Friday, January 09, 2015

[book] James Young "Nico: Songs They Never Play On The Radio"

This is a memoir of the author's time he playing keyboards in Nico's last touring band, a period in which he also did arrangements for Camera Obscura, her last album. I read it first years ago but recently bought another copy to give as a present to a friend, giving it a quick re-read before doing so. It is a fascinating tale of life at the bottom of the musical ladder, a world away from the tales of fame and fortune you usually get in musicians' memoirs. Nico and the dodgy types hovering around her (including the author, her manager, and most of the people playing in her band) make for fascinating characters. The book is also surprising in its willingness to dish the dirt on living people, with John Cale in particular coming across as a particularly unsavoury individual. Nico herself remains an enigmatic and unknowable figure, her heroin-addiction contributing to a near-total self-absorption.

The book made me listen again to her wonderful records, particularly The End, Desertshore and The Marble Index (Chelsea Girl has its moments but its sunny production marks it out as False Nico). The best tunes marry her infinitely sad voice to a dirge-like harmonium accompaniment, creating sounds of terrible sadness which somehow never sound like indulgent mopiness. Reading the book made me think about her aesthetic and her creativity. So much of her work seems to have been thrown together to put out some product so that she can get some money together to score some smack, yet from that such great music has been made.

I would like to hear again the record that James Young plays on. I had a copy years ago and did not like it so much. I remember finding it a bit 80s, with synthesisers and the like burying the harmonium on too many of the tracks. But reading the book again makes me want to give it another go.

Anyway, I encourage anyone who likes music or fun stuff to have a look for this book. It was going for cheap in Fopp last time I looked. Even if you have no interest in Nico's music I think you would enjoy this vision of the less glamorous side of the music business.

Image sources:

book cover (Goodreads)

Nico at her last concert (from Nico IcoN, 1988 concerts)

Nico performing 'Valley of the Kings' in 1986:

Thursday, January 08, 2015

[film] "Witchfinder General" [1968]

Last September I went to a conference in Belfast on folk horror. The programme notes mentioned this film as being a key item in the folk horror canon, so I watched it on DVD beforehand. The film features Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General. Hopkins is a real historical figure who hunted witches in the chaotic period of the English Civil War. The film presents a lurid version of these events. It is ambiguous (at least initially) as to whether Hopkins is a sincere enemy of witchcraft or self-seeking cynic happily exploiting the superstitions of the gullible to advance himself. I gather Price was a controversial choice for the role but his odd looks and permanently ironic expression work well here. Hopkins is the villain, with Ian Ogilvy playing the protagonist, a Parliamentarian cavalryman who becomes locked in a vendetta with him.

The film was apparently controversial when it first appeared, because the violence it contains is a bit ramped up from the usual Hammer fare. I could imagine the sexual violence being problematic even now (a woman lets herself be debauched by Hopkins in a futile attempt to save her father from him and is later raped by the witch hunter's thuggish assistant). Some of the violence does seem to thrown in for voyeuristic thrills, like the completely ahistorical scene in which one of Hopkins' victims is burned to death (as far as I can make out, witches were always executed by hanging; burning at the stake was the punishment for heretics in Catholic countries and even that brutal method of execution was not used in the ridiculously elaborate manner Hopkins uses).

Yet the violence is not just for seedy thrills, as it can serve to advance the story and show the development (or atavistic regression) of character. The film ends with the cavalryman killing Hopkins (spoilers), but it is not after a brave fight. Instead the cavalryman bursts upon Hopkins and kills him with an axe in a frenzied attack. The film ends with the cavalryman's wife screaming, not because of the torture she was suffering only a few minutes before but at the sight of her husband transformed into a vengeful maniac.

Immediately after watching the film I thought it a piece of enjoyable schlock, with Price's over-the-top performance important here. But I have found that it stays in the mind and has a lingering power. For all its schlockiness and willingness to play fast and loose with history, it is a fascinating view into a world where social norms have broken down and people are happy to kill random strangers in order to advance their goals.

