Thursday, March 26, 2015

Hunters Moon: from beyond the grave

The last few posts have turned into something of a Hunters Moon special. Although the Hunters Moon festival ostensibly shuffled off into that great Altamont Speedway in the sky two years ago, the Hunters Moon name still shows up now and then as a promoter of concert of events. Because I broadly approve of the Hunters Moon people I will basically go to anything they put on unless I am dying of bubonic plague or they are hosting an event in an inconvenient location. So it was that I found myself heading to a place called the Steambox Gallery with two of my associates.

Actually, as locations go the Steambox is pretty inconvenient. It is not too far from where I live but is in that part of town that has "Here Be Monsters" written on it in my mental map, by which I mean it is off Meath Street in the Liberties, a heart of the rowl Dublin location that soft types like me never go to and think of as being a bit terrifying. Walking there with my associates somewhat calmed my sense of terror, as they are both tough characters and I knew that in their company I would be safe from all but the roughest of Dublin gurriers. Also it turns out that one of my associates (let us call him Mr A) actually lives very near the venue, meaning that he is local to that part of town and someone likely to be treated with great respect. Even so it was with some trepidation that I walked through streets whose pavements have never before been touched by my feet.

The Steambox Gallery is some kind of hipster arts venue in what seems like a converted school or somesuch. It has a squatty ambience and felt like the kind of place where you would have to knock three times on the door and say the special password before you would be let in. In our case the door was open and there were no such formalities. The building is big inside and felt like it had been converted from some former purpose, with the concert being in some random bit of it, in this case what felt like it could have been a shed or a lean-to stuck on at the back.

There were a number of artists on the bill, all broadly of the avant garde art nonsense variety. God Hates Disco opened proceedings, combining funny electronic music with film and sound of people ranting about culty religious or psychedelic stuff. Then Three Eyed Makara hit things they had in piles on the floor. Fuzzy Hell worried Mr A by looking like they were going to be a solo woman singing and playing acoustic guitar (not that he is sexist as he would have been equally aghast if it had been a man doing the same thing) but she turned out to be doing electronic stuff as well as the guitarring. I thought it was more interesting than straightforward singer-songwritery material, but Mr A was not having any of it.

The last act was Head of Wantastiquet, who featured one Paul LaBrecque from well-known act Sunburned Hand of the Man. They turned out to be another act of which Mr A strongly disapproves so he left before they started, with the fact that his bed was just round the corner being a big draw for him (there was a another push factor of which I will speak later). I stayed for a bit longer, even though I was getting a bit puppy tired myself. I probably would have gone earlier if I had not found a nice comfy seat to plant myself on while watching Mr Wantastiquet do his thing. His thing turned out to be more droney electronic guitar stuff. I found the second of his long pieces quite engaging but I was getting really tired now so I made my way home.

The event had one feature which contributed to both Mr A and myself heading off early: smokers. As you know, in Ireland due to facism we have banned smoking from places of work or entertainment. In this place however the kids decided that they were going to stick it to the man by lighting up their death sticks. At first this lended the event a certain edginess, accentuating the squattiness of the venue and giving the sense that we were now operating outside the normal rules of bourgeois society. After a while though it all got a bit stinky and my eyes started to sting, reminding me of how rubbish things were before the smoking ban came in. So I scarpered.

Leaving was surprisingly difficult. I just about remembered how to travel through the large building to the entrance but the exit door was now closed and locked. Eventually I managed to work out how to open it but it was a close run thing and I was distinctly fearful that I would be dragged back into the smokatorium and forced to inhale the foul nicotine infused burning herbs until I became one with tobacco addicts.

Outside I was conscious that I no longer had either of my associates to protect me so I made my way out of the Forbidden Zone as quickly as I could. I did my best not to let the natives realise that I was not of their kind, trying to lurk as much as possible in the shadows without drawing attention to myself. The fact that you are reading these words should tell you that I succeeded in making my way home. Or that someone else did who has now assumed the identity that was once "mine".

