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ISSN: 0974-892X


July, 2017



The Peak District: Spatial Alienation in Peter Riley’s Lines on the Liver

Jonathan Patterson, Research Scholar, The University of Kansas (USA)

Literature from Northern England is a corpus all too frequently overlooked in literary criticism, particularly in cultural theory. The region’s history is inherently linked to alienated labor that dates back to the 15th century where the early settlers of Northern England worked, tilled, and burrowed into a landscape that has always been exploited and commodified for its natural resources (Alderson 16). However, it was the introduction of the steam engine that exponentially increased production from a humble endeavor to a full-fledged capitalist venture. This same trend continued from late-18th, early 19th century until the 1940s when the need for coal spiked in response to England’s need to support the war effort. Consequently, as this essay will argue, specific examples began to emerge from literary texts of the 1970s and 1980s that feature the alienated laborer whom Marx identifies as being so excluded from his individuality, heritage, and culture that “the worker only feels a stranger” to their surrounding environment (85). A prominent example of this is Peter Riley’s John Dooley figure who emerges as a “stranger” from within the Peak District of Northern England in the 1981 poem Lines on the Liver.

Set within an ecologically-informed nexus of common experience, Peter Riley’s Lines on the Liver is a poem written as a response to the author’s “strugg[le] with alienation and the resulting hesitation and ambivalence, worrying about authenticity under pressure of conformity, struggling to avoid the boredom of unproductive labor” (“Interview”). Therefore, this poem, as well as the John Dooley figure, needs to be read as a symbol of Subjective Expressionism, what Raymond Williams articulates as “the cry of the lost individual in a meaningless world” (174). But it is important to also remember Jameson’s dictum: “always historicize” (1). British literature, as well as its culture, is inherently linked to class struggles. Dickens’s in the 19th century gives us “Old” Stephen Blackpool, Bella Wilfer, and Nell’s Grandfather, to name a few, who do indeed experience alienation in relation to their class and their employment, or lack thereof. But Riley’s Lines on the Liver was published in 1981 amidst the height of Britain’s counter-culture movement. During this era Riley’s poetry was published almost exclusively in avant-garde publications, particularly Iain Sinclair’s highly controversial anthology, Conductors of Chaos. So the alienated, Prufrockian figure encountered in Riley’s poem is different than those of late-Victorian periods. The figures depicted within “alternative British poetry,” to use Keith Tuma’s term, have experienced the perhaps immeasurable plight of two world wars and, at the time of its publication, Lines on the Liver was in middle of Thatcherism and the accompanying disillusionment of political practices that sought to alienate various regions of England based upon the goods that individual regions produced (Northumbria for its coal; Birmingham and the Midlands for coal and agriculture, and South England for its fisheries).

At its core, literature from Northern England grapples with the division of labor within its society and culture while simultaneously chastising its very existence. Because of this, for Durkheim, alienation is a direct result of lacking a sense of community and engagement with their work. This “mirage” of alienated personalities produces the liminal figures such as John Dooley who have been alienated by the work they perform (Durkheim 78). Consequently, what readers observe in Riley’s poem is how the John Dooley figure is a metonym for Northumbrians who are disconnected from what Marx terms the Gattungswesen, or collective essence (91). People are divorced from their cultural heritage, their colloquial language, and their traditions and are suppressed with daily, quotidian actions now wed to mechanized labor practices. Because of this, John Dooley is an alienated character who more closely aligns with Guy Debord’s “more intensive form of alienation;” eliminated is the “critical, alternative, or oppositional thinking and relations” (2). Dooley is, to again use Debord’s terminology, introjected and is an individual who “automatically identifies with manufactured needs and the dominant” (17). Moreover, the fervor behind mass producing weaponry during WWII and the natural resources needed alongside it falls under what Marcuse writes as “New Forms of Control,” wherein “manufactured ‘needs’ raise alienation to new intensity” (18). The intensity of WWII production in tandem with a political regime by which most British citizens could not identify with created Riley’s alienated laborer John Dooley figure, as one has been “purged of individuality and is in a paralytic state wherein suppressed or eliminated is critical or negative consciousness” (Marcuse 18). This is why Riley has said, “The ‘everyday’ or the ‘ordinary’ is the zone that was always free of cultural militarism” (Tuma “Interview”). His understanding of “cultural militarism” relates to the mainstream rhetoric and political ideology that delineates the traditions and customs Riley strives to preserve in his poetry. It is also his way of calling attention to and warning against what is now the near categorical disconnect from the Gattungswesen in favor of conforming to the dominant. To understand John Dooley as a metonym for a region alienated by modes of production, is to begin to understand how contemporary societies degradation of place and daily experience and forewarns what results once local customs have been devalued is a bleak, quotidian perspective of our place in the world.

