Friday, 24 March 2017

The Little Gift by Stephen Volk

I’ve attempted to avoid mentioning one of the central incidents in the story, but surrounding allusions will inevitably give a good deal of the game away. So to avoid disappointment and irritation I will hereby issue a SEMI-SPOILER alert.



Stephen Volk’s novella The Little Gift may be a relatively short work, but it contains volumes within its carefully constructed narrative. It comments upon the aridity of corporate clone culture, the subtle but everpresent divisions of class, the vital import of art and spiritual nourishment in an aggressively materialistic world, the coarsening effect of tabloid journalism and the philosophical distinction between instinctive and morally conscious action. As a story written by an author generally working within the horror genre (and I think that, with its exploration of the dark corners of the human psyche, this qualifies as a horror story) it is also strident in its rejection of the prurient allure of one of the modern avatars of the monstrous, the serial killer. A brutally realist monster for materialist times, stripped of all supernatural mystery and ripped from the lurid headlines of the real world. They are driven only by debased appetites, playing on fears of physical pain and torturous death rather than any threat to the soul, inviting the lurch of nausea in place of the vertigo felt in the presence of the uncanny.

Above all, however, The Little Gift is a terribly human story filled with an empathetic awareness of the frangibility of the emotional self, the fragility of bodies – bodies and souls. Its cruel ironies and correspondences (and I shall endeavour not to reveal the central irony, which is embodied in the title) act as harsh lessons, stunning blows leading to damaged self-awareness. It begins with our first person narrator in the midst of night terrors, the existential dread given form by sleeplessness. They obviously have a subconscious source beyond their ostensible cause, the little gifts of dead mice and birds left by the cat. Something fundamental is exposed in the vulnerable hours before dawn.

The little gift left by the pitiless pet at the start of the novella seems like some physical manifestation of these night fears. The mauled, near-dead bird is a token of feline fellow-feeling, a sharing of the kill with the pride, allowing the privilege of the final death-blow to lie with the chief provider. The link between human and animal is established at the outset and is reiterated throughout the story. The narrator sees the cat’s actions as instinctive, engineered by ‘millions of years of evolution’. His own actions, the impulsive affair he falls into, are seen in similarly materialistic terms, animalistic drives followed at a time when his sense of self has been reduced to a dulled nullity. He fantasises about sex in the toilet, the ultimate reduction of passion to basic physical need and fears that some pheremonal musk might betray him to his wife, as if she could sniff him out. The first kiss, the peremptory prelude, takes place in the gardens of the grand house in which the corporate away day is taking place, the failed competitors for the prize mate aimlessly shuffling around the topiary like statuesque figures in a demystified version of Last Year in Marienbad. Later, on a trip with his family, the narrator pulls in at a location called Heaven’s Gate which offers a prospect over Longleat Park and the animals living in the safari park there. It’s a different view of the animal kingdom akin to the anodyne paintings of lions settling down with the lambs in the summery fields of the Lord found on the covers of the Jehovah’s Witness circular Watchtower. If this offers a converse metaphor for family life, then it is a fantasy, a forcefully willed ideal which bears no relation to true nature. Even emotions and psychological problems are spoken of in materialistic terms, with talk of Neuro Linguistic Programming and the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. All along, the narrator is aware of ‘the little man inside me, my soul’.

The scattered detritus of torn-out feathers are described discovered by the narrator’s wife at the beginning of the story are described as ‘dark commas’ spread across the room, their radius indicative of a fluttering struggle, agonies prolonged by the playful predator. It’s a powerfully poetic image, the comma marking a pause before an ensuing clause, the crux upon which a sentence turns; an interlude in the continuity of a life. But their provenance as the dismembered remains of a dying creature is also suggestive of a full stop, an ending in a parallel sentence. The image of a dark, feathered comma is used as a demarcation of significant moments of change in the narrative. Laid horizontally between certain paragraphs, it underlines temporal shifts or decisive alterations of intention or perception; the drift of time and mind. These symbolic punctuation marks are part of the visual schema for the book created by Pedro Marques which add a significant element to the overall impact. The exquisite surrealist corpse of the cover illustration, the dismembered doll angel with its bird head and plucked wings, is a disturbing yet strangely beautiful image.

The comma in the life of the protagonist is the banal disruption of a mid-life crisis. Volk depicts this with all the confused immediacy and panicked lack of perspective a first-person narrative affords. The very specificity of the details with which the narrator sums up his life – the Range Rover Evoque, the ‘gorgeous’ Kawasaki and the half-timbered cottage in All Cannings in Devizes – along with the contemptuously mocking self-awareness accompanying their listing, point to the falsity of such materialist aspirations as indicators of success and happiness. Tellingly, his ‘beautiful’ wife and ‘two gorgeous, healthy children’ (gorgeous like a Kawasaki) are tagged onto the end of the list as an afterthought, unnamed additions to the tokens of boastful achievement. You can almost hear David Byrne’s semi-hysterical vocal asking ‘well, how did I get here?’

What’s in a name? Naming or the withholding of names is important in The Little Gift. The narrator remains unnamed throughout and thus maintains the anonymity of the nameless. Although we are privy to the intimacies of his inner life at a time of personal crisis we see little beyond the borders of his brief and vividly real liaison. He remains essentially ill-defined, the primacy of family to his sense of self asserted rather than depicted. He also denies the serial killer his name, refusing to add to his mythologisation, his transformation into a folk demon. I’m reminded here of the ending of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth in which the brutal fascist captain is told in the moments before his execution that his name as a father will be denied him, never mentioned to the son that the woman who is about to take his life is cradling. He will be erased from his family tree. The shared namelessness adds to the sense that killer and narrator are connected however, both remotely touching one another on the spectrum of blank disconnection. ‘He always seemed part of me, attached by some dark umbilical’, our protagonist admits at the end. ‘The little man inside me’, perhaps, his dark soul. Or the ineradicable infection passed on by debased acts (again, don’t mythologise them by using the word evil, as if there were some inverted transcendence or any kind of active anti-morality at play), the tainting of the soul through contact, propagated through the grubbily ink-stained vector of the tabloids.