I do not know what the real Matthew Hopkins would have made of the film. Although there were rumours that he was murdered by someone related to his victims (as in the film) or even executed as a witch himself after failing one of his tests, it seems that he died of tuberculosis at the young age of 27. In just two years he seems to have had executed some 300 people, mostly women; some researchers estimate these as being some 60% of all the people ever executed for witchcraft in England.

image source (a piece in the Guardian by Alex von Tunzelmann, assessing the film for historical accuracy)

The film's trailer:

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

[record] Steeleye Span "The Best of Steeleye Span"

I have had this album for ages but only ripped it to iTunes recently; Rob Young's Electric Eden has rekindled my interest in all things related to English folk music. The compilation seems to have been released in 1984 and the songs are from between 1970 and 1980. They feature many of the Span's well-known folk rock tunes, like 'All Around My Hat' and 'Gaudete' (tunes that the author of Electric Eden dismisses as inconsequential tat). 'Gaudete' is an a capella tune sung in Latin, with vocal harmonies and stuff. I think it may involve god bothering. You may recall that Alan Partridge plays it in his car once to show off his sound system. After that it is all a bit more electric, with the voices of Maddy Prior and other band members being set against a rock accompaniment. Many of the tunes have Jacobite themes, which probably reflects the nature of the tradition.

One curiosity is the inclusion of a tune called 'Long Lankin', a variant of the same tune played by Alasdair Roberts on his Too Long in this Condition record. The strange thing is that I have had this Span record for what, 20 years, but have never noticed the gruesome lyrics of child murder and torture on this track, while they leaped out at me from the Roberts rendition (which uses a completely different tune and somewhat different words).

This record still leaves me with a slight sense of disappointment. There are some great tunes on it (all the ones mentioned so far, also 'Alison Gross', 'Thomas the Rhymer' and 'Cam Ye O'Er Frae France') but there does seem to be a fair bit of inconsequential filler on it. And it is clearly not the actual best of Steeleye Span, as another record of theirs I have features some truly great tracks not included here (e.g. 'The Boys of Bedlam' & 'Blackleg Miner'). I suspect record company issues.

image source (page on the record, from Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music

Tuesday, January 06, 2015


In the pages of Frank's APA we are running through the letters of the alphabet.

Hawkwind! As with so many things, I discovered them through my old friend and quaffing partner Mr W—, who would talk a consistently good game about them. When we were in London one summer (back in 1988 or 1989) he made going to a Hawkwind all-dayer sound like an appealing prospect, so I went with him to the Brixton Academy and saw Hawkwind supported by a load of other bands. Of the others I can only really remember Naz Nomad And The Nightmares (or something similar), who were The Damned under a different name playing 60s punk-psych stuff, and some other band who seemed to my untrained ears to be a Jimi Hendrix tribute act (or maybe I just thought that because I am RASCIST, as they had a black guitarist-vocalist).

Hawkwind themselves were amazing, their show a stunning audiovisual spectacle, the big space rock sounds combining with the stunning visual images of Elric, Stonehenge, and some kind of plant with funny leaves to great effect. I was particularly excited when Lemmy came on at the end as a special guest. To this day I do not know whether he is very tall or David Brock is very short, but the size disparity between them was astonishing.

Since then I gradually acquired Hawkwind records, probably now having more by them than by any other artist.Their recorded output is patchy. For every great album there is some shoddy compilation of badly recorded b-sides, for every great live album dozens of rough recordings of off key gigs in venues with appalling sound quality. Indeed, for such a great live band it is amazing how duff most of their live albums are.

On record their golden period ran from the early 1970s to some point in the late 1970s or early 1980s, depending on where you want to draw the line. They are perhaps unusual in that although there is one person who is indisputably the main person in Hawkwind (Dave Brock), there are an army of others who have provided services more stellar than just being the guy who plays bass. Other members of Hawkwind who would be the frontmen of any other band (and in several cases were) include saxophonist Nik Turner (fired by Dave Brock for having his own ideas), Lemmy (early bassist, fired for liking different drøgs to the rest of the band) and poet Robert Calvert. I should also mention Stacia, who enlivened their concerts with her expressive dancing, clad in little more than body paint; she is now a visual artist living somewhere in Ireland.

