In this two-part episode, Working Class Literature speak to DD Johnston about his new novel, Disnaeland, about a working-class Scottish community’s response to societal collapse. We also discuss his previous novels and his participation in McDonald’s Workers’ Resistance, a radical collective of angry employees at the world’s biggest fast food chain.
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- Part 1: Darren talks to us about working-class writing; his involvement in McDonald’s Workers’ Resistance and the broader anti-capitalist movement; his first novel, Peace, Love and Petrol Bombs, and his new novel, Disnaeland (including readings from both). He also discusses depictions of societal collapse in popular culture, and how his new novel is different.
- Part 1 bonus: We go into more detail about McDonald’s Workers’ Resistance, including Darren’s invitation to the Canadian Labour Congress and the 2002 International McStrike – available now, exclusively for our supporters on patreon.
- Part 2: Darren discusses his new novel’s relationship to the Scots language, the apocalyptic prophecies of radical, pre-Enlightenment Christianity, and its focus on mutual aid as a response to disaster. Darren also performs two further readings from his new novel.
- Part 2 bonus: Darren talks about his novels’ relationship to older forms of working-class writing, and how they relate to changing ideas about class and possibilities for transforming society – available now, exclusively for our supporters on patreon.
For more information on DD Johnston, check out his website.
Click here to buy a copy of Disnaeland from an independent bookshop.
See also the links below to buy his previous novels.
McDonald’s Workers’ Resistance
- Alternative Crew Handbook – The notorious ‘alternative crew handbook’ produced by rebel McDonalds employees, containing everything a disgruntled worker and needs to know to get on in the job.
- The International McStrike, 2002
- McDonald’s Workers’ Resistance speech to Canadian Labour Congress, 2003
- McDonald’s Workers’ Resistance archive on libcom.org
- Old MWR website backed up on web.archive.org
DD Johnston essays
- Bregman, Rutger. ‘The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months,’ The Guardian, May 9 2020. Available here (accessed: November 9 2022).
- Gould, Steven Jay. ‘Kropotkin Was No Crackpot.’ Available here (accessed: November 9 2022).
- Hilliard, Christopher (2006). The Exercise Our Talents: The Democratisation of Writing in Britain. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
- Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution. Available here (accessed: November 9 2022).
- Lawrence, DH (1992). Sons and Lovers. Ware: Wordsworth Classics.
- Lawrence, DH (2007). Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Ware: Wordsworth Classics.
- Out of the Woods, ‘Disaster Communism,’ libcom.org, May 8, 2014. Available here (accessed September 30, 2022).
- Sartre, Jean Paul (2010) ‘Why Write?’ from ‘What is Literature?’ in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton, pp. 1199-1213.
- Solnit, Rebecca (2010). A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. New York: Penguin.
- As always, huge thanks to our patreon supporters who make this podcast possible. A special thanks to Stone Lawson and Jazz Hands.
- Our theme tune is Bella Ciao, thanks for permission to use it from Dischi del Sole. You can purchase it here. Or stream it here.
- This episode was edited by Jesse French.
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Matt: In his new novel, Disnaeland, DD Johnston tells the story of a working-class Scottish community in the midst of a global blackout. Faced with a harsh winter and total societal collapse, residents have the choice of either turning on each other in a war of all against all, or coming together on the basis of mutual aid and cooperation to build a new world from the ruins of the old. This is Working Class Literature.
Matt: Before we start, a quick note to say that we’re only able to continue making these podcasts – both Working Class History and Literature – because of the support of our listeners on Patreon. If you like what we do and want to help us with our work, join us on patreon.com/workingclasshistory where you can get benefits like early access to episodes, exclusive bonus content, discounted books, merch and more. Link in the show notes.
This is the first part of a double-episode with an author that we’ve been big fans of for a while. DD Johnston’s new novel, Disnaeland, is a blackly comic tale of proletarian apocalypse, but he’s also going to speak to us about some of his other works as well as his life, political activism, and thoughts on working-class writing more generally.
With regards to working-class writing, Darren brings up a number of issues not just in relation to how we think about what working-class writing is, but also what we want it to do, and even the different ways we think about (and experience) class itself.
DD Johnston: I think the term ‘working class’ is a funny one because it means different things in different contexts and in common usage, in the UK certainly, it tends to be associated with people and families that derive their income from manual or unskilled work. Because of, I guess, changes to the sort of labour that capitalism requires, increasingly, ‘working class’ refers to a disadvantaged minority in our society in terms of popular usage. At the same time, working class also refers to what Marxists would call ‘the proletariat’; that great majority of people that have no way to access society’s resources except through selling their labour power. So I’m proletarian and if I’m going to pay for my housing, my food and the ever-rising fuel costs and what have you, I’ve got to sell my labour power.
I’ve done various jobs in food, like I worked at a pizza place. I worked for Burger King for one month and they fired me. I worked for McDonald’s for quite a few years. I worked in a coach station. I worked as a bouncer a couple of times which is weird. You can’t see me on this but I’m a scrawny wee guy. So just various jobs like that and then I ended up doing a PhD and getting a gig teaching writing.
I’m also middle class. I work at a university. There are all sorts of people who maybe fit into one definition of working class but not the other. There are people who’d fit into the idea of working class in that they’re maybe low-waged and maybe working unskilled but they’re not proletarian. They might be self-employed and running their own wee business, etcetera. I should say when I say that I’m middle class, I should be clear that I don’t have very much money just now. That’s mainly because I mainly look after my wee boy. I don’t do very much paid work just now but cultural capital… it’s oozing out of my pores. I enjoy contemporary theatre [laughter]. I like watching Michael Haneke films.
That’s a complication, I guess, with just the general population and then when it comes to thinking about what makes a working-class writer, there are other things going on. First of all, you’ve got the whole question of representation. Who gets a chance to tell their stories? I think there’s important stuff about where a writer is coming from, where they want us to go and what they want their work to do. In terms of where a writer is coming from, the baggage that they bring with them as a writer, their life experience, that’s really relevant and that’s often related to class.
The stuff that I write about… I’ve seen a disproportionate amount of violence in my life. I think I’ve got one of those faces that people just can’t help skelping [laughter] I’m just really annoying. So when I was younger, I got hospitalised way more often than I should have done. I was beaten up lots, and stabbed, and set on fire and all this sort of stuff and that comes out in the work. I write a lot about violence. I write a lot about addiction. I also write a lot about love. These themes that come out of our life experiences are relevant and that can be a lot to do with class.
There’s then the question of what a writer wants their work to do and what their ambition is with it. Again, the two aren’t necessarily aligned; where a writer is coming from and certainly not in class terms simply. I often think if you had to choose one as an example of a working-class writer, who are you going to go for? DH Lawrence or George Orwell, say? DH Lawrence was the son of an illiterate miner but certainly, in his younger days, he didn’t think that working-class folk should even vote. George Orwell went to Eton. But what did they want their writing to do? Sartre talked about the ‘committed writer’ and that seems to me relevant as well when we’re thinking about what it means to be a working-class writer. In whose interests are we working towards? I write fiction from the same place of anger and optimism that I used to write graffiti and I suppose that’s why, ultimately, I’d probably choose Orwell, or John Berger, or Ursula Le Guin, or someone like that as a working-class writer, maybe over DH Lawrence.
Matt: Indeed, while DH Lawrence was an incredible writer, and hugely important for other working-class writers in the 20th century, his work is often filled with the kind of disjuncture Darren talks about between an author’s background and their content. For instance, in Sons and Lovers, the main character, Paul, is filled with bitterness towards his coal miner father, who basically ruins the life of his middle-class wife by marrying her. And even in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which is a scathing critique of industrial capitalism, he describes the conflict between coal miners and employers as a “wage-squabble”, with both miners and bosses equally taking part in “triumphing or being trodden down in the rush of mechanised greed”.
