Psychedelia, empire and Matt Berry’s badger

Fair Folk, Fantasy, Music, Psychedelia, Visionary

 

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.

 

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.

On Britishness

Aliens, Fair Folk, Fantasy, Modernity, Science Fiction

I recently took part in the BSFA’s British Science Fiction & Fantasy survey, which led to the publication of a rather nifty little book comparing genre self-perception now and 20 years ago – more details here.

The book was edited by Niall Harrison and Paul Kincaid; they’ve done an excellent job of picking out interesting survey responses, and weaving them into a text which both once reaches clearly defined conclusions, and encourages further consideration and debate. One of his key concerns is to understand just what Britishness means to genre writers working in the UK.

To celebrate publication, I thought I’d post my answer to his question about Britishness in full, here on the blog. So:

Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?

That’s a difficult question to answer. I’d say probably that everything I write tends to be rather depressive (either the world gets destroyed, or the protagonist dies, or both), and to have a strongly interior focus; the weird elements are usually amplifying metaphors for whatever’s going on emotionally or thematically in the story. I’m not sure that these are exclusive properties of British genre fiction, though.

On reflection, for me the most purely British genre moments don’t come in fiction. They’d be Delia Derbishire’s original orchestration of the Doctor Who theme:

the ‘flashbacks to a Martian hive cleansing’ sequence in Nigel Kneale’s ‘Quatermass and the Pit’:

and Christina Rossetti’s sensationally peculiar poem, ‘Goblin Market’.

Of them, the first two combine deep and entirely convincing visionary reach with a sense of having been patched together with double sided sticky tape, papier mache, and whatever else is to hand. They feel very low-tech, and entirely personal – the product of deep personal need and craft, fulfilled in a Neasden back room rather than a Swiss laboratory, an LA film studio or the board room of a Japanese zaibatsu.

There’s something very British about that; as Ballard knew so well, it’s the obsessed achievements of the suburban imagination that are our tomorrow. Come to think of it, that sense of an entirely convincing, menacingly peculiar science fiction that was also clearly built in a shed comes out beautifully in Doctor Who classic ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’.

And of course, there’s ‘Goblin Market’ – a wonderful poem, clearly fascinated by and soused in the deep matter of rural Britain, but also one that refuses to finally draw the bleak and terrifying conclusions that it is so clearly leading up to.

For most of the way, it’s a truly odd tale of the Fair Folk, fruit addiction, and late Victorian twin sisters; but it resolves with a deeply conventional, deeply unconvincing, deeply sentimental ‘if sisters love each other, everything will be ok’ finale (in fact, my story ‘Changeling’ is in part an attempt to write a truer conclusion to it). Rossetti repressed the poem’s true conclusion – there’s something very British, too, about that repression.

Having said that, I get the feeling that there’s much really interesting genre work worldwide that just doesn’t get translated into English. Not having read any of it, it’s difficult to say how British writing might compare with it, and thus what might in fact be specifically British about the SF / Fantasy written within these borders.

Fairy mirrors, other worlds

Aliens, Fair Folk, Landscape

Chatting to Mark of Strange Attractor the other day about the similarities between fairy encounter / abduction experiences in the past and UFO encounter / abduction experiences today (he’s just been in the States, interviewing UFO folk for his upcoming documentary).

Thinking about it, it’s also interesting to compare classic flying saucer shapes with tumuli and other related earthworks – low, rounded bowls and mounds, secret spaces entered into for strange and mysterious rituals. There’s a very consistent iconography there.

Anyway… it set me thinking about how we engage with the alien. Did the fairy ‘mazed run into the same thing that alien abductees did? Is the alien so alien that when we encounter it we can only process it through our own, pre-existing cultural paradigms? Are there limits to how much novelty we can process? When we look to the stars, are we really only reaching for a bigger mirror?

Though apparently the aliens really did drop in in ’47, hanging out with the US government. So maybe they are tangible after all…