The big draw with Hawkwind for me was the spaciness, the sense that this was a band related to the world of Science Fiction. One hears how Michael Moorcock used to join them onstage in their early days, writing lyrics for at least one of their tunes. They had other songs referencing works of Moorcock and other SF writers, while some of Calvert's lyrics in particular have very SFnal themes. Occasionally the lyrics have utopian themes, but more usually the atmosphere is paranoid and dystopian. 'Sonic Attack' mimics a Protect and Survive type public information film, telling listeners what to do in the event of a sonic attack. 'Damnation Alley' describes a journey across a USA devastated by nuclear war. 'Spirit of the Age' has an astronaut flying away at relativistic speeds, thinking of the left-behind lover ageing rapidly while he stays the same age. Yet despite the dark future lyrics and Hawkwind's fondness for playing free festivals out in the country, they remain relentlessly technological and urban. To me they are not like hippies suggesting a retreat to some kind of pre-industrial pastoralism.

Like I said, not all Hawkwind records are good, so while they have a vast recorded output they are easy enough to approach for a novice. If you were thinking of dipping your toe in the waters of the Wind (er), try one of the following:

In Search of Space (1971) - featuring the stunning 'Master of the Universe'. The CD reissue also has Hawkwind's hit single 'Silver Machine', an enjoyable piece of fluff.

Doremi Fasol Latido (1972) - opening with the epic Nik Turner composition 'Brainstorm', the CD reissue also features 'Urban Guerilla', an edgy tune in the age of the RAF and Angry Brigade.

Hall of the Mountain Grill (1974) - next of the 1970s run of classic albums, possibly lacking any single track as in your face as the last two but a solid piece of work.

Warriors on the Edge of Time (1975) - more Moorcock inspired craziness. 'Assault and Battery' is a particular favourite of mine. The CD reissue features 'Motorhead' as a bonus track, recorded by Hawkwind before Lemmy took it away with him as the name for his new band.

Quark, Strangeness and Charm (1977) - probably my favourite. The opening track is a SFnal tale of love and loss set to an epic and motorik beat. It is followed by another corker, a song inspired by Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley (and called 'Damnation Alley'). The album also features the endlessly controversial 'Hassan-i Sabbah', linking the mediaeval cult of the Assassins with the Palestinian militants who were stirring things up at the time.

Levitation (1980) - arguably the last great Hawkwind album. Features Ginger Baker on drums, though not so you would notice.

Possibly the best place to start would be with Space Ritual, a live album released in 1973. It captures this great live band at the peak of their powers and features great versions of many of their best songs (including several that never made it onto any of the albums, like 'Orgone Accumulator').

Hawkwind still play live. They are older and more grizzled now and many members of yore have fallen by the wayside. I fear they have completely gone off the boil on record, but their live shows continue to fascinate.

Band photo ("The Making Of… Hawkwind’s Silver Machine", Uncut)

Stacia (

In Search of Space record cover (Wikipedia)

Hall of the Mountain Grill record cover (Wikipedia)

Space Ritual record cover (Progressive Rock Music Ultimate Discography)

There is also a fascinating BBC documentary about the band, currently available to view on YouTube:

Monday, January 05, 2015

Bob Gilmore

I was saddened to hear of the recent death of the musician and musicologist Bob Gilmore. I first became aware of Mr Gilmore in the pages of the Journal of Music (when it still had pages). His columns there could be combative but were always intriguing. I saw him live during the course of the Ergodos: Off Grid festival in 2009. At that he played with his Trio Scordatura, fascinating me with his introduction to the pieces played and coming across in person as considerably more soft-edged than in print. He also co-programmed one of the pieces at the festival, a performance of James Tenney's In a large, open space. I bought the Trio Scordatura's album Dubh shortly after that festival, an album combining strange tunings, electronics and non-standard classical vocals to create a very atmospheric sound. I have regrettably somewhat lost touch with that kind of music since then, but it was still a blow to read of Mr Gilmore's death. I am sure the people who knew him personally will miss him greatly, as will the rest of us who know him through his work.

See also:

Bob Gilmore in the Journal of Music

Bob Gilmore's own website

Trio Scordatura discography

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Dublin Winter Solstice Celebration

Now that the days are getting longer, let me bring you back to a celebration of the winter solstice that was held here in Dublin. This particular celebration began a few years ago, initially as a small and informal event. Now it has expanded and been adopted by the City Council.

