I’ve been spending a lot of time in Newbury lately. I usually stay in the same hotel, just by Greenham Common. I end each working day by running through the woods to the old airbase. Every time, I pass the empty nuclear missile silos. They fascinate me.
They’re brutal pieces of architecture. I assume they were built to withstand a nuclear blast. I imagine them crouched in that post-nuclear world, outlasting humanity.
They’re among the most durable artefacts our culture has produced. I’ve come to see them as modern dolmens. They will persist long after any meaning attached to them has dissipated.
They’ll still stand in thousands of years time, commemorating both our presence and our unknowability. Every time I pass them I take another picture and lose myself in that deep future.
Reading Rainbow’s a US children’s TV show that ran from 1983 until 2006. Levar Burton introduced various guest stars, reading books for child viewers. As a Brit, I understood it to be something like Jackanory; its theme tune apparently has massive resonance for Americans of a certain age. Here is that theme tune, covered by The Doors:
OK, it’s not really The Doors. It’s American comedian Jimmy Fallon, channelling Jim Morrison with spooky accuracy. The voice, the intonation, the stoned swaying lope – all present, correct and perfectly mimicked. And that’s not all that’s bang on. The lyrics themselves, a blend of the original Reading Rainbow theme and lines lifted from various children’s classics, sound wonderfully Doors-y too.
At first, I thought that that was a nifty bit of satire – Fallon parodying the easy rhymes and cod truisms of Morrison’s lyrics, etc. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realised there was far more to it than that. I was forgetting a very simple fact – the best children’s books are also very simply written, and they’re as profound as they are simple and as simple are they are profound.
Here’s a great example – a lovely performance of Mo Willems’ magnificent ‘We Are In A Book’ -
Mortality, meta-fiction and the consolations of literature – all in a couple of hundred words and a handful of illustrations. Wow!
So, I ended up thinking that, by linking his lyrics so explicitly to children’s writing, Fallon’s paying tribute to as much as sending up Morrison. After all, if they bear comparison to such excellent work (Fallon mentions classics ‘The Indian in the Cupboard and ‘The Monster at the End of This Book’, and quotes from ‘Goodnight Moon’ – and of course there’s the Reading Rainbow theme tune itself), they’ve got to be doing something very right indeed.
I’ve just zipped through Adam Nevill’s horror novel ‘Last Days’ and Hari Kunzru’s literary novel ‘Gods Without Men’. The Process Church are a more-or-less buried presence in both books. And yesterday I found out that weird folkists Sabbath Assembly exist purely to cover their songs of worship! So, I thought I’d do a quick blog post about all three appearances, and how they’ve lead to some interesting thoughts about the problems of writing horror adversaries.
First of all, Sabbath Assembly. I’m not going to say too much about them – instead, just go and listen to the music. They’ve released two albums of the Process Church’s greatest hits. Here’s ‘In The Time Of Abaddon II’ from ‘Ye Are Gods’:
Before you read on, press play to get in the right mood…
And secondly, Adam Nevill’s ‘Last Days’. It’s a highly enjoyable read. He writes about the Temple of the Last Days, a Process Church-like cult who, back in the 60s, called up far more than they could ever hope to put down. Our modern heroes – led by documentary maker Kyle Freeman – have to deal with what’s left over, and take on the putting down themselves.
Nevill does a great job of reworking actual history into something far darker and stranger. He’s always created marvellous monsters, drawing on deep visual literacy to create some profoundly disturbing adversaries. The textures and moods of Francis Bacon’s paintings were vivid, inventive inspiration for the deeply creepy novel ‘Apartment 16’, while ‘The Ritual’ refreshed well-trodden folk-horror tropes with verve and style.
‘Last Days’ draws on both the darker parts of Northern European Renaissance art and the flickering, wall-haunting film and TV that came to surround us all in the 20th Century. It thinks about how history gets pulled into media and frozen there as fixed images, and how those fixed images can then leap back out and become animate invaders of our lives now. The imagery pattern that Nevill creates around that is marvellous; but, despite that, for me the book as a whole didn’t quite come off.