In contrast, Darren mentions some middle-class authors who can be thought to fulfill the idea of Marxist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, about the ‘committed writer’, in that they explicitly put their writing in service of the workers’ movement: George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, for instance, is an account of his experiences during the revolutionary upheaval of the Spanish Civil War. Ursula Le Guin’s sci-fi novels frequently imagine the possibilities of alternative utopian societies. And when John Berger’s experimental novel of transnational rebellion, G., won the Booker Prize, he used the opportunity to denounce Booker’s exploitation of the Caribbean and donated half the prize money to the London Black Panthers. In contrast to Lawrence, then, the theme underlying these writers’ works (despite their backgrounds) is that working-class people can organise society themselves for their own benefit.
That being said, the publishing industry is still one riddled with inequality, and dominated by the middle and upper classes, with the effect that working-class writers are frequently locked out.
DD Johnston: If you go to meet a literary agent or something, it’s not going to be over a couple of Carlsberg in a local Spoons. It’s skinny lattes at somewhere that does great vegan patisseries and you talk about your yoga classes. I’m a wee bit awkward but I’ve got many deficiencies and feelings as a human being and I couldn’t necessarily pin them on a particular demographic. With regards to the elitism of the publishing industry, there’s been a lot of attention in terms of looking at the gender and race balance of prize lists and that’s changed a huge deal in 40 years. Class is probably a bit slower to change.
Do you know the list of Best Young Writers Under 40? They did one in 1983, 1993, 2003, 2013 and I’m guessing they’re going to do one next year. Those lists are hugely influential in terms of shaping who gets critical attention within each generation. At least once they’ve included a writer, Monica Ali, who, at the time, had never published anything, so they’re very influential things. I think, in total, 75 people have appeared on those lists because some people have been on them more than once and only two of them never went to university. Maybe even more striking than that is that 14 of them attended University of London colleges, 16 attended Cambridge and 22 attended Oxford. So more than well over two-thirds of all these people went to just three institutions. That’s a striking demonstration of how our literary culture continues to be built around a wee elite.
Matt: Despite this culture of elitism in publishing, Scotland has an extremely rich history of writing by and about the working class, which was hugely influential on Darren when he was getting interested in literature.
DD Johnston: How did I get into writing? I suppose, for one thing, I was probably lucky that in Scotland, there are a lot of role models and a lot of writers that I looked up to. When I was at school, we had to do a book review and we got to go into the school library and choose a book. Sort of at random, I picked out a collection of William McIlvanney stories and that really sort of blew me away. I’d not read anything like that. You’ve got this tradition of Scottish… and for me, as a young man, I was particularly identifying with male writers probably but guys like William McIlvanney, Jim Kelman, Alasdair Gray and later, Irvine Welsh. I mean Irvine Welsh… fair play to the guy, Trainspotting was read widely, certainly around Edinburgh, in a way that very few books are. A lot of people read that book.
So I had that sort of influence but then what really happened was that I was living in France and my girlfriend left me for the branch secretary of the local anarcho-syndicalist trade union. I should say that she had very good reasons for doing this. It’s almost 20 years now and I’m almost over it, you know. In fact, she’s coming to visit me later this month with her family and it will be very nice to see her. So I’m not bitter but at the time… oh, gutted and I realised that the only way that I could heal was to write these awful, melancholic sort of love laments like a sort of anti-capitalist, Scottish Sorrows of Young Werther or something like that. But as I began to get myself together, I started to think, ‘Right, what can I actually do with this?’ It seemed to me that writing fiction was a sort of… a fuller way to explore life than maybe just writing political theory of whatever.
Matt: So, aside from Irvine Welsh (who became world famous because of Trainspotting), Darren mentions a few writers here, who people might not be familiar with: William McIlvanney, for instance, was a multi-award winning novelist and son of a miner who wrote the Laidlaw detective novels, and his works often see troubled characters in conflict with themselves and their surroundings. Alasdair Gray, whose novel, Lanark, is considered a classic of Scottish writing, was the son of a warehouse worker and builder’s labourer from Glasgow while Jim Kelman, another Glaswegian, is known for his aesthetically innovative novels, such as How Late It Was, How Late, which won the 1994 Booker Prize (and upset a lot of middle-class critics as a result!).
Darren also mentions writing anti-capitalist love laments in the style of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is an 18th century novel by German writer, Johann Goethe, about a young man’s response to heartbreak.
The radical politics of Darren’s novels come from his own experiences as an activist. One group he was involved in was McDonald’s Workers’ Resistance (MWR), a rebellious collective of McDonald’s workers, which in the early days of the internet managed to spread around the UK and internationally, leading to interviews in popular magazines like Face and Loaded, and an ‘International McStrike’ in 2002. We go into more detail about MWR in our bonus content for this episode, available exclusively for our supporters on patreon.
At first, however, things at McDonald’s started far more locally for Darren and his workmates.
DD Johnston: There were particular things that were happening at our restaurant where we worked. Often, there are wee things or antagonisms in a workplace. It was the sort of thing with the system where sometimes you’d have to stay all through the night, clean up the store and polish everything if somebody from the head office was going to come and visit. And the managers would say, ‘I want you to work all through the night but I’ll give you a £10 bonus in your wages.’ You’d go, ‘Alright, fair enough,’ and you’d do it and then you’d never get the bonus.
So that was really annoying folk. I think a version of this is in my first novel. One day, this customer died. He was just queuing for his burger and I think he had a heart attack. It was a sort of bizarre spectacle because for a while, nobody really knew what to do and so people were still selling burgers. Other customers were sort of stepping around this guy while they were trying to resuscitate him. It went on for quite a while and eventually, the ambulance came and tried to revive him but couldn’t do it and he died. So they closed the restaurant while they took the body away and we all went outside and we were all having a smoke and just thinking about what had happened. We’re talking about workers who are 16, 17 and 18 and hadn’t probably seen somebody die before and everyone was a wee bit shook up. We decided we were going to go across the road to the pub.
After a wee while, the manager comes across the road and says, ‘Right, we’re reopening the restaurant,’ and we all said, ‘No, we’re not coming back.’ They couldn’t really do anything because we’d all gone. They just waited until the next shift came in and they reopened but it was a wee thing.
We then got talking and then we started to say, ‘What about starting a trade union?’ because that’s what you think first of all. So we went round and we collected all the signatures to join a trade union and I think we got 40 signatures out of the 60 folk that worked there. But actually, it takes a long time to work out what to do with them and how to apply and you’ve got to go through all this legal process. Of course, by the time we started to do that, the staff turnover was so high that we certainly didn’t have the majority anymore, so we started doing something different instead, and we started doing it secretly and having a wee bit of a laugh with it.
Matt: Because of this, McDonald’s Workers’ Resistance was very different from traditional union campaigns: MWR never tried to present themselves as hard-working staff members, and humour was always a big part of everything they did, from prank calling Richard Branson to writing fan-fiction about Ronald McDonald making balloon phalluses at children’s birthday parties.
DD Johnston: I think for one thing, we were openly antagonistic to the company. Most unions, even when they’re on strike, they have to say, ‘This is going to build a better service,’ or ‘It’s going to make this company stronger in the long run.’ We were quite explicit that we hated McDonald’s. We knew we had to do it anonymously because if we didn’t, we were just going to get sacked straightaway. The next day, they’d have said, ‘Right, you’re out.’ So we had to do it secretly which made it really hard. There are things you just can’t do when you’re trying to be anonymous but it also really frees you up to say whatever you think and not worry about it. All our material was really pretty offensive looking back on it [laughter] but it was all very confrontational.