The exponential increase in the production of the natural resources also creates a division between individual and his relationship with nature. Marc Auge’s text establishes a new term to be discussed in relation to the spaces that modernity inhabits in daily life. Auge lists two determinant factors for what becomes a non-place: “spaces formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure), and the relations that individuals have with these spaces” (76). He says later, “[t]he possibility of a non-place is never absent from any space” (86). But Auge’s work finds its clearest relation to alienation theory when he observes that “[t]he space of non-place creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude and similitude” (83, emphasis added). The coal mines, for instance, become a place where workers are isolated from their identities outside of the mine. They are stripped of self-identify and alienated from relations not only to family and community but to the surrounding landscape itself.

As Robert Sheppard explains, “[t]he poetry of place enabled poets to expand the notion of politics beyond both parliamentary and purely personal articulations of it” (64). Much of Riley’s poetry is prescient in how customs that were once defining merits that punctuated daily life, have now become mere ancillary fragments of life suffused by quotidian rituals.  It is a process that begins first with internal inspection and projects itself outward into the familiar space. Riley’s modus operandi, then, is to “revive customs” by instilling a perturbation in the quotidian pattern of life, creating conflict within the modality of daily experience and seeking transcendence from the discordant contours of quotidian life. Furthermore, these images anticipate John Dooley who emerges from the “hollowness of living” away from vibrant city populations into the back alleys and failed structures. His question about the vacancy of our apparent incompletion, then, is a poignant one. The vacancy, or void, that miners leave in the cliffs of Northern England can be read as metaphor for the void made in their own lives. The purpose of these questions presented in prose serve two purposes. First, it is to prepare the reader for understanding John Dooley, who is “anchored to the cohering ground of a common fate” (“Interview”).

This prompts Riley’s own “overwhelming question”: what kind of a people does the quotidian within industrial modern world produce? The answer seems to be with people who live the death-in-life narrative separation for any notion of a collective essence. John Dooley, then, is to be interpreted as a product of his own environment. As the landscape becomes ruined, people are also ruined. John Dooley is described as an “inhabitant of those wastelands: a shell-shocked derelict who appeared from nowhere after the war and settled there.” Likewise, Riley describes the broken structures that make up the regional features of the Peak District in bleak terms as a “natural projection of an innerlife” that is corrupted by the vantage point of broken structures and vacant habitations that obscure one’s view of the natural landscape. As sole inhabitant of the industrial wasteland, John Dooley becomes as equally derelict as the surrounding landscape:

[There a particularly bleak part of North Straffordshire near Leek] where you can stand on the very edge of the Pennines and watch the illuminated or brick crusted industrial flatlands run away before you towards North Wales or Liverpool. It is the edge of a plateau of high moors of heather bilberry and moorgrass, where denudation and burnt-out atmosphere have changed scrubland into miles and miles of growth-failure. (55)

This is not an account of a man who has traversed the peaks, but symbolizes that a journey of transcendence lay before him. The high peaks of the Pennines mountain range provide geographical contrast from the flat moor lands. Hiking the peaks becomes metaphor for rising above one’s own dreary circumstance in search of transcendence from the flat, or mundane. The edge of the plateau illustrates the potential for a fall. The interstice in which John Dooley is placed urges him to be decisive, but nevertheless is trapped, occupying a purgatorial place of indecision. The reference to the edge represents his anxiety in making his choice without a coherent connection to the Gattungswesen—as a result, it becomes an individual struggle in the response to the dominant. It is appropriate, then, to see the denuded landscape and “miles and miles” of endless growth-failure because he is representative of growth-failure within society of denuded personal progress in the modern, industrial world.