Part of Volk’s purpose here is to regain the humanity of the victims, to force us to empathise with them in their darkest moment, to be with them in the terror of their final loneliness without for one moment using their experience for the most despicable kind of prurient onlooking. It is something which has to be done with the utmost sensitivity, because we are approaching real and enduring suffering here. Volk is no stranger to addressing the darkest areas of human experience however, notably in the series After Life, which was fearless in its confrontation of the most distressing of scenarios (and which featured an episode which once more demythologised the serial killer archetype, exposing the blankness at the core of such characters). He always retains a humanist outlook which makes us feel for his characters, never revelling in or unnecessarily dwelling upon physical pain. And it is the humanity of the killer’s victims which is of the essence here, the acts themselves revealed only indirectly through the flashgun snapshots of tabloid reports. It’s a similar approach to that taken by Phil Rickman in his Merrily Watkins novel The Lamp of the Wicked, which also deals with the poisonous legacy of the Gloucester murders. Merrily has the ultimate nightmare in which she dreams that of daughter Jane (a character with whom we have become intimate over previous novels) being bundled into the back of the builders van. It’s a humanisation of the victim at the most intimate level, and allows her to empathise all the more with those who lost the people they loved in such a terrible way and who have to endure such dark imaginings over and over again. Such a shared humanist perspective suggests an affinity between the work of Rickman and Volk; an affinity which was obviously picked up by whoever commissioned Volk to adapt Rickman’s second Merrily Watkins novel Midwinter of the Spirit.

His wife and children are initially unnamed too, merely referred to in terms of their family connection. It is only after he meets his lover that they take on names and become more clearly defined as individuals, just as he feels himself waking up into a sense of an authentic self once more. His rehumanisation humanises them. Their names feel like they have an allegorical ring to them: Trudy, the true one and his daughters Verity (more truth) and Amber (the precious, the catcher of warm, hearthglow light). His lover’s name blends hints of the exotic with counterbalancing mundanity, the romantic with the drab everyday. Ghislaine is a French name which could have come from an old troubadour romance, whilst the surname Hammond is rooted in the English heartland in which this anti-romance takes place. The element of Frenchness may also be a nod to the British films of the grey 50s in which any element of illicit love (a fairly broad definition back then) tended to involve French actresses such as Simone Signoret (see Room At the Top) or other continentals who were more prone to that sort of thing. She has a hidden middle name too, of Italian provenance this time. Lenzi, which temporarily transports her out of the landscapes of motorway service stations and conference centres into the genuinely romantic dream of villages in the Tuscan hills.

Volk is brilliant at building up anti-romantic detail, with the precise location of a rendezvous at a services on the M5 between junctions 11a and 12 exposing its crushingly dispiriting nature whilst enabling us to locate it on our maps and explore its ambience for ourselves should we so wish. But he also finds beauty in imperfection, in the vulnerability and tenderness of those struggling to find happiness or fulfilment in a disconnected, corporate world but refusing to give up on themselves or others. We are defined by our imperfections as much as anything, he suggests. And it is those imperfections, the departures from an airbrushed presentation of the self to the world which make Ghislaine so plausibly real, and which makes her so attractive to our narrator. They catch onto one another as they drift aimlessly by, spinning closely around in a temporary dance of mutual recognition.

There is also a subtly portrayed class barrier between them. Not a gulf, but the kind of fine gradation which still creates instinctive divisions in the stratified society of Britain. Ghislaine is from Birmingham, we are initially led to believe. This misapprehension (she is actually from Wolverhampton, we later discover) is indicative of the generalised stereotype into which people are instantly assigned at first encounter, the reduction of the individual to a set of crude assumptions. Birmingham is a place synonymous with dour, brutalist pragmatism and an absence of romance, of any spark of the visionary. For me, as the home of the bands Broadcast, Pram and their various associates, it’s a major locus of magic and strange enchantment, an indication that rich interior landscapes and constellations of the imagination can be discovered and flourish in any environment. It contrasts markedly with the Wiltshire idyll in which the narrator lives, however. Ghislaine’s relatives may have come from the Tuscan countryside, Lenzis filling the graveyards there, but it is a place that her family have long since left behind for the built-up, motorway-bound terrain of the midlands. Our narrator, meanwhile, is able to take advantage of a ‘gite with a swimming pool near Brignoles, a former olive press’ which belongs to a company director. It may very well say something about my position within the British class spectrum that I had to look up what a gite was. Ghislaine has the contrasting prospect of a hen night in Barcelona, travelling by Easyjet and staying at a place called the Hotel Derby. Again, Volk is spot on when it comes to providing the telling anti-romantic detail. He could no doubt write a fine romantic comedy full of such wry observation if he had the mind to. I strongly suspect he doesn’t. Ghislaine’s one taste of upper crust living comes during the away day weekend, which takes place at a stately home converted into a conference centre. It hardly counts.

In a way, the class divide makes the passionate interlude all the more urgent and affecting. They both see each other for who they really are, with all trappings of status stripped away. As is always the case, however, it is far easier for our narrator to retreat back into the protective compound of his wealth, the stability of family. He is required to make the decisive move, but his default setting is drift. He simply doesn’t have the killer instinct. That has to be provided by someone else. An actual killer, perhaps. There is something peculiarly, poignantly English about his struggle to express his desires, to even articulate his feelings to himself. A verbal dance of self-deprecation skips lightly away from direct statement and it is down to Ghislaine to direct the affair, to read the all-too obvious signs. This disconnection from desire and clogged up communication is embodied in the fact that he finds it easier to make contact via the remote, truncated means of text messages. Printed out in bold type, these are disturbingly echoed in the lurid tabloid headlines and flashes of pruriently detailed reportage which are also printed in bold. Both condense, coarsen and elide truth, weakening the empathy which comes from true human connection.

