Edinburgh International Book Festival
16.00: Laurie Penny
In July 2012 two feminists, Laurie Penny and Molly Crabapple, headed to Greece. Their plan was to experience and document the civil unrest spreading through the country. The result is Discordia, a 30,000 word journalistic experiment published as an e-book. Penny provides the words and Crabapple the artwork.
Faisal Islam chaired this event in a surprisingly full Peppers Theatre. Penny started by explaining the freedoms that an e-book offers over traditional print media: ‘it allows much more room to talk and do research than the magazine article’. The internet offers a new stream of information and form but the media has not yet adapted to this. Penny claims Discordia is an attempt to break out of a traditional mould of journalism and create a new model.
The extract Penny read had more than hint of Gonzo journalism about it. Molly Crabapple is not her friend’s birth name, after all ‘this is the 21st Century and we make our own legends.’ Standing in the middle of a graffiti-strewn Athens that is ‘too quiet’, Penny reflects on their situation: ‘we came here to draw and write and see history happening.’ Crabapple’s drawings, projected behind the stage, were reminiscent of Ralph Steadman and Banksy. Penny may want to experiment with a new form but her style has been done before.
Ensuing discussion moved from the cross-currents of social unrest throughout Britain and Europe, the dangers presented by neo-Nazi parties – Golden Dawn in Greece – and the democratic deficit that is the concomitant of the economic one. If some of the audience wanted an objective analysis of the social upheaval in Greece, Penny, in keeping with her style, was more concerned with documenting her own subjective account of a society in crisis. Nevertheless she spoke intelligently about the wider systemic problems in Europe, even if her talk of ‘revolution’ was over-inflated.
There is much to be commended in Penny’s attitude to journalism. She prefers talking ‘to someone in a bar’ than fact-finding. One immediately thinks of the tradition of reportage favoured by George Orwell. Penny is one of the new young political journalists associated with the radical left and this has allowed her the kind of inside-access to the Occupy movement and other anarchist circles that others wouldn’t have.
But one of the main problems for young leftists in Britain is their political praxis. It is wrapped up in spectacle, sloganeering, flag-waving and an anti-capitalism that offers few solutions. There is no considered debate or self-critique. Maybe what they need if they really want to present a serious challenge to neo-liberal politics is a little less Hunter S. Thompson and a little more George Orwell.