In this physical setting we are formally introduced to Dooley:

Whenever the weather was bad John Dooley might be inside [a phone booth]—he used it as a shelter against blizzards and driving rain. John Dooley was virtually the only inhabitant of those wastelands: a shell-shocked derelict who appeared from nowhere after the war and settled there. (55)

The phone booth represents the exiguously dearth space needed to convey Dooley’s inherent isolation. This, in effect, disrupts the modality of both daily and collective experience that comes from being within a purgatorial interstice situated between the vertical peaks of mountains and the horizontal plateau. In essence, the scene of external geography and internal plane of existence is perfect positioning. John Dooley, then, is a perfect representative model for what Riley feels individuals have been reduced to in their own community: equally destitute and derelict. Moreover, the motif of small, vacuous spaces is extended to the phone booth. When John Dooley enters into it, he is observed as seeking refuge from the storm but he is also removed from the external sphere of the natural world and placed into a manmade devise whose function it is to contact people in the outside world. Keith Tuma notes, “John Dooley in [Lines on the Liver] is perhaps [the] most famous figure of man altogether isolated amid the dump, glimpsed in a phone booth as if desperately trying to reach an outside world…attempting to find “at least live a life worth living” (“Interview”). Additionally, by placing John Dooley in the phone booth, Riley creates a paradox out of an impasse: Dooley, who finds a sense of place in the crevasses and corners of the external world incapable of engaging freely with those who inhabit the world around him unattached to a specific region or homeland.

This account produces the existential angst of having anxiety over one’s present circumstance but unable to pursue the possibilities of assuming control of their own lives. Consequently, Dooley’s “single occupation was to walk and walk the moorland roads all the time. He was always somewhere up there…He wasn't old, though usually called ‘old’ as a simple dissociative habit; he was about 40 and big, with a large black beard over which his eyes crow-like regarded without comment the passing car. He had a habit of stopping at the approach of a vehicle and turning to look at the driver, the way people do in the more remote villages where visitors are scarce and people expect to know who's abroad. But he was never known to approach anyone…believe he found speech very difficult…and walked like a machine the ribbons of tarmac pasted on the moorsides, with the same dark overcoat in all weathers and a large sack over his shoulder, said to contain empty bottles, or by some accounts, old newspapers. He slept in a hollow…What was his daily bread, or how he weathered the arctic Februaries, I've no idea. (55-6)

Since the speaker is unable to adduce anything relative to a recognizable, or culturally accepted, occupation, what John Dooley does to occupy time is wander the open, low-lying moorlands. Dooley merely occupies space; he never takes command of the space he occupies. Walter Benjamin provides an important insight into how people understand the spaces they occupy: “by use and by perception…tactilely and optically” (48). In other words, alienated individuals who inhabit non-places, the domestic, or who inhabit coal mines are inherently shaped by their experience within the mine that conflict with those who govern what they do from outside the mine. This calls attention to the disparity between both management/land owners and London politicians demanding for more coal and the workers. The people who reject Dooley fail to see him as the mirror for their own plight. The term “old” is stripped of any connotation for wisdom and experience and is used as a reductive adjective depicting Dooley as an etiolated figure of no significance with qualities undesirable to the dominant. Hence, John Dooley becomes a simulacrum. Arguably, this, in part, is why Dooley acknowledges the physical presence of others in the world, but “was never known to approach anyone.” They are in such an alienated state that the quotidian trumps their ability to verbalize their own displeasure with the change in the world around them.

The tarmac upon which Dooley travels is another plane of mundane experience. The destination is pre-set; people are not the cartographers of their own life’s journey, and the path by which they travel is man-made and unimpressionable, rendering any presence as unrecorded and artificial. Furthermore, for the industrial society of Northern England, “daily bread” would relate solely to what someone else prescribes of him on a daily basis. There is no freedom is his apparent solidarity, only further disconnect from communal identity. Furthermore, a dark overcoat, and a large sack with empty bottles, and old newspapers are his only possessions. The place where he sleeps is “in a hollow;” antithetical to our preconceptions of a home or dwelling space. The focus in relation to the motif of vacuous spaces is how the quotidian in conjunction with mechanized industry render the human spirit as vacuous space.

