the last of…

Fantasy, Film, Ghosts, London, Modernity, Poetry, Poets, Writing

So here’s Iain Sinclair, talking about London while wandering in Haggerston Park and Bethnal Green:

He’s sadder here than I’ve ever seen him. He talks in the film about how London has changed into something he can no longer engage with – that writers in general can engage with – in any particularly constructive way. But I think there’s also something very personal behind his grief.

Tom Raworth, a very major, often astonishing poet, died back in February. There’s more on him here. Sinclair knew him well and was – is – greatly influenced by him. He mentions his death at the end of this LRB piece, a companion to the film. I think the film is in part an elegy to him, and to a particular milieu which once surrounded Sinclair but is now slowly and inevitably slipping away.

And of course Sinclair’s more overt concerns about London are both very genuine and very incisive. Most of the film was shot within a few minutes walk of my own final London flat. I once knew that area well, but when I visit it now I feel a very absolute sense of slippage. London has moved away from me, too. There’s a sense of radical change afoot that is hard to keep up with, and both painful and (for someone less closely involved with the city) fascinating to watch.

And I write this on the day that Theresa May’s Article 50-triggering letter reaches Brussels and Brexit proper begins. I’m European as much as I am British – I spent my early years in France. I speak French, some German and Latin, which lets me read Italian and Spanish. I’ve found deep riches in all those cultures. And I’m British as much as I am English. My family on both sides is ultimately Scottish and I spent four immensely formative student years up there.

Brexit is at best profoundly suspicious of and at worst deeply corrosive to those international parts of me, and more broadly to those of England and Britain; to that positive, open European identity that the best parts of the 20th Century fought so hard for. So I felt for Iain Sinclair as he wandered through streets that he’d once felt lost in, and that he’d worked so hard to understand, and that were now puzzling him all over again. His film helped crystallise the sense of loss I’m feeling, without once directly referring to its cause. If you have fifteen minutes today, I’d recommend watching it.

A Vanishing

Ghosts, My poetry, Poetry

Waking in the morning
to the tumbling of a stream
outside my shining window
and the dreams I had recede
like strangers, met on the road.
I think of stories of hitchers
buckling their seatbelts, pale in the night
picked up perhaps at a crossroads
perhaps at a cemetery gate
who talk of nothing much, but when
the driver pulls up at the place
that they have named as their home
and turns – they are gone – and too late
you know the unknown
has touched you, there on the way
travelling through dark to the dawn.

I’ve posted this new poem as yesterday was National Poetry Day. It was inspired by urban myths of phantom hitchhikers, which have always fascinated me. Wikipedia has a very comprehensive entry on the phenomenon –

William Blake understood as a West London Shopping Mall

Aliens, Ballard, Fiction, Film, Ghosts, Landscape, London, Modernity, Poets, William Blake

On Sunday, I went to the William Blake 1809 exhibition at Tate Britain, reviewed here in The Guardian. It’s absolutely fascinating; it restages his first and only public display of prints and paintings, and sets them in a context which helps explain their abysmal critical reception.

I wanted to do a video review of it, but unfortunately (as I discovered) you’re not allowed to take pictures in the Tate. This raises fascinating questions about copyright, and the Tate’s understanding of differences between reproduction and interpretation in a digital world; more on that in an upcoming post.

In the meantime, I still wanted to do a video blog entry reviewing the exhibition, but of course I couldn’t show any of the images. So I decided to follow Ballard, and understand it in terms of a West London Shopping Mall – which led to this short film:


It’s available in higher resolution at Vimeo here:

William Blake understood as a West London Shopping Mall from Al Robertson on Vimeo.


Aliens, invasions, and the act of reading

Fiction, Ghosts, Horror, Memory, Science Fiction, Supernatural, Television

Nigel Kneale’s masterpieces ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, ‘The Quatermass Conclusion’ and ‘The Stone Tape’ cast a fascinating light on the nature of fiction, because each one shows the future invading from the past. In ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, the Martian invaders are five million year old fossils, in ‘The Quatermass Conclusion’, Neolithic stone circles become nexi for a barely comprehensible alien harvesting of humanity, and in ‘The Stone Tape’ hi-tech recording technology empowers an ancient, pre-human evil.

That sense of narrative drivers emerging from the past is an interesting way of thinking about how fiction works. The only building blocks of story available to any of us are what we’ve already experienced, whether directly through active living or indirectly through reading, viewing, relayed narrative, etc. Every single story we have began as an edit of those memories; that edit then being filtered through the writer’s imagination, to shift it from having an entirely personal resonance to achieving a more universal impact.