Partially, there’s a bit too much info-dumping in there. I love reading that kind of thing, but deep explorations of the Temple of the Last Days’ history made even me feel that the book was moving a bit slowly at times. That was added to by a certain amount of frustration with its protagonist, Kyle; throughout the book, he runs on rails that are perhaps a bit too well-defined.
Partially, there’s a deeper problem of genre. I only really pinned it down when I started comparing ‘Last Days’ with ‘Gods Without Men’. Kunzru’s book shows us a 60s cult, too. I read them as also being inspired (albeit much less directly) by the Process Church. Like Nevill’s Temple of the Last Days, Kunzru’s cult touch the occult numinous. They too both tap into and to some extent create a deep strangeness that persists into modernity.
But Kunzru’s not writing a horror novel, so he doesn’t need a horror adversary. Because it doesn’t need to be an adversary, his cult’s strangeness doesn’t need to be either finally definable or defeatable. It’s free to exist as peculiar little inexplicable bubble, impossible to really get to grips with either in the 60s or now. As such, long after the book’s finished, it retains a disturbing power that Nevill’s take on the Process Church lacks.
That also helps Kunzru’s book become more resonant. In both books, cults create horror. In both books, those horrors comment on certain aspects of the real world we all share. In Nevill’s book, the horror is defeated. Because it’s closed off, its relationship with reality loses force. The real world persists once we finish the book, but the book’s commentary on its flaws has – at an absolute level – stopped.
In Kunzru’s book, the horror is explicitly left running. The reader closes the book, but is left with no closure. A subtle disturbance seeps into the world and destabilises it. Because he’s not writing an overtly horrific book, Kunzru’s book is – ironically – in some ways a more effective piece of horror writing.
And of course, Kunzru’s book has flaws of its own, and is in some ways a much less effective piece of writing than Nevill’s – the historic sections of Kunzru’s book don’t feel nearly as well fleshed out as Nevill’s, and Nevill’s ability to show the weird as it weirds is far surer. And of course there are many pieces of horror writing where the horror does stay running.
And finally, none of the above should be taken as meaning that literary writing is automatically better than horror writing, or similar! Both do different things in different ways to achieve different ends. But, it’s fascinating to see what’s revealed when a horror novel and a literary novel spend a little while travelling together down very similar roads.
I spent last night at the British Council’s wonderful ‘Who Were We?’ event at the BFI. They were unveiling their film collection, which has just gone online here. It was a wonderful evening, for many different reasons.
First of all, it was the end of a rather wonderful process I helped begin back in 2009. I researched and blogged about the British Council films as part of their 75th anniversary celebrations – you can check out my posts and videoblogs here. It was a fascinating project, part of a wider Tuttle Club engagement with the British Council through their thinktank Counterpoint.
Secondly, it was great to catch up with the TIME/IMAGE people who’ve spent the last 18 months or so researching and digitising the films that are now online. They’ve done a wonderful job – it’s very much thanks to them that the archive is now so easily available and so well contextualised.
And finally, there are the films themselves. I’ve written about them extensively elsewhere, so won’t talk about them in too much detail here. Suffice to say, they’re wonderful artefacts.
On the one hand, they’re beautifully crafted masterclasses in delivering detailed information in a concise, easy to digest form. Some of Britain’s finest creative talent worked on them – cameraman Jack Cardiff, composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, directors Ken Annakin and Mary Beard, and so on.
On the other, they encode a very specific vision of Britain and its place in the world, one that’s in some ways inspiring but in others deeply problematic. Watching them raises fascinating questions about how we saw ourselves then, how we see ourselves now, and how we (and the world) have changed along the way.
Anyway, enough description. The best way to get to understand the films is to watch them! So, here are three of my favourites. First of all, here’s propaganda piece ‘Little Ships of Britain’, connecting 1940s warfare to deep rural time:
Secondly, the hypnotically surreal ‘Life History of the Onion’ -
And finally, a Technicolour mini-masterpiece, shot beautifully by Powell and Pressburger’s cinematographer Jack Cardiff – ‘The Western Isles’:
It’s World Poetry Day today. I wanted to post something by Louis Zukofsky – just been having a great time reading his collected shorter poems – but his son is very protective of his copyrights, so there’s very little of him available online.