Because Dooley dwells in industrial wastelands, his movements are articulated to mimic machines. His corporeal movements are not natural because he does not associate himself with the pastoral landscape, only the vestiges of man-made industrial parks:

His presence as denizen of those wastes was nothing to do with the place. I mean I'm sure the only reason he settled there was that no one else had…He was not interested in moors, landscapes, views, walking, seasons, highlands, wildness, any of it. Among all that desertion his own milieu was completely industrial: he never stepped off the tarmac and he slept among old tin cans a few feet from a steel skip…he clearly had his own concerns, and was busy. (56)

Dooley as habitué to Northern England’s industrial wasteland is not inimitable but portends that ignoring the opportunities to break the patterns of alienation inevitably causes people to gravitate towards wastelands. Arguably, he is a character who is “split in the objectifying and subjectifying processes” and what is deserted by Dooley is his own individuality in favor of a way of life and mode of thinking that is completely industrial (Sociology 86). For Riley, the quotidian is pernicious in that it creates a divide within people from things that would give them both a heightened sense of self-worth and an increase in appreciation for the surrounding landscape. However, the concerns they do express, governed by the infra-ordinary in their daily lives negates the epiphanic moments of grandeur avoided in favor of the mundane everydayness offered by traversing the flat but foreseeable tarmac of moorland roads.

The depiction of John Dooley allows the poem the evolution it needs to find that “The only tension that finally matters is between this futility and its opposite, as experienced in states of hope. This true tension remains cardinal to a different geography, of the person set in space.” As Neil Everndeen notes, “Knowing who you are is impossible without knowing where you are from (91). Riley’s take on Everndeen’s statement would suggest that, without knowing the history of where you are from, it is impossible to know who you are. The interconnectedness between identity and ecology is the “true tension” Riley reveals. Moreover, Henri Lefebvre’s work rejects the notion that space is no more than “the passing locus of social relations” (11). He goes on to establish three fields of space: physical, mental, and the social. What this does is then form an identity between mental and real space that have their relations, or “role,” within a certain “mode of production.” Marx also observes that within alienation, “man denies himself, feels miserable instead of happy, deploys no free physical and intellectual energy, but mortifies his body and ruins his mind” (88). It is important to signify that Dooley is illustrated within these three fields of spaces but, due to the “new intensity” behind the alienated forms of labor, he occupies three failed spaces of the physical Peak District, failed mental perceptions, and failed social relations—to again remind us of the Marx’s concept of the Gattungswesen. Furthermore, the industrial landscape makes a “different geography” exchanging trees and moorland for brick and mortar factories, and with it so is the opportunity for self-reflection and renewal through landscape exchanged for being redefined by industrial labor.

As Gail Weiss says in her book Refiguring the Ordinary, “Human beings’ forms of labor, and their unique ways of loving, living, and dying, undoubtedly reveal much more than the state of a particular society. They reveal also the ongoing, intercorporeal relations that comprise an individual’s situation” (136). What can be compromised are the corporeal relations with both the external ecology of the world and the supernal realm of existence. It depicts the Peak District as a region demarcated by routine and ruin. The people’s cyclical movements are as redundant as waves crashing in cadence against the shore, providing shape to the landscape. The “final construct” is the death-in-life motif, which permeates the domestic sphere. The causally determinate view in how the quotidian etches out a life in patterns consequently molds the individual in the same way the concourses of waves cut into the mountainous cliffs. The cultural routine expands to include coming generations who have “fallen into these terms” of being born into the region.  Riley’s long struggle has encompassed the breadth of his life and always is rooted within the geographic boundaries of the Peak District. The traumatic experience produced from the bombing raids of his youth and fear of the “boredom of unproductive labor” in adulthood makes the case that Riley has always been concerned with being trapped in the false comforts of alienated life. In effect, Riley is no different than John Dooley, a “material soul” of his industrial surroundings.

In the current post-2008 era of economics and globalization, an important question has been asked by Peter Archibald: “is it time to upgrade Marx’s theory of alienation?”  He suggests, “any credible account of globalization must consider increased competition and employment insecurity and their effects upon alienation” (319). Hence, alienation is produced by the very nature of being a wage-earner with a job, but the feeling of alienation is further compounded by the ever-present reality that the job could be lost at any moment. John Dooley is a stranger and a wanderer among industrial ruins and wastelands, but most significantly, he is unemployed; thus, the most powerful motivator behind alienated labor is the ever-present reality of unemployment. Any analysis or critique of Marx’s theory of alienation must consider unemployment, sometimes indefinite periods of being unemployed, and its causal relations to the alienation of men and women of the early 21st century. So doing will likely see the rise of two key elements in future analysis: entire landscapes ruined by the vestigial remnants of industry such as Detroit, Oakland, and Birmingham, England and the marginalized “strangers” whose only association with certain physical spaces will be in saying that they once worked there.    


Works Cited

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