s not alone on that. It might be nice to re-evaluate William Golding for similar reasons.

NSYou often hear Lord of the Flies talked about in the same hallowed terms as Orwell’s work, by the same people.

JJIt’s suffered a similar fate to Animal Farm; being taken as this simple allegory. Golding’s The Spire is a really, really brilliant novel. It’s something that I’ve studied; this fantastic study of hubris and vaingloriousness. That’s one of my favourite novels, so it’d be nice to talk about that.

So Orwell definitely, Golding probably. We’re having a guest host for the March show, which is Tom Overton, who has written a lot on John Berger – it’s going to use Ways of Seeing as starting point for looking at what’s changed in television cultural coverage between then and now. I think Tom’s going to talk about the new Civilisations series that’s coming on the BBC. That’ll be a good show.

JJThe April show is going to deal with a subject that we really should’ve done already, and would’ve done if we could’ve got the panel together. That’s going to be about Black and Asian Minority Ethnic access to the arts, both as practitioners and administrators. That’s something we need to do soon.

The May show is going to look at the cultural legacy of May 1968, fifty years on. I have a very strong interest in the Situationist movement, and in the works of Jean Luc-Godard. So that’s going to one of the shows where hopefully I play a more active role in the discussion.

And then the June show is going to be an hour with Sheila Heti, who’s one of my favourite writers and has got a very interesting book out called Motherhood. The July show will have a guest host because I’m going to be away, so that takes us up to September, and running more frequently. It’s nice to touch on issues that are fairly topical, but I also want to create an archive of work that people can go back to. This stuff will stay online – it’s not like the BBC where it’s up for a month or so and then it disappears.

NSAre you looking forward to bringing Suite (212) back as a weekly show in September, and what’s behind this decision? Is it just that you’ll have more time on your hands?

JJNo, precisely the opposite! I’m going to be very close to handing in my PhD. Much like with Novara, where the only episodes were hosted by Aaron, and then he gets James Butler, and then Ash Sarkar and others to take turns doing it, we’re going to do the same thing; hopefully Tom Overton and Jennifer Hodgson are going to take turns. I’ve got one or two ideas for hosts I want to ask. Each of us should only end up doing it once a month on average.

I just feel there’s so much more to talk about it – doing it once a month doesn’t feel like anywhere near enough, and I feel it constrains on the show a certain type of discussion format; because it feels like the most pressing thing for the show to do, it’s meant we’ve kept in that field of having a panel on a certain issue, and I want to do more of the shows where we delve into an artist’s work. Like with Chris Kraus; I said to her in that discussion, look, we won’t talk about I Love Dick because everyone’s talked about that. Let’s talk about your film work, let’s talk about your work in publishing, and let’s talk about your new book on Kathy Acker.

I did a thing with Brian Eno last year, and he was actually very interesting on art and power – that was what the panel was on. So I said, this is the show, I’d like you to come on. He said, I’d really like to do it – as long as we don’t talk about the past. If you want to hear about Roxy Music, you can do that elsewhere. I’m sure it is quite boring for him to keep talking about it, and so if we do an hour with Brian Eno, which I’m trying to sort out, then it will be an hour of us talking about what he’s doing now, how he sees the world now, and in the last decade, and that’s far more interesting for everyone.

NSHe supports Corbyn.

JJYeah, absolutely, which I was pleased to hear, because I remember seeing him being interviewed about ten years ago and not really feeling able to pin down his politics. I thought, oh, maybe he’s a bit of a Centrist Dad, because some people I really like and respect, like Stewart Lee, have sort of fallen into that trap a bit. But, actually, I think his politics are fairly sound and that we could have a very interesting and productive discussion. So it’s not just getting voices that haven’t been heard from at all or enough to give them an airing; it’s also giving different angles on people who…maybe there’s more to hear from them than the same thing they always get asked.

NSGoing back, what kind of cinema could you see yourself covering on the show?

JJI think when we do film it’s more likely to be taking the careers of specific directors and reassessing them. We had Daniela Cascella on the first episode, and Daniella and I agreed after that that at some point we would do a show about (Pier Paolo) Pasolini. And we will talk about his films a lot – in this country he’s really known as a filmmaker – but he wrote plays, he did some journalism and criticism, and I’m pretty sure wrote poetry…

NSHe did, and he was a leftist political activist.

JJYeah, exactly, so looking at Pasolini as a kind of rounded figure. I would love to do a show on (Rainier Werner) Fassbinder, although there’s just been a big retrospective. But one of the nice things about Suite (212) is we’re not going to allow ourselves to be too tied to that. And of course, in the Russian Revolution episode we did talk about film up to a point. So with film it’s nice to talk about specific practitioners, but also I think at some point I would like to do a show about film funding in this country because people have very mixed feelings about it.

I remember years ago seeing an interview with Richard Jobson, who used to be in the Skids and became a filmmaker…not the former Oldham and Leeds centre-back. That’s quite niche, but Joe Kennedy will like it. But Richard Jobson was saying filmmakers in this country are far too dependent on subsidies, and he felt that taking away subsidies would make people more creative in getting their films made. I’m not sure. It’d be nice to explore that.

I don’t generally like Stewart Lee’s columns for the Guardian, but one of the few I thought was really good was when David Cameron closed the (British) Film Council, and Cameron said, “make more popular films if you want to make money.” Stewart Lee wrote a really good piece saying culture doesn’t work like that. He talks about two films; one of which was the Artist (2011), that silent film that looked at the end of silent film as a contemporary silent film, which did really well because it was an interesting, original idea, done with a lot of heart and charm and wit and intellect. And that’s why things do well – because people want to make them, there’s a passion behind them. But if you pitched that to a bunch of budget-holders they’d just say, “is there anything here that people can latch onto?” And you’d probably say, like, “there’s a funny dog in it” and they’d be like, “get out.”

