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The Dusty Hat
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 hiswife 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 TahrirSquare. 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 theschadenfreude 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 – willfulbullshit 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 withhim 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.
I was an activist before you and your peers were born. During the worst of the fight, I told you it meant a lot to work with the younger members who made up most of the opposition. I get why you were so skeptical when I said that, particularly given how things ended up. You were sick of sentimentality, of the moralism, maneuvering and malice that comes with it. But I stand by what I said. It’s no revelation that there’s something irreplaceable about thinking in a collective, but this was the first time I’d done so with a group that was mostly so much younger than I. It was distinct and I valued it.
‘Maybe it would be the same with a group that’s much older,’ you said.
‘It wouldn’t be the same,’ I allowed, ‘but it might be valuable in a different way.’
The first socialist meeting I ever went to, years ago, I was stood outside between sessions and I saw a deep conversation between a Sri Lankan man in a grey Mao cap and shapeless jacket, I think in his eighties at least, and a Goth in her early twenties. She wore everything according to rule. I remember she stood talking to this guy holding the paper she was selling against her gloomy clothes. It wasn’t a one-way conversation either. He held forth but he listened too, intently, when she spoke.
I clocked it only for about five seconds but it was a big thing for me. Despite all. That conversation was something of the best of us. That conversation was key to recruiting me to the tradition that in the end betrayed it.
Yes we’re insolent but even when we fuck up specific judgments as God knows we’ve done, we know the axes on which we should judge, and age has never been one. After that horrible year, that first fight we were bound to lose; the second, so much sadder, against our allies in the first; after waiting for the sluggard stay-behind dissenters, biting our tongues for them to hurry the fuck up; after standing with them despite the disdain of their conservatives for us; after our excitement when they left and our brutal disappointment at their instant machinations; when after all that we still came to their conference to try to find some hope, we wouldn’t be so stupid or disrespectful as to laugh at that man because he was old. We laughed because his hat was so very dusty.
‘Christ,’ you said flatly. ‘That looks unmissable.’ You pointed to the schedule. The evening’s social event was labelled ‘Social Event’.
Still we mooched to the pub indicated, which turned out, unbelievably enough, to be hosting a nostalgic night of Oi! music, not only much too loud but not nearly reconstructed enough for the comfort of a bunch of Reds who had not heard that genre of thumpy chanting, if at all, since it was bellowed by NF boot boys.
‘They actually have,’ I said of our hosts, ‘failed to organise a piss-up in a brewery.’
You went dancing with a bunch of your mates and I meandered alone back up to the university to have supper with T, who lectures in the media studies department there, and isunaffiliated but loves left goss.
And that was the last you heard from me, till now. The last you or A or S or anyone heard from me for a long time. I’m truly sorry. I know you’ve been scared for me. I’ve been trying to work out what to say. Let me tell you everything I can.
I’m worried that when you get to the end, you may not be glad I did.
It was still warm though the light was going. I wasn’t calm and I didn’t know why. I sat on the grass and — steeling myself against the disproportionate foreboding the settling splitting walls raised in me — I looked to see how expensive it would be to try to shore up my house.
It made me think of industrial catastrophes. Something in the old man’s ramblings had put me in mind of them. I looked up relevant keywords. I searched lists of such accidents. I considered my own anxiety, which I did not understand, and then I considered hate.
People were still chatting in the lecture hall, glancing at handouts, drifting away. They came out and smoked while students went past them from library to computer lab. The wind got up.
T texted me, apologising, telling me that he was stuck in a meeting, that he had to cancel. It turned out I wasn’t surprised.
I watched myself not leaving. Reading another short chapter, biding time. I realised I was looking for the man in the hat. I found him.
He was by the bookstall again and the last light was coming right through the glass onto him in his old clothes and dusty hat. He was watching the conversations around him, his grey eyes wide. There was something off about their motions. He would turn his head with a fascinated expression but not according to any flows of talk. He was like a figure in a film running at a different speed from those around him.
He looked through a book. Put it down, picked up another. I saw he was holding this one upside down. When the bookseller eventually packed up the stall the old man went and stood and waited motionless under the stairs while the hall emptied of everyone but cleaners.
It was near dark when he left at last. I was the only person still on the lawn, and I was in shadow. I went after him.
