My heart is full of the pain of disco

Essayists, Gnosis, Groove, Modernity, Multimedia, Travel writers

It’s the way of great writing to bend the world to its own shape. And so, having spent yesterday lunchtime sketching out thoughts for a review of Erik Davis‘Nomad Codes’, I found myself last night at the Tallow Chandlers’ Hall, watching a combined Bollywood lecture / series of clips / song and dance extravaganza. I can’t think of anything that could have more convincingly brought some of his key themes to life.

First of all, a little background. ‘Nomad Codes’ collects essays and articles written over the last twenty years or so. And the Tallow Chandlers is one of the oldest social networks around. It’s one of the Livery Guilds of the City of London, originally formed to regulate the city’s tallow candle trade.

Founded in about 1300, it received its grant of arms in 1456. The hall we were sat in last night was built in 1672, after the original building was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. Alas, tallow chandlery is no longer the profitable business it once was; the Tallow Chandlers are now mostly a charitable and social organisation, though some trade links remain.

The Tallow Chandlers Guild is a deep, ancient structure that remains vividly present and dynamic in modernity; an effective metaphor for much of the religious thinking that Davis excavates in ‘Nomad Codes’. His easy, confident familiarity with Gnosticism, Manicheism, Tibetan and Mahayana Buddhism, and many other more or less occult religious traditions rings through the book, bringing each to life in a way that both respects their deep roots and acknowledges their modern relevance and (in many cases) vitality.

But that sense of separate religious structures isn’t what’s at the heart of the book. Davis is animated not by separate histories, but by colliding narratives. In one of the book’s central perceptions, he confronts our current problem of multiplicity and steps beyond it, defining a ‘networked spirituality’ as an emergent property of the multicultural barrage that is modernity. He describes how:

‘the mix-and-match spirituality derided by traditionalists is only the surface of a far more supple and dynamic synthesis in the making, one that demands a form of being we have only begun to intuit: open-ended and integral, embodied and viridian-green. This path is a matrix of paths, with no map provided at the onset, and no collective goal beyond the tenacity and grace of our step.’
(from ‘Meditating in Sensurround’, Nomad Codes p.187)

The solution to multiplicity is a kind of dynamic synthesis; the following of an interstitial path that acknowledges and respects all spiritual achievement, without finding itself locked into single mode of engagement with the eternal. Eternity, after all, is infinite; it seems entirely reasonable to look for it by stepping beyond the finite.

That sense of dynamic synthesis struck me forcefully as I listened to last night’s music, and watched last night’s dance. Each was a series of collisions that again and again locked themselves into ferocious, miraculous grooves.

Synthesisers, electric bass and electric guitars throbbed over sitars and tablas; Western and Eastern musics combined, with no critical judgement of either being made beyond one immensely practical question. ‘Will this work?’ you could hear musicians asking, again and again – and then, joyously, again and again the music roared back ‘YES!’.

The night’s three dancers had a similar, resplendent spontaneity to them. Chatting with two of them, Ash Mukherjee and Showmi Das, at the end of the evening (the third, Khavita Kaur Rendhawa, had alas left) I discovered that they’d only met for the first time that afternoon, and had improvised much of the evening’s dance in response to the unusually long, narrow space they had to work in.

That sense of surprise explained the immense exploratory freshness that animated their performances. It’s also at the heart of the spirituality that Davis advocates in his book. I know it works, because I saw it danced last night, and I’ve lived it myself, improvising music out of terrified on-stage ecstasies with the Stella Maris Drone Orchestra. It’s alive in ‘Nomad Codes’, too, leaping joyfully out of each new essay, each new perception.

Then, there’s Davis’ sense of technology. That’s fundamental to his understanding of religion; in fact, ‘Techgnosis’, his first book, dealt at length with the collision between the two. I’m not sure if he’d agree that the medium is the message; but he’s certainly very aware that the medium contains the message, and thus plays a fundamental role in defining both what’s transported, and how it transports.