Afterwards I was struck by one odd thing about the evening. There were quite a lot of people at the event, and it suddenly hit me that there were probably far more people at it than had ever paid to go to an actual Hunters Moon festival. Another odd fact that was pointed out to me on social media was that all the young stinky smokers who were delighting in the cigaretting were all probably too young to properly remember a time before the smoking ban. To them the idea of smoking indoors while music played may have been a genuinely exciting novelty.

image source (Heathen Harvest)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Joinery Halloween Spooktacular

It does sometimes seem like it is taking me longer to write about my life than to live it. This is an account of something I went to last Halloween in the Joinery, a local music and arts venue which has since closed down as part of a general erasure of things I like from the world. The event was organised by the Deserted Village record label, which is run by and releases records by people I think of as part of the Hunters Moon world. First up on the bill was Katie O'Neill, who had already started when I arrived. She played interesting textured guitar music.

The star act of the evening for me was a collaboration between Suzanne Walsh, Brian Conniffe and Diarmuid Mac Diarmada. If you were a hater you might describe this as artwank bollocks but I was in the zone and enjoyed it greatly. There were electronic elements to it as well as the playing of analogue instruments but the particularly amaze feature was the vocal performance of Suzanne Walsh. She was reading from the Grafton Paperback H.P. Lovecraft anthology The Haunter of the Dark, the one with the giant humanoid eating naked women on the cover, and singing Lovecraft's words to us. Or at least, that is what it looked like she was doing, except that I have read that book and number of times and the words did not sound familiar. Aside from Ms Walsh's wonderful presence, what made this performance was the strange and ritualistic nature of it, perfect for a concert on Halloween.

The last act were Tarracóir. I saw them once before, at Hunters Moon 2012, when they played unbelievably hard-rocking music in a tiny café. This time they had a different line-up because their brilliant drummer Bryan O'Connell was unable to make the event, so they replaced him for the night with one Tuula Voutilainen on crazy lady vocals. This was also bizarre and challenging and not the kind of thing that is ever going to trouble the charts but all forward thinking people enjoyed it.

And that was that. There were later concerts on in the Joinery, before it closed, notably a reformation of odd 1990s Irish band Wormhole, but I did not get to any of them. And now this great venue just a round the corner from my home is gone.

more pictures

The Haunter of the Dark (The Internet Speculative Fiction Database)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Horslips rock Sligo

Where was I on the last October Bank Holiday weekend, a full year after the last Hunters Moon festival? It would have been great if I had been in Carrick-on-Shannon, hanging out forlornly outside the Dock and wondering when when the festival was going to start, perhaps making my way to some of the coffee shops or the church looking to see if anything was going on there. But I was not, I was up in Sligo, a bit further along the same train line. As you know, Sligo is the town where my beloved is from and that weekend they were having a load of concerts and stuff on under the general rubric of Sligo Live or something like that. As well as local acts and artist well-known in Ireland if not outside they also had some actual big names (Sheryl Crowe!).

I was not in Sligo to see Sheryl Crowe, I was there to see Irish trad rockers Horslips with my beloved and her sisters. They were playing in the sports hall of the Sligo Institute of Technology. They were supported by Moxie, a local band who also combined trad and rock elements but did seem to come down more on the trad-folk-raggle-taggle side of the coin. They were at least half-decent and I would not object to seeing them again and they were clearly well-liked by the local crowd.

Horslips themselves… well they might be one of those bands who are much better known in Ireland than without. The strode the 1970s in Ireland like a colossus. If you see old photos of them they look amazing in their hairy hippy gear, quite a contrast to the by then tired look of the showbands who were still anachronistically active on the Irish scene. They were massively popular in Ireland, maybe not so much in the UK (correct me if I am wrong, readers), though they did apparently have top ten hits in traditionally hibernophile Germany. As previously noted, their music mixes rock and Irish traditional music elements, with lyrics also often calling to mind Celtic mythology. To be honest, I am not actually that familiar with their music but have liked what I have heard and have long been curious about them, so I leapt at this chance to see them live.

As far as I know Horslips are one of those bands who split up because their appeal had become more selective rather than because they all hated each other. So although they have all gone onto have successful non-musical careers there was no real barrier to them getting back together again and they have done so in recent years for high profile and doubtless fairly lucrative gigs. They had the complete 1970s line-up tonight for us, apart sadly from their original drummer, Eamon Carr, the only one of them I would have recognised. It was quipped that he was away getting ready for Halloween; if you have ever seen a picture of him you will know what she means.