But that’s not all. Kneale’s invasions are very specifically alien invasions, acting on humanity to – to a greater or lesser extent – recast its sense of itself. In each story, Kneale tracks more than a physical invasion. He shows us the intellectual paradigm shift that is forced on humankind when it’s forced to engage not just with the physically alien, but with the intellectually alien. His invasions happen in the head, as much as in the flesh.

That adds an interesting layer to the reading metaphor, because reading too is an encounter with the alien – with someone else’s memories, with their lived experience. As a rule, direct experience of other people’s internal lives is pretty difficult. We can’t know what it’s like to be the other. But reading downloads a version of that internality directly into our own heads. Engaging with a writer’s modified memories remains one of the most effective ways of experiencing another self, being in the world.

Kneale’s concern with the reconfiguring attack of the other helps show how to read is to be invaded by that other, and to be reconfigured by it. An other’s experience of the world is introduced into our self, and – whether forcibly or more subtly – remoulds it in some small way, creating new perspectives or understandings that would have never existed without that other.

The Quatermass movies, ‘The Stone Tapes’, and indeed much of his other work describes directly how experience of the other can be radically, even traumatically, transformative; at a deeper level, it helps point out that – to experience a paradigm shifting alien invasion for ourselves, all we really need to do is go and read a book.

A short post about hauntings

Film, Ghosts, Horror

Late night Bank Holiday Monday, and rather than enjoying the delights of the Notting Hill Carnival the hard working writer of Weird Fiction finds himself enjoying a glass of whisky and the Amicus portmanteau semi-classic ‘Vault of Horror’. Terry Thomas, Tom Baker (in possibly the maddest ginger false beard and wig combo in cinema), Anna Massey, various others in the same film; the opening music an enjoyable melodramatic rip-off of Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’; the whole thing set in Millbank Tower, foreshadowing the horror that was to be New Labour; what’s not to like? Not much, but alas even with the best will in the world it’s well worth watching, but it’s not a classic.

For true portmanteau brilliance, I always go back to ‘Dead of Night’; authentically haunted black and white chills. It’s best known segment is the Michael Redgrave / ventriloquist’s dummy tale, but the story that always spooked me was the ‘Christmas Party’ section. An English country mansion; jolly chaps and chapesses playing hide and seek; a lovely young gel comes upon a mysterious child in a tucked away bedroom; talks to him, returns to the party, realises he’s in fact a ghost; and says, ‘I’m not scared. I’m not scared’, and then sits down, rather too quickly.

Such a subtle moment; horror registered not through gore or mayhem, but rather through the silencing of an otherwise irrepressible county girl, the kind of woman that John Betjeman would have romanced shocked into inactivity through an encounter with something absolutely outside her frame of reference. In a way, it can be read as a brilliant shorthand summary of the whole English ghost story tradition; the safe, dreaming idyll of the country house, the golf course, the bachelor apartment, the coastal path, shattered instantly and absolutely by the intrusion of the other. ‘I’m not scared. I’m not scared.’ – all the response that repression allows, but absolutely a lie in the face of a broken certain world.

‘Ghosts’ lives!

Ghosts, Horror, My fiction, Science Fiction, Short stories, Supernatural

Well, much excitement here at Allumination Central as my short story, ‘Ghosts’ has hit the streets in the latest issue of ‘Midnight Street’ – and it’s the cover story! Which I didn’t know about at all until my copy popped through the postbox, so a lovely surprise.

Anyway… the story’s about the problems of exploring haunted, abandoned weapon satellites on your own, and the cover catches its atmosphere very nicely indeed. And of course there are many other great stories in there – particularly looking forward to sitting down with the Joel Lane, Stephen Gallagher and Andrew Humphrey ones – and an interview with Neil Gaiman. Anyway, enough rambling – check it out (and order a copy for yourself) here.

Oh, and if you came here having read the story, welcome to the blog! Hope you enjoyed the story, and have fun rooting round here…

*plumps the virtual cushions, puts on welcoming music, opens a bottle or two of wine, sets out bowls of dry roast peanuts and Kettle Chips*

Truant heart

Ghosts, Music, Supernatural

Following on from today’s earlier quick post, another quick post, about magnificent Dubstep artist Burial – the anonymous Fisher King of modern bass culture, bleeding out nostalgic futures from the South London suburb of Croydon.