And one final point worth noting; Davis’ awareness of the way that (as he quotes Philip K. Dick) ‘the symbols of the divine show up in the trash stratum’. Davis brings this out in his discussions of Dick, H. P. Lovecraft, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and other driven pulp visionaries. It’s a great description of Bollywood action, too; melodramatic pulp madness that contains and creates great, deep and very genuine emotion, wonder and awe.

So, in summary – I’m going to spend the next few months exploring Bollywood movies. Last night’s talk was given by Rachel Dwyer – her ‘100 Bollywood Films’ should be an invaluable guide. I’m going to try and see some Indian dance on-stage. And it goes without saying that I’d strongly recommend picking up a copy of ‘Nomad Codes’ – a rich, fascinating and hugely rewarding read.

Graan summon Herne

Gigs, Gnosis, Heaviosity, Music

A very enjoyable Graan gig in Herne Hill on Friday the 27th, as we used a London A to Z and the power of metal to summon Herne, so that he could grant the assembled audience the Freedom of his City. The heavy ritual went off very well indeed; many thanks in particular to Heather Lindsley (aka @random_jane), who filmed the whole thing for us, providing visual proof of the Hernetic manifestation. Oh, and she took some pics too – available here. Enjoy!

Carry On’s lavatorial masterpiece

Comedy, Escapism, Film, Gnosis, Visionary

Well, it’s been a quiet August on the blogging front, partially because work’s been very hectic (in particular, some fascinating drug legalisation crusading – more details here), partially because my tech time has gone on other projects (which should lead to major changes to the blog this autumn – watch this space, as they say), and partially because I just felt like a bit of a break.

But now, I’m back. And I’m back because of late Carry On masterpiece, ‘Carry On At Your Convenience’, one of the last films the team made before they descended into the horrors of dubious sex comedies like ‘Carry on Emmanuelle’.

On the surface, it’s not an immediate contender for masterpiece status. It’s set in a toilet factory; it’s a profoundly partial anti-union rant; and, climaxing as it does with the humiliation, and then spanking, of Vic, the lead trade unionist by his fearsome mother, it’s in part a kind of right wing media spell for invoking the coming reign of the arch-matron, Margaret Thatcher. Here she is in action:

But there’s much in it that’s just magnificent. For starters, there’s the relationship between Sid James and Hattie Jacques. It’s a precise portrait of a certain kind of suburban tedium; a ‘happy’ marriage that’s at once a source of routine comfort and quiet desperation. Played a little differently, it would fit easily into any one of the period’s ostensibly more serious and socially realistic classics. Here’s their first scene together:

Then, there’s the relationship that offsets that, between Sid and Joan Sims. Often cast as the shrew, Sims shines here in a far more positive way. Her cheerful, bawdy wit and gleefully sexual presence effortlessly deflate pomposity throughout the film. But there’s a deep emotional core to her performance. She and Sid spend most of the film in very public comic flirting; but, once they’re alone, the tone changes.

They’re next door neighbours; and, after the works outing to Brighton, they’re dropped off together, late at night, outside their respective front doors. Divided by a garden fence, they debate whether or not to share a cup of tea before bed. Deciding in the end that the neighbours would talk, they sadly separate, and the scene ends. Alas, I can’t find any clips of it online.

There’s a depth to this moment that’s unique in Carry On; played entirely straight, it’s a direct and very touching presentation of the reality behind the endlessly flirtatious, endlessly unconsummated relationships that drive the humour of so much of the films.

And it’s a nod to a reality the audience would know very well, too. In fact, few – if any – contemporary films managed to present the complex reality of long term relationships, caught on the cusp of major social change, in such a concise and affecting way.

But, being a Carry On movie, ‘Carry On At Your Convenience’ of course has hilarity at its core. Throughout, hilarity deflates pomposity, acting as a wonderful and powerful leveller. Nowhere is that more evident – and developed in a more interesting way – than in the works trip to Brighton itself.