I suppose it was in a cultural moment. This was the late ‘90s and it was just after Grunge culture and we were writing guides on how to slack off. We’d always be taking company propaganda and changing words to do funny things with it and messing around with texts and images. Of course, postmodernism was in the cultural sphere at the time and we were all watching Tarantino films and all that sort of messing around with texts came to us pretty naturally. It was a time of ‘new lad’ culture and we were writing obscene jokes about Ronald McDonald and doing prank phone calls and all this sort of thing. Looking back on it, and I didn’t really think this at the time, it strikes me that for young men (and it was a mainly male workforce) in Scotland at that time, it was a pretty macho culture. You were sort of expected to stand up for yourself. If somebody was looking at you funny, then you were sort of meant to… give them the square goes or whatever… even if they were much bigger than you. Here, we had this huge big company relentlessly taking the piss out of us and so it was fairly natural to stand up to them.
We gained very little, especially once we broadened it out. Quite near the end, we tried to do a campaign to increase the wage and it never really got going. I’d say we gained a lot in dignity for ourselves. Certainly, in the early days, we just did it at a little, local level. We could just do things. Like the way that the kitchen worked in McDonald’s, or at least did then, you’d have somebody who was in charge of what they called ‘Wrap and Call.’ They’d be shouting out, ‘Call! I need four fish. Come on! Come on! Hustle, hustle, hustle!’ They were the boss of the kitchen. So we just applied direct democracy and said that they should be an instantly recallable delegate and things like that [laughter]. Most of the time, it would carry on pretty much as usual but the sense of fun to it all was really important, certainly looking back.
Matt: Darren’s involvement in McDonald’s Workers’ Resistance led him into the broader anti-capitalist movement.
DD Johnston: I got involved in that through the McDonald’s stuff in that I went looking for help for the McDonald’s stuff to a place called the Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh. If anybody who’s listening has lots of money going spare, then the Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh would definitely appreciate your donations just now. Like many social spaces, it’s struggling to survive and it’s out of its current premises. They’ve been running a long time since the mid-’90s and before that when it was the Unemployed Workers Centre in Edinburgh.
That was a very important place for me. I went in there looking for help and they gave a lot of practical support to the McDonald’s stuff. There’s a history in Scotland, certainly, of anarchist printers which I suppose makes sense because, before the internet, that’s how you got your stuff out. So they’d print our magazines, and stickers, and all of that. The first email that I ever sent was to the McLibel defendants, Dave Morris and Helen Steel. I went into this place, the Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh, and said that I needed to send an email. A guy there said, ‘Well, our computer isn’t working just now but there’s a feminist comrade down in Leith and she’s got a computer.’
I phoned her up, I got two buses, went all the way down there, met her and I sent this email. Times have changed. Yeah, that was the first email I ever sent. Through hanging round that space, I started meeting all of the weird punks and crusties and really fell in love with the movement. I loved the way that I’d be trusted to do things and even though I was new, people would say, ‘Do you want to write this?’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t know how to do it,’ and you were just really encouraged.
Through that, we did a lot of community campaigns like local strikes and local neighbourhood struggles against developments. I did some anti-fascist stuff which maybe meant something a wee bit different then. Of course, the anti-capitalist movement was in full swing and there were these huge protests at leaders’ summits at the G8, the WTO, and the World Bank. There was always this frustration that the energy of these big protests didn’t translate more into grassroots struggles in the communities and workplaces but looking back, it’s pretty amazing the scale and the militancy of these protests and the fact that it became impossible for governments to meet in cities. It’s an amazing thing. They had to go off and hide in places like Gleneagles because they couldn’t safely meet in the cities and that’s pretty amazing.
Matt: These experiences make up a lot of Darren’s first novel, Peace, Love and Petrol Bombs, swhich (as far as I know, anyway) is the only work of fiction to be set around the action of the anti-globalisation movement.
DD Johnston: I think, like a lot of first novels, it’s pretty autobiographical. It’s about a young guy that is working flippin’ burgers and he and his pals start a resistance movement. He then gets mixed up with the anti-capitalist movement and then he gets dumped by his French girlfriend [laughter].
Matt: Peace, Love and Petrol Bombs is also a novel that engages with older forms of working-class writing, not just in ways that draw out parallels between past and present working-class life and struggle, but also the ways they’ve changed. Darren is about to read a passage that overtly pays homage to Robert Tressell’s classic socialist novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, specifically referencing Tressell’s famous ‘Great Money Trick’. But in Darren’s novel, the ‘money trick’ is reworked and updated to connect it to the present day.
[DD Johnston reading from Peace, Love and Petrol Bombs]
Want to hear Spocky’s explanation of capitalism? Of course you don’t. Nobody wanted to hear Spocky’s explanation of capitalism. Still, once he got talking, it was impossible to shut him up. In his “money trick,” he used chocolate flakes to represent the world’s raw materials and a discarded tomato slicer to represent the technology that industry uses to turn those raw materials into commodities. Lucy and I were the global proletariat, and he was supposed to represent the entire capitalist class. As such, he owned all the raw materials and all the machinery used to turn those raw materials into commodities.
Because Lucy and I were wage labourers, we needed jobs if we were to share in the wealth of the world. Spocky said he would pay me to work in his factory, and so, at his instruction, I put a chocolate flake between the blades of the tomato slicer and cut the flake into five chunks. Lucy also needed a job, and Spocky agreed to employ her in the accounts department of his office—bear with us, I know the guy was no David Blaine. At Spocky’s instruction, Lucy gave ten pence to me and twelve pence to herself. This is where it got tricky. Spocky agreed to sell us the chocolate for twelve pence a morsel, and when I complained that I only had ten pence, he said I could buy the chocolate on my credit card.
So while Lucy and I each ate a morsel of chocolate, Spocky reclaimed his twenty-two pence, ate two morsels, and told us to chop another flake. Same thing happened. Lucy gave me ten pence, she and I each ate a chunk of chocolate, and Spocky, after eating two chunks, reminded me that my debt was now four pence, plus one penny interest. You can see where this is going: by the time we’d chopped another five flakes, Spocky, representing the entire capitalist class, had acquired a reserve of seven morsels of chocolate. He also had all the money he’d started with and was owed an additional thirty-two pence that the global proletariat had incurred in debt. He then declared that Lucy and I were redundant since his warehouse was full and production had exceeded demand. However, since I was now unemployed and unable to meet the interest repayments on my debts, Spocky employed Lucy to repossess my flat. When I asked where I was supposed to live, he said he was prepared to let me my old flat for five pence a week. When I asked how I was supposed to afford rent, he said he’d employ me to build a new house for Lucy. When Lucy asked how she was supposed to pay for it, he said he’d lend her the money at a very reasonable rate. Soon, with each round of chocolate cutting, Lucy and I could afford only crumbs of the chunks we were producing.
The truth is that Spocky’s explanation of capitalism was like death: you could only avoid it for so long. He explained capitalism to everybody—taxi drivers, hairdressers, outbound telesales agents. It got to the stage where the Jehovah’s Witnesses were afraid to knock at our door: if Spocky caught them in the stair, they’d start making excuses why they couldn’t stay and talk. Worst of all, he had an answer to everything. “Okay,” you would say, “if you don’t like being a wage labourer, why don’t you start your own business?” And this would only set him off again.
“Let us suppose,” he’d say, “that Lucy tires of working for wages and decides to open a wine bar. This is great news for Wayne,” said Spocky, “because in opening the wine bar, Lucy will be creating employment. However, Wayne will have to admit that he is in no position to help Lucy with the start up costs. Now, let us suppose that after viewing her business proposal, the Bank of Scotland is prepared to lend Lucy sufficient funds to launch her brasserie. This is very good news for the economy, which was, frankly, in danger of stagnating. One problem, however, is that because of the interest charged on loans, the amount of money owed is greater than the amount of money in circulation. The global proletariat and the petite bourgeoisie now have combined debts of fifty-two pence, yet only twenty-two pence exists. And the only way to make new money without sparking hyper-inflation is to encourage economic growth.”