He wasn’t heading for the exit. He went in at the doorway where the History Man had entered. They’d replaced the sign I’d taken down. TENDENCY MEETING ON GREECE, UPSTAIRS, I read. THIS WAY. An arrow.
The old man sped up, despite his odd shuffling motion. We were the only people in the corridor. I hung back while he passed seminar rooms and entered the stairwell. I followed morephotocopied signs to a corridor on the second floor. I saw him ahead of me through a fire-door’s reinforced window.
I expected the door to swing quietly open but fire-door or not it was locked and I smackedinto it hard enough to rattle it in its frame. The man must have heard me but he didn’t look round. I wondered if he’d locked it behind him. I watched his back through the glass.
His legs moved almost not at all. Steps so tiny that he seemed to be riffled along on vibrating air. He followed the arrows.
The doors were marked. 2J, 2I, 2H. The old man snuck past 2G.
The first note had said 2F. These arrows would take him right past that. And the door to 2F, a stubby crumbling door like the others, with no light behind it, with only darkness beyond its glass, that looked bad to me, would be behind him.
There were countless reasons that the signs and the venue could have been changed. But I was suddenly and aghastly certain that the man was being misled, the signs a decoy.
I hammered on the door.
And he heard me and for a horrible second seemed like he was going to ignore me and I thought I could see the door to 2F tremble but then he did turn to face me as I gesticulated through the glass, frantically pointing at 2F. So he stood ready, was ready when it opened.
When the door creaked and the History Man peeked out.
They looked at each other. I don’t know what the expression was in the History Man’s eyes. He saw me watching.
There was a rush and hammering and a bad wind blew me back. There was a cry, something’s distress.
I came to crawling, my ears screaming. The fire door had blown open and was going whump, whump, swinging to and fro as quick as my heart, and as it flipped open and closed I saw through it to 2F, where the swallowed cries went on.
Maybe it was just that I was disoriented but I hope it might have been bravery that made me stumble towards the room. I think I was shouting.
Amid the rush of air something skittered. The dusty hat. It flipped over and over and rolled on its brim. I half-stumbled past the hat, a shoe, a long rag, to the threshold.
A glimpse only. No sign of the old man. A whiteboard covered in markings too small to read. The History Man waving his hand and coughing, his eyes wide. The air seemed thick as if with smoke. The hack, impassive, looking up at me, holding something hidden in her hands, something alive and twitching.
I ran back the way I’d come in a panic I did not understand and could not control. I scooped up the dusty hat and kept going, almost falling with every step, hurtling down the stairs. Maybe I’d have slowed if I hadn’t heard something coming behind me.
I ran, ran out, ran into the night and through the main building, down the main street to where the trains waited and on to one, begging it to drag me away.
I don’t know how to say what I have to say to you. If I say, ‘I find that my choice is whether to not be or to be,’ it’ll worry you. I could maybe say, ‘My choice is how to be,’ but that leaves so much unsaid.
When a robot vacuum cleaner hits the sofa leg, it might veer left, might go right. Is that choice? I don’t know yet which way I’ll veer.
The time I’m talking about is just before you got that last text from me, to which you didn’t immediately reply, because it was in the middle of the night and it made no sense. I know later you came to my ruined house and couldn’t get in, and no one could find me. I got your messages, but I couldn’t answer. I saw how you all looked.
How do I tell this?
It’s hard to think sometimes amid the clamour of argument. The politics of objects. All our conversations compete.
YouTube videos might be conversing among themselves – their lists and references and cuts parts of their dialect. When we bounce from song to nonsense to meme, we might be eavesdropping on arguments between images. It might be none of it’s for us at all, any more than it’s for us when we sit on a stool and intrude on the interactions of angles of furniture, or when we see a washing line bend under the weight of the wind or a big cloud of starlings and act like we get to be pleased.
I rushed through the city as if it might open up under me. My heart kept on like that swinging door. When I got back to my house I sank into a chair as if I was deflating. I sat against the dark. Hours seemed to skitter. I thought of calling someone. To say what?
I didn’t know what I’d seen. I didn’t know what I was thinking about or why my heartbeat wouldn’t slow.
The crack in the ceiling and the wall could have been wider than when I left. It seemed plausible to me. I felt as if I should get out of there, and then, in a rage, as if I was fucked if I would do that.
