Book: Sounds Northern
Chapter: 7. Scrap Value: Sleaford Mods, Invisible Britain and the Edge of the North
The discourse of ‘edgelands’ has become a common one in literary, cultural and geographic studies, one concretised in Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts’ Edgelands (2011). While this often now refers to areas of scrub, common land, or simply the ‘undeveloped’ terrains at the margins of urban or suburban conurbations, the economic marginality of the ‘edgeland’ is pointed out by Farley and Symmons Roberts from the very first chapter, ‘Cars’. While ‘cars are a defining characteristic of the edgelands’, in part because you have to automobile to arrive there, this geographical zone is ‘also a graveyard for cars. […] [M]aybe we see our own demise foreshadowed in theirs, our own future, cannibalised for parts, broken open, cast aside’. The scrapyard is a place where value is reconstituted, where no-longer-utile goods are collected and returned into the system of commodity exchange. These places form part of a hidden or ‘invisible’ economy, at the margins of the legitimate economy, and are constructed by distinct social and gender codes.
This chapter will consider the work of the contemporary punk/hip-hop band Sleaford Mods in articulating the subject-positions of what Imogen Tyler calls ‘revolting subjects’, economically and socially-marginalised people who are subject to forces of social abjection within neo-liberal capital. In particular, the chapter will investigate the film Invisible Britain (2015), directed by Nathan Hannawin and Paul Sng, which is ‘part band doc, part look at the state of the nation, [which] follows the band on a tour of the UK that visits places which probably don’t even exist in the minds of many – the neglected, broken down and boarded up parts of the country that many would prefer to ignore’. The directors claim an influence of Patrick Keiller, Iain Sinclair and JG Ballard, in presenting an investigation of Britain’s social and economic edgelands; this chapter will consider the presentation of ‘invisible’ Britain in comparison with Keiller’s Robinson trilogy, and in particular its representations of the de-industrialisation in the North of England and its socio-cultural consequences. However, taking its cue from the work of Sleaford Mods, the emphasis will be upon resistance and ‘revolt’ rather than a lament among the ruins.
Crucial to this analysis will be a consideration of voice and language in both the film and the music of Sleaford Mods, which presents white working-class male subjectivity and experience in contemporary Britain, something with which singer and lyricist Jason Williamson himself finds uncomfortable. Mark Fisher, author of Capitalist Realism, in a review of the Sleaford Mods last album Divide and Exit (2014), reads the Sleaford Mods, and Williamson’s performance in particular, in terms of an abjection theorised by Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror (1982), whereupon the subject is constructed through the expulsion of tabooed and repugnant matter, excrement, waste fluids, filth. Fisher writes that ‘piss and shit course through Williamson’s rhymes, as if all the – psychic and physical – effluent abjected by Cameron’s England can no longer be contained’. The verbal obscenity of Williamson’s lyrics marks the social, cultural and economic obscenity or abjection of certain people, groups and locations: from the East Midlands from which Williamson comes to communities in Northern England. Although Fisher argues that it is the particular local texture of Williamson’s voice that is crucial – ‘lacking any urban glamour, lilting lyricism or rustic romanticism, the East Midlands accent is one of the most unloved in England. It is so rarely heard in popular media that it isn’t recognised enough even to be disdained’ – this chapter will work through the marginality of the East and particularly North Midlands as the edge of the North, a mobile conception of displacement and resistance which attempts to make visible the ‘invisible’ edgelands and organize politically resistance to neoliberal formations.