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Archive by tag: Olivia LaingReturn
May 10, 2022

A poetic tale of 13 flawed buildings that spelled catastrophe for their designers

Late afternoon, Friday 27 January 1922. The sky unzipped and snow began to fall in Washington DC. It came down steadily all night and right through the next day, shrouding the city. Trains were evacuated, cars abandoned in the street. By 8pm on Saturday, 28 inches had fallen. Undaunted, 300 citizens decided to brave the translated streets to see the silent film Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford at Crandall’s Knickerbocker theatre, a picture house so luxurious that the chairs in the orchestra pit were upholstered in silk. The audience howled as Wallingford sat on a tack. A second later the entire roof collapsed under the accumulated weight of snow, coming down in a single slab of stone and steel and crushing the people below. Ninety-eight died and more were mutilated or injured.

This sounds like the very definition of an act of God, but the coroner’s hearing concluded that the disaster was a consequence of faulty design on the part of the architect, Reginald Geare, who had failed to correctly recalculate the load-bearing capacity of steel after the contractor, Harry Crandall, insisted on a last-minute change to cheaper material. Five years later, Geare took his own life. In 1937 Crandall too killed himself. In his heyday, he had run a whole chain of cinemas, and in a letter explaining his decision, he wrote: “Only it is I’m despondent, and miss my theaters, oh so much.”

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Feb 25, 2022

The British writer on discovering Barthes, channelling Burroughs and appreciating the talents of Patricia Highsmith’s Mr Ripley

My earliest reading memory
Before I could read, I was seduced by Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester. Embroidered poppies and pansies, “Alack, I am worn to a ravelling”, and especially the explosion of colour when the mayor’s cherry coat is flung across a table.

My favourite book growing up
The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper was set a few miles from where I grew up in the Chilterns, deep country then and no doubt now ravaged by HS2. It’s a time-slip story, in which ordinary 1980s domesticity continually gives way to other eras, and it nourished my obsession with how history lodges in physical places.

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Jun 05, 2021

Authors share the books they have enjoyed reading this year, including a hilarious dark comedy, poetry and a study of mystery illnesses

Hilary Mantel
Jaap Robben’s Summer Brother, longlisted for the International Booker, has a disabled child at its centre and squares up to dangerous subjects. It is a heartening novel, because though it asks the reader to think hard, it puts its faith in simplicity and love. Neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan offers The Sleeping Beauties: And Other Stories of Mystery Illness to put you wise about Havana syndrome and other puzzles: it’s not cheerful, but it is current and it is bracing.

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Apr 17, 2021

He believed orgasms could be a healing force and coined the term ‘sexual revolution’. Reich’s understanding of the body is vital in our age of protests and patriarchy, writes Olivia Laing

There are certain people who speak directly into their moment, and others who leave a message for history to decipher, whose work gains in relevance or whose life becomes uncannily meaningful decades after their death. It’s hard to think of a better example of the latter right now, in this year of protests and plague, than the renegade psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, one of the strangest and most prescient thinkers of the 20th century.

What Reich wanted to understand was the body itself: why you might want to escape or subdue it, why it remains a naked source of power. His wild life draws together aspects of bodily experience that remain intensely relevant now, from illness to sex, anti-fascist direct action to incarceration. The writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin read Reich, as did many of the second-wave feminists. Susan Sontag wrote Illness As Metaphor as a riposte to his theories about health, while Kate Bush’s song “Cloudbusting” immortalises his battle with the law, its insistent, hiccupping refrain – “I just know that something good is going to happen” – conveying the compelling utopian atmosphere of his ideas.

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Mar 28, 2021

The US novelist mixes grit with gloss in sharp examinations of artists and writers – and her wild youth

In 1973, Tom Wolfe edited a collection that cast a long shadow over American letters. The New Journalism gathered together the work of crack young writers such as Joan Didion, Hunter S Thompson and Truman Capote. It epitomised a style of reportage that drew the writer into the frame, no longer neutral witness but active participant, a character as sharply dressed and developed as any of their subjects. As a gen-X teenager, I stole it from my father’s shelf and it helped feed a fantasy vision of what a writer should be: ironic, experienced, hard-boiled, and above all present at the scene, a mode encapsulated by the famous photograph of Didion lounging against a white Stingray, looking antsy.

The cover of Rachel Kushner’s new essay collection, The Hard Crowd, brought all these dreamy vistas back. Kushner is an American novelist, here snapped leaning, Didion-style, on the trunk of her Ford Galaxie 500 (black cherry, natch), dressed in a miniskirt and squinting quizzically into the sun. Kushner was there, whether there means wiping out in the Mexican desert at 130mph during a punishing long-distance motorcycle race, or serving beers alongside Keith Richards at a private party at the Fillmore East.

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Jul 14, 2020

The trouble with David Byrne ... A revealing inside account of the highs and lows of a band who looked and sounded like nobody else

A winter afternoon, Providence, Rhode Island, 1973. Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz are art students and madly in love. They’re working on their paintings when they’re interrupted by Chris’s new bandmate, an awkward dropout with homemade trousers and home-cut hair by the name of David Byrne. He wants help with a song, and so Tina offers to write a section in French, tossing in as an afterthought the shouted line: “I hate people when they’re not polite”. Chris chips in with lyrics too, and by the end of the afternoon they have come up with “Psycho Killer”, the first defining masterpiece of one of the greatest rock bands of all time – though at the time they are still labouring under the hapless name of the Artistics.

Within a year, all three were living in an unregenerated loft on Chrystie Street, in the wilds of the Lower East Side (1,700sq ft on the ninth floor, with views of the Empire State Building – yours for a cool $289 a month). Weymouth’s car battery was regularly stolen and there was no heat in the building after 5pm, but the neighbourhood was a Who’s Who of the avant garde. Ornette Coleman, Lauren Hutton, William Burroughs, John Giorno and Robert Mapplethorpe all lived on the Bowery, while the painter Robert Rauschenberg owned a former orphanage around the corner. Best of all, there were bands everywhere, from the Ramones to Angel and the Snake, fronted by a local beauty called Debbie Harry.

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Jun 18, 2020

Harrison is fabulously alert to the spaces between things in this novel of collapsing certainties in a haunted England

Towards the end of the last century, there was a spate of haunted London novels, by Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd and Chris Petit among others. Broadly psychogeographic in nature, they featured middle-aged men washed up on the outer reaches of the Thames, part of the detritus of a city ravaged by Thatcherism. In 1989, the science fiction writer M John Harrison took this mood and drove it out of London, crash-landing in the Yorkshire hills with the magnificently unsettling Climbers, a novel about an unhappy exile named Mike struggling to keep his footing among a group of temerarious local climbers.

Harrison described this real, gritty world with the same precise and estranging fluency with which he has more often mapped galactic space, using the dense idiolect of climbing to make atmosphere and geology resonate on an emotional, interior level. Some kind of breach or fault line was being cautiously staked out, a post-industrial, late-capitalist collapse in credit and confidence so amorphous and inarticulable that it would vanish altogether if apprehended too directly. 

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