In other words, according to Spocky, every year, globally and nationally the economy has to grow. Otherwise, he said, businesses (such as Lucy’s wine bar) will be unable to repay their investors, workers will be made redundant, and bankers will transfer funds to other economies. If some workers are made redundant then all workers are affected. The unemployed workers have less money to spend, so more businesses go bust. People worry about losing their jobs, consumer confidence collapses, and the economy stagnates; no growth means poverty, recession, negative equity, plagues of locusts, etc. Meanwhile, a growing population means more people are competing for fewer jobs. No wonder everybody wants to see jobs created. It doesn’t matter whether we need or want more jobs doing; all that matters is that we find new ways of making money out of each other. This is why so much money needs to be spent on advertising and telesales, so that we want to buy shit, which ultimately we’re going to have to produce. So, in the UK, despite all our technological advances, we’re working longer hours today than forty years ago.
The paradox is that we’re facing an ecological crisis caused by production levels that are already unsustainable. Globally and nationally, we’re not short of resources: people starve while food they’ve produced is thrown away on the other side of the world; in Britain, people sleep on the streets while 800,000 homes sit empty. The planet can’t sustain the indefinite production of more stuff and we don’t want to have to make it. Right now, according to Spocky, it’s like we’re on a runaway train and the guard is shouting at the stoker to work harder and harder. We can keep grafting until we hit the end of the line; or, with a collective leap of imagination, maybe we can jump off the train.
Matt: Darren’s updated ‘Great Money Trick’ plays with similarity and difference from Tressell’s original in ways that make us think about the similarities and differences in working-class experience between then and now. And despite the passage poking fun at Spocky, ultimately, by the end, we still want to take part in that collective leap of imagination.
There’s also a playfulness in the passage, not least in its contrast between the two workers cutting up chocolate flakes with a tomato slicer and the entire global proletariat that they’re supposed to represent. This kind of comic juxtaposition is something Darren uses a lot in his writing; but rather than being a way of mocking grand ideas about changing the world, for Darren, it’s a central part of it.
DD Johnston: First of all, I’m always struck by how comic being in a revolutionary movement is because there is this absurd juxtaposition. If you’re in a sort of grassroots organisation, on the one hand, you’re talking about something absolutely enormous like the total abolition of wage labour, the construction of a classless society and a revolutionary utopia and the next item on the agenda will be – ‘Dave didn’t order the gas canister so we do need to replace that.’ They’re these tiny little things and it can seem utterly ridiculous. That sort of absurdity crops up in so many ways.
I can remember me and another guy, who was in McDonald’s Workers Resistance, went to a No Borders camp in Strasbourg and it must have been in 2001/2002 or something like that. We were camping on the banks of the river that separates France and Germany. Is that the Rhine? I’m not sure. We were demanding the end to Fortress Europe, free movement for all human beings and the total opening of all borders. Quite a radical change. We started marching into the centre of Strasbourg and left the camp and we were met by an enormous crowd of riot police, hundreds of them. The French riot police are quite open about the fact that they’re there for a fight. And the French riot police said that we had two options; either we returned to the camp immediately, stayed there and did not leave or they would beat us all severely and throw us in jail [laughter].
So we started walking back towards the camp but then we got to this bridge over to Germany and someone said, ‘Why don’t we just go over the bridge?’ Of course, the French riot police stopped at their side of the bridge. They didn’t want to create a major diplomatic issue and restart the Franco-Prussian war or something and invade Germany. On the other side of the bridge, there were two local German bobbies but we hadn’t learnt any chants in German. We’d got our French chants like ‘Police partout, justice nulle part. Solidarité avec les sans-papier!’ But German chants… we were walking round this wee little German town and some German autonomist started chanting ‘Kein mensch ist illegal!’ It was a powerful slogan. Nobody is illegal. But we didn’t hear it right and for the next hour, we were going round this wee town going, ‘Klein mensch ist illegal!’ Small people are illegal, small people are illegal!’ All these Germans were looking. It’s just so absurd.
The reason why I say it’s an essential feature of revolutionary politics is that everything was on a big scale. If everything was serious and properly organised, then that would tend towards centralisation and despotism and if everything was only at a local scale and if it didn’t have these grand ambitions, then that would tend towards nimbyism and it would have a lack of ambition about actually changing things. So it’s necessarily the case, I think, that a revolution would be a macro event that’s made up of all these tiny little things. It’s made up of the folk that forgot to order a gas canister and the protesters that couldn’t get the words to the chant right and yet all these little wee acts, though they may seem silly and insignificant in themselves, millions and billions of them add up to a total transformation of society.
Matt: This idea of macro events being made up of an uncountable number of micro events runs through Darren’s first two novels: so, in Peace, Love and Petrol Bombs, you get big anti-capitalist protests in various major European cities, but also the lives and struggles of a small group of young workers at a fast food restaurant in the fictional Scottish town of Dundule. Similarly, Darren’s second novel, The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub, follows a Belfast woman’s journey of love and political awakening as it intersects with working-class rebellion from the Battle of Cable Street to the Spanish Civil War and the 1956 Hungarian uprising, all told through the PhD thesis of a graduate student whose disaffected professor is trying to avoid him.
Disnaeland, however, moves away from that kind of broad international and historical sweep. In this novel, Darren returns to the Dundule of his first novel to focus on a single working-class community and how it deals with a power cut during a freezing Scottish winter. In the passage that Darren is about to read, a small group of residents decide to hole up in a flat together, for warmth, and for safety from the events outside as society begins to crumble.
[DD Johnston reads from Disnaeland]
Long story short, that evening Giorgio padlocks shut the Lord of the Fries, then he struggles up the stair wi his mattress, his blanket, and Marjorie. He’s surprised Marjorie can manage the stair. He carries her walking frame and she shuffles sideways, gripping the bannister wi baith hands, then Giorgio goes back doon tae shouder up the pish-scented mattress, which bends and dips like a giant fish.
But though he never slept the night afore, though it’s warm – relatively speaking, like – and though he’s tired as Hell, Giorgio cannae sleep. It gets dark so early, and yet it’s strangely bright, ken? The skies have cleared, and the moonlight’s reflected by the snow. For the first hours efter the sun goes doon, he’s disturbed by Tam and Mac’s bullhorn whispers, their snorts and neighs and whinnies. But even when they at last pass oot, he lies awake, listening tae them aw snoring. Ruth makes a noise like a deflating bike tire, Donna sounds like a hospital respirator, and Douglas spits words in his sleep: bastard, bugger, cancer, death.
Then Giorgio sees by the moonlight that wee Ava’s awake and aw. She’s lying next tae her ma, looking at him, and he’s struck by how terrifying aw this must be for her. And right then he’s pure raging at her ma – at Donna – cause that wee lassie deserves better than lying alone wi her worries, and he thinks again aboot Gianfranco Jr and how there isnae anything he wouldnae dae tae see him.
Gianfranco Jr wis still playing peekaboo when Giorgio last seen him, so he disnae ken anything aboot bairns Ava’s age. Her furry hood’s up and she’s wearing salopettes and mittens. “Are you awright?” he whispers. “Are you warm enough?”
“Aye, thank you.”
Ootside, a bottle smashes. A drunk man sings The Sash, adding “Fuck the Pope” whenever he cannae mind what line he’s on.
“Are you wanting tae talk?” says Giorgio.
Ava sits up in her sleeping bag, puts her chin on her knees. She says, “It’s like we’re in a fairy tale.”