Now, when you have a band made up of people who have all somewhat drifted away from music you would have to worry that maybe live they will be a bit rusty and rough around the edges. When they started off I did spend the first song or two wondering whether I had made a terrible mistake in coming to see them, as the songs seemed little above the level you would expect of an uninspired bar band. But a few songs in they started rocking out properly and also sneaking the trad elements into their tunes, reminding us of their unique selling point. And then they switched to the beautiful slow tune 'Furniture', a song I have heard described as the Irish 'Stairway to Heaven'. I think that might have been the moment that this concert tipped over from being quite good to being amazing. Normally I hate anything that might be characterised as a Lovely Song, but there is a poignancy to this tale of love gone wrong.

The set rolled on like a juggernaut, finishing with a pre-encore double whammy of 'Trouble with a Capital T' and 'Dearg Doom'. The latter is from a concept album based on the Irish hero saga of the Táin Bó Cúailgne, with the lyrics being the taunt of Cú Chulainn before he goes into combat. These are both monster tunes, particularly 'Dearg Doom', each with killer openings instantly recognisable to anyone in my country. They then encored with 'Shakin' All Over', a cover of a song by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates (yarrr), which seems to be their party piece.

I came away from this fired up with Horslips-love. I would definitely go and see them again and I encourage anyone reading this to seek out their music. The Book of Invasions or The Táin might be the records to go for, or maybe Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part being the one to listen to if you want something more contemplative.

image sources:

Horslips will knock the lugs right off you (Horslips official)

Horslips band photo (Horslips official)

Monday, March 23, 2015

Hunters Moon 2013: Part 2


On Sunday while other people went to daytime concerts in a local church I went to a circuit bending workshop run by one Rodger Boyle (who makes dark ambient music as Ruairi O'Baoighill). Circuit bending is when you get old toys that have electronic noise making stuff in them and then you dick around with them to make the electronics make different noises. It involves a lot of drilling holes in toys and ripping them open and then messing around with circuit tester things to bypass the circuit's normal functioning in the hope of finding a new noise. When you find something you like you solder the new link in place and then fit buttons and things to the toy to activate it.

I think I had this naive hope that a bit of dicking around with some old toy would mean that I would be leaving Hunters Moon with my own home-made Moog synthesiser. That was an unrealistic aspiration but the circuit bending was fun. At the start I was thinking, "this is just not going to work" but then there was a real moment of excitement the first time the thing makes an unexpected noise.

Apparently there are people in the world who are able to present concerts using their circuit-bent toys. I could also see how this was the kind of thing one could easily get a bit obsessive about and end up scouring charity shops for cast-off electronic toys to add to a collection of funny noise bits of junk. For all the fun I had with the workshop I have thankfully managed to avoid going down that terrible road.

But I could not spend all day wrecking old toys. Eventually I had to leave the workshop and head out to hear some more music. One notable act I saw was one Ivan Pawle. Mr Pawle used to be one of Dr Strangely Strange. Dr Strangely Strange are one of the first obscure cult acts I ever became aware of, as my friend William Whyte had a cassette of one of their then out-of-print albums. They played a kind of acoustic psych music and also had the winning feature of being Irish (though not so you would notice, as they did not have bodhran in their sound or lyrics about the praties).

Hunters Moon had Mr Pawle playing solo in the church venue. I was quite excited by this but it suffered from teething problems. Over the years it has been obvious that the acoustics in the church venue can be a bit difficult and they were initially being uncooperative, trying the patience both of Mr Pawle and I suspect also of Gavin Prior, who was on sound wrangling duties. My fear was that the concert was going to become one long soundtrack of annoyance but fortunately the acoustics were bludgeoned into some kind of submission. Then this became a magical exploration of the delicate music of Dr Strangely Strange.