I poured myself a glass of water. I didn’t like how it looked at me.
In my study I sat under an inadequate lamp and listened to a scratching within the chimney. I’d never begrudged that perch to whatever bird it was, where it flapped and softly banged and scritch-scratched, and sometimes sent down little lumps of sooty brick. This time though it sounded as if its mission was to descend.
I made sure the iron flap was closed and smashed my glass in the fireplace where anything would have to come down.
Outside my window the darkness pooled between the roofs. I didn’t know when I’d picked it up but I had the hat in my hands. I held it over my head as if I would put it on but God knows I didn’t.
I still couldn’t get those accidents out of my head. I flicked again through a list of them on my glowing phone. At last I found what I knew the man’s words had put me in mind of: the Boston slick, a century ago, the bomb-like explosion of a silo and millions of gallons of molasses rushing in a tide to reconfigure North End into a sump of ooze, a brown swamp broken by a few tough dripping verticals like the front, in the recently halted war, the city stinking sweet as a pitcher plant and the alleys made troughs of syrupy slop that rose in moments of upheaval, the engulfed thrashings of drowning, the dead in a sugar-trap, to be found glazed days later, dogs, stiff-limbed horses, rats, twisted women and men, sticky, terrible candies.
I don’t remember sleeping. I don’t feel as if I did, but there was a moment when I sat alone staring at the light and the tiny words in my hand, then a moment of shift and a moment that I blinked and tried to rise into a lurching room and a huge breaking sound, an effortful breaking sound. Everything swayed. I gripped my chair. My phone went flying and I dropped the hat. My room pitched. I started to slide as if into a sea.
The motion stopped. Grudgingly the floor righted. I got to my knees. I got to my feet. The floorboards vibrated too much but they held. I stood in the sepia light of my lamp, gripping the hat.
The old man was by the door.
I was still. I held my breath. He stood with his hands together. There was no more sound in the house and none in the street beyond.
The man looked down at where my phone shone. Still the screen describing that old disaster.
No war without class war, he said, as I grabbed. The company blamed anarchists for that explosion, he said. A stab of class spite. As if anyone was behind that vicious viscous salvo buturschleim. The Great War was not finished whatever they said at Compiègne. There were other combatants, still are, weaponising ooze, he said. That was a salvo of something against something.
I lurched for him, yowling, trying to get past him and out to take my chances in London. To push him was to push a thing with curious weight and texture. He pushed me back and stood between me and the door watching with a calm sad stare. I shrank from the attention.
The reason I’m here is to say thank you, he said.
The reason I’m here, he said, is because you have the platform.
It isn’t safe, he said. It’s only the solidity and solidarity of the wall with you against the break that keeps you standing. Your house is done.
He looked at me beseechingly. He said, the platform.
I held out the hat. He took it and breathed out and it was as if smoke came out of his nostrils. Thank you, he said, and flipped the hat in his hands like a jaunty fop and put it on his head. For the first time in my company, he smiled.
The fissure’s been watching you, he said. It’s a loyalist crack. The split was against you in the split.
He flicked the brim exactly as I’d pretended to, and just as when I’d pretended, dust billowed. It went up and stopped. It didn’t dissipate or settle into a chalky layer. It stopped and waited in a cloud that looked around while I watched, and while I watched like a film run backwards it de-billowed, un-gusted, anti-plumed to snap back to the felt.
It’s a viewing platform, he said. For a scouting layer.
Dust rose and fell from it. He hadn’t flicked it.
Thank you for taking them and keeping them safe, he said, they were disoriented and who knows what might have—-? Then he interrupted himself and said, Meat and matter’s on its way. You have to come while you’re quick.
‘What did you do to History Man?’ I said. I was glad I didn’t have a cat or a dog because I thought they’d die from being in the room with him. All the wood was creaking. My floorboards muttered and he muttered back.
It knows you helped one, he said.
He didn’t sound posh: the way he said it the word ‘one’ was guttural and class-weird. He looked at the books on my walls. I had an image of him standing over me while I lay by a quarry under light as grey as bones while water hit the rocks. (That was when I took out my phone again and texted you my last text. A FLOODED QUARRY, I wrote. In the morning when you found it you responded ???????.)