These equivalences and correspondences create a sense of interconnected patterns spanning all manner of divides. Ultimately, they link a ‘respectable’, hard-working family man with an indolent, despicable killer, an unreadable void whose humanity has, at some point, been wholly erased. Or was he merely, like the housecat whose impulses are indulged, merely doing what he was programmed to do by nature. Are we more than a collective mess of amalgamated instincts? What makes us different from animals? Are we moral beings or are we just kidding ourselves? Mention of ISIS headlines on the news taking over once the killer’s tale is done raise the stakes and places such questions on a global scale. We have been offered the possibility of a religious work of art by Matisse, inspired by the kindness of a Catholic nurse who subsequently became a nun, as some kind of redemptive embodiment of the spiritual nobility inherent in the human soul. The description of the glass, its vivid colours and living light (‘the intense blue of the Mediterranean and the Madonna’ – beautiful writing here) gives an almost catechistic pagan sense of the immediacy of being. The equivalences which are so much a part of this intricately structured novella once more provide ironic counterparts however. And it would take a particularly intense moment of Blakean visionary transport to experience a similar flooding of divine light in the Gloucester services off the M5. The final image could have taken place in those services (thus echoing filmic images of dissolving or bubbling liquids stared at by James Mason in Odd Man Out and Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver, both characters suffering crises of identity and hovering on the edge of death and violence). I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which sugar cubes absorb and draw up the tea or coffee into which they’re dipped until they’re entirely consumed by it and I’m clearly not alone. Here, such an effect acts as a complex and ambiguous piece of symbolism. The sugarcube soul, absorbing that to which it is exposed? A metaphor for the transient nature of all things, the vital importance of making the most of our short span? Of not allowing ourselves to drift into the dissipation of the unexamined life, slowly reduced to the sludge of base, instinctual existence? Or of the way in which the lonely, monadic self can find indivisible commonality with another if it is prepared to open itself up and communicate with complete honesty? Our narrator used to take two sugars. He ends up taking one, which he watches darkening with the stain of his black coffee. Perhaps he still has some distance to go.

These are profound issues, questions which address the fundamentals of who we are as individuals, as political and social beings; as humans in fact. No easy resolution is arrived at, no closure comfortably attained. In the insidious, dangerous manner in which expert storytellers operate, we are invited to think for ourselves, to think about ourselves. It is Stephen Volk’s Little Gift to us. I for one am thankful for it.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Midsummer Traditions and Folklore

A longer version of an essay included with the Folklore Tapes box Calendar Customs IV: Crown of Light


Midsummer is the most natural time of the year for a celebration marked by simple pleasure and unaffected joy. The midwinter rites of Christmastide, the diametric opposite of midsummer on the face of the annular calendar, have an air of fortification and remembrance – illumination kindled to hold back the dark and nurture a hope for solar renaissance. If midwinter is the time when the seeds of light are sown, midsummer is the moment when they flower to their fullest extent. The sun is at its apogee, its long arc across the sky vaulting to its utmost height. The earth, spinning through its axially tilting orbital dance, presents its northern hemisphere to bask in solar warmth, bringing out its summer colours – bright grassy greens and buttercup yellows, speedwell blues and poppy reds. Darkness has been cast aside, compressed into a few brief hours (or dispelled altogether if you travel far enough north into the Scottish isles or Scandinavian wilds). The triumph of light, of the spirit of life, is to be rejoiced in unreservedly, no matter how brief its moment of ascendance.


As with midwinter rites, including Christmas day itself, there is a slight misalignment with the precise moment of solstice division into maximal periods of light and dark. The summer solstice falls on the 21st June. The first rays of the rising sun shafting through the megaliths of Stonehenge onto its central ‘altar’ stone are greeted by Druid revivalists, rooted in 18th century reinventions. Thousands of bystanders respond to the morning solar radiance with the glinting digital scintillations of their mobile cameras and phones – a very modern form of worship, attracting a mass congregation, if only for this one day. The antiquarian dream of Stonehenge as a solar temple of the Druids is one which enchanted William Blake amongst others, as the image of a megalithic trilithon gateway for the giants of old Albion in his illuminated book Jerusalem attests. Mere fancy it may be, but it’s one which still exerts considerable influence on the contemporary imagination, mired in a materialistic present and yearning for a sense of connection with a magical past.


Traditional midsummer celebrations have not taken place at the time of the solstice, however, but three days later on the 24th, St John’s Day, and even more so on its preceding eve. This is the date which has come to be officially designated midsummer’s day. Further festivities were held on the joint saint day of Peter and Paul, the 28th. Many must have simply bridged the two festival days with continuous merriment. And remember, this is the time of Glastonbury weather (the Glastonbury festival being a modern manifestation of midsummer revels), so suggesting alternative dates for a festival which was of its essence an outdoors celebration was an eminently pragmatic hedging of bets.

There’s really only one way to celebrate the supremacy of the sun and whatever divinities are associated with it: build up huge fires on the high places of the landscape to reflect some of its flaring, mesmerically roiling photosphere back at it; to emulate some of its warmth, that radiance which makes the heart lighter, the spirit more buoyant. Poets have recognised the spiritual refreshment afforded by this time of light, its countermanding of wintry melancholy. Matthew Arnold, in Thyrsis, his elegy to his friend Arthur Hugh Clough, asks of those who suggest their spirit departs with the falling blossom ‘too quick despairer, wherefore wilt thou go?/Soon will the high Midsummer pomps come on,/Soon will the musk carnations break and swell,/Soon shall we have gold-dusted snapdragon,/Sweet-William with his homely cottage smell,/And stocks in fragrant blow;/Roses that down the alleys shine afar,/And open, jasmine-muffled lattices,/And groups under the dreaming garden-trees,/And the full moon, and the white evening-star.’


John Clare, the farm labourer poet, who suffered desperately from the depredations of depression, nevertheless revelled in the ecstatic moods of summer: ‘Now swathy summer by rude health embrowned/Precedence takes of rosy fingered spring/And laughing joy with wild flowers prankt and crowned/A wild and giddy thing/With health robust from every care unbound/Comes on zephers wing/And cheers the toiling clown.
Happy as holiday enjoying face/Loud tongued and ‘merry as a marriage bell’/They lightsome step sheds joy in every place/And where the troubled dwell/Thy witching smiles weans them of half their cares/And from thy sunny spell/They greet joy unawares’.