The action moved back to the Dock. A face painter was available who must have found it amusing to be painting adults rather than five year olds. Cat Piss Brain Riot won the band name of the weekend competition. School Tour (who may or may overlap with Patrick Kelleher And His Cold Dead Hands) played electronic music while wearing a sticky looking cape that hid his features and made him look like underneath it he might be some kind of squamous monstrosity. Control Unit (from Italy or somewhere like that) were intriguingly goth. A particular highlight for me however were the band thrown together to fill a gap in the schedule caused by a foreign no-show, these being a Hunters Moon supergroup comprising the six or seven people who appear in 50% of the acts who play the festival. They seemed in particular to be drawing from the musical cupboard of popular Irish band Seadog (an act sometimes characterised as the post-rock Thin Lizzy), going down well with the home crowd.

Rhys Chatham closed off the festival. He is one of those names I am aware of though I would struggle to tell you too much about him… I think he is from the New York scene or something. He played a set which involved him playing a variety of instruments and sampling himself to create a textured sound etc.

By now word had filtered round the festival that Lou Reed had died. Chatham alluded to this in his set and the whole event got a bit emo. I know that Reed had become a bit of a comedy figure by the end of his life, characterised by his grumpiness and by a certain self-important distance from the rough music of his youth. Nevertheless, for most people present Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground would have been a gateway into the world of weirdo music. So festival attendees started writing Lou Reed lyrics or messages to him in chalk on the floor while listening to Chatham. Maybe looking at this from one remove that was a bit sad but at the time it had a genuine poignance.

And that was that. Two things I missed greatly from the last Hunters Moon were bands who had been stalwarts of the previous two years, Irish hard rockers Wizards of Firetop Mountain and British mentalists Gnod. But hey, they can't be everywhere.

I think it was on the October Bank Holiday weekend in 2014, fully a year after the above festival that it sunk in that Hunters Moon was over and there would be no more trips to Carrick on Shannon for great music. It does not surprise me that the organisers called it a day. For all that I loved the festival, it never seemed to attract that many other paying punters and it always felt like most of the people present were performers of one sort or another. I am not sure why that is. There is not much of an audience for weirdo music in Ireland but there is more than none, yet it seemed as though this audience was not willing to make the easy journey to Carrick on Shannon. Oh well, such is life, maybe it is for the best that Hunters Moon had three great years and then went away without outstaying its welcome and sliding into shite.

more rubbish pictures


Hunters Moon 2011

Hunters Moon 2012

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Hunters Moon 2013: Part 1

Yes, readers, I am now going to travel back in time to 2013 and have a crack at reviewing the last Hunters Moon festival I went to on the Halloween Bank Holiday weekend that year. I have been Not Getting Round to doing this ever since the festival ended, with wanting to do the festival justice by producing the Best Ever Write-Up for it. That is not going to happen so instead I am just going to dive in and write a lot of semi-random stuff about it without bothering to look back at my notes or anything like that.

Now of course, you might wonder why I am bothering. Hunters Moon tended to feature some pretty obscure artists and reading accounts of artists you've never heard of playing at a festival you weren't at can be a bit on the dull side. And of course there is the time-lag: this is me writing about a festival that happened a very long time ago. But I feel that as no one else seems to have reviewed this event anywhere it falls to me to do it, notwithstanding the passing of time. The heroic efforts of the organisers in putting on the festival deserve to be remembered.

To recap, Hunters Moon was a festival that took place in Carrick-on-Shannon (mostly but not entirely in the Dock Arts Centre) on the October Bank Holiday weekend for three years running. It featured musical artists from the worlds of strange folk, experimental electronic music and neo-psychedelia. It always struggled to attract an audience (because audiences are stupid) but anyone who ever went to it will agree that it was the best thing ever.

The 2013 festival began with a performance by Divil A Bit, a nom de guerre for the festival organisers and people associated with them. They played droney instruments in the foyer of the arts venue. There was ritualistic parading around. There may have been sporadic hitting of a drum. As with a lot of avant-garde music you could easily have dismissed this as tuneless nonsense, but if you were so inclined then you would probably have made a mistake coming to the festival.

I will not go through all the acts who played, largely because my drug addled brane cannot remember them all in detail. Instead I present a selection of moments.