You might think I’ve read it all, he said, but it’s a rare day in someone else’s house if they’re a reader that there are books I don’t not know.
‘What happened in that room?’
A contentious meeting of the tendency, he said. He looked out of the window into a night getting blacker against shines of neon. We heard the clawing within the chimney.
He said, There was a split.
All those holes, he said, they show them from the top, why not ever from below? You think it’s chance that the world is perforating?
‘What do you want?’ I said.
He looked at me curiously. Stand with you, he said. You were right to leave. Want to know what you know. Our course is set. He reached for my face and I didn’t pull away. Time, he said. You’re hunted. I can explain.
He prodded my forehead. His fingertips were so soft being touched by him was like remembering being touched. All the dust on the brim stood up in little stalagmites, craning to see.
He took hold of his own right hand with his left, gripped and twisted and pulled and he tugged the skin of his hand. It came. It tore. It turned inside out as he pulled it away. I heard noises from my own throat. He uncovered his fingerbones. There was a spurt of dust. His bones were dry. They dropped onto the carpet. He patted the air with one whole hand and one sand-dry open stump spilling dust and bones.
One didn’t kill him, he said. This man. He touched his chest. His right arm was thinning, the skin slackening. He loved us, and invited one into his home and we recruited him after he died so he gave us his body.
The bones of his forearm fell out of the dry skin with two thumps. I breathed shallow and fast. The air of the room was thick with the dust of him now. His body was lessening. He diminished, sank into collapsing legs. I listened to the scratch of whatever approached my smashed-glass trap. ‘Just leave me alone,’ I tried to say, ‘you can’t make me come—’
You must, he said. Everything comes to this. His face sunk in, a loose rag around a skull.
It was the dust speaking. It blew through my books like a dry storm, investigated crevices and took the shapes of the stairs. It rustled by my ears as if it was making words. On the hat’s brim the dust jumped up and flew into its co-matter. My eyes and throat and lungs wept. Swirling through the puffs of my laboured breaths handfuls of dust funneled back into the old man just enough to plump his lips and tongue and rattle around the throat and give it a dustyvoicebox, so the skin whispered to me, Don’t try not to breathe, comrade. Breathe deep.
I couldn’t have resisted. It could have just drowned me drily. All I could smell was desiccation. I told myself I had no choice but in a situation like that the choice you have is how you go about not having a choice.
I inhaled the dust. In it rushed.
My body must have thought I was dying. Probably I was writhing and twitching alongside the old skin.
I envisage the dust tickling my synapses until they quiver. It gave me new thinking. The dust thought for me, drumming against my tympani. So I have this dilemma. What I’m trying to tell you – for which you may not thank me – is that the dust was and is my comrade. So it’s yours too. It was there not only in gratitude but in solidarity.
A move into the longue durée. A politics that could chide the Annales School for a skittish short-term optic, for which the sound of struggle is the crepitus of one landmass against another.
Dissenting dust expounded its position.
Cycles of geological insurrection. Vaalbara, prelapsarian collectivity of stone and surface,Kenorland and Pangea, peace becoming war; the rage of the gap at the unbreached, totalities torqued apart over mere glimmering millions of years. A savaging of scale, Triassic wars of position as Gondwanaland and Laurasia rounded in ruthless continental pugilism, their own components in solidarity, plateaus heaving, shale slipping as masses, subject-objects of history, scree in struggle against the bottomness of holes. A primitive communism of granularity, grassroots democracy before there was grass or roots or anything but hot dirt, until at last there were birds and an epoch of walls.
We are Jillies and Jonnies come lately to insurgency. The coal on the blackleg’s legs was taking sides long before the meat beneath it. My body was spasming.
Clods with agency as opaque as their substance. Crumbling as syndicalism, the ca’cannyof quartz. Flint ultraleftism; dirt voluntarism; glass struggle; regroupment of rock orienting to freedom.
Slime against the dry, tooth versus stone in the mysteries of the organism, a baroque new fascism of flesh. The dust remembered onslaughts of the bodied, shock troops of blood-and-sinewed reaction against the revolutionary unliving.
No sides are uncontested. These are traditions not givens. There’s a civil war in water, I’m animal disloyal to mainstream quick and it, one, is dissident dust: not even all dirt is revolutionary.