“And Ava’s like, “Aye, stories always get worse afore they get better. You’ve just got tae wait for the ending.”
“Here,” says Giorgio, no sure if his idea’s gaunae seem patronising. “You wanting a story afore bed?”
But Giorgio cannae mind any stories, so he just makes up some mad shite based on the stuff Marjorie’s been havering aw day. He’s like, “Have you ever been tae London?”
Ava isnae sure.
“I ken you’ll have seen it on the telly. It’s where the Queen lives in a big palace wi aw the princes and princesses, and there’s aw sorts of baddies that live in a big hoose wi a massive clock, and they’ve got vast treasures – diamonds and jewels, geese that lay golden eggs, wheels that spin money fae nothing.” Then Giorgio explains how everybody kens that in the middle of London there’s a bunker below the Ministry of Defence – she can look this up when the internet’s back on, he says – and a few people even ken that it’s connected tae ither bunkers under ither important buildings. But what naebody kens, cause it’s a secret, is aboot the Ark.
See, says, Giorgio, when something goes wrong – a wee bit like what’s happening the noo – aw the sodjers in London – fae the SAS tae aw they numpties on horse wi the big funny hats – huftae build waws roond a green zone. The zone’s on the bank of the Thames, where you see the pictures of the big wheel and the clock and aw that. When aw the big wigs are inside, they blow up Westminster Bridge – bang! And they shoot anybody that gets tae close. They’ve got cellars full of food, fuel, water, emergency oxygen, medical supplies – aw the stuff folk up here dinnae have.
Cause here’s anither secret, says Giorgio: they’re gaunae turn Scotland intae a theme park and they’re gaunae call it Disnaeland. They’re gaunae call it Disnaeland, he says, cause it disnae vote for them, it disnae like them, and it disnae F-ing matter. He pauses, waiting tae see if Ava will laugh, but Ava’s awready asleep, her breath heavy, her wee legs twitching in her sleeping bag.
Matt: The sense of fear and threat from outside is palpable: from the cold, the smashing bottle, the sectarian singing. However, what Disnaeland does is turn the traditional structure of the apocalyptic or social collapse novel on its head: rather than showing how society descends into dystopia and people start turning on each other, Disnaeland starts with our current dystopian society and imagines how ordinary people pull themselves out of it.
DD Johnston: Overwhelmingly, books and films… our culture is obsessed with the end of the world and prophesying it constantly, although we’re maybe not yet doing masses to avert it. Almost always, something goes wrong and fairly quickly, folk turn to a state of savagery and it’s the war of all against all. Basically, the telly goes off one day and the next day, you try and eat your neighbour.
Curiously, the protagonists of these novels almost always stay pretty good and decent while everyone goes crazy all around them and I think we all imagine, every person imagines that in a disaster scenario, ‘I’d not be the one going around trying to kill other people. I’d be alright.’ It’s a wee bit like when they do surveys and they say, ‘Do you think you’re a better than average driver?’ Something like 95% of people think they’re better than average drivers. It’s the same way people think but they’re very afraid of other people.
In fact, even beyond the post-apocalyptic genre, I think that an awful lot of our literature is devoted to the idea that there’s something quite frightening inside us. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Lord of the Flies, ‘the beast is inside us all’ and yet actually, you look at real-world examples of disaster and that sort of prophecy of it being an outlet for human barbarism doesn’t really seem to be the case at all.
Matt: Funnily enough, in the 1960s, there was actually a real life Lord of the Flies situation when six boys, aged 13 to 16, found themselves stranded on an island in the Pacific ocean for 15 months. But while the kids in Lord of the Flies soon regressed into barbarism and turned on each other due to the absence of a powerful authority figure, these real-life children worked together to survive on the island, sharing cooking and guard duties, building shelter and maintaining a communal garden. All in stark contrast to the assumptions around human nature contained in Golding’s novel.
DD Johnston: There’s a good book by Rebecca Solnit called A Paradise Built in Hell and it’s mainly American stuff but it looks at a few examples and I think the last one is Hurricane Katrina. If you remember when it was going on, there were all these media stories about gangs who were looting, pillaging and murdering and in fact, that was just partly driven by racism but also driven by our collective beliefs about how people will behave in a time of crisis and the reality was totally different. In fact, people were practising mutual aid and trying to help each other out.
Matt: Indeed, in her book Solnit stresses the difference between working-class responses to disasters from those of the state. For instance, following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, while local residents were self-organising search, rescue and firefighting efforts, the government sent in the army who killed between 50 and 500 survivors. Solnit’s work builds on groundbreaking research of Charles Fritz, which showed that in disaster situations, most rescue and relief efforts are undertaken by survivors themselves. And while the media often talks about looting, in fact rates of theft and burglary actually decline during disasters, and far more goods are given away than are stolen. This spontaneous, self-organised meeting of human needs, without money, markets and often in opposition to capitalists and the state, is sometimes referred to as ‘disaster communism’ (referring to communism from below, rather than the ideology of a party governing a dictatorial state).
Similar tendencies could also be seen during the Covid-19 pandemic.
DD Johnston: I think with the first lockdown with Covid, we’ve always got to remember what it was like because we’ve had so many others that were a wee bit partial but that first one was really frightening. If you went out for a job and you realised you’d been for a walk that morning, you were terrified you were going to get lifted. It really was a bizarre sort of scenario. We were all outside on the street on a Thursday night and you can be sceptical about all that for many reasons but everyone was out there singing together, going round to your neighbours, people checking and putting things through your door to see if you needed any help getting your messages, or what have you.
Even just at that very, very basic level, when something goes a wee bit wrong… you’re stuck on a train and there’s a bad rail problem. You’re in a busy carriage and you’ve been held there for two hours. You see how long it takes for people to start talking and they’ll start saying, ‘I was really hoping to get to Birmingham by such and such time. I’m meeting my sister. If I’d have known this… I didn’t pack any water.’ See how long it takes for someone to say, ‘I’ve got some water. Do you want some?’ People will start talking and they’ll start sharing.
My interest is in the wee things that people do, the improvised solutions, and the silly things. I hope that’s in the novels. I’d maybe even try to make a claim that there’s something that you can find in a lot of… you look at really great writers and I think you find that bathetic juxtaposition a lot. I’d say that Tolstoy, for instance, Tolstoy in War and Peace, is looking at enormous changes of a global significance but when he looks at how battles are decided, it’s the unplanned, daft actions of individuals caught in a crowd that really shape things. In James Joyce’s great study of everyday life in Ulysses, he also takes Homer’s Odyssey, takes this epic form, to structure it all around. It’s about a guy going to the shops, having a dump and all the rest of it. I suspect there’s something important there about understanding how society works and how it can be changed.
Our lives are epic to us. Maybe that’s the novel’s great achievement is to take ordinary lives and show them on an epic scale because for us, each of us, there’s nothing grander than our own life and struggle.
Matt: That’s all we’ve got time for in this episode. Join us in Part 2 where we’ll have more readings from Disnaeland, and will discuss the novel’s use of Scots language and dialect, and its utopian vision for social change. We also have some bonus content exclusively for a patreon supporters: the first which goes into more detail about the history of McDonald’s Workers’ Resistance, and the second in which we discuss more aspects of Darren’s writing that we weren’t able to fit into the main episodes.
It is only support from you, our listeners which allows us to make these podcasts. So if you appreciate our work please do think about joining us at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes. In return for your support, you get early access to content, as well as exclusive bonus content, discounted merch, and much more. If you can’t spare the cash, absolutely no problem, please just tell your friends about this podcast and give us a five-star review on your favourite podcast app.