One thing that was always fun at Hunters Moon were the concerts that took place away from the arts venue, in cafes around the town. We caught two great performances in the Cafe Lounge, a place serious in its love of coffee and one of the few places in these islands that serves coffee in cafetière. While buzzing on caffeinated goodness we were entertained by Devon MacGillivray, a fiddler playing tunes from the Cape Breton region of Canada. She was followed by Sam Burke of popular mediaevalist folkie group Nuada. He played a variety of strange instruments and sang songs, one of which required male audience members to stamp their feet in the manner of a rampant stallion. I did my best.

An act that caused many people to flee in terror was the Phil Collins Project. They did a variety of Phil Collins related things, from performing idiot-savant covers of his tunes to singing tunelessly over concert footage of the great man. I think the Haterz disliked two things about the Phil Collins Project (or the PCP as those in the know call them): firstly, any association with the terminally uncool former drummer of Genesis and secondly the tuneless art-wank nature of the performance. I must admit to a certain Phil Collins sneaking regard so I was more open to this lot than many. I also found the tuneless artwankery to be fun rather than annoying. So I liked the PCP. I am unashamed.

What was also funny was watching the crowd who remained to watch the PCP. When they played concert footage of 'Two Hearts Beat As One', barely singing tunelessly over it, quite a few people started bopping to the crazy Phil Collins sounds. They were trying to look ironic but it was hard not to think that really they would love if someone were to drop all the tuneless experimental nonsense and serve up a weekend of 1980s tat for them to dance to.

This maybe was the night for confrontational acts who divided the audience, for later on the festival presented us with Consumer Electronics. They were a duo, a woman making some kind of loud electronic noise and one of the blokes from controversial perv outfit Whitehouse shouting "Cunt Cunt Cunt" over and over again into a microphone. He also stripped off his top and invited people to come and suck on his bitch tits.

Whitehouse are one of those acts you hear of as being very controversial and confrontational, never afraid of getting in the audience's face. They reputedly like to use images of hardcore pornography to make the audience complicit in things or something. I do not know how similar Consumer Electronics is to Whitehouse, but it seemed like the same kind of thing: puerile confrontation and attention seeking through bad language and infantile transgression. And it wasn't even that edgy. They had images projected on screens while they played but it never went beyond anything you could happily show to your mother, while always appearing as though at any moment it was going to off the deep end.

Still, for all that I thought Consumer Electronics were not that good, I was glad to have seen them. They also provided one of the most memorable incidents of the weekend. At one point Mr Electronics threw a pint of beer into the audience (edgy!), drenching a woman who then charged off to bar and returned with a pint of slops that she then poured over him. He loved it.

An act I thought would be more controversial was this Belgian synthesiser lady who perfromed as Orphan Fairytale. The music was very likeable plinky atmospheric electronic music, so you might wonder why I thought it would prove controversial. Why? Well, I thought its very likeability would put some of my more forthright friends off it. While I was listening to Ms Fairytale's performance I was conscious of how much I was enjoying it but also fearful of the conversations that would ensue once it finished, for fear that one friend in particular would dismiss it all as "fucking tweetronica shite". But this did not happen and in fact said friend professed to love Orphan Fairytale. Maybe I am no longer able to predict what people like anymore.

Come back tomorrow for more Hunters Moon 2013 action!

Phil Collins image source (Miami Vice Wiki)

more rubbish pictures


Hunters Moon 2011

Hunters Moon 2012

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Why am I writing a live blog about the First World War?

People have asked me why I am doing my World War 1 live blog. One inquirer in particular wondered whether I have been caught up in the commemoration frenzy and found myself stuck with a desire to mark the "brave sacrifice" of the men who fell in battle.

The question is an interesting one. As is often the case with matters of human motivation, I have I have no ready answer to it. I think it was the neatness of the 100 year anniversary that seduced me. I have been deriving great enjoyment from @RealTimeWWII on Twitter (which tweets real time stuff from the Second World War) and that influenced my decision to try something similar (but not as good) for the First.

One of the big things I am trying to do with the First World War blog is counter the nationally specific nature of so much of the way the event is remembered. I live in Ireland and exposure to the British media means that it is easy to slip into a very narrow view of how and where the war was fought and who took part in it. Irish media largely reinforces that; the war was fought before my own country became independent, meaning that Irish soldiers fought in the British army. So it seems that for many the war was fought entirely by Britain and Germany at the Somme and in Flanders (apart from a jaunt off to Gallipoli featuring some Australian guest stars, while later Lawrence of Arabia does something in Arabia). I want to try and counter that and bring forth that the war was fought in many places and by people from many countries, some of which no longer exist.