Events began in the Riding School Hall of the National Museum in Collins Barracks. Here there was food and drink available, There was some music and also storytelling. The picture above shows people listening to a linking some ancient Irish queen to a deity and the Newgrange burial mound.

Many people were wearing ivy garlands in their hair. You could make these yourself or if, like me, you are not very handy readymades were available.

I always look grumpy in photographs.

The action moved outside, into the courtyard of the Museum.

The Snow Queen arrived. The Sacred Flame was lit.

My beloved was excited by the arrival of Lord Summerisle.

Then we processed from the Museum and along the Quays. I do not know what people trying to drive into the city centre made of it all.

The procession ended up in Smithfield Square. The Christmas Tree there struck a jarring note. The Christmas Tree has now been wholly appropriated by Christianity, yet this Solstice Celebration was an entirely Pagan affair with no room for the Galilean.

There was some more Pagan ceremonial stuff. People burned withies in the fire that had been lit at the Museum. These were paper or wooden things on which they had written wishes for the coming year. Then the flame was held aloft.

And then the crowd began to disperse. The Sacred Flame was guarded as it burned itself out. A new year has begun.

See also:

Some more pictures

Slí an Chroí, Native Celtic Shamanism in Ireland, the organisers of the event.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

[Live] Dabka and Trad: traditional music and dance from Ireland and Palestine

There is often a long lead time between when I experience things and when I finally post about them here. I went to this event back in April, before this summer's Israeli bombardment of Gaza and the simmering autumnal violence in Jerusalem. The evening was organised by the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, bringing together the Palestinian dance form of dabka and Irish traditional music. It took place in Liberty Hall, headquarters of the trade union SIPTU.

Dabka is a dance style popular in Palestine, though it also features in other parts of the Middle East (popular Syrian superstar Omar Souleyman is a dabka singer). There may be a split in the dabka world between people who dance to a more acoustic accompaniment and ones dancing to the kind of programmed high octane beats served up by Omar Souleyman's collaborators; this may however be a difference that means more to westerners than to people of the eastern Mediterranean.

This event was not solely musical and cultural, as it was also about reinforcing support for the cause of Palestinian freedom. This was done through speeches and the like from the stage and exhibitions of photographs outside, as well as the showing of films before the performance proper.

The compere was Robert Ballagh, a well-known Irish visual artist who used to design our banknotes back when we had our own banknotes. He mentioned once attending a peace conference in the USSR as a guest of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Despite his being a well-known figure in this country, I had somehow never heard his speaking voice before. He is very well-spoken and also possessed of a dapper demeanour. If The Chap ever come to Ireland in search of well-dressed men they could do worse than interview Mr Ballagh.

I was quite *tired* when I arrived at the event, but the first act lifted me out of my customary torpor. They were the Kilteel Comhaltas Youth Group, who were basically a small army of young musicians playing céilí band music. People with a more advanced appreciation of Irish traditional music can be a bit sniffy about céilí band music, but I liked its relentless full-on massed attack. I can see how one could get obsessive about this kind of thing.

Frances Black was on next. She is a well known singer in this country, a member of the famous Black family of singers and musicians. Her musical efforts are not really the kind of thing that appeals to me, but I can see why people like her. One thing that was amusing about her performance was that she had her son accompanying her on guitar. He had a great "Oh mum!" air to him whenever she started recounting anecdotes.

Ms Black's set featured that Labi Siffre number 'Something Inside So Strong' (actually '(Something Inside) So Strong'), part of the ongoing campaign to turn the struggle for Palestinian freedom into the 21st century equivalent of the battle against apartheid in South Africa. If this means that there will be an updated version of 'Sun City' then I am all for it.

Cormac Breathnach, Kevin Rowsome and Brian Fleming were on next. They were a pretty straight down the line Irish trad trio. I have the least to say about them but that should not be taken as an indication that their music was uninteresting or unenjoyable.

And then there were Eoin Dillon and Colm Ó Snodaigh from the band Kila. Kila are now a rather long established modern trad group. Despite their fame, I had not hitherto seen them live or even heard their music. They rather confounded my preconceptions, as these two players were nothing like the raucous rapscallions I was expecting. Instead the music seemed to contain some odd harmonics and the suggestion of a modern composition influence, so much so that I must seek out more of their tunes.