If you’d like to read some of Darren’s novels, check out the webpage for this episode where you’ll find links to buy them from an independent bookshop. You’ll also find a link to his website, ddjohnston.uk/, as well sources, further reading and more. Link in the show notes.
Thanks again to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. Special thanks to Stone Lawson and Jazz Hands.
Our theme tune is Bella Ciao, thanks for permission to use it from Dischi del Sole. You can buy it or stream it on the links in the show notes.
This episode was edited by Jesse French.
Anyway, that’s it for today. Hope you enjoyed the episode, and thanks for listening.
Matt: Welcome back to part two of our double podcast episode with author, DD Johnston, about his new novel, Disnaeland. If you haven’t listened to part one yet, I recommend you go back and listen to that first.
Matt: Before we get into the episode, just a quick reminder that we are only able to produce these podcasts – both Working Class History and Literature – thanks to support from our listeners on patreon. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merch and other content. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes.
In Part 1, Darren started talking to us about his new novel, Disnaeland, which imagines the response of a Scottish working-class community to the end of the world. One thing which listeners would have picked up on is that Disnaeland is written entirely in a Scots-inflected dialect of English. The use of Scots has a long tradition in Scottish literature so we spoke to Darren about his motivation for writing the novel in the way he did, and about the relationship between Scots, Scottish English and what is generally considered ‘Standard English’.
DD Johnston: Disnaeland is written in an East Central Scottish dialect of English. The first thing I’d say is why would you not because I do think that that language is really beautiful and it’s got rhythm and verve and it can have a harshness to it at times. It’s just very, very rich I think.
You get that development of language and that’s something that’s always happened and that’s not something I think to be afraid of at all because, in fact, it’s finding new diversities of language and new cultures and it’s out of our exchange and meeting. When I say it’s written in an East Central Scottish dialect, loads of those words are Romany words like barry, gadgie, and jougal. I think that’s really rich that sort of diversity. What concerns me is that almost all of the internet is written in the same American English that Friends was in. It’s like, ‘Hey! Hi! How are you doing?’ There’s a sort of monoculture there.
The relationship between Scots and English is pretty complex and at what point do you say something is Scots and at what point do you say it’s a dialect? It’s the sort of thing folk get into arguments about. As I say, what I’m writing in is as a dialect of English. If you think of other dialects of English and their uses in literature, there’s a similarity and a difference. If you were to look at writers from Liverpool and writing in Scouse dialect, to an extent, there are a lot of similar issues that apply in terms of why you’d do that but there’s a big difference in that Scottish has this written tradition. Going back to the 14th to 16th centuries, it was the language of the nation in terms of literature and official business. You have these written forms and although after the Act of Union, you get an effort at anglicisation, there’s a legacy. Guys like Burns or Ferguson are writing in a Scots vernacular as a reaction against that anglicisation and although you get various points of which the use of Scots is seen as being a revival of it, it never really goes away.
In that sense, it’s a wee bit different from the case if you were looking at Geordie or whatever but in other ways, it’s similar in that there’s a period in modernity where there has to be a linguistic and cultural centralisation as part of nationalism. That’s true of English but also the same process happens in other countries. There’s a quote from an Italian nationalist at the time when the Italian state was created. I think his name was Massimo d’Azeglio and he said, ‘We have made Italy. Now we have to make Italians.’ Because I think something like only about 1.5% of the people in that area of Italy were actually speaking what we now consider Italian. When everybody is living in their own wee glens and doing a bit of crofting, it’s alright for them all to be speaking a bit of lowland Scots here and a bit of Gaelic up there and probably struggling to communicate with each other. You get them all in one city working in one factory, they’ve got to start speaking the same language and so you get this centralisation. If you want to be part of the share of power and you want to participate in that, then you have to use the dominant form of language. Other forms come to be sort of repressed and marginalised and using them comes to either mean that you’re sort of disadvantaged because you don’t have the skills to participate in the discourse of state and power or it’s a sort of an act of rebellion to an extent.
I think attitudes towards Scots are changing a lot. Certainly, when I was at school and growing up, you’d be encouraged to speak “correctly” and “correctly” meant not using local words and local grammar. I think James Kelman has been really influential for me in terms of how he’s, over many years, advocated for the idea that Scots can be used for the whole story. There’s this tradition that goes back at least to Walter Scott of you have the dialogue being in Scots and then the narration is English. That’s what I did in my first novel where the Scottish character speaks Scottish and then the narration is in standard written English.
In terms of how it interacts with nationalism, again, I probably share Kelman’s suspicion towards all forms of nationalism, including Scottish nationalism, but that doesn’t necessarily mean… like Kelman, I think has said that if he was going to vote in another independence referendum, he’d vote yes for an independent Scotland. I’ve never voted in any election in my life. I don’t live in Scotland and so if there’s another Indy Ref, I’ll not be voting in that one either but it’s a difficult question given the different political feelings in Scotland and the lack of representation for that in a UK government. If you’re opposed to government, it’s not easy to know how to align yourself with that.
The only other thing I’d say about wanting to use Scots or any other form of nonhegemonic language is that much as there is that process of nationalist centralisation in terms of what language can be used during modernity or postmodernity, whatever we want to call it, there’s something similar happening at a global level. In recent years, the extent to which US economic and military power is being translated into political cultural linguistic power is massively accelerating. That’s been facilitated by the internet. It almost parallels to me that the destruction of cultural diversity is almost like the destruction of biodiversity.
Matt: In Part 1, we also talked about the influence of apocalyptic or dystopian fiction on Disnaeland. However, another (less obvious) influence both on the structure and content of the novel are the apocalyptic prophecies of the radical, pre-Enlightenment Christian tradition.
DD Johnston: The apocalypse has become this awful, terrible thing and I think that we’ve lost our enthusiasm for the apocalypse. This used to be something that we were, in many ways, to look forward to. Yes, it’s a terrible time of reckoning but ultimately, it was going to deliver us a kingdom of heaven on Earth.
A while back, I got really into, reading about and actually going to visit places that were associated with a lot of older revolutionary movements from before the Enlightenment. I got interested in the radical Christian groups that came about around the Reformation and millenarian groups, and people like Thomas Müntzer, Johan Mathis and all these quite crazy guys often but with this faith that there was going to be some great reckoning and that the evil-doers, that were often the princes and the lords, the people that kept the peasantry oppressed, they were going to be just smited away by god. Come on! That’s pretty appealing, is it not?
I think modern political thought, to a large extent, comes out of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution and that includes the anarchists and other libertarian traditions as well. They tend to be fiercely secular but that idea is still there. There’s that famous quote from Buenaventura Durruti during the Spanish Civil War when he’s saying ‘The bourgeois may blast and destruct its world before it leaves the stage of history forever but there’s a new world growing in our hearts. We’re not in the least afraid of ruins.’ It’s that similar sort of idea that there’s going to be this rupture and then something new is going to be born. Of course, I’m not wishing for a cataclysmic rupture in the world. That would be terrible but as a metaphor for some sort of radical reassessment of how we’re going or some sort of reckoning I think is interesting.
It is a book about faith to an extent. For many years, I thought you could change the world by appealing to people’s self-interest. You’d argue and you’d say, ‘Well, you should join the union and we’ll go on strike because you’ll get more money.’ That doesn’t follow at all. In fact, it’s in no individual’s interest to join a union and go on strike. Let other people do it. You’ll still get the pay rise. The reason why you’d do that is because of some belief because you feel it’s right and I don’t think that you can ground that belief in some sort of objective morality. I sort of agree with Nietzsche about that. They say, ‘You should join the strike because if the union does well, it’s going to lead to a more equal society and that’s fairer.’ Well, why should it be fairer? There’s no way to end those sorts of questions, except that you believe in it and it requires a wee bit of a leap of faith. So all that was going on with the book and I wanted to start with the sort of apocalyptic disaster scenario that we see play out so often but give it back its fun element and get some laughs in there.
