She’s My Witch, Stewart Home, 2020 (London Books)
As with Defiant Pose (1991), Red London (1994) and Tainted Love (2005) before it, Stewart Home raided his record collection for this novel’s title, epitomised by mean and moody rocker Kip Tyler’s smouldering classic single. ‘She’s My Witch’ has been covered by several artists since its 1959 release, most notably in a Cramps style by the Panther Burns (1987), woozy garage rockers the Fuzztones (1992) and most recently psychobillies The Radiacs (2010). I mention these only as Home’s own musical tastes and live forays, particularly to Dalston’s Garageland, get frequent mentions and largely fuel the online relationship which unfolds between the novel’s two protagonists, Vespa-riding personal trainer (and former skinhead) Martin Cooper and video editor Maria Remedios, a former dominatrix more likely to be found in bars with Hells Angels and skinheads than behind an editing suite in her native Spain (in one Facebook message she rues how the latter are now all “just fat middle-aged men”). This in itself opens up the time and place of the novel, East London in the post-financial crisis, pre-Brexit era (understandably as this is published on John King’s London Books imprint, the jacket text goes in heavy on this) where personal wellness and the creative industries meet, mutually reinforcing. As London riots then prepares to stage a few weeks of global sport, Martin and Maria get further acquainted on social media and commence the exchange of favoured YouTube clips of garage rock and proto-punk and the odd cult film trailer.
She’s My Witch, as the title would suggest, depicts Maria’s world inside her coven of sex witches, their rites and in particular burgeoning hold over Cooper as depicted by a series of highly-organised tarot cards throughout the book. Home has clearly done his research here as not only do the cards form the basis under which Maria extends her sexual hold over Martin but also arrange the book’s chapters until its cruel yet satisfying denouement. We seriously doubt if this side of the demise of Psychic TV there will be any skinheads reading this with a penchant for the occult, so we’ll skip to the backstory of Cooper as a skinhead, particularly as his involvement in the “hardcore leftist streetfighters” of Red Action and its offshoot Anti Fascist Action (AFA). It is this era, when Red Action were a visible force in East London, providing security for not only anti-fascist meetings but also those of the black community per se, which forms the basis of the book inside a book, Stand Up and Spit, Cooper’s memoir of his skinhead years and the means by which the two meet (Maria having looked him up on reading a copy). In the same way that boneheads who idolised Ian Stuart and Paul Burnley often didn’t engage much further politically than carving ‘C18’ on bus shelters, leftist skinheads with FC St Pauli patches on their flight jackets could graffiti ‘AFA’ on walls as their means of buy-in. Cooper himself is the target of all too typical online chatter suggesting he was “just a poseur and… never been a true skinhead”, before reflecting that “taking skinhead or punk subculture too seriously is silly”. ‘Stand Up and Spit‘ is of course a classic track by 70s punks The Members. Much of the offline action in the book, when not involving bodily fluids, happens in Wetherspoons pubs across East London, familiar to many as Old Street’s Masque Haunt (where I interviewed Home himself for this zine), Clerkenwell’s Sir John Oldcastle and Stoke Newington’s Rochester Castle. Seeking to avoid the musical din of other pubs and source cheap drinks, the two seem to visit the Rochester Castle more times than I ever have by the end of the book.
Even so, post-skinhead or not, She’s My Witch represents another in Home’s three decades of novels to have skinhead themes at their core (or at least dropped in the odd Tighten Up reference), the others being Defiant Pose, Red London and Blow Job (plus Slow Death outside of that trilogy). For a number of reasons, the book reminded me of Home’s best-known novel 69 Things to Do With a Dead Princess (2002), not least in having a book inside a book device, which was favourably reviewed by Jenny Turner in the London Review of Books in pointing out the comparative lack of skinheads (and forceful yet patchy writing). Similarly, while Home’s early work was often set on East London council estates such as the Teviot and Samuda, this latest does not, probably owing to the onset of gentrification. In among its skinheads, Red London, published in 1994, consciously depicted the sodomised violence of the Tiratna Buddhist sect of Dennis Lingwood, with the current UK Attorney General recently revealed to be a member of the cult. I also once enjoyed another piece by Jenny Turner in the LRB on the fortunes of the erstwhile Revolutionary Communist Party (members of the ill-fated ‘Red Front’ election pact alongside Cooper’s Red Action), in the 1980s each cadre kitted out in “DMs and MA1 jacket, ambient-fury-of-the-Thatcher-era street-fighting way”. Rather than ruing lost election deposits, now their members can be found working in Downing Street as top rank advisers to Boris, giddy on Brexit adventurism and hobbling his placatory inquiries into racial inequality. No need to write a novel about far-left cults and orgy arrangers when you can just pick up a newspaper. But I’m glad Home has.