Accounts from as far back as the 4th century in the old French province of Acquitaine record midsummer fire festivals in which blazing wheels were set rolling down steep hillsides – the solar disc turning on its tumbling course. In mid 19th century Buckfastleigh in Devon a wheel with rim and spokes wrapped in straw was set ablaze and rolled from the heights on midsummer eve, accompanied on its fiery descent by villagers pelting alongside, attempting to steer it with sticks to a steamy dousing in the river Dart. If they succeeded in their endeavour, good fortune would prevail over the coming months, and a good harvest guaranteed. If not, they’d had a wild time and could repair breathlessly to the nearest alehouse to drown their thirst.

Font in Bratton Clovelly church, Devon
The representation of the sun as a wheel was common in medieval times. It symbolised both its daily progress across the sky and the procession of the solar year with its seasonal transformations. Solar wheels can be traced on many Norman fonts, often the oldest objects in rural parish churches. Like many other pagan symbols or allegorical beasts, they have been translated into a Christian idiom. This marked a process of continuity and fusion as much as an imposition of alien values. It was the cataclysmic historical and cultural rift of the Reformation which brought this continuum of belief and practice to a violent iconoclastic end.

John Aubrey
The fires of medieval belief and ritual were increasingly stamped out, both literally and figuratively. The antiquarian John Aubrey wrote, in his 1688 volume Remains of Gentilisme and Judaisme (a pioneering folkloric work), ‘still in many places on St John’s night they make Fires on the Hills: but the Civill Warres comeing on have putt all these Rites or customes quite out of fashion’. Nevertheless, the tradition lived on the further reaches of the isles.

Hilltop fires were lit on St John’s Eve across England and Eastern and Northern Scotland and in the Northern Isles (less so in the Celtic lands of Wales, Ireland and the Western Isles). In Scotland, the sun’s progress would be ritually re-enacted by processing around the fields three times sunwise (ie clockwise) with blazing torches held aloft, the crops and herds thereby blessed. Bonfires were started as the sun slowly sank below the horizon, staining the sky with its tangerine and vermillion afterglow. In the Northern Isles, Johnsmas fires were built from varied materials including heather, fish bones, peat, flowers, seaweed and feathers.

In Westernmost Cornwall, chains of fires were lit tracing the rugged, curving concave coastline of Mount’s Bay from Penzance to the Lizard. Cornish midsummer fire traditions were revived by the Old Cornwall Society in 1929, colouring them with druidic romance whose nationalist elements lent the proceedings a curiously formal, civic air. Beginning atop the tor of Carn Brea, the site of a Neolithic settlement, the fires are blessed in the old Cornish language and flowers arranged in the shape of a sickle thrown into the flames by a local girl designated the Lady of the Flowers. The sickle anticipates the harvest whilst the ceremony is a decorous and fragrant reminder of a more elementally superstitious past when a bountiful harvest required the offering of human life. Antiquarians in previous centuries dreamed of detecting remnants of the wicker giant sacrifices which Julius Caesar claimed to have witnessed in the Gaul of the 1st century BC in midsummer fire rituals, but there was really no evidence to support the fabric of their fancies.

Sir Benjamin Stone's picture of the Whalton Baal Fire rites in 1903
The Baal Fire at Whalton in Northumberland is lit on the village green on the 4th July, harking back to the old midsummer’s eve date before the rift between the Julian calendar and its Gregorian replacement opened up in September 1752, a faultline which swallowed up 11 days (precious moments guarded by the Paladin of the Lost Hour in Harlan Ellison’s short story). It’s a celebration which can lay claim to real continuity, perhaps even with a pre-Reformation tradition. The word baal could derive from the Celtic bel, meaning the sun, or light, or from the Anglo-Saxon bael, meaning fire (which is also the root of Beltane). Fuel for the fire is carried by hand to the place of burning, and children dance around the stacked tinder before it is set alight as the evening shadows gather. Couples take over from the children, dancing around the flames and later leaping over the crackling embers, as was the way with midsummer fires across the land. Leaping the fire and darting through its smoke, breathing in and wreathing the body with its heady woodscent aroma was an act of purification and invited good fortune.

A Shropshire monk writing in the 14th century described the ‘three manner of fires’ which were made on St John’s eve. ‘One is of clean bones and no wood, and is called a bonfire; another is of clean wood and no bones, and is called a wakefire, for men sitteth and wake by it; the third is made of bones and wood, and is called St John’s Fire’. The bonefire was a purifying conflagration, its evil stench and acrid smoke driving away malevolent forces and keeping pestilence at bay. The wake fire was the sociable circle of warmth around which people would gather for the night. St John’s Fire was a ritual blaze with a rather more solemn ambience.


It wasn’t just in rural areas that fires were started. The estimable John Stow, Elizabethan tailor and self-educated antiquarian (who we’ve encountered in previous Calendar Customs explorations) recorded his good-humoured observations of London midsummer celebrations in his invaluable and highly readable 1598 masterpiece Survey of London. ‘In the month of June and July, on the vigils of festival days, and on the same festival days in the evening after the sun setting, there were usually made bonfires in the streets, every man bestowing wood or labour towards them: the wealthier sort also, before their doors near to the said bonfires, would set out tables on the vigils, furnished with sweet bread and good drink, and on the festival days with meats and drinks plentifully, whereunto they would invite their neighbours and passengers also to sit and be merry with them in great familiarity, praising God for His benefits bestowed on them. These were called bonfires as well of good amity amongst neighbours before at controversy, were there, by the labour of others, reconciled, and made of bitter enemies loving friends; and also for the virtue that a great fire hath to purge the infection of the air’. As well as re-iterating the idea of fire and its smoke as a purgative and purifying force before the potentially arid and pestilential days of the long summer, Stow gets to the heart of the matter here; a communal fire acts as a focal point for gathering around and generates good spirits and an amiable atmosphere. It’s this as much as any symbolic, spiritual or magical purpose which explains the widespread popularity of midsummer fire ceremonies over so many centuries. Even an 18th century protestant cleric such as Henry Bourne, writing in his 1725 volume Antiquitates Vulgares, recognised the fundamental innocence of such impulses (unless taken too far, of course, he felt compelled to add): ‘when they (the fires) are only kindled as tokens of joy, to excite innocent mirth and diversion, and promote peace and good neighbourhood, they are lawful and innocent, and deserve no censure. And therefore when on Midsummer-Eve, St Peter’s Eve, and some other times, we make bonfires before shops and houses there would be no harm in doing so, was it not that some continue their diversion to too late hours, and others are guilty of excessive drinking’.

