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.
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.
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.
He showed us strange, alien worlds, and then we’d look around and realise that we already lived in them. It was a bleak privilege to be a part of the culture he was dissecting, and thus receive his writing in the most direct, most living way possible.
There’s much more to be read about him, and his achievement, here at Ballardian, and the full text of a relatively recent Toby Litt interview with him here.
(first of 6 – others can be accessed here – click on ‘More from Adlefred’ at right and they’re all listed there).
Well, I seem to be moving to a weekly publishing schedule, but not this week – because today Allumination is celebrating one of its heroes. Because yesterday was the 250th anniversary of William Blake’s birth, and so today I’m just going to genuflect.
Why? Well, HE’S WILLIAM BLAKE!!!!! Perhaps the greatest graphic artist we – as a nation – have ever produced; certainly our greatest prophetic poet, a man who realised that poetic truth can only ever be a personal creation and so not only tried to write his own books of the Bible, but succeeded; an authentic visionary, who absolutely refused any related bullshit or self-indulgence.
Blake knew that what he saw was both real and nothing special – or at least, nothing that made him more special than any of us. What he saw, we can all see; his famous quote, ‘if the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: infinite’ is animated by a profound faith in our common (if underdeveloped) ability to live quotidian life in a perpetual visionary state.
Avoiding the standard Romantic dodge – ‘I saw, I saw, but it was so overwhelming that I can not describe’ – he not only saw deeper and further than of his contemporaries, but described that seeing with an absolute precision and focus that none have matched. Witnessing the ghost of a flea in the corner of his rooms, his immediate response was to request his pen and sketchbook – ‘reach me my things’ – the entirely practical response of a craftsman of eternity, which he was.
As for the content. The easy response to Blake – sustained for over a century, still current – is ‘well, he’s a bit mad, isn’t he?’ – but that response represents a failure of imagination, a failure to look or read with any sense of real curiosity, engagement or risk. He’s not easy, certainly; but that’s because as a writer and artist he is a changer; the demands he makes on the reader drive change in that reader. In that, he anticipates the more interesting strands of modern poetry, seeking as they do active creative engagement to make them live, and living all the more through those acts of engagement.
And what of the sadness of his life? Astonishing as it may seem in the context of his achievement, so much of his potential was wasted. He wanted to decorate Westminster Abbey, creating an English counterpart to – say – the Sistine Chapel; he spent much of every working day slaving over others’ engravings; his sole exhibition took place in a Soho draper’s shop, and was widely derided; far from being an isolated genius, he was known to all the major artists of his day, and generally not taken remotely seriously. Coleridge was one of the few people to respect him, complimenting ‘The Tyger’ (this lonely piece of praise a measure of STC’s independence and worth as a critic).
He could have been one of our great visionaries; he is one of our great visionaries; a sense of wasted potential is irrelevant in the light of the fire and brilliance of his achievement, of its persistent, roaring, utterly grounded life. Now he walks in eternity; but then again, he always did, so for him nothing has changed. But we can still be changed by him – opened to the infinite – so, to celebrate his birthday, I’d say – get out there and read him, NOW. And if that link don’t grab you, why not start with The Book of Urizen – the complete history of eternity in ix short chapters…