About three quarters of the way through the movie, all the characters take off for Brighton – the management included, despite the ongoing strike that’s threatening to close (you’ve guessed it) Boggs & co. – and enjoy a riotously wonderful (and in some cases life changing) day together.

In plot terms, the whole jaunt is completely unjustifiable. Management and workers are at each others’ throats; and yet factory owner Kenneth Williams treats his staff to round after round of drinks, and all sing and play merrily together. But then, part of the point of the sequence is that joy trumps all disagreements, all hierarchies.

That sense of joyous misrule also upends various character relationships. Bernard Bresslaw’s character meets the stunning love of his life; the factory owner’s son ends up winning and marrying his true love; and even Kenneth Williams might have consummated his relationship with his love-lorn secretary, after an educational encounter with some cockles:

That’s a joyous little gag – and joy, the film tells us, is at the heart of true love, whether that love is consummated or unconsummated. For all its conservatism – and for all the tragedies that dogged these films – that’s a wonderfully heartening response to, and way of understanding, the bawdiness that drove and was celebrated by the Carry On films.

Beating the Little Hater

Fiction, Gnosis, Hip hop, Videos, Writing

Well, I had to post this from Jay Smooth at illdoctrine because it resonates with a lot of what I’ve been thinking about and feeling lately. I’ve had a bit of a creative hiatus; but now, I’m throwing myself back into the novel and – having watched this – doing so with even more energy. Enjoy!

And how do I beat the Little Hater? Work hard and consistently at whatever I’m writing, think about it as lots of little problems to solve rather than one big one, and whenever it comes to a ‘what to do next?’ question try to be guided by a combination of obsession and a sense of fun.

Oh, and I think of my Little Hater as my Inner Critic – because there are times, when I’ve written something and need to take it apart, spot all the flaws, and then smooth them right out, that I let him loose, because all that criticism he generates can come in very handy indeed.

Alas Davey Graham

Albums, Gnosis, Groove, Music

Sad news today, as I see in The Guardian that Davey Graham has died. He was a (in very broad terms) a folk musician, drawing on everything from Bach to Indian ragas in the 60s to create something devastatingly new. No space here to do him justice – check out the obituary in The Guardian, but before you do that here he is in the late 60s piece ‘Cain’s Film’, about Alex Trocchi:

And here again in a noir-ish feature film, as Edward Fox does moody:

Here he is playing ‘Cry Me a River’ in the clip that first introduced him to the public:

And here he is being genuflected to on ‘Folk Britannia’:

tho’ to be honest, I wish on that last one they’d just shut up and let him play.


Electric Exorcist Miles

Gigs, Gnosis, Groove, Heaviosity, Music

It’s a little known fact that ‘Dark Magus’, Miles Davis’ 1977 live album recording a 1974 concert in New York, made it into Q Magazine’s 2001 list of the heaviest albums of all time. It’s a ferocious funk metal attack, with Miles soloing dementedly over the top, that more than holds its own against heaviosity from luminaries including The MC5, Swans, Black Sabbath and Metallica. And it’s only one of the highlights of his extraordinary ‘Electric Miles’ phase in the 70s, where – as Julian Cope put it – he worked his way to an ‘epitome of music shamanism’ by creating a series of astonishing double albums that rock harder than a flotilla of out of control battleships crewed by demented Zen masters on speed.

They’re also a great way of flushing out last night’s cobblers; but alas, I can’t put them up here. Rather – go explore! Here’s Cope’s full article on Electric Miles. And then, go buy! Dark Magus, Get Up With It, Agartha, Pangaea, Live Evil, On the Corner – all deep, dark, heavy and magnificent. What I can post is this, from YouTube – a rather murkily mixed 16 minutes or so of the Dark Magus band at its peak. Enjoy!