I am enjoying learning more about the conflict as I prepare the posts on it. The discipline of keeping the posts coming is a useful one. Readership of the World War 1 blog is not what it could perhaps be, but I am finding the process sufficiently rewarding that I will continue with it for the foreseeable future.


German soldiers advance into Belgium (1914) (Telegraph)

Senegalese soldiers (RTS Canada)

crosses (RTS Canada)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Trip to London Part 6: the British Museum

My account of this trip of last November to London ends rather anticlimactically with a brief account of a trip to the British Museum. I saw the following exhibits:

1. The one on Egyptian mummies that uses exciting new techniques to look inside mummies; it was interesting but having been to Egypt myself I feel like I have probably seen all the mummies I will ever need to in my life.

2. The one on the apogee of Ming Dynasty China. I particularly liked the picture of the chubby fun-loving emperor being carried on a palanquin by some over-worked servants.

3. The one on Germany through the ages that largely ignored the most famous bit of German history. I particularly liked the portraits of Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora; while I have seen these pictures before in reproduction, in the flesh they exhibited a carnality you do not normally expect from religious leaders.

4. An exhibition on depictions of witchcraft in printed materials in early modern Europe. This reinforced my sense that witch hunts were not a routine feature of the mediaeval past but rather something that flourished as society began to transform into something like our own.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Trip to London Part 5: London by night

The Sun Ra Arkestra played in the afternoon, leaving time for a contemplative drink before dinner. We visited a charming Dalston hostelry with signs everywhere informing patrons that "POLICE CARRY OUT FREQUENT AND UNANNOUNCED INSPECTIONS OF THIS PREMISES". One of my associates made friends at the bar with a London Irish guy from Central Casting. He took issue with (i) my insufficiently Irish accent and (ii) my asking for an orange juice.

We found seats at a table but then an older woman came in an although she found a seat at another table she seemed to keep looking over towards us disapprovingly. Maybe she was wondering what those ponces were doing in her pub, but I also feared that we might be sitting at her usual table. Or maybe she thought we were undercover cops carrying out a frequent and unannounced inspection.

In any case, we soon left Dalston and made our way to Brick Lane, where we had a frank exchange of views with a restaurant tout. I should perhaps have brought our party to the Bangla Café, my late uncle's favourite place and the home of the Princess Diana painting and some bizarre fantasy lady art. But I went with the flow and we ended up somewhere else and had a pleasant meal at which things were said.

After walking one of our group back to his hotel, where his pipe and slippers were calling him, the night really began for the rest of us as we hit the bunga bunga bars of East London; my lawyer has suggested that I make no further comment on certain events that are alleged to have taken place. Actually no, we went for one last drink in a nice enough bar that seemed to be the kind of place that was popular with the young folk.

And then we went our separate ways. The night being yet young I decided to walk back to my hotel, even though it was quite a bit away. This provided me with another opportunity to photograph Christchurch Spitalfields on Commercial Road.

Passing through Liverpool Street Station, I tried to recreate my great photograph, without much success.

Walking through the City, I espied what used to be the Nat West Tower reaching to the sky.

I also passed a building in which I was once stuck in a lift.

The round building I think stands on the site of a sandwich bar in which Sylvester Stallone's more rotund twin worked.

The illuminated St. Paul's against the night sky created a strange luminous dissidence.

The bridge at High Holborn featured a winged lion holding an orb.