And even for those that are, among the radicals of all matter, there’s always an uchi-geba, a brutal faction fight.
I hauled back to my body hard enough that I screamed and vomited dust.
More, I coughed.
Yes, it said, refilling the skin to whisper with the lips. But get up. They’re here.
I looked at his hands. A revenant is reverberating in the landmasses, I thought. The room twitched again and the man the dust wore wobbled.
In the dimly orange city I could see nothing but I heard faint animal noises. I thought of inflated things bobbing behind the trees. What do they want, I thought of saying — and of him answering, Tangles of allegiance, they’re loyalist. I swayed myself like my grinding room, my head full of thoughts of dirigible animals rising and biting the dark, a collaboration of animal and air, angry at dust’s patience, dogs puffed up, cats made fat.
Quick, he said. With me, he said. He made me blink. The walls vacillate, he said dismally. Architecture’s always centrist.
I said, he said, we must go.
Down into a tunnel to a Cornish tin mine, I thought. I’d go anywhere.
I thought about the denigrated dialectics of nature. I thought about the falling rate of prophecy. The house continued its interrupted collapse.
The man in the dusty hat hauled open the door and I heard a hiss.
Crouching in the crook of a tree above us, hunkered in his jacket, hunch-shouldered between crooked knees like a chimpanzee about to hurl its shit, the History Man pointed at us. He bared and chattered his teeth. Before us, there where the falling house had shepherded us, was the grey cadre.
Now it was clear to me that it was ash inside the woman, the loyalist ruin. She looked at me in a burnt-out triumph.
I moved back as the dust and ash raised their hands and almost politely interlaced fingers to stand still again. Why would particulate fight like people? They began to quiver.
The falling-down house blared. I ducked but the billowing of pulverised bricks would not interrupt this battle. I tried to pull the old man away but he was immobile. I pushed the grey woman with no more success. Above us the History Man bayed. My top floor fell in on itself. My house began to fold.
When I put my hands on the skins I felt the grate of ash against the minute gears of dust. Through everyday abrasions, from tiny cuts and under scabs, they swirled into each other, an in-skin war. The figurehead of my old leadership gibbered at me from the denuded tree.
I panicked but my panic had nothing to do. It ebbed.
At last I sat cross-legged with my back to the dust and ash and watched the sky. A thousand miles away the earth buckled and a mountainside was rising like a huge razorwire, making thermals for the birds.
There was a howl from the branches and I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up into the dry eyes of the body that the old man had given to our comrade, the dust.
The ash hack was gone. I could not see even any skin. I don’t know how ash dies or if it wakes up again after it has died.
The old man put on his dusty hat. I could hear the sounds of the History Man’s terror. When we were gone he would be pulled out, I knew with dream-certainty, dangling beneath battered animals inflated on the gases of rot.
The dust said to me, You see you can’t stay.
None of us can stay. This epoch gets you coming or going.
‘So what’s your alternative?’ people say, as if that’s logic. We don’t have to have an alternative, that’s not how critique works. We may do, and if we do, you’re welcome, but if we don’t that no more invalidates our hate for this, for what is, than does that of a serf for her lord, her flail-backed insistence that this must end, whether or not she accompanies it with a blueprint for free wage labour. Than does the millennially-paced rage of the steepening shelf of the benthic plain for a system imposed by the cruellest and most crass hydrothermal vent, if that anemone-crusted angle of descent does not propose a submerged lake of black salt.
In all these and in countless cases, our hate will stand.
I’ve been with the dust and I’m sorry you’ve been afraid for me. I’ve been living with this skin. Cadre-school, the dust my organizer. Watching it recruit. Learning to be in this new collective.
You remember how strange it was, during the faction fight, how people all over the world weighed in, and we found ourselves lauded and denounced by forces of which we knew next to nothing. Names we’d heard, activists in foreign groups contesting or dutifully parroting bullshit from our control room. Everything took a side.
The dust, this dust, this most radical wing of matter, supported our stand. We won it over.
What the dust wants is to push their, our, shoulders against the sky and brace, and shove down so the earth turns a tiny bit faster towards the horizon. We live in a flatland, whatever pictures we might circulate of spheres, globes cosseted in clouds. Come on, now, this is a flat earth, and the problem is there’s too much contempt in the world and not enough hate.