Instead, two other offerings. First of all, one of his poetic colleagues – Basil Bunting – reading from his magnificent long poem ‘Briggflats’
And secondly, a very poetic film, in which Derek Jarman travels to Avebury. Poetry happens when language starts writing us. Here, 8mm film and a Coil soundtrack write a whole new world.
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I spent Friday both talking and listening at the wildly enjoyable Playful 2011 Conference (that’s me on-stage above – pic @thisisplayful). This post is a very quick follow-on to that. I’ve had quite a few requests for both the talk itself and a list of the writers I mentioned.
So, I’ve posted the talk on my read a story page, and I’ve put together this list of people I mentioned. Oh, and do bear in mind that it’s a not remotely exhaustive list – there’s huge amounts of wonderful SF writing out there that alas I just couldn’t fit into the talk. Enjoy!
I started by defining science fiction, and (with Brian Aldiss’ help) arguing that ‘Frankenstein’ is the first real SF novel.
Mary Shelley – ‘Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus’, available in multiple modern editions and well worth a read.
Brian Aldiss – his quote came from ‘The Detached Retina – Aspects of Science Fiction and Fantasy’. He’s a Grand Master of modern SF – try ‘Hot House’ or ‘Non Stop’ to start with.
After that, there was a quick wander through some cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk writers. I touched on Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, before digging into 80s / 90s cyberpunk:
William Gibson – namer of cyberspace in ‘Neuromancer’; one of the few people who genuinely seems to understand Western modernity.
Pat Cadigan – one of Gibson’s fellow cyberpunks, ‘Synners’ is a good starting point (and was very influential on philosopher Nick Land, who’s mentioned a little further down).
Neal Stephenson – pretty indescribable; has explored everything from virtual reality to the complete history of money. Try ‘The Diamond Age’ for starters.
Key precursors included:
John Brunner – I mentioned ‘Shockwave Rider’, because that’s where he invents the computer worm. It’s a great read, but to be honest I prefer ‘Stand On Zanzibar’, which gets the modern media-scape worryingly right.
Michael Moorcock – another Grand Master. When he writes genre fiction he’s really a fantasist, but the deeply fractured Jerry Cornelius stories feel more like the modern world than just about anything else. Try ‘The Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius – Stories of the Modern Apocalypse’.
M. John Harrison – a contemporary of Moorcock and Ballard’s who’s matured into one of Britain’s finest writers in any genre. Start with his recent SF novel ‘Light’ and go from there – riches await!
William Burroughs – searingly radical, searingly peculiar, and someone far beyond any sort of genre, tho’ his writing is shot through with a deep pulp SF sensibility. Why not check out ‘The Soft Machine’, first of a trilogy of pretty SFnal novels?
Then, a step into television. Pretty much everyone’s seen the original Star Trek, and it seems to be on many TV channels most of the time. If you fancy diving into the more recent Battlestar Galactica, it all kicked off in 2003 with a very watchable three hour miniseries. If you enjoy that, it was followed by four seasons of generally fantastic SF tv, plus sundry spinoffs.
And then, back to prose fiction -
Samuel R. Delany – ‘Tales of Plagues and Carnivals’ in ‘Return to Neveryon’ was the first mainstream-published piece of fiction to deal with AIDS. The Neveryon books are more fantasy than SF – if you want to experience Delany in full futuristic flight, try ‘Babel-17′ or ‘Nova’.
That led to a discussion of 70s feminist SF. I talked in detail about -
Joanna Russ – ‘The Female Man’ – a formally daring, deeply radical critique of the problems of femininity.
Ursula K. Le Guin – ‘Left Hand of Darkness’- aliens that can be either male or female, but are mostly neither; a brilliant exploration of gender as construct rather than immutable identity.