Fires burning in the streets of London naturally cast the looming shadow of King Mob, summoning the potential spirit of its mutinously grinning collective visage. It’s perhaps no surprise that the city watch played an increasingly prominent role in the medieval and Tudor periods. From the 14th century onwards, they were required to parade through the streets in their gayest finery, carrying flaming ‘cresset’ buckets on poles slung over their shoulders. No such finery for the black-clad, baton-wielding riot police who set about the latterday travellers intent on holding a free Solstice festival in the fields around Stonehenge in 1985, a one-sided altercation which became known as the Battle of the Beanfield (although ‘rout’ would be a more accurate description).

The Salisbury Giant and sidekick Hob-Nob
Midsummer parades grew in size and theatricality throughout the Tudor period, with passing pageants featuring creatures and characters from biblical and national mythologies. Giants were prominent (as they would be) along with saints, dragons, hobby horses, Moorish kings, Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld, unicorns and Jesus Christ himself, all accompanied by minstrels and morris dancers and brought to moving picture life in the pixillating flicker of a hundred smoking torches. Such pageantry was another victim of Reformation and Civil War. As early as 1533, Henry VIII’s Royal Council was looking to curtail these potentially rebellious gatherings, and in 1539 he succeeded in suppressing the annual London march for the remaining 8 years of his reign. It was never the same again and soon faded away completely, a fate which befell similar parades across the country. A mouldering remnant of an effigy was discovered in 1844 in the backrooms of a Tailor’s Guildhall in Salisbury; a giant which once bestrode the midsummer parades, now a tattered, dimineshed shade of its former self. It now lies quiescent in the city museum.


Midsummer parades have been reinvented in some areas, though, notably so in Penzance. The Mazey Day festival has been fashioned around the old Golowan (St John’s Eve) celebrations. At midnight on St John’s Eve, a Penglaz ‘obby ‘oss is brought out, a flower-garlanded and gaily beribboned horse’s skull held aloft on a pole, its empty sockets filled with the night’s shadows, chomping incisors flashing an enamelled grin in the torchlight. A female ‘teaser’ leads it in a snaking serpent dance down to the quayside, the townspeople twisting and turning in its mesmerically swaying wake.

Midsummer is not one of the festival periods during which the worlds of faerie are at a perigee point of proximity to the waking world. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its fairy court and mischievous sprites making sport with human destiny is, despite its title, set on May Day eve. Midsummer’s eve is still a time steeped in powerful magic, however. Although Midsummer is a solar festival, a daylit affair, this is also the point at which the astrological calendar moves into the house of Cancer, a sign associated with water and the moon.

It was thought to be a time when witches were active, going abroad to gather flowers and herbs whose potency was at its height on this night. As John Aubrey noted, ‘Midsummer Eve is counted or called the Witches’ Night’. Cornish Penwith witches were said to gather on Burns Down above Zennor on midsummer’s eve, the nomenclature denoting the many fires which were lit amongst the natural cauldrons of the granite landscape basins and on the tables of dolmen stones. The Witches’ Rock which was the ultimate site for their midnight assembly is no longer there, having been broken up and possibly used for stone wall construction in the nineteenth century. It used to be said that touching the rock nine times at midnight would afford protection against ill-fortune – a species of associative counter-magic. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the farm which lies beneath Burns Down is called Tregerthen, or Rowan Tree Farm. Rowan wood afforded powerful protection against the depredations of witchcraft, and twigs tied together with red ribbons and hung above stable and farmhouse doors would keep harmful magic at bay.

St John's Wort
Effigies of witches were burned in some fires, a tradition revived by the Cornish at St Cleer. A witch’s broom and hat are perched on the peak of the bonfire mountain. When it is lit, a variety of herbs and flowers are thrown onto the pyre to nullify their efficacy in any witchery attempted in the vicinity. The very flowers used for the purposes of witchcraft (or, as was more likely the case, herbal medicine) could be employed as magical protection. Garlands of vervain, yarrow, mugwort, plaintain, dwarf elder, corn marigold (the ‘summer’s bride’), orpins and, most powerfully of all, St John’s wort (or chase-devil) could be hung on doors to repel malevolent spells, or burned in midsummer fires to create a purifying incense. Yarrow hung up on St John’s Eve would ward of sickness for the coming year. Those seeking St John’s Wort on the evening when its magic was at its most potent might have a bit of hunt on their hands, however. It was said to be able to move to evade those intent on picking it.

Of course, midsummer flowers were beautiful decorations, magical powers notwithstanding. John Stow noted ‘on the vigil of St. John the Baptist, and on St. Peter and Paul the Apostles, every man’s door being shadowed with green birch, long fennel, St. John’s wort, orpine, white lilies, and such like, garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers’, their colours brought out in the evening by the illumination of hundreds of lamps to ‘make a goodly show’. Another tradition involved the creation of midsummer cushions; either an actual cushion upon which flowers were arrayed, or a stool covered in a layer of thick, clayish soil into which flowers were embedded. The poet John Clare loved such presentations and wanted to title one of his later collections The Midsummer Cushion.

Orpine
Midsummer was a time considered particularly propitious for divination, especially when foretelling romantic fortunes. Flowers play their part here too. The prominent floral aspect of midsummer rites and celebrations is hardly surprising given that this is the time of fullest flowering. Two orpine flowers were hung together, sometimes resting against a plate, on midsummer’s eve. If, on the following morning, they had inclined towards one another, love would blossom and fidelity was assured. If they turned away from each other, love would fade and loyalties stray. In the disastrous event of the orpines withering, a death in the household was foretold. Fortunately, this was highly unlikely. Orpine flowers were renowned for remaining fresh long after having been cut, hence one of their common names, life-long. Another such name was ‘midsummer men’, indicating how closely and widely they were associated with these divinations.