Donal Lunny and Paddy Glackin gave us more trad action, with Mr Glackin on fiddle and Mr Lunny on bouzouki and vocal. Mr Lunny is famous from his time in Planxty and various other important outfits. Mr Glackin is not so well known to me but I understand him to be a heavy weight in his own right. They did one song with Irish language lyrics sung from the point of view of a crazed stalker woman who is cursing the wife of some fellow for whom she is has an obsessive love. I was surprised that there is enough Irish lodged in my memory for me to suddenly register that at one point the song was about wanting to break the legs of the man's wife.

There were also non-musical elements to the evening. Robert Ballagh told anecdotes of the time he met Mahmoud Darwish at that Moscow Peace Conference, then a woman, possibly from the Palestinian General Delegation in Dublin, read some poetry of that famous writer. She read it in Arabic, but I find foreign language poetry oddly soothing so I was not complaining.

The dabka dancers themselves were from the Lajee Cultural Centre in Aida refugee camp. They performed to backing tracks of recorded music that was a good bit more restrained than the high speed mentalism of Omar Souleyman. As they came onstage the thing that immediately struck me was that the dancers were both male and female; given how gender-segregated the Middle East is, this was something of a surprise. I thought perhaps they might be from a predominantly Christian area where separating the sexes might conceivably be less common. Research however reveals that that the troupe is run on an inclusive basis that does not discriminate on the basis of gender or creed. That sounds to me like it might be a relic of the progressive-nationalist-leftist era of yore, even if the centre was only founded in 2000; or maybe it is a harbinger of a bright new future.

The dabka performers gave us two sets, dancing in formation with a lot of foot stamping by the men. The dancing was folkish rather than like anything akin to ballet or modern abstract dance forms. It is the kind of thing you could imagine people spontaneously doing at social gatherings. You could realistically aspire to learning the steps and having a not completely embarrassing crack at this yourself, in a way that would be inconceivable for something like ballet or Butoh. The dancers seemed to boast a range of body shapes, though the flowing outfits worn were less figure hugging than those of western dance. The men's outfits were somewhat reminiscent of the cossack outfits you see in films; the influence here could go in either direction.

Some of the dance pieces seemed relatively apolitical, but others had an overt political charge. One the dramatisation of an unfortunate incident wherein a youth was shot dead by Israeli soldiers while playing football, his funeral then transformed into a piece of political theatre. The grand finale saw a lot of Irish and Palestinian flags being waved on stage. My consciousness was raised.

Here is a YouTube video of the troupe performing on Grafton Street:

More images (Lajee tour/Dublin, a set on Flickr by Fatin Al Tamimi

See also: Lajee Center

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Everyone has a good side, including Mike Read

DJ Mike Read has been in the news recently in connection with his support for the anti-EU and anti-immigrant party UKIP. Mr Read had recorded a pro-UKIP novelty pop single in which he sang a calypso style song in a faux West Indian accent. Among other things, the lyrics complain about the numbers of foreign people who have come to the UK. The combination of subject matter and Mr Read's accent led many to dub the song racist.

Mike Read is no stranger to controversy. Older readers will recall that he instigated BBC Radio 1's banning of Frankie Goes To Hollywood's 'Relax' back in the early 1980s.

Nearly all people have good and bad sides. Earlier this year, Ms Sarah Prior saw Mike Read's good side in action. She was out walking her six month old puppy Digby in Henley when the naughty dog decided to chase some ducks into the river Thames. Ms Prior called out in dismay as she saw Digby being washed away by the surging waters, with the dog showing no natural aptitude for swimming.

Fortunately for Digby, Mike Read happened to be passing. He immediately leaped into the water and rescued the bold puppy, earning Ms Prior's gratitude. Digby was none the worse for wear but his opinions on the incident have not been recorded.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

[folk horror] "A Fiend in the Furrows". A conference in Belfast. Part 2

I am recounting my experiences at one day of this conference on folk horror held in Queen's University Belfast. You can read part one here.