Relating to Gandalf

Fantasy, Gnosis, Modernity, Religion

Well, it’s interesting times at Allumination Central, as at the moment I’m a full time writer. That – combined with Gary Lachman’s fascinating delve into 60s occult culture, ‘Turn Off Your Mind’, and related ponderings about Gandalf – has set me pondering self determination, external determination, and the relationship between the two.

It’s the self determination that’s difficult; fresh out of three years of pretty much full time employment, I’m finding it an interesting challenge to move back to a situation where – even for a short period – my time is entirely under my control, and my goals are entirely my own to define. And that’s a fascinating difficulty to feel.

It’s making me realise just how much responsibility for the direction of our lives we hand over to other people, and just how much personal goals can be externally imposed. 9 to 5, 8 to 6, or its equivalent is a lot of time; more than half of the most alive parts of our waking lives. Round about 60-70% of them, in fact, if you do the maths.

What’s interesting is not whether that’s a good or a bad thing – rather, I’m intrigued by what it says about us as a species, or at least about one of the basic norms of modern culture. We seem to have a deep need for hierarchy; a deep need to be part of an external structure that both shapes our lives and helps give them meaning; in terms of last week’s post, a structure that creates a quest or set of quests for us to both fulfil and use as a lens to look at the rest of the world.

I’m not sure what that’s a function of. Is it something biological? As social animals, do we need to be a part of a social hierarchy to be fulfilled? Is it something social? Given that it relies on group activity to hold it together, has modern technological society created a value set that demands our participation in ‘work’ to demonstrate our value to society, and therefore create a sense of worth in ourselves? Or is there something very basic here? Does the self need an external theatre space to define itself, a theatre that is usefully created by work?

I have to admit that – although I have my own theories – I have no sense of what the final answer is. What’s interesting is the kind of behaviour that that need for structure leads to – a behaviour that came very much to life during the 60s, as – as Lachman records – transparently nutty cults flourished on an impressively substantial, frequently bonkers and quite often surprisingly malign scale.

Seeking to escape the constrictions of straight society – in part, no doubt, of ‘work’ – and develop a truer version of the self, seekers after truth fled one set of structures to – it seems – leap headlong into other, often far more repressive and destructive ones. Crowleyan magicians, acid gurus, Satanists, new age masters and others found loyal sets of followers who thralled themselves to their spiritual leaders and – in the name of freedom and self realisation – rigorously and thoroughly did whatever they were told, for as long as they were told to.

Freedom is a scary thing; joining a cult is one response to it. Perhaps the rise of quest fantasy as a clearly defined genre in the 60s (sparked by the ascendancy of Tolkien) is another. Seen through the guru lens, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ gives readers in Gandalf a demonstrably wise, powerful and right leader, one who sets his followers a quest of very clear worth that produces both epic, psychedelic, world changing adventure and a final return to a re-secured, and for the most part very conservative, home. The innumerable Gandalf themed head shops, restaurants, etc, that sprang up back then point to both his ascendancy as a cultural figure and the attractiveness of the trip that he offered.

But – as previous posts have pointed out – there’s a problem with accepting a guru’s quest donation; you have to accept their worldview, too, and reject anything that challenges it – like, for example, your own personal experience of the world. So the problem still remains; how to reach a personal relationship with the world, one that acknowledges the needs of the self as much as the needs of the structures of which the self is a part?

Blind guru following doesn’t seem to be a particularly good solution; moving in the opposite direction, rejection of the world entire is (I suspect, never having done it) not very helpful either. No man is an island; pure solipsism leads to idiolect, the creation of a personal myth that exists without any relationship with or relevance to the structures of the wider world at all. Perhaps that’s the kind of solipsism that created all those flawed 60s gurus, people busy using their followers to shore up their own sense of self in the face of a determined assault on their worldviews from the realities each one rejected.