Matt: One source of laughs in the novel comes from a group of characters dubbed the ‘Survivalists of Dundule’, led by a misanthropic fantasist called Hobbes.
DD Johnston: I’ve got a character in the novel, Hobbes, who is a prepper or a survivalist and he’s been one of those guys who’s been getting his guns ready and he just can’t wait for the end of the world to come. He’s convinced that it’s basically going to go down like a zombie apocalypse movie. Him and his buddies go out and they camp in an adventure playground and they’re sort of satirised and ridiculed. But that name, of course, comes from Thomas Hobbes, the English Civil War era philosopher, and his idea that in the absence of strong authority, we can revert back to our natural state which is the war of all against all. That warning, I think, runs throughout a lot of disaster fiction, a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction and a lot of our literature generally.
Matt: Darren is about to read out a passage that exemplifies and makes fun of that kind of trend in post-apocalyptic fiction. In this passage, Hobbes and his two followers that make up the Survivalists of Dundule, begin their eager preparations for the end of the world and the war of all against all that that entails.
[DD Johnston reads from Disnaeland]
Anyways, as you ken, on the night of the rioting Kieran goes tae meet Hobbes oot at the adventure playground. Noo, Hobbes chose the adventure playground as the site of Camp Survival when they used tae train there. He’d time them as they climbed intae the tree hoose, zoomed doon the flying fox, edged along the balance beams, galumphed across the tyre traverse, hopped fae log step tae log step, scrambled ower the clamber-net, and sprinted up the slide intae the play fort. But parents gave them grief for thudding up the slide in airmy boots. Some bairn’s da went mental when Kieran knocked his toddler offae the balance beam. In the end, they had tae quite the playground efter bodkins received a Sexual Offenders Prevention Order.
Nanetheless, on their first night, when the ignorant masses – the zombies, as they call them – are aw looting and burning, SoDs lash tarpaulins across the roof of the play fort and climb intae their shelter via the kiddie-sized ladder. Kieran lies awake, listening tae the thundersnow, feeling aw snug and proud. Cause while the likes of Ruth are getting hypothermia, the survivalists are prepared; they’ve got bivvy sacs, Arctic-grade sleeping bags, Gore-tex camo suits.
While the zombies are aw shiteing themsels aboot what they’re gaunae drink, the survivalists drink the water fae the Dule Burn, either boiled or purified wi tablets.
While Giorgio’s supplies are being looted by a gang, the survivalists are surroonded by natural defences: tae the north, the playgroond’s protected by the canal; tae the west, it’s fortified by Breast Mountain; and tae the south, across a thicket of hawthorn, nettle, and bramble, a barbed-wire fence surroonds flat grazing fields. The only weak spot is tae the east, where the playgroond’s car park is fed by a weeroad that comes roond fae behind the museum. Noo, this road crosses a tributary of the Avon, near where the burn meets the canal, so Kieran and Hobbes barricade the bridge wi a flytipped cooker, a rotten sofa, the springs of a mattress, a rusted fridge-freezer – aw this kind of thing.
While the zombies are risking typhus cause they cannae flush their cludgies, Bodkins digs a toilet trench in a copse of elder and hawthorn. And Bodkins, right, basically looks like a bairn offae a biscuit advert – aw freckles and dimples and blue-eyes – so he’s forever trying tae make his appearance less boyish. Many times a day he checks the progress of his tache, like a gardner checking on a prize marrow, but naebody else even kens he’s supposed to have a tache. So, as he digs the cludgie, he takes a moment tae wipe streaks of dirt on his cheeks, cause he thinks that’ll make him look mair manly.
Anyways, when the trench is deep enough, Bodkins spikes the spade intae the excavated dirt and invites Hobbes tae christen the new toilet. Well, Hobbes slips doon his ower-troosers, unbuckles his belt, yanks doon his combats, drops his anti-microbial keks, and stands exposed in the frozen air. He hunkers doon, feet astride the trench. Tae begin wi, nothing happens. Then you can hear a wee trickle of piss. Hobbes stays squatting, arse pointing intae the trench, and they aw stand aroond till he manages tae produce. “Brothers,” he says, wiping his arse wi a frosty dock leaf. “The new world is born.”
Matt: This passage is obviously mocking the grown-up fantasies being acted out by the survivalists. But the novel is also making a broader, more serious point in its contrast between the survivalists and the wider community, about cooperation versus competition, and how humanity organises itself to survive catastrophe. This contrast can even be seen in how Kieran imagines the ignorant masses succumbing to violence and hypothermia, and the reality of how Giorgio and others come together to support each other in the passage read out in Part 1.
There are some parts of Disnaeland which even seem to parallel the work of Russian anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, and his book, Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution, about which famous paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, maintains that, while flawed in places, “Kropotkin’s basic argument is correct”. That is, Kropotkin argues that even in nature, survival isn’t just a case of ‘the strongest will survive’ in the sense of ‘all against all’. Instead, using a range of studies, Kropotkin concludes that mutual aid is “the surest means for giving to each and to all the greatest safety, the best guarantee of existence and progress, bodily, intellectual, and moral” and, moreover, that “those species which best know how to combine, and to avoid competition, have the best chances of survival […] while the unsociable species decay”.
DD Johnston: I wouldn’t go further than that and say that human nature is essentially benign or that we’re innately good or anything but what I would say and what I think is the flaw with all the arguments about our supposed human nature is that our only nature is our necessary sociality. We’re born ridiculously early and totally unable to look after ourselves for years and increasingly into our mid-20s it seems [laughter]. So there’s just no possibility and there has never been and will never be a human that is nature. It’s always to do with how they’re nurtured and part of that is… you just look at a baby and the ways that they want to reciprocate and respond to other humans, and they want to share their food, and share their toys… and they have this capacity for love. We probably don’t spill as much ink thinking about our capacity for love and kindness as we do thinking about our capacity for savagery.
Matt: Indeed, one key theme in the novel is precisely this potential for love and kindness. Moreover, it shows how, even if started for reasons of pure practicality (like just keeping each other warm, as in the passage read out in Part 1), the act of cooperation has the power to transform people.
[DD Johnston reads from Disnaeland]
Ruth never used tae like talking. It wis one of they things that had tae be done, like putting oot the recycling or periodically changing tariff wi your energy provider. See, everybody lived separate lifes, raised separate families, lived in separate hames in distant neighbourhoods, pursued esoteric hobbies, and devoted themsels tae jobs so specialised or alienated that they seemed pure pointless tae anybody no employed in the same field. She’d go tae dinner parties and dae the whole “and what do you do?” thing and huftae listen tae some poor bastard try and explain the highs and lows of being an equity derivative flow trader. Or, and this wis even worse, she’d huftae watch them glossing ower as she blethered on aboot her monograph on John Dryden and millenarianism. Or she’d be like, “So what do you do to relax?” and then she’d be stuck for follow up questions when the guy turnt oot tae be an ornithologist that wis eager tae tell her aboot a white-winged scoter he’d spied at the Esk Mouth some year back.
And cause such conversations were so grim, folk understandably resorted tae the one thing they shared: consumption. Like, sometimes men would discuss their consumer choices as car buyers, or wummin would discuss their consumer choices when choosing new claes or kitchens. Mixed groups discussed the cost of membership at different spa clubs. Or they shared their consumer experiences holidaying on different Greek islands or dining at a new restaurant where the food wis cauld or the service wis slow or you had to try the tarte tatin.
But maist of aw they discussed their consumption of culture. They talked aboot who’d read that year’s Booker winner and was it no awfully good or rather dull or just so sad at the end. They debated the social importance of Motown, whether Kurt Cobain wis the last rock star, whether Rima Laidlaw wis feminist. They talked aboot a new Guardian article on CGI or a Times piece on the Metropolitan Opera.
