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 K├Âtting 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:

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

A Field in England

[exhibition] "The Vikings" in the British Museum

Earlier in the summer I paid one of my visits to London. While I was there I visited the British Museum and had a look at their exhibit on the Vikings. I was a bit underwhelmed by it, partly because it was far far far too busy and partly because it did seem to be an endless succession of coins and swords in glass cases. Also, how interesting are the Vikings really? At the end of the day they were just a bunch of smelly hessians from the far north who contributed little to the advance of human civilisation.

The one detail I was interested by was the revelation that the Vikings were not actually that good at fighting (or, rather, no better than anyone else). There are apparently any number of accounts of them being stuffed out of it when they found themselves fighting on even terms with their enemies. The exhibition illustrated this with a load of Viking skeletons retrieved from a mass grave where some of the less fortunate nordic raiders found themselves. In retrospect, exhibiting a load of dead people like this for us to gawp at may have been a bit tasteless.

more Vikings (Battle of Clontarf re-enactment)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"From Hell" Chapter 4: a re-enactment

When I was in London earlier in the summer I embarked on a strange adventure. This was an attempt to recreate the journey of Sir William Gull (Queen Victoria's physician) and John Netley in Chapter 3 of From Hell. In that book by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, Netley drives Gull around London in a carriage to a series of sites of strange historical significance; when the sites are joined on a map, they make a five pointed star. I did not have a carriage at my disposal so I made the journey by public transport and on foot. But I was not travelling alone, as I had two companions: Dr Kenneth Maher and Mr Chris Gilmour.

We assembled at Marble Arch. This is not a site mentioned in From Hell, but it made for a convenient meeting place. From there we made a short walk to the Mayfair house that in 1888 was the home of Sir William Gull. Our journey proper began here.

Our first proper stop was Battle Bridge Road, beside King's Cross station. Here the Romans crushed the rebellion of Queen Boudicca and with it the last vestiges of the matriarchal society that once dominated the world (or so Gull declares in From Hell, a work some have described as a fiction). There is a tradition that Boudicca herself is buried under one of the station's platforms, though I did not verify this myself.

From there we went to Albion Drive and viewed London Fields. This is basically a park in east London. In From Hell, Gull links London Fields to the Saxons and stuff, though I think the place may have been visited primarily to make a point on the pentagram. Iain Sinclair apparently lives nearby, which may not have given the place spooky London significance in Gull's time but does in ours. London Fields is also the title of the great novel by Martin Amis; I was disappointed not to see somewhere in the vicinity where the ancient game of darts could be played

We used the Overground to travel to and from Albion Drive, which ate up our time as that service is somewhat infrequent. It was therefore quite some time before we reached our next stop, Bunhill Fields. This is an old graveyard in the City in which a great many famous people are buried. Gull remarks on the obelisk that stands over the grave of Daniel Defoe, comparing it to that of the church of St. Luke's, but I think he is more interested in the plainer grave of the visionary William Blake.

While in Bunhill Fields we encountered a demonic squirrel who was rather forward in his attempts to beg for food, but alas we had nothing for him. We then walked on to and past the previously mentioned church of St. Luke's. The spire here was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, and Gull sees it as a clear symbol of worship of the sun and the male generative organ.

We walked on. This stretch involved a lot more walking than expected and extreme measures were required to maintain discipline. As we progressed, we caught a glimpse of the Shard in the distance. That did not exist in Gull's time but I suspect that the good doctor would have approved of its totemic power.

Our next actual stop was Northampton Square. Gull points out to Netley that this was named after a prominent freemason, seeing this as a matter of considerable significance. He does not mention that at one stage in history everyone of consequence was in the freemasons, to the extent that everything in London is probably named after someone who was "on the square"; I suspect this is another stop chosen simply to make the pentagram more convincing.

We broke for lunch in the vicinity of Angel tube station. We had burritos, which I do not think Gull would have enjoyed.

From there we made our way to another Hawksmoor church, St. John Bloomsbury. Its strange spire is said to be modelled on the tomb of Mausolus in Halicarnassus. It is one of the triumphs of 18th century neo-classicism and I encourage all London residents and visitors to have a look at it.

A jaunt west to Earls Court (site of an ancient occult event of some sort) brought us to a third point of the star. In the book, Gull and Netley stop here and have a kidney pie for lunch. We saw a branch of Greggs which may have been the very place where they ate.

By now we were conscious of the latening hour. We pressed on, making our way to the Thames Embankment to see Cleopatra's Needle (actually another obelisk erected to honour some Thotmese fellow a thousand years before Cleopatra was born). At this point Mr Gilmour had to bid us farewell: he has an inability to cross running water and could not join us on the next leg of our journey, which would bring us across the Thames.

Dr Maher and I do not fear water. We pressed on to Hercules Road in Lambeth, where William Blake once lived. The house is no longer there and a block of council flats sits on the site.

And unfortunately that proved to be the end of our journey. We had made three of the star's five points. The last two would have involved journeys out east as far as Limehouse and down south to Herne Hill (a place largely beyond the reach of easily understood public transport). Making it to these would probably have taken more time than we had spent on the others so far. The hour was getting late so we decided to call it a day.

Perhaps in some future time I will make the attempt again.

See also:

Pentagram image source

More of my pictures

From Hell Chapter Four Walking and Riding Tour (An American gentleman made his own attempt to complete the Star in 2008)

Stefani Chaney's Map of Chapter Four in "From Hell" (danger: there is at least one inaccuracy in this map, as it has the wrong St. Anne's church tagged)

Sir William Gull (Wikipedia)

John Netley (Wikipedia)