After that dramatic interlude we were back into the papers for a session devoted to music. Clare Button's paper "See Not Ye that Bonny Road?": Places, Haunts and Haunted Places in British Traditional Song dealt with varying conceptions of place in British folk music, whether specific places (songs about events happening in a particular location) to a more general sense of landscape and the countryside etc.. That transition occurs in tandem with the British folk revival and folk music becoming more curated and less folkish.

Button talked also about the second folk revival (roughly situated in the 1960s). This was even less rooted in the original folk tradition but more overtly political. She suggested that The Wicker Man and popular TV series The Good Life are both contrasting products of it.

I took away from Button's talk a feeling that I really should get round to reading the copy of Rob Young's Electric Eden that has been lying around Panda Mansion for some time now. Of records she mentioned, the recent Visionary Seascapes album by Jen Finer and Andrew Kötting also sounded like it would be worth investigating, as would records by Sproatly Smith. The consideration of place in music also put me in mind of the brilliant Hirta Songs by Alasdair Roberts and Robin Robertson (this being a record about the people who lived on Hirta from neolithic times to the 1920s).

The other music paper was The Minstrel’s Grave: Hauntology and the Folkmusic Traditions of the British and Irish Isles and it was presented by Eamon Byers, one of the conference's organisers. Beginning with a discussion of the history of the recording of folk music, Byers moved on to talk about the so-called hauntological music of artists on Ghost Box, in particular Belbury Poly. The work of these people has a particular type of retro modernist focus, attempting to evoke Britain from roughly from 1950 to 1979 (i.e. from the dawn and to the end of the post-war consensus).

Ghost Box artists seem in one way very removed from anything to do with folk music, given their retro-futurist approach and heavy reliance on computer technology to make their music. However is a kind of shared impulse in play given their curatorial approach to the past. And there are more direct crossovers, with Byers drawing attention to Belbury Poly's sampling of very early folk music recordings from 1908. As used by Belbury Poly, Joseph Taylor's treated voice now sounds like one of those spectral recordings featured on the celebrated flexi disc given away with The Unexplained.

I was reminded here of Broadcast's Trish Keenan. Her voice has continued to appear on new records despite her untimely death. I was also curious as to why Byers' discussion of Ghost Box focussed solely on Belbury Poly, with no mention of The Focus Group, the label's other main act.

The next session saw two creative types talking about their own attempts to create work drawing on folk horror ideas. Christine Stanton talked about her novel in progress, set in the 17th century about a bloke from what is now Indonesia, who is abducted and taken to England to be included as a live specimen in some rich guy's collection of curiosities (this kind of did apparently happen). The first part of the story is told from the point of view of the Indonesian (to use a term that would have had no meaning in the 17th century), who does not understand what is happening to him and thinks he has been abducted by demons. Later there is a switch when he first encounters the villagers living near the rich guy's mansion, who in turn mistake him for a demon.

Stanton talked about horror fiction as we know it only emerging with the Enlightenment, possibly as a reaction to the loss or marginalisation of a superstitious world view. As someone who has dabbled in the fictional arts, I was interested by her discussion of how to write from a 17th century point of view but in a way that is understandable by a modern reader.

The second person in this session was one Chris Lambert, who presented the results of his own investigations into the Black Meadow, a mysterious site of unexplained phenomena in the Yorkshire moors. Eventually he cracked and revealed what we were increasingly suspecting: that the Black Meadow is a fiction. He was nevertheless trying to accentuate the sense of horror by being completely straight-faced about it all, with much of the Black Meadow stuff being presented as faux documentary and referencing real things to make people wonder if maybe, just maybe it might all be true (an old trick; I remember being intrigued at the discovery that some of the books mentioned in H.P. Lovecraft were not merely real but available in the library of my university).

This whole Black Meadow business has spawned a whole multi-disciplinary attack, with books being joined by film clips and also music (of, naturally, the hauntological variety). I think this might repay closer attention, if only to see whether any of it as good as Lambert's poem 'Beyond the Moor'. This tells the story of a woman accosted by a rogue who threatens to rob, rape, and/or murder her. She replies to each threat that she is unconcerned, because she has been "beyond the moor".