NS“Can you do it in colour, and with sound?”

JJExactly, and with Nicole Kidman or something…you can see how up to date my mainstream film references are, but that wouldn’t’ve got through. Lee contrasts that to a film like Sex Lives of the Potato Men (2004) - yeah! - which, on paper, had all the right people and was doing all the things it needed to do to be popular, but it was a flop. I haven’t seen it, but by all accounts the reason it flopped is that it was just made by people thinking, oh, what will make money? It doesn’t usually work like that.

I definitely want to do more film stuff. It might be nice to re-evaluate certain British film movements. I’m very passionate about the London filmmakers co-op, and want to do a show on that at some point. Ben Rivers is certainly somebody who I think deserves an hour-long show about their work and would probably fit the remit. Derek Jarman’s work is something I’d like to go back to. There’s an awful lot of scope with film, but for various reasons it hasn’t quite happened yet.

NSDo you like Patrick Keiller, who did London (1994) and Robinson In Space (1997)? Those are really wonderful films, and very much within your wheelhouse.

JJOh, I love Patrick Keiller, yeah. He’d be a great person to have on, if I could get him. I don’t know if he’s got a new film due but, if he does, God, I would love to spend an hour with him.

NSDidn’t he do a third Robinson film a few years ago?

JJThere’s Robinson in Space, and then Robinson in Ruins (2010), so there are three of them. It’s good – London is still the best of them, I think. His short films are nice as well. They’re quite hard to see now – I’m hoping somebody’s going to put them out on DVD or something – but his early shorts are really beautiful. London and Robinson In Space are quite poetic but the early films even more so. I hadn’t thought of him, but he’d be a wonderful person to spend an hour with, although he’s very reticent; I’ve met him once or twice, and he’s not someone he likes the limelight. Which I think is good.

Even if he didn’t want to do the show, just talking about those films would be an interesting thing. I was trying to think, regarding how you couldn’t think of any artist like the Fall in popular music who’s reasonably popular but who’s for a long time gone out of their way to avoid adopting any kind of a mainstream approach. I could only think of one artist, and it wasn’t a band – I thought of Scott Walker.

Yeah, Scott Walker. Leonard Cohen would be interesting as well. I’m inclined to agree that that approach lends itself more to solo artists than to bands. And, of course, the Fall were and weren’t a band. I can’t imagine doing it with the Smiths or New Order or Joy Division, as much as I like all those bands. Scott Walker is somebody I need to give more time to, because what I’ve heard I’ve really liked, but I’ve not heard much at all.

NSHis music is fascinating, because there’s elements of rock music to it that you can hear distantly. There’s always a guitar somewhere in it. But it’s more like classical music in the way it’s structured, the way the songs have these various movements to them. And this has been his approach since Tilt in 1995, where on the title track he creates this kind of warped parody of a country song, where it’s got that bounce to it that you’d associate with the genre, but the guitars are playing an A major and an A minor simultaneously so, instead of the major key stuff you’d tend to get in country music, it’s driven by this very dissonant melody. Add his – much like Mark E. Smith – very literary lyrics and eerie, operatic vocal delivery and it’s…maybe not exactly pleasant, but it’s music that it’s hard to deny is interesting.

JJYeah! I’ve literally only heard a handful of Scott Walker’s things, but the *Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti is absolutely beautiful, it’s so stunning.

NSOh yeah, his 1960s albums are very straightforwardly beautiful. Not like Tilt, but still so good.

JJI think there probably is more scope with individuals than with groups. As far as individuals go, I really should do a show about Laurie Anderson at some point. That’s one of the few other people I think it really could work well with. I don’t think she’s in Nam June Paik’s Suite (212) but she was certainly around that sort of circuit. She’s a filmmaker and has a kind of poetics to her as well.

NSDid I read correctly that Allen Ginsberg was in Suite (212)?

JJThat sounds about right. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it….

NS“A hallucinatory tour of the Lower East Side with Allen Ginsberg.”

JJYeah, that sounds about right. “Nam June Paik’s personal New York sketchbook”. Marshall McLuhan’s in it, and Jud Yalkut, who’s quite an interesting filmmaker. It’s partly the fact that McLuhan’s in it, because it then brings in that self-referential sort of criticism. Like I said, it was so hard to choose a name for the show and I thought I’d have loads of things because I made a list of films and novels and plays that I like, and very few of them worked for one reason or another. To be honest, I’m not 100% satisfied with it, but it’s not awful.

NSIt’s a good name. To be honest, when I first saw it I couldn’t remember if it was the name of the hotel room in The Shining or not. There’s that very conspiratorial documentary called Room 237 (2012). Suite (212) is almost the Fall song name version of Room 237.

JJAbsolutely. And I like “Please Re John Bennett8tweet (212)” as well.

NSOk, final question – what’s with this “Please Retweet (212)” rebrand on Twitter, then?

JJOh, it was apropos of absolutely nothing. No one was retweeting my tweets and I just thought I’d ask people politely. That’s all there is to it.

NSBen Bradley MP, our thoughts are with you at this difficult time.

JJ(Laughs) Alright, mate, we’d better wrap it up, but it’s been really nice talking to you.

NSThanks, Juliet. Great talking to you too!


Jack Frayne-Reid

Jack Frayne-Reid is a writer and musician, and part of the New Socialist editorial collective. He is the host of the Reel Politik podcast.