The magical potency of flowers reached its peak on St John’s eve, and in some cases this was the only time at which their power became manifest. A piece of mugwort ‘coal’ dug up beneath its roots (in actuality a rotted part of those roots) on St John’s Eve would afford protection from plague, ague, lightning, carbuncle and burning, and was thus a highly sought after natural treasure on this one enchanted night. Fernseed (the tiny spores on the underside of fern leaves) was particularly elusive, supposedly appearing on this one evening of the year and no other. If you were somehow able to gather it (and you would likely face opposition from witches jealously guarding their special patch) it would confer upon you the power of invisibility. Sacred springs or wells could also be used for divination, with the bubbles or ripples produced by offerings of coins, bent pins or flowers thrown upon the waters providing answers to questions of love and matrimony. These offerings, or coloured ribbons tied to adjacent trees, would activate the healing powers of the waters.

A sunwise circumnavigation of the well was often part of the ritual, as at the Pin Well in Alnwick Park in Northumberland. Processing or dancing in a circling, sunwise direction was a feature of many midsummer celebrations, modelling the ecliptic solar passage across the sky and thereby invoking its power and blessing. Never anti-sunwise (or widdershins), however; that would summon dark otherworldly forces into your life and invite ill fortune. The North Eastern antiquarian Moses Aaron Richardson, writing in the 6th volume of his mid-19th century collection titled, with exhaustively thorough accuracy, ‘The Local Historian's Table Book of Remarkable Occurrences, Historical Facts, Legendary and Descriptive Ballads, &c., connected with the Counties of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland, and Durham’, remarks upon the three holy wells near Longwitton-hall in Northumberland. ‘Great concourses of people from all parts, also used to assemble here in the memory of old people on “Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following” and amuse themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the wells’. He also notes the myth of the guardian dragon associated with the wells, a creature capable of making itself invisible and renewing itself by dipping its tail in the healing waters. It was defeated by one Sir Guy of Warwick, who noticed its secret and cunningly interposed himself between the beast and its source of power, hacking it about until it could take no more, curled up and died. The wells were thenceforth free for all to use. Three cheers for Sir Guy!


To retain the magical properties of plants and flowers gathered St John’s Eve, or the divinatory secrets of sacred waters, it was a general requirement that complete and solemn silence was maintained. The Moomins understood this, as Tove Jansson related in Moominsummer Madness. After sitting by their midsummer fire for a spell, Moomintroll, the Snork Maiden and the Fillyjonk venture out into the night meadows to gather nine kinds of flower (as we have seen with the Witches’ Rock, nine is something of a magic number). The Snork Maiden recalls previous midsummer evenings when ‘we went off to pick nine kinds of flowers and put them under our pillow and then our dreams came true. But you weren’t allowed to say a word while you picked them, not afterwards until morning’. This most magically-wise of creatures also knew some midsummer romantic divinatory rites: ‘First you must turn seven times around yourself, mumbling a little and stamping your feet. Then you go backwards to a well, and turn around, and look down in it. And then, down in the water, you’ll see the person you’re going to marry’.

Midsummer’s eve in the Moomin’s world was also the only time to sow the seeds which almost instantaneously germinate into the small, ghostworm creatures known as the Hattifatteners. More midsummer’s eve sowing magic could be achieved by a girl who walked 12 times (sunwise, of course) around a church, scattering hempseed in her wake whilst intoning the rhyme ‘hempseed I sow/Hempseed I hoe/Let him tht is my true love/Come after me and mow’. The phantom of her future love would then appear, trailing after her, completely under her spell.

A more unsavoury form of love divination is practised in the kitchen, with the midsummer’s eve baking of dumb cakes by a small gathering of women. Once more, the preparation and cooking must be carried out in complete silence. The ingredients are simple and few: half flour and half flour mixed into a dough with the piss of each participant. Each in turn makes a mark or scratches an initial on the cake (or cakes). After the rigorous observation of various scrupulously specified instructions (for this is a highly ritualised recipe) the baked cakes are taken out of the oven and the spectres of future husbands appear to break the piece of cake (or take the smaller bunlike variants) bearing the mark of their bride-to-be and present it to her. As with all supernatural procedures, there were attendant dangers. The anonymous author of the 1685 volume Mother Bunch’s Closet Newly Broke Open (Mother Bunch herself, perhaps) concluded his or her instruction with the saucily valedictory line ‘if there be any so unfortunate to hear a bell, I wish I had them to my bedfellows this night to prevent leading apes to hell’. Leading apes in hell, a phrase which turns up in a number of Shakespearean quotes, was the proverbial fate of old maids in the 16th and 17th centuries, although its precise meaning remains obscure. However, the fact that it is taking place in hell suggests that it’s unlikely to be pleasant. So, a recipe which risks bestial intercourse of whatever variety in the fiery pits. You don’t get that in Delia (as far as I’m aware).

The combination of summer heat and the heightened influence of the moon led to midsummer being considered a time of delirium and madness, particularly for those already affected by such states. Tove Jansson’s Moominsummer Madness plays on such associations, as well as on the theatrical elements which are also central to the novel. The phrase midsummer madness was common in Shakespeare’s time. In Twelfth Night, Olivia responds to Malvolio’s absurdly misguided advances by declaring ‘why, this is very midsummer madness’. Such tendencies lend St John’s eve festivities and edgily antic air, creating a sense of licensed lunacy and abandon. Midsummer sports such as swinging fireballs on the end of chains, running with tar barrels, leaping through flames or rolling burning wheels down hills were ways of toying with chaos, playing with scarcely contained elemental forces that could easily grow rapidly out of control and scorch, char or completely consume; A good analogy for those skirting the borders of mania. Perhaps by allowing the demons of the mind their night of wild freedom, their longer term ravages might be curtailed in the dog days to come.


The ephemeral nature of the sun’s triumph was acknowledged in rites which anticipated harvest time, the fruiting and going to seed of plants now in the full glory of efflorescence. The smoke from fires was partly intended to ritually cleanse the air, protecting crops and herds from pestilence and blight. In Herefordshire and Somerset, fires were lit adjacent to orchards to encourage a good crop in the autumn, as John Aubrey noted: ‘On Midsummer-eve, they make fire in the fields in the waies: sc. to Blesse the Apples’. The ephemerality of human life was also underlined by the south western custom of the midsummer’s eve church porch watch. On the long, hazy evening and short, balmy (hopefully) night of this enchanted evening, it was the phantoms of the living which drifted dreamily abroad, as we’ve seen in the context of a number of the divinatory rituals. The porch watcher could observe the villagers filing dumbly into the parish church, departing once more at midnight. If any remained inside, it was a sure sign that they would die during the following year (in some variations of the tradition, it was only those thus marked who entered the church in the first place). Once more, dangers attended this encounter with the supernatural. If the watcher was overcome with weariness and slipped into sleep during their nightlong vigil, they would join the phantom congregation remaining inside before the next St John’s eve.

