Words by Laurie Penny
Art by Molly Crabapple
Publishers: Random House
It’s easy to see why some people get irritated by Laurie Penny. The shock of red hair, the abashedly strident feminism, the radical politics, the tea, the cigarettes and the sheer bloody minded refusal to act and talk like middle class white women are supposed to. She’s an anomaly in modern British political commentary – someone who has built her name as a journalist by working hard, writing well and putting her principals above her copy. The response from traditional journalists has been disdain; lucky white men sniffily call her a privileged girl, she can be self-righteous and didactic. These sneers and put downs clash incongruously with her editing The New Review, The New Statesman and regularly contributing to the Independent (amongst others) and reveal that all the vacuous epithets they fling disguise an impotent rage at a reporter who is truly distinctive. If the traditional media critics veil their disapproval behind patronising language Laurie Penny has provoked naked hatred from some of the darker recesses of the political web. Streams of vile abuse, comment threads of death threats and even stalkers have given this gifted writer plenty of reasons to give it all up.
Instead she’s produced this – not a book so much but somewhere between an extended essay on everything from geo-politics, liberalism, austerity and the power of art and a series of snap-shots of a specific historical moment. I first came across her name on Twitter a couple of years ago as she tweet- reported from the front lines of the student protests. To be blunt she was a shock to the system. I didn’t know writers could do this. I didn’t know then, that this was what journalism could become; I didn’t know that journalism and activism weren’t mutually exclusive and that to report and change the world around you all you needed was the desire to say something and the courage to do something.
After the protests and simmering violence of London she went out of the country and landed in New York during the summer of Occupy Wall Street. There she filed her copy from the frontline of what people believed could be this generations revolution. New York must have been a surreal place to be that summer, full of writers and activists, rebels and dreamers and artists. It was there that Laurie Penny met Molly Crabapple, (yes, really) and once the summer of idealism faded the two of them jumped on a plane and came to Greece. The two of them are a radical odd couple, one very English, the other with New York engrained in her DNA. Penny is the wordsmith and Crabapple the illustrator. Both unashamedly radical in their own ways, talented and deeply political; charmingly the two have a deep affection for one another that at times border on the fangirlish (Laurie at one point sweetly claiming she wanted to follow her friend and make her coffee)
It’s here that this book? Essay? Memoir? kicks off, as these two unlikely friends pitch up in Athens to find out what makes the dogs of Athens howl in the night as it is slightly pretentiously phrased. What follows is a beguiling cast of characters, ordinary people – often doing quite extraordinary things in a nation that seems to have forgotten what normal really is. Journalism is, as much of society and culture is, an exercise in power and how it works. These interviews are with the powerless, the disenfranchised, normal people suffering an economic death by a thousand cuts. Instead of painting them in the usual narrative of journalistic interviews, (you know, that ‘these people are suffering’ brand of miserablia) here, the people get drunk, and angry, talk about their life and dance to blow off some steam. Rather than follow the rote of how these things should go, the people met seem human and more real than any ‘normal’ journalistic interview.
The book manages to strike a good balance between these human moments and the liberal politics of the two authors. Occasionally the tone does stray into the kind of thing heard around liberal students drinking late at night but what sticks out from the prose are the snapshots of singular moments. The stray dogs running from riot police. The explosion of tear gas. The scrawl of graffiti. It’s things like this that grounds the book in a tangible reality which when coupled with the beautifully emotive art and sketches from Molly make this a fascinating and compelling read. The art is perhaps what makes this book so distinctive – the prose alone would be too bleak to hold together or hold the interest, but the sketches and drawings serve as a natural binding and holding together of this series of snapshots. She might be new to many but Molly’s art is just beautiful to look at, capturing the desolation, the emotion and the damage done to the people written about.
For those seeking a comprehensive history of Greece’s financial woes look elsewhere, this isn’t emotionally uninvolved writing pretending to impartiality either. The historical debris hasn’t settled yet for this to be that. What it is, is something very different and thrilling – the images and prose are the scrawled attempts of two artists to capture history happening around them. So, to sum up – a book for anyone who wanted to know what it’s like to be there whilst the young attempt to make a new and better world. It’s infuriating to read what these people have been through and inspiring to see them survive. It’s people like Laurie Penny and Molly Crabapple who help show the humanity of a kind of politics that all too often can degenerate into schism over semantics and ideology. The young, the angry and the desperate of Greece deserved a chance to have someone listen to their struggle, and Discordia documents it in all of its imperfection and anger. It’s strange to think that we were in the same country at roughly the same time and I’m just glad to get to join in with what they saw. Great stuff.
Download it here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Discordia-ebook/dp/B009HVQ1JW