That was it for the papers. After a great wine reception (thanks Folklore Society!) we had a performance piece called by Nick Freeman and Dan Watt called If You Go Down in the Mythago Woods Today: A Sinister Excursion. This featured the two blokes lost in the woods, fearful of encountering every possible folk horror menace imaginable. It was chortlesome. I particularly liked the gastropub joke. The suggestion that the Teddy Bears Picnic is an event of existential horror, something fearful as much as it would be wonderful, rang true with my memories of being a small child.

After Mythago Woods we had a concert by Sharron Kraus and Clare Button. Kraus sang and played guitar while Button provided additional vocals. They treated us to some of the songs from Kraus's forthcoming album inspired by the Mabinogion, that cycle of Welsh myths and heroic tales that include some early versions of the Arthurian stories. Kraus's songs are not narrative so much as describing situations or presenting character studies. I particularly like the one about the Mabinogion character who is just a bad ass who likes causing trouble and provoking discord. There was also one about someone meeting the enchantress Rhiannon, which sadly or otherwise in no way referenced Stevie Nicks.

And that pretty much was that. After Kraus and Button finished, my beloved and I made our way back into the centre of Belfast to grab some food before taking the bus back down south.

One overall impression I had of the conference was that its focus was very English. That is not really a criticism, as England is the centre of gravity of These Islands, but as the event was billed as being about folk horror in British and Irish fiction and music, more non-English stuff might have been expected. In fairness, though, my sense of an English bias may have been a false one derived from only attending one day, as the Friday and Sunday programmes featured a number of items looking at Irish subjects or authors (including a paper on Kevin Barry's brilliant novel The City of Bohane). It may also be that folk horror is a product of the alienations from the countryside that comes with industrialisation and urbanisation, so England is a more natural focus for this than elsewhere.

Still, while walking back from Queen's to the centre of Belfast I passed by a residential street adorned with Union Jacks, the emblem serving as a reminder that people like me were not particularly welcome there. It did make me think about the possibilities of an urban folk horror, given how there are many aspects of urban societies or subsections of them that are strange, mysterious and threatening to outsiders. The Fiend in the Furrows event took place in the film theatre of Queen's, which seems to double up as Belfast's art house cinema. They had a poster up for a forthcoming film about a British squaddie lost in West Belfast in 1971, and I wondered if perhaps that might be a film that future folk horror conferences would find themselves discussing.

See also:

Fiend in the Furrows website

Tales from the Black Meadow image source (Bandcamp)

Songs from the Black Meadow image source (Mixcloud)

Tales from the Black Meadow

Sharron Kraus

Scarfolk Council

Ghost Box

Hirta Songs


Sunday, October 12, 2014

[folk horror] "A Fiend in the Furrows". A conference in Belfast

This was a conference held in Queen's University Belfast. What first attracted me to this was the poster, with its stylised image from The Wicker Man. The event was billed as "presenting perspectives on 'Folk Horror' in literature, film and music" and promised papers on various kinds of weird fiction and films like The Wicker Man and A Field in England, together with musical and theatrical performance. By folk horror they seem to mean horror fiction or films that draw on disconcerting folk practices. Anything with strange "old ways" would probably fall under this banner.

I only found about the event just before it was about to go ahead. Unable to find affordable accommodation in time, I could only attend one of the three days, taking the bus to and from Dublin. This involved getting up very early and listening to the bus driver's choice of dreadful music radio until we crossed the border and the more appealing sounds of BBC Radio 2 came on. For your delectation I will now briefly outline my impressions of the programme items I attended.

The day began with a plenary address by Stuart McWilliams on Aleister Crowley. He was introduced by another fellow whose name I unfortunately did not catch, who ran through the biographical details of Crowley's life. As you know, Aleister Crowley was a famous practitioner of ritual magic and achieved such notoriety that the tabloid press at one point dubbed him "the wickedest man alive"; he seems to have referred to himself as The Great Beast, among other things. He also appears to have signed his name so that the first A looks like a giant penis.