For all that it kept one eye on the time to come, and on the dwindling of the light, midsummer’s eve and its ensuing day were all about celebrating the moment. The sun is rising now, climbing to the height of its radiant glory. Light and warmth and joy fill our hearts in this instant, This Instant! So let us gather around the convivial fires, revel in the amber glow bronzing one another’s faces and leap boldly through the flames and fragrant smoke. Surrender to the holy midsummer madness. We are alive. Blessings and thanks to Bright Phoebus, to the lifegiver, to The Sun.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Folklore Tapes: Occultural Creatures Vol.1 - Black Dog Traditions of England


The latest offering from the Folklore Tapes folk (Ian Humberstone and David Chatton Barker in this instance) is a treasure box filled with exquisite objects, a reliquary as the promotional copy casts it. The unholy contents are far from saintly, however. These relics are collected reports and rumours, historical remnants in the form of oral tales and myths in set down in ballad form. Here are dark terrors, tenebrous forms condensed from the night’s impenetrable blackness and given wild, bestial life. This is the opening release in a new Occultural Creatures series and the first supernatural manifestation to be sighted is the terrible, protean outline of the black dog.

At the heart of the project, its scholarly foundation and narrative bone structure, is Ian Humberstone’s investigative study of black dog traditions in England. It has academic heft and an authority anchored by extensive footnotes and bibliographic markers. Fervid poring over little consulted texts are supported by field expeditions and first hand explorations and interviews, mining local knowledge and gaining a feel for the geography of myth, the spirit of folkloric place. Where it succeeds over more dusty tomes is in its ability to bring the stories alive, to create a rich sense of atmosphere, conjuring time, space and mood and making the sense of dread and uncanny mystery palpable. These are accounts made to be read aloud, as indeed a number of them have been in a handful of compelling performances. The ‘prowling and ill-omened animation of the witching hour’ has been brought to life as a stark woodcut silhouette thrown onto a white screen of ghostly cloth by an overhead projector, backdrops shifted in the blink of an eye by a prestidigitator’s hand whipping away photographic transparencies. ‘Listen close and I will tell you all I know’, Ian begins. It’s as if we are gathered around the warm, hypnotically flickering radiance of a fire, the shadows cast to the periphery of vision by the beguiling coil and sway of its transient flames.


The prose has a bewitching cadence, an enchanting use of the language of romance which lends it a bardic quality. Read it in your head in measured metre with a soft Scottish brogue to hear it in its optimum form. Ian Humberstone traces the development of the ubiquitous black dogs of legend and folklore from demonic beasts, embodiments of hellish power, to the less corporeal though no less terrifying outlines of spectre-hounds, haunters of dark lanes and wild moors or guardians of magical hoards. He gathers together the linguistic branches of the black dog family, the regional vernacular which produces barguests, shocks and hooters, gytrash, padfeet and skrikers. They are manifold but tend to share common characteristics; uncommonly large black hounds with eyes as big as saucers. Occasionally they swell in size, expanding to take on an aspect of cosmic horror, becoming indistinguishable from the terror of the night’s dark abyss.

Ian travels the length of the land to gather tales of these dread beasts, tracking their footprints to Devon, Herefordshire and Norfolk, Yorkshire, Somerset and even to the dark, stinking heart of old London town. Photographs, soft with film stock grain, add eyeflash instants, impressions of landscape and the particularity of place. Tudor ruins with their long-cold fireplaces; the graveyards of flinty East-Anglian churches; stygian fern and ash-leaf veiled cave-mouths; and the imprint of the black dog on weather vanes, pub and road signs. Our fearless and intrepid explorers, messrs. Humberstone and Chatton Barker, are glimpsed as figures in these landscapes, picking their way through the tumbled limestone trail of Troller’s Gill, measuring out the distances of the high moorland or soaking up the sun outside the Black Dog Inn.


There are also stills from the celluloid strips of David Chatton Barker’s 16mm film, also included in the box. The stock is deliberately corroded, subjected to weathering and bio-chemical erosion by elements taken from different black dog sites. The patterns thus produced lend an air of antiquity to the film (an antiquity already inbuilt, in these our accelerated times, by the physicality of the medium, the care and labour required for its development). These are strips of film steeped in long time, partaking of the slow geological transformations of the world. They also reflect the transformations of the tales marking the brief moment of human presence in the landscape. Tales whose articulation of a forbidding wildness, an essential otherness, express a subconscious awareness of the tenuous provisionality of this habitation. The blotched and cracked surfaces of the filmstrips are like relief charts for some hidden territory, Ordinance Survey maps for the otherworld or route maps for the inner landscape. The black dogs traverse these celluloid terrains like mental emanations, suggestive silhouettes etched onto the retina via inky Rorschach smears. ‘So what do you see in this one?’ ‘The spectre-hound of hell’. ‘Ah, most interesting….’

The treasure box also houses a 12” LP, which summons up sonic atmospheres to bring the book’s manifestations to life. It is best heard with the lights down low. It begins with the comforting flutter and weave of birdsong, allowing a moment of calm before the black dog is summoned. A dull, metallic clang, a bell with no ecclesiastical resonance, no hint of heavenly overtones, sounds like a huge feeding bowl being struck with a giant’s wooden spoon. ‘Here boy, fresh bones’.


The moaning of a nocturnal wind sets the scene for the Barguest of Dob Park Lodge, the discomforting accompaniment to the night journey of the treasure hunter who ventured into the underworld beneath the old, deserted Tudor mansion. It’s a wind gusting in from elsewhere, a chill otherworld. As Ian Humberstone puts it, ‘here we leave the known world behind and step ovesr the threshold into myth’. Deep, echoing booms sound out the cavernous spaces, hinting at far-off activity, hammering, pounding labours or the earth-shuddering thuds of giant footsteps. There are small chittering sounds closer at hand, dry scuttling and stridulation in the impenetrable shadows. The rustily rotating wheels and gears of some clanking, ratcheting machinery can be heard in the muffled distance, gradually becoming clearer and more defined in the aural spectrum, growing steadily nearer; the clockwork mechanics of fate winding through its inexorable motions.