James Tiptree Jr – ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’ collects her finest short stories – unmissable. To read about her complex and fascinating life, pick up Julie Phillips’ biography of her, ‘James Tiptree Jr – the Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon’.
I also mentioned Octavia Butler – try her Xenogenesis trilogy, recently published in a single volume as ‘Lilith’s Brood’. Then, we moved on to science fiction’s pessimists -
H. P. Lovecraft – I quoted from ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, one of his most famous stories. There are three Penguin Classics anthologies of his fiction, ‘The Call of Cthulhu (and other weird stories)’ ‘The Thing on the Doorstep (and other…)’ and ‘The Dreams in the Witch House (and other…)’, which together collect all of his major stories and some fun minor stuff. Personally, I’d start with ‘The Thing on the Doorstep’, if only for the remarkable Antarctic odyssey ‘At The Mountains of Madness’.
J.G. Ballard – I mentioned the memorably shocking ‘Crash’. If you want to ease yourself in a little more gently, try starting at the beginning with ‘The Drowned World’, getting a bit of context with the autobiographical ‘Empire of the Sun’, or digging into either or both of the two volume ‘Collected Short Stories’.
And finally, I ran out of time before getting to the philosophers:
Nick Land – the 90s’ leading cyber-theorist. Urbanomic Press have recently published ‘Fanged Noumena’, his collected writings, in a rather lovely little edition. The bastard child of continental philosophy and cyberpunk, now living the postmodern dream in Singapore.
Reza Negarestani – ‘Cyclonopedia – Complicity with Autonomous Materials’. It’s kind of indescribable; very broadly a Lovecraftian demonology of the war on terror, cross-bred with a terminator whose OS has been rewritten by Deleuze, Guattari and Ibn Khaldun.
For a broader critical context on science fiction, I’d recommend ‘The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction’ (ed Farah Mendlesohn / Edward James) – an academic work that does a great job of both summing up the history of SF and covering its major modern concerns.
Of neccesity, this list leaves out infinitely more than it includes. Other people writing currently who are definitely worth looking out for include Iain M. Banks (of course), Liz Williams, Mark Pilkington, Hal Duncan, Jaine Fenn, China Mieville, and Justina Robson. If you’re digging around historically, the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series collect some really fantastic novels and short story collections from the 19th and 20th centuries.
So, that’s it – hopefully some useful suggestions there. Of course, the best thing to do is just wander down to the bookshop, root around a bit, and get stuck into whatever seems to be inspiring. So, enjoy! And, in the simultaneously paranoid and visionary final words of 50s SF movie classic ‘The Thing From Outer Space’ -
Much excitement at Allumination Towers as Interzone 235 has just come out. It includes my novella ‘Of Dawn’ – more details / buy a copy here. The story’s been rather beautifully illustrated by Richard Wagner, he’s caught its mood perfectly. Alas, this is the biggest version of it I could find; to get the full effect, snap up your copy of Interzone!
And of course, there’s a lot of music in the story. Some of the sounds that helped inspire it are name-checked in the story, but there’s some other very important stuff that (in the end) its protagonist Sarah didn’t run into. I thought I’d share some of it here…
That’s ‘Rattler’s Hey’ by Belbury Poly, from their album ‘The Owl’s Map’. They’re one of the Ghost Box roster of artists – strange and wonderful music from a strange and wonderful label, and a big inspiration for the story.
Brian’s hypnotic, evocative music is all too easy to lose yourself in – I’ve tried and failed to write about it directly, the best thing to do is just open up your mind and listen. Check out more of his work here at his website.
And finally, that’s ‘The Pheasant’ from Matt Berry’s mighty ‘Witchazel’ (imagine Ronnie Hazlehurst’s great lost pyschedelic soul album, and you’re part way there). For more, here’s his MySpace page – plus my ramblings about ‘The Badger’s Wake’, one of the album’s key songs, in a previous blog post.