After that I saw nothing worth photographing. I made my way back to my hotel and went to bed, but not before I looked out over Russell Square to Centre Point.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Trip to London Part 4: the Sun Ra Arkestra

I was having such fun indulging my depraved lusts at the British Library that when I made it out to Cafe Oto in Dalston the Sun Ra Arkestra had started playing. You know these fellows, they are the continuation of the band who played with famous jazzer Sun Ra,who descended to Earth from Saturn at some point in the early 20th century before returning home in the early 1990s. Some of the Arkestra musicians played with Sun Ra himself (notably Marshall Allen, their leader). They play jazz which manages to be both forward-thinking and the kind of good-time music that older people could dance to if there was a dance floor. And they wear spangly capes. It was great seeing them somewhere other than a music festival. And although I was standing I was able to get close enough to see them properly and I was not *tired* like the last time I was standing at a concert in Cafe Oto. Top buzz.

image source (Sun Ra Arkestra in Cafe Oto, 2010, from a review by John Sharpe on the All About Jazz website, far more interesting than my brief comments above)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Trip to London Part 3: Gothic

I allowed myself a non-musical interlude the next day, popping up to the British Library for an exhibition they were having on the gothic. This went roughly chronologically from Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto up to the present day, taking in various aspects and detours along the way.

The short Jan Švankmajer animated version of Otranto they had at the exhibition's beginning was fascinating. Apparently this is the only attempt thus far to adapt that classic novel for the screen. Švankmajer is most famous for weird puppetry (e.g. see his Dr Faustus), but this was a combination of Terry Gilliam-style animation and filmed interview with a researcher who had discovered that Walpole's novel is in fact based on a true story that occurred not in Italy but late-mediaeval Bohemia. The blatant fibbery of the framing device was a nice evocation of the original novel's claim to be translated from an original Italian account of actual historical events.

Later on I was amused by some material on The Monk, by Matthew Lewis. This book caused a sensation with its tale of a once-pious monk who is led by a female demon into a life of depraved vice. The exhibition had a printed copy of the first edition that Lewis was proposing to edit into a less shocking second edition, with a page shown in which he was proposing to cut an entire page of perving at the naked breast of a young lady.

While most famous now for The Monk, Lewis was more than a one-book author. The exhibition had material on The Castle Spectre, a play Lewis wrote after the success of that novel. The play also caused a sensation, not through depictions of depravity and vice but because one of the characters has African servants who denounce the institution of slavery. It was felt that this kind of crazy talk would undermine the economic foundations of Great Britain. I do not know whether Lewis threw this abolitionist talk in to shock, out of genuine conviction or for less thought-through reasons. Lewis himself had inherited significant wealth from Britain's sugar-gulags in the Caribbean.

Later on I was taken with a discussion of Victorian sensation novels (e.g. The Woman in White) and then other books that were even more sensational. Novels in which the villain or villainess was revealed as a bigamist proved to be particularly popular in this period, giving away to inevitable parodies like Quintilia the Quadrigamist. The exhibition then linked the sensation novels to the media sensation that surrounded the Jack the Ripper killings in the late 19th century. The original "Dear Boss" letter was on display. This letter was signed "Jack the Ripper", giving the killer the name he is remembered by. The exhibition was gamely suggesting that it might be genuine though I understand that it is generally considered to be a hoax.

One jarring note appeared when they brought the exhibition into 20th century gothic. There is a lot of 20th century gothic, but I was surprised that they foregrounded popular film The Wicker Man so much. That film arguably has some gothic elements (e.g. a sinister aristocrat), but overall it owes far more to folk horror than the gothic and was out of place here.

It was also noticeable that the exhibition had a very British focus. This meant there was a fairly minimal coverage of non-anglophone gothic literature. While Edgar Allan Poe was mentioned, there was no great exploration of the wider American gothic. In some ways this was a bit limiting, but it is the British Library after all, and not everything could be included. One particularly notable omission was the lack of any mention of James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, particularly striking given that Hogg was a British writer.

Overall though, this exhibition was less about information than atmosphere. I may be deluding myself but I think I could more or less have curated this myself, at least with regard to the informational material. But the atmosphere was great, with the whole place in a gloomy darkness (though bright enough even for duff-eyed types like me to read the material), drapes and faux cobwebs abounding and suitably gothic images projected on the walls. There was also a nice finish linking the gothic literature of yore to the current gothic scene.

Would you like to know more? Check you the British Library's fascinating collection of articles on the Gothic.

The Masque of the Red Death (Wikipedia)

The Monk cover (Arukiyomi)

Jan Švankmajer's Castle of Otranto (in Czech, with Russian subtitles)