I’ve been grooving to his wonderfully haunted album ‘Untrue’ since just before Christmas, but have reached a new level of admiration for him on reading a fascinating interview with him in Wire. Here it is in full.

What’s so interesting about it? First of all, there’s his mythologising of rave. I grew up while all that was going on, and went to some of the events that Burial dreams about having visited. My nostalgia is grounded in direct experience, and I’ve done very little with it; his is rooted in a dream of what could have been, and he’s used it to make magnificent music.

Secondly, there’s  his very engaged sense of craft, his absolute precision of creative ambition, and his inventiveness in using the tools to hand to create. Burial is very direct about the limitations he works under; that he transcends them so effectively is a very strong reminder that it’s not the tools you have to hand, but rather the inventiveness with which you use them, that really counts.

And finally, there’s his deep respect for M. R. James, rooted in an appreciation of his obsessiveness (‘The techniques hit you between the eyes because they are so fucking focused, obsessed by the same devices’) and in his achievement (at his best, James can ‘burn a memory into you that isn’t yours’).

So – Burial – what’s not to like? Well, not very much… So go! Check him out! I suspect you’ll be blown away…

I was a poltergeist once, you know…

Ghosts, Gigs, Heaviosity, Landscape

Well, it’s mid-August, and my brain is winding down. Holidays are beginning; I’ve got Monday off next week to recover from a Stellas recording session (we’re going from midday Sunday to 4am Monday), Friday to head to the Green Man Festival with H, Raagnagrok and co (where we shall in particular be enjoying Strange Attractor Saturday), and the week after to work on the book.

So no heavy posting today. Instead, as a preparation for Sunday’s recording session, a visual record of one of the more unusual Stella sessions, helping the mighty Disinformation create strange atmospherics in a pitch black abandoned bank vault just round the corner from Old Street.

I spent most of the evening throwing an iron bar around; it clanged and sparked in a very satisfying way when it hit the floor. Various other folk were doing various other things, while audience members wandered round and felt generally spooked. I ended up feeling like a particularly satisfied poltergeist; the closest to becoming a haunting that I’ve ever been.

M. R. James the dramatist

Ghosts, Short stories, Supernatural

And one more thing about M. R. James; he wrote his stories to be read out loud, and they still perform incredibly well. Come Halloween – or indeed any other cold, dark, spooky night – it’s well worth getting a few friends round, sitting down in front of the fire, and reading him to your (terrified) audience.

Quite apart from the spooky fun of it, it’s a fascinating insight into M. R. James the dramatist; his pacing, handling of tone, and character delineation and deployment are masterly.

Oh, and in a final chilling connection – while Provost at Eton, the aging MRJ taught the young Christopher Lee. The cold, bone white baton of spook was passed on to the next generation…

Seeing the world

Fantasy, Ghosts, Novelists, Psychology, Religion, Supernatural

At Arvon last week I was ranting – as you do – about John Burdett’s ‘Bangkok 8’, the only psychedelic transvestite Thai reincarnation police procedural you’ll ever need to read (apart, of course, from its sequel ‘Bangkok Tattoo’).

And, if that whets your appetite for Thai mythology, there’s much else out there – S.P. Somtow’s short stories and in particular his rather lovely coming of age novel ‘Jasmine Nights’ deal very directly with Thailand’s unreal realms, while Graham Joyce’s ‘Smoking Poppy’ is a much more oblique and restrained take on intersections between fantasy and reality. And that’s just for starters…

What’s interesting is how many of the characters in these novels perceive the fantastic. They take visions of past lives, strange ghosts, practising magicians, exotic curses, and so on, completely in their stride. Reading about such things may be a form of escape for us, but for them it’s the everyday world.

Ostensibly, that takes these books into the realms of fantasy, where Frodo is completely unsurprised by Gandalf’s existence and behaviour because he knows that wizards are real. But there are no hobbits in these books. They deal with authentic worldviews, rooted in direct experience, held by entirely non-fictional people who – if you step on a plane – you can go and meet and chat to.

Commonly, fantasy writing is seen as a form of escapism, but this kind of work points to an opposite function. It understands fantasy to include ‘things unexperienced’ as well as ‘things impossible’, reminding us again and again that there are many more ways of interpreting and engaging with this world than the overly reductive, rationalising modes we so easily fall back on.