Well, much excitement at Allumination Towers as the other day I met Bruce Pennington! Even more excitingly, the Atlantis Bookshop will be hosting a major retrospective of his art in July and August. The exhibition catalogue website is now live, and stunning! There’s also going to be an interview with him in the next Fortean Times.
You may or may not know the name, but you’ll definitely know his work. He was the New English Library’s main cover illustrator in the early 70s – his images went a long way to defining what genre fiction looked like in its New Wave heyday.
Anyway, here’s the flyer for the exhibition – it’s got all the details you’ll need to go along and be astonished -
I’d only ever seen his work on scruffy, secondhand book jackets. While I was at the bookshop, I saw some of the limited edition prints they were preparing – seeing his images at full size, original colours blasting off the page, was remarkable. I suspect that the exhibition itself will be a cornucopia of wonderment – I for one can’t wait!
Oh, and finally, here’s the audioboo I recorded just after meeting him -
If there’s one thing that Matt Berry’s ‘The Badger’s Wake’ (available on the the excellent album ‘Witchazel’) has been helping me think about, it’s how deeply English psychedelia is rooted in nostalgia. From Richard Dadd on, it’s been about looking backwards as much as forwards.
Again and again, key visionaries have gone diving into memory, and made that memory blazingly, impossibly real, while also being fully aware that the vision thus produced is built on something that has been lost before and will be lost again. The fairy’s shimmering gaze, remembered from childhood, refracted through adult eyes, can never make up for the father’s bloody death.
Understanding that is key to understanding why – harking back to childhood – Syd Barrett called The Pink Floyd’s first (and finest) album ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’. It’s the name of the chapter that gives ‘The Wind in the Willows’ its deeply peculiar heart; Pan’s first and most dazzling eruption into children’s literature, a deep invasion of a nation’s subconscious at a moment when the idea of defence has not even occurred to it. Here’s a very accurate (and rather well done) TV adaptation of that moment:
Ronald Hutton has written fascinatingly about the depth and resonance of that chapter’s impact, noting how it was key to the development of the belief system that would come to underpin modern English witchcraft. Witchcraft, of course, is a kind of magick; and magick of any kind shows us the psychedelic mind at its most militant, living out the belief that change can be imposed on the world through nothing more than the exercise of visionary will.
Of course, the English have already changed the world, most directly through centuries of empire. On the face of it, such dominion would seem to be a profoundly un-magickal exercise. And yet, the first theorist of empire was John Dee, the mage of Mortlake. Metaphysician to Queen Elizabeth I, he tried to understand how will could shape the world to an England-privileging vision.
In that context, empire becomes a practical outcome of a magickal intent. And there is indeed something uncanny in the con-trick that England would go on to play on the world. For the Empire was – in part – a conjuring trick; a sleight of hand that misdirected an audience of billions, a rigorously enforced hallucination that dazzled them with myths of English superiority.
There was, of course, a very different reality to see, if you knew where to look. Many did. Unable at the last to sustain the vision, empire fell. And – in that precise moment – English psychedelia exploded, creating the kaleidoscope that was the late 60s. The iconography of its key artefacts is fascinating.
As noted above, Syd Barrett looked back to childhood, dazing himself with its loss. Others turned back to another kind of innocence, living out a nostalgia for empire. The Beatles identified with the rank and file, and recast themselves as Sergeant Pepper’s band. Jimi Hendrix dressed himself in the martial rags of the Light Brigade. Even Rolf Harris joined in, uniting memory of childhood with memory of empire in the searingly peculiar ‘Two Little Boys’:
Any 60s Granny would have been born into Empire; now, half a century or so later, Granny Takes a Trip. More significantly in this context, I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet also dressed the decade’s children. The battered old imperial warhorse became an oddly natural psychedelic icon, his ‘your country needs you’ recast as a summons to metaphysical rather than muddy physical battlefields.
New psychedelic worlds were opening up, ripe for conquest; a direct response to a collapse in outward national reach. The youth of England had once had the world to risk themselves in, to win experience in. Such expansive adventuring was no longer possible, and so the quest turned inwards.