And you ken yoursel how it goes: cause they’d nae ither way tae relate tae each other, they talked aboot these things like they mattered. They fell oot – politely – cause somebody agreed wi a five-star review for a new Tarantino film, or said Leonard Cohen shouldnae have got the Nobel Prize for Literature. They politicised their responses tae entertainment, made them intae points of morality. They disdained alternative viewpoints the way union members had once disdained scabs, or congregations had once disdained heretics.
But ken what? Though these conversations were repetitive and pointless and acrimonious, they thought them way superior tae the mundane chit chat they owerheard fae ither tables in bars and restaurants and coffee hooses. They scoffed when they heard a table of co-workers gossiping aboot their manager or debating the best strategy for restructuring the office. It wis a truism that there wis nothing sadder than going oot and talking aboot work.
But noo Ruth sees that shared endeavour is the sole basis for meaningful conversation. Much of the work that she and others devoted their lifes tae wis Sisyphean in its pointlessness. But the conversations such work generated were nanetheless the best conversations they had. Noo, every conversation is underwritten by shared endeavour, by collaborative effort. Ruth cannae stop chatting, cannae stop listening, cannae stop asking questions. She’s laughed mair these past ten days than she’s laughed in aw the preceding decade. It’s enormous.
Matt: This is actually one of my favourite passages from the book not just because of how it captures the way our relationships are structured by capitalist society, but also the way it imagines how they could be different. In particular, the line about shared endeavour being “the sole basis for meaningful conversation” points to how even our interpersonal relationships might change if society were organised differently. It’s also a change that we can find glimpses of today, as anyone could tell you who’s experienced the excited conversations that take place as a union drive or community campaign heats up. And it’s an excitement that infects us as readers as we watch Disnaeland’s characters build a new society where shared endeavour begins to underwrite every interaction.
This idea of radically restructuring society comes across far more urgently in Disnaeland than it does in any of Darren’s previous novels.
DD Johnston: I think that sense of urgency in the new novel comes from just a feeling that time is short and the stakes are incredibly high. Talking about direct action ecological movement and anti-capitalist movement 25 years ago, at that time, we were saying, ‘This is going to happen. You’ve got to watch out for this. It’s on the way!’ Now you can feel it. You can feel it on your skin. You can see it again, and again, and again that the climate is changing. You can see it in the wildfires and everything else and that’s really frightening. The speed at which our ways of living and interacting with each other are changing is frightening.
It’s quite possible, I think, to be simultaneously concerned about the virus and its effects on vulnerable people and deeply frightened by this unprecedented extension of state power and what it means that you can have a society where there has been that experiment in people never leaving their homes. With having children, again, it makes the stakes higher because it’s just worse when things are going to happen to someone that you love. If the world’s going in a terrible direction, you know, I’m a middle-aged guy [laughter] and I don’t want to write myself off yet but I’ve not got masses to lose but when I look at my wee boy, it does feel urgent. At the height of the pandemic, my work started a redundancy process by email which was totally unnecessary and it was just a periodic thing. I had that faceless tyranny of bureaucracy to deal with and getting poorer is a shock. If you’re used to being fairly comfortable and doing alright and suddenly, you’re thinking about the cost of living, it’s not what you expect. You expect that prosperity is going to increase. That’s the promise of capitalism. This is probably the first time in a fairly long time that people are feeling that prosperity isn’t increasing and we are, in real terms, getting a whole lot poorer. So it does feel urgent and sometimes it’s hard to see sources of optimism and maybe that’s partly why I’ve turned to this fantastical idea of a parallel society, a big collapse and finding a happier world through that; whereas, the first novel was about the failures and possibilities of a political movement that really existed.
Matt: Ultimately, a powerful core of optimism remains at the heart of Darren’s novel in how characters come together and form bonds of solidarity. This isn’t because any of the characters are uniquely ‘good’ individuals; but what Darren does so well is to imagine the entirely plausible reasons why flawed, and at times selfish, people would cooperate to build a better world. One great example of this is Giorgio, a character who returns from Darren’s first novel. Giorgio’s character arc between these two novels is fundamentally one of redemption and seems to suggest something about the capacity of even the most flawed individuals for positive transformation.
In this part, Darren mentions the French writer, Michel Houellebecq, who it should be noted is an Islamophobe and supporter of France’s centre-right president, Emmanuel Macron. However, as frequently happens in literature, even reactionary authors are capable of using their talents to provide moments of great insight (the poet, TS Eliot, probably being the most famous example of this).
DD Johnston: I think that, to an extent, your characters are always elements of yourself. You observe the external details of all sorts of people and these characters’ mannerisms and all that on what people do but in terms of their inner world and motivations, you can only really know your own. There’s a great quote from Gustave Flaubert. He was getting hassled to reveal who he’d based Madame Bovary on and someone was saying, ‘Who’s the real Madame Bovary? You’ve got to tell us. Who’s she really based on?’ He said, ‘Madame Bovary c’est moi.’ She’s me.
In the same way, the characters at the start, when they’re not very nice, that’s all me and then there’s this healing process as they develop. It’s maybe a sort of therapeutic thing like that. Bringing Giorgio back… he gets a bit of a rough deal in the first novel, doesn’t he? He’s portrayed as a bit of a loser and then he gets horribly beaten up. Generally, I feel enormously, warmingly forgiving towards individuals. There are very few individuals that I don’t have sympathy and empathy for and most of my anger is always displaced onto systems. I know that systems are just the actions of individuals but maybe because I’ve so often felt powerless with the way that systems shape my life, that’s where I tend to feel anger. So I don’t have a grudge against Giorgio or anyone else. I wanted to bring him back and I wanted to redeem him.
We’ve talked a lot about politics, jobs, class struggle and all of that but mainly, what do you write about? You write about love and death. There’s nothing else that really matters and Disnaeland is a book that’s born out of how much I love my son and I hope that there’s something of my love for people who can often seem obnoxious and annoying and are trapped in systems that aren’t of our choosing but I continue to have a great deal of faith in them. There’s another book about the end of the world as we know it which is, as a writer, maybe an unlikely one for me to mention but I’m thinking of Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised. Michel Houellebecq is a very provocative, right-wing French author but kind of brilliant [laughter]. Near the end of that, he writes ‘tortured, contradictory, individualistic, quarrelsome – the human race was capable of extraordinary violence but it never quite abandoned a belief in love.’
Matt: That’s it for our double episode in conversation with DD Johnston about his new book, Disnaeland. As well as our previous bonus content about Darren’s involvement in McDonald’s Workers’ Resistance, we also have another bonus episode in which we discuss more of Darren’s writing and where Darren reads another passage from his new novel. Both of these available exclusively for our supporters on patreon.
It is only support from you, our listeners, which allows us to make these podcasts. So if you appreciate our work please do think about joining us at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes. In return for your support, you get early access to content, as well as exclusive bonus content, discounted merch, and more. And if you can’t spare the cash, absolutely no problem, please just tell your friends about this podcast and give us a five-star review on your favourite podcast app.
If you’d like to read some of Darren’s novels, check out the webpage for this episode where you’ll find links to buy them from an independent bookshop. You’ll also find a link to his website, ddjohnston.uk/, as well sources, further reading and more. Link in the show notes.
Thanks again to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. Special thanks to Stone Lawson and Jazz Hands.
Our theme tune is Bella Ciao, thanks for permission to use it from Dischi del Sole. You can buy it or stream it on the links in the show notes.
This episode was edited by Jesse French.
Anyway, that’s it for today. Hope you enjoyed the episode, and thanks for listening.