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To keep you reading till your copy of Salvage arrives, we’re pleased to publish a brand new short story by China Miéville, taken, exclusively for Salvage, from the forthcoming collection, Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories.
Read on for recalcitrant matter. For the materialism in the historical.
I have to talk to you about the man we saw, the man in the dusty hat. I know you remember.
Stop for a moment. I know you have a thousand questions, starting with Where have I been? What I want to start with is the man in the hat.
I was late to the conference. I’d had to stay in to watch a builder squint at the cracks in my outside wall and across my kitchen ceiling, cracks that had been there for a long time, ever since I moved in, but that started to spread about a year ago and were making me increasingly uneasy. And then the journey across the city was slow as a bastard so I arrived after the start and tried to creep quietly in to the lecture hall but everyone stared at me while I made my way to the seat you’d saved for me. I muttered something apologetic about subsidence. You mocked me sotto voce for being a bourgeois homeowner. I told you to hush and tried to pay attention.
But the man in the hat made us badly behaved. He was sitting in the audience right in front of us and when he got hold of the microphone and started speaking you leaned over to me and quietly pointed out quite how dusty his hat was. So I looked and that was me gone, I started giggling like an idiot and that set you off and we both had to look down at our hands as if we were taking careful notes. I don’t think we fooled anyone.
It was a wide-brimmed dark green felt hat like a cowboy’s or an adventurer’s. Even clean and new it would’ve been unlikely at a socialist conference in a university hall in south London: as it was it was extraordinary. It was old and pleasingly well-worn. It looked loved. But it was just filthy with dust.
‘His hat’s that dusty because he can’t take it off to clean it,’ you whispered. ‘Because his wife found out he gave her chlamydia and she put superglue in the brim.’
‘His hat’s that dusty because he’s arrived straight from tin-mining in Cornwall,’ I whispered. ‘Climbed straight out of a tunnel.’ I mimed flicking the hat’s brim and doubling over coughing.
The man was talking about the deep dynamics of the Egyptian revolution and Tahrir Square. I listened. He was weaving back through the history of the region, getting from there to something about Ukraine, to reflections on austerity in London, backwards again to much older struggles. Startling stuff woven together startlingly.
I said, ‘His hat’s that dusty because he’s been sitting still for forty years.’
The man said to the room, What you see when you see this will depend on which eye you open. His formulations were like that. A moment later he said, Marat knew and the glass of his windows knew.
I blinked and said something about Hansel and Gretel, that following him talking was like following a breadcrumb trail laid by a lunatic. You said you liked the implication that most breadcrumb trails were laid by sane people.
He was in his late seventies, it looked like, tiny and bony, his face crumbled with lines. Grey hair boiled out from under that dusty hat. The microphone looked huge in his hands while he muttered into it. Most people weren’t listening.
We sat behind him and looked at the tide of dust on the brim.
This was the inaugural conference of those we considered the ‘mainstream’ opposition, who’d only just left the larger organisation, the Mothership, out of which several of us – of the ‘Left Faction’, among various grand monikers we granted ourselves – had stormed months before. Relations between the first and second wave of self-exiled were fractious, to the schadenfreude of those from whom we’d once accepted discipline, but we were always going to come to this, whatever our caution and grievances.
It’s not exactly as if things were superb within each wave, either. This was just after you and I and our friends had walked out of the grouplet we helped set up after our initial split. Things had got too toxic again.
We were all a mess, really, bruised. We’d met while on the same side of that vicious fight with former comrades, as our own group’s publications spread smears about us, while – talk about Anti-Oedipus – we were savaged by those to whom we owed the politics according to which we now opposed them. And it still felt as if everything, everywhere, was weighing in, was politicised for or against one side or the other of this battle, according to some agenda.
Some of the conference sessions left us as flat as we’d feared they would. But a few of them cheered us up a bit. I’d had a moment to patch up some beefs outstanding since the split. There were people we were glad to see, collaboration to moot. Some of the more naïve of the new lot even tried to get us to join, which was a nice gesture, if unconvincing.
We were unimpressed if not surprised to hear that some of our hosts were going to attend the Mothership’s annual political jamboree. ‘As if this fucking fetish for “reasonableness” ever got them anywhere,’ you said. ‘Too slow to get angry, too slow to say fuck you. Plays right into their sclerotic hands.’ As if, even if it wasn’t ethically questionable to attend – which given what had gone down, it was – it wasn’t a strategic fail. For there to be any political point to us tiny splinters, we had to distinguish ourselves.
I was expecting some of the more sophisticated loyalists from the Mothership to be present, in fact, but I only saw one lonely soul staffing a bookstall. He talked stiltedly to the man in the dusty hat while I read the news on my phone.