The real challenge seems to be to mediate between the internal and the external, acknowledging both the needs of the self and the needs of the immediate structures of the world. Perhaps becoming a person is neither about following nor leading, but rather is best understand as a constant negotiation between the two, allowing the two to co-exist productively. Neither seeking to be Gandalf, nor to be led by Gandalf? If I was aspiring to guru-hood, that would perhaps – at least provisionally – be my message. I suspect it wouldn’t get me too many gold plated Rolls Royces, which is on some levels a shame, but on the plus side it wouldn’t screw too many people up either, which can only be a good thing.

Gnosis, meatware, cinema and the Cathars

Film, Gnosis, Novelists

Well, I’m off to a conference today and tomorrow about branding nations – should be fascinating, might well post about it – so an early morning post, written on Sunday. It’s today for me, yesterday for you, so one or other of us is travelling in time. Whoah…

Anyone, I was pottering round the flat wondering what to talk about, when I noticed my copy of Theodore Roszak’s ‘Flicker’. Now that’s quite a book; it’s actually more interesting than Marrakesh, which I found out when I went to Marrakesh and couldn’t stop reading it. So what’s so great about it?

Well, it’s the only Gnostic conspiracy thriller that conclusively demonstrates that cinema was invented by the Cathars in the Fourteenth Century while also rewriting the modern history of cult movie making that you’ll ever need to read. Put simply, it rocks like a bastard, and everyone should have a copy. Go buy now!

OK, now you’ve been to Amazon, or your alternate book seller of choice, let’s ponder why it’s so engaging. It’s not just the taut, gripping writing or the fascinating conspiracy that’s unveiled – it’s the book’s roots in Gnostic thinking, which reflects back in so many interesting ways on how we live in the world now.

Gnosticism was an early variant of Christianity, suppressed (I think) in the 5th Century BC or thereabouts. The Gnostics radically recast Christian cosmology, understanding this universe to be the flawed creation of the Demiurge, a kind of fallen sub-god who mistook his own partial divinity for absolute god-ness. His mistake trapped the sparks of light that were our eternal selves in the flesh.

Hence, this flawed world – essentially, it’s the physical expression of an almost-almighty egomaniac’s wildly self-indulgent power trip. Our basic mission in life is to transcend the meat he’s trapped us in and return to eternity, leaving his flawed creation behind us. Of course, that’s an incredibly reductive and simplistic take on Gnosticism – but as a working definition, it’ll do.

What’s interesting is the extent to which Western popular culture is now built on an implicitly Gnostic worldview. The flawed material world / ideal conceptual world duality exists everywhere. It’s most evident online; as Erik Davis points out in ‘Techgnosis’, virtuality’s desire to escape meatspace is a directly Gnostic attitude.

But it’s also evident in our broader culture. My conference tomorrow is one part of it. Brands exist within an idealised world, one that points up our daily imperfections and promises escape from them. They’re simultaneously unreal, and more real, than anything that’s physically present around us; platonic ideals that we aspire to reach but never quite can.

That sense of an unreachable, perfect world that – if only we were good enough – we could reach pervades our world. It’s present everywhere, from our shared hunger for celebrity lifestyles to our destructive political preferences for a dream of the Middle East.

Though looking back over that, I can’t help thinking that I’m being unfair to the Gnostics. Back in the day, they felt that achievement of the Pleroma was an escape from illusion, not an escape into it – the reverse of the examples I’ve given above. So perhaps our real problem is not our desire to transcend but rather our inability to do so, as we remain as tangled as ever in the great false nets that the Demiurge – that most lethal of failed gods – has thrown out to perpetually hold us back.

Made from clay

Gnosis, Television

And also, courtesy of Jeff Vandermeer’s blog, some heavy dark weirdness, as the Demiurge enters children’s TV through the Claymation window. Apparently – and unsurprisingly – this was banned for being too disturbing…

<EDIT> It’s from a film called ‘The Adventures of Mark Twain’, which according to IMDB is marvellous… another scene apparently features Twain playing the organ at his own funeral! I shall be looking out for it.