Unable to play in John Dee’s world, they sought to reach his angels instead, kissing the sky and then looking beyond it. Hendrix knew very well that a kiss is only the beginning of any seduction; that it can be a prelude to both invasion and occupation. ‘Is this tomorrow, or just the end of time?’ he went on to ask.
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In many ways, it was better that – for the Empire – it was the end of time; that such a dangerous, damaging, limiting vision should have no tomorrows left to it. But such deep change included deep loss. ‘Am I happy or in misery? / Whatever it is, that girl put a spell on me.’ Britannia’s emotional pull remained strong and profoundly disturbing, even as her temporal power ebbed.
Hence the nostalgia inherent in English psychedelia. Seen in this light, the English psychedelic period becomes a brilliant gravestone. It was an attempt to retool imperial machinery to conquer, colonise and control inner worlds, to make up for the loss of nation defining levels of power in this outer world. And – as had always been the case – such machinery was a mixed blessing. Some returned with riches; others were blasted and fell by the wayside.
Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Gate of a Thousand Sorrows’ is a key text here, showing us a man lost and broken, two thousand light years from home. Geographical alienation within empire has led to psychedelic alienation within the self. Kipling’s stream of consciousness is a remarkable foreshadowing of the ways that 60s vision questers could so comprehensively lose themselves.
Kipling predicted English psychedelia in its gentler, more pastoral form too. There are books like ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’ – and then, there’s his short story ‘They’. It’s one of the most haunting in the English language.
It begins with a man who has known deep loss, motoring through the landscape; getting his head together in the country. It ends as he comes to a profoundly moving awareness that he can know the past; that he can be touched by it; that it can be for a moment entirely real; but that that reality can only ever be temporary, and will always be lost. Vision is as mortal as anything else. Every second is finite. The end of time is always happening now.
And with that, a return to Matt Berry’s set-haunted song (as a footnote – Dadd believed himself to have been maddened by Osiris – I can’t help thinking it should have been Set). Badgers are a deep English icon, far less problematic than bulldogs or St George. There’s a powerful quietness to them, a strength that contains wisdom and patience rather than command and control. In ‘The Wind in the Willows’, Badger is the wisest and most senior of animals.
Berry’s badger taps into this tradition. It lies at the heart of a wonderfully-evoked pastoral, a visionary dream of rural England. It’s the kind of landscape that fever thrashed Subalterns would dream of; that – in 1982 – Syd Barrett would head back into for good, walking fifty miles out of London to at last escape the dark heart of the post-imperial trip. Many others made – or tried to make – similar journeys.
And yet – in the most powerful response to such pastorals I can imagine – Berry’s badger is dead. The song is explicitly a wake, and its subject is not the conjuration of a vision, but the impossibility of sustaining it. This was something Syd Barrett understood, too. He spent most the latter part of his life making artworks that he would then destroy. Visions happen in time, and time dies.
‘The Badger’s Wake’ is a less oblique statement of the same conclusion. It nails the wistfulness at the heart of English psychedelia, and opens the door to an understanding of the deep and complex sense of loss that underpinned it. For me, that makes it one of the finest pieces of English psychedelic music since John Dee first talked with the angels, and then went on to seed the dream that was empire.
Yes, there is always poetry
lending meaning from language
to us, this world. Yes, there is art
and here is the world, and us;
here before each poem, then after
changed and unchanged. I think of lava,
how Kenneth Rexroth described it -
here and no more. Burning into stone
as if fluid vision can become
cold rock, boring into eternity.
Yes, there is always poetry
and here is this world, and us
running through the words we leave
as if lava were so much water
each letter a failure to hold the flow,
the flow a failure to stop and perceive.
I wrote this last night, then posted it on posterous. I thought I’d put it up here (with two slight emendations) today. It’s very much inspired by reading Kenneth Rexroth – I’m deep in his Collected Shorter Poems just now, and loving his determination to respond to the world as it is, in the moments that he perceives it. This poem came in particular out of reading ‘Lyell’s Hypothesis Again’.