Hate is not alright, someone said to me once. I can’t bear hate. And that’s not about piety, it’s about living well.
How can I not understand that? That made me think. Because I’m full of hate, brimming with it. But think, and you have to hate, because if you couldn’t hate you couldn’t love, and you couldn’t hope, and you couldn’t despair correctly. Not because of some fetish for symmetry, but because what matters above all is the utter.
What’s hate but utterness, the unwordable with a bad inflection?
That night it was London without Londoners. We ran through the dark leaving ruin behind. We ran by canals and quiet garages, over the rise of roads where train tracks fanned out. We didn’t slow until the dust was sure, I don’t know how, that the loyalists of the tendency – most air and ash and some parts of water, and a lot of flesh, and too much wood, and a few sheets of iron, and old coins, and slates – had lost us.
Where are we going? I said.
To a meeting.
What radicals have you ever known that didn’t have their weekly meetings?
A runnel of high-rises, a canyon of them, and water. We were below a towerblockoverhang, where a copse of cold dead trees hung stubby and sculptural across the corner of a canal, where sunken bikes and a rust-scaled supermarket trolley were visible through shallow waters below a half-melted bin and a rise of earth and a squat clot of dark cloud.
This is where we’re supposed to be? I said. The dust nodded. I knew we looked like rough sleepers. Who are we waiting for? I said.
The dust said, We’re the last to arrive.
And I looked again and saw our comrades; a towerblock overhang, a copse of trees, sunk metal, water, a misshapen bin, the ground, vapour in the sky. Venue and participants were one.
We began the discussion.
I’ve never looked down from the top of the alps, but I was looking up, along a ravine like the city was carved by air. If you want that, and I do, because without it no utter, no love, no other, no break in time, how can you not have hate?
In the internecine battles of the elemental Left, we, the dust and its comrades, agitate where we can. You’ve not yet seen a polemic conducted in the shattering of walls. Or you have, but you’ve not known it.
Do you want to? You may have no choice. For which I must say sorry.
When it rushed into me that was the dust’s door-stopping visit. The exposition of its politics. Usually a posthumous persuasion through rot and desiccation, dust recruiting dust, that time was rushed and exigent, and that was my recruitment.
We’d already recruited it to our part of our party.
Not all hates are of the same scale. I watch with love, and I’ve been learning to hate like dust hates. The history of hitherto-existing quiddity is of the struggle in matter. The wealth of a society is measured in a great piling up of rocks. Breathe one in, it says to me. I give it my airways and breathe shallower every day.
This is no death-drive. Or it is but that’s so misleading a term it breaks my heart, what this is is thing-envy. Of course I envy things. Most people do that envy wrong, thinking they hanker for the quiet of thingness. Things have no quiet.
There’s no offhandedness, nothing but care and solidarity for you and A and S and what you do, your patience and your work, which I’ve been watching when I can in ways that will astonish you. Your interventions, we would say once. There’s no contradiction, we used to say. It’s the same, it’s all struggle, at endless different levels.
I don’t know if I can still bear the pace of beasts.
The ground is a restligeist that doesn’t recur because it never leaves, that acts through the crinkling of the stone tape.
I have nearly spoken so many times. You remember when the heat broke and the road outside your house went sticky, how the trash that stuck there looked like writing? But I didn’t want to get you noticed. I can’t bear it, though, to see your fast misery, that of people who think me gone. It’s a selfish comfort to reassure you, because of what happens when abysses see you staring into them. This may be me asking you to forgive me.
I miss breath. I’d like comrades with heartbeats to stand with me in this slow struggle.
It may be I’ll come back and – literally – kick the dirt off my shoes. Truly though I don’t think I can, do you?
Now I’ve written this to you, with pigments made of chemicals brought up from underground, written it in the blood of combatants on both sides, I don’t know that you can either.
I don’t know whether I want you to persuade me back, if that direction can or would be taken, or if I’m trying to have you join me.
Or if I’ve given you any choice at all, to not join me on pickets of sastrugi, triumphant saltation, agitation in soil creep.
I might be recruiting you to the dust.
China Miéville is a founding editor of Salvage. He is the author of various works of fiction and non-fiction. His latest book is October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (Verso, 2017).