McWilliams himself adopted a somewhat droll approach, initially talking about the hagiographical bollocks put out by some of Crowley's biographers: that he anticipated Einstein's theory of relativity, that his political and economic ideas could transform the world into a utopia, and so on. He then went on to talk about Crowley's portrayal in fiction, which began even in his lifetime with Somerset Maugham's The Magician, whose villain is clearly modelled on Crowley, whom Maugham had met in Paris. McWilliams delighted us with some scenes from a 1920s silent film adaptation of The Magician, which featured a bacchanalian orgy where, somewhat unusually, everyone present seemed to be having the most terrible fun.

McWilliams' most fascinating point was that people should pay more attention to how conservative Crowley was. He seems to have been defiantly anti-modernist in his cultural tastes. Despite, or perhaps because of, his relatively humble background he adopted all kinds of faux noble titles and acquired a stately home in which to live the life of an aristocrat. He delighted in the company of people from old money backgrounds (especially impressionable young ladies). His professed political beliefs were a bit slippery, but he was happy enough to write a letter to Henry Ford congratulating him on the crushing of labour unions, affirming that union busting was in accord with his own esoteric principles.

This was followed by a panel pairing Edmund Cueva and Darren Oldridge. Cueva delivered a paper entitled The Wicker Man: Nothing to Do with Dionysus? The title played on an Athenian saying about the theatre and the paper itself drew a line of continuity from The Bacchae by Eurpides and popular film The Wicker Man. The Bacchae is the one about the cult of Dionysus arriving in Thebes; King Pentheus tries to resist the cult and suffers a terrible fate. You can do a great compare and contrast job on the play and film, with Howie and Pentheus mapping onto each other (both representing state authority and inflexibility), though the difference is that Howie is an outsider while in The Bacchae it is the new cult's priest (eventually revealed as the God Dionysus himself (spoilers)) who is the outsider.

One thing I always love hearing about is how the ancient Athenians related to theatre, which at the time was a very new thing. Herodotus recounts a story of a play about a Greek defeat by the Persians that so upset the audience that the entire city was given over to grief for days after the play's staging (Herodotus did not see this himself). Cueva mentions another such story. Apparently at the first staging of The Furies by Aeschylus, when the actors playing the demonic Furies first appeared on stage, audience members were so convinced by the costumes that they thought real demons had landed and so fled the theatre in terror.

In his paper Filming Magic: The Problem of Belief from Witch finder General to A Field in England, Oldridge talked about the problems we have engaging with folk magic beliefs in fictions when we no longer believe in such things ourselves. He cites the Witchfinder General film, in which the eponymous witchfinder is portrayed as a smarmy hypocrite where it might have been more disturbing to paint him as the sincere opponent of evil the historical character he is based on seems to have been. Likewise, for all its engagement with the strange to us beliefs of the 17th century, A Field In England somewhat cops out by introducing magic mushrooms as a partial explanation for the supernatural elements. In contrast, The Wicker Man presents the islanders as true devotees of their strange religion, not as sadistic maniacs or hypocrites.

We then broke for lunch, which was buffet style and included in the admission price. Jurassic Park! After some slight confusion over which items contained the flesh of dead animals I ate my fill, particularly enjoying the vol-au-vents. These edible treats were followed by a theatrical one, the Wireless Mystery Theatre's adaptation of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's Green Tea, which marked this year being the 200th anniversary of Le Fanu's birth.

Green Tea is an odd beast (like the demonic creature revealed as its villain), alternating between psychological horror (the growing sense of the terror stalking the vicar at its centre, coupled with an ambiguity as to whether the whole business is the product of mental illness) and bumptious comedy (coming from the self-important and largely ineffectual Dr Hesselius, who narrates that story as a case history). I myself have always thought that the vicar's dread contrasts with the somewhat comedic nature of the monster that is tormenting him (as in I could imagine a demonic monkey being more of an entertainment than a torment). Like so much horror, the vicar's doom is the result of a seemingly trivial choice, in his case a fondness for excessive consumption of green tea.

This production was very enjoyable. Even though it was presented as a radio play, it still managed to have a dramatic quality, thanks to the quality of the actors' performance. The live musical accompaniment was also highly effective.

You can read the full horror of the afternoon programme of this terrifying event here

In the meantime:

Fiend in the Furrows website

Richard Wells (he designed the poster)

Aleister Crowley - the Great Beast (Crowley signature image source; French)

A Field in England