There seemed to be sinkholes opening up everywhere. I was looking at pictures of cars angling up from where roads had subsided into nothing, giant holes in the cement of cities around the world.
You remember. It was during the lunch break, and we went outside, me and you and A and S, so you could have a cigarette on the lawn. I was reminiscing about when I’d joined and gone visiting contacts, trying to ‘have the argument’ – we couldn’t use any of these clichés any more without air-quotes – on their doorsteps. You mocked me, saying you didn’t believe I’d ever been active.
We were debating one of the new crew’s organisers, amiably enough, when A suddenly nudged me and I saw that his eyes were like fucking dinner plates and I looked across the path and right there a portly middle-aged man in an ill-judged leather jacket was marching along chin up like Johnny Head-in-Air.
It was the History Man, the highest-profile intellectual in whom our erstwhile tendency had ever rejoiced. He’d been in the leadership as long as any of us had been members, right through what A called the stramash, and he still was.
Some rebels engaged in tedious Kremlinology about him – he’s actually a wet, he’s actually really unhappy with what’s gone down, he actually wants change. If true it’s an open question as to whether that makes it better or worse that the History Man was by far the most effective and brutal of the polemicists against us. Whip-smart and erudite, you’d say he’d shamed himself with the degraded stuff he’d written against the internal opposition – willful bullshit and theoretical misprision – but he seemed immune to shame. Unless, as per my fantasies, he wept himself to sleep each night.
It was a genuine shock to see him, an adrenaline-rush shock. I’d last crossed paths with him at a meeting during and about the fight, and been singled out for a contemptuous tongue-lashing.
‘Holy fucking shit,’ whispered A. ‘He’s got some face, I’ll give him that.’
I too felt a jolt of appalled admiration that he was just going to come to this thing, just turn up and sit and brazen it out and dare the organisers to ask him to leave. I knew they wouldn’t.
We were all staring. He didn’t look at us. He turned off the path towards a side-building, where by an open door I saw a tall, pale woman I also recognized, a notorious hack, an enforcer never shy to police an orthodoxy.
The History Man paused in the threshold. There was a swirling in the air as a wedge of pigeons came past low to land heavily on the lawn. History Man stared through the glass front of the hall towards the bookstall where the loyalist failed to converse with the hatted man. He went inside. The old man turned his head. He must have seen the birds.
‘They’re not here for us,’ said the organizer. I tip-toed to the door with jokey exaggeration and pulled down a photocopied sign that said, LEFT TENDENCY - MEETING ON GREECE: ROOM 2F. ‘It’s the Europe-wide meeting,’ he said. ‘Leadership only. Can you believe we both booked this place on the same day?’
I could. There’s not a huge pool of suitable venues.
We fantasised about what we’d say to History Man if we bumped into him in the toilets. The laughter was a bit forced, unlike yours and mine a few minutes later when we went back in and saw the dusty hat again.
The last session was on strategy and ‘the conjuncture’ – Left for ‘now’. Speakers ranged from traditional rah-rah to an analytical pessimism I found more convincing and certainly less rote. There were about a hundred people in the hall. We knew the organisers would be disappointed and wondered whether they’d admit it. (They didn’t. You remember?)
We recognised almost everyone there. Neither of us had ever seen the man in the dusty hat before.
He got the mic again. You could see people decide he was one of the many more-or-less harmless eccentrics clustered around the far Left. Those of us still listening waited for tells that might locate him politically, but he didn’t check off the tropes of orthodoxy, didn’t have the defensive blather of the centrists, the adenoidal sneer of a Spart. I’ve been to a large number of meetings like that one, over a depressing number of years, and I’d never heard anything like what he said before.
Of these things perhaps we might learn, he said. Neoliberalism is vulgarised time, he said, but, he said, vulgarity is a geared wheel itself so against it do we deploy a slow watermill or acid guano or a stone wedge?
And I was just loving this, of course, loving it.
The chair started to interrupt with ‘Sum up now,’ and ‘You’ve had your three minutes.’ I felt like heckling on his behalf, demanding he be given as long as he wanted, simply because he didn’t drone out the usual langue de bois or recite clichés.
He muttered something like, What got us through that sweet Boston slick, they said that was our side, there are false flags.
Some people were sniggering. I looked around thinking Am I the only person hearing this?
Capital’s like a glass spike up through things, he said, an accumulative rhythm to which we might find antiphase, create interference.
The audience’s groans increased and I was thinking Are you insane? Listen to him! This is amazing. But the man petered out in the impatient scorn. He handed the microphone back to the stewards and sat with forlorn dignity.
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