The inquisitive hoot of an owl signals a change of scene as we head down south again to listen to the Devon landlord’s tale. The landlord of the Black Dog pub, naturally. Glinting clusters of zithery notes suggest raindrops shivering from the eaves outside, or sparks spitting from the hearth of the inn at Uplyme. Our host talks of ‘inheriting’ the legends along with the pub. It is the landlord’s duty to tell the tales which have been passed on to him, to perpetuate the local legends which tend to find their oral node in the convivial communal space of the pub. Marina Warner writes of the local folklore and memory encoded in pub names, citing the old Mother Redcap in London. For many years it commemorated a neighbourhood character, an old witch of great and dubious renown in the area. Novelty pub names of contrived eccentricity imposed by the large brewers erased this marker of history, character and custom. As she wrote in her 2006 article for the Guardian, ‘Pub names and signs are some of the oldest surviving traces of exchanges and folklore in a particular place. More and more names and phrases in the public arena are tied to adverts and commodities – global creep of meanings for everybody and no one’.

The Black Dog in Uplyme remains, however, and the dog who once took up a regular inglenook residence in the evening was a benevolent guardian, a spectral companion like the one which watches over Tarkovsky’s stalker as he lies down to rest in the Zone. The one encountered outside is far more to be feared, a shape torn from the fabric of the night, swelling to take on the dimension of a dark constellation.


The coming of the beast said to be a reincarnation of the restless spirit of Black Vaughan, the unloved lord of the manor of Hergest Court in Herefordshire whose malign influence seemed to persist beyond the grave, is foretold by dolorous doom chimes. These are soon overlaid by wintry minor key toy piano melancholy, the deadened notes falling like snowflakes. Menacing synth brood adds a final unsettling layer of ground mist to this lost John Carpenter theme. Something is padding towards us in the darkness, and there is nothing we can do to evade it. The legend of Black Vaughan, his fate and the curse of his black dog haunted ancestors, along with the theories that the origins of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, lie here on the Herefordshire borders rather than on the moors of Devon, form the basis of The Prayer of the Night Shepherd, one of Phil Rickman’s excellent novels featuring the diocesan deliverance consultant (or, to use the old parlance, exorcist) Merrily Watkins.

A brief interlude of light, a respite from night’s oppressive terrors. Birdsong pastoral sets the scene for a playfully piping synth gavotte (or somesuch renaissance caper), a reconstructed parade to Dog Village conducted according to the fanciful colourations of the modern imagination; pageantry with all the authentic antiquity of recollected horror films and pysch-folk albums. And none the worse for it.

The Eastern legends of Black Shuck are related by Malcolm Busby with an estuarine Essex matter of factness. He’s a natural storyteller, a conspiratorial narrator. We feel the beguiling magic of these oral histories, and are compelled to lean in a little closer to tell the tales as they were told to him. Spectral winds shiver and moan in the background, carrying with them the sharp, salty tang of the coastal marshes. This is another fireside gathering on a night you wouldn’t care to be abroad. To be out….there. At the end, after empty glasses a slammed onto the table with an air of determined finality (this one really is the last), yearning synth melodies and hazy chorales suggest our genuine need for such stories, for the presence of something other in the world, the persistence of mystery, of the wild unknown, even if it produces shudders of terror (shudders which are secretly to be relished).


We head north again to seek out the Barguest of Troller’s Gill. As we pick our way cautiously through the scree and boulder rubble littering the passage of this narrow valley scarring the limestone landscape we hear an eerie descending trill. Otherworldly bird calls with a coiled metallic sheen, made (we might imagine) by lamp-eyed, sharp-beaked creatures of the kind found perching in the blasted branches of the spook-infested woods surrounding the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West. The voices, which don’t sound like they come from any creature of flesh and blood, multiply, as if a sinister flock were gathering – deathbirds anticipating a carrion feast. A trickling stream and footsteps navigating rocky ground sound an aural map of the terrain. A folkish tune with plinking, bicycle wheel accompaniment suggestive of raindrop splashes develops into a haunting, gliding music box melody. A dance of fate, a death waltz.

An ominous drone heralds the London tour guide’s tale, a grim Newgate legend from the foul heart of the famine-blighted middle ages involving sorcery, cannibalism and a murderously vengeful hound. As if to emphasise that the shadows of the past are not easily exorcised, particularly when attached to places of such dark notoriety, he ends by pointing to the old site of Dead Man’s Walk (now Amen Court), the passageway leading from the cells to the gallows, where the shade of the black dog can still sometimes be seen flitting across the ill-lit wall. Naturally, such sightings do not bode well for the unfortunate observer.

Finally we ascend to the moorland heights of Somerset to encounter the Watchdogs of the Wambarrows. A metallic shimmer evokes the uncanny nature of the landscape, and swooning waves of blurry sound conjure up a delirious, hallucinatory atmosphere. Amorphous, transient forms wisp into being before dissipating and swirling away with the mists. A ghostly howling emerges from and is absorbed into the blustering perturbations of the chill air. Nothing is certain in this charged, uncanny topography.

This is a highly entertaining and imaginatively engaging survey of the black dog legends of England which wears its in-depth research lightly, making it accessible to all. Beautifully presented as ever, it is an exquisite work of art underpinned by genuine scholarship. This is a labour of love long in the birthing, and its been well worth the wait. So read the book as you listen to the record, and don’t be surprised if you hear the padding of phantom feet, the distant hint of wild, haunted howling. Wherever you are, the black dog is on your trail.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Notes for a filmclub screening.


Valerie and her Week of Wonders is a Czech film made in 1969, the year after the Prague Spring and its brutal suppression by the Soviet Union. It’s a colourful fantasy, both rooted in its time and place (it’s very central European and very 60s) and with a universality which gives it broad appeal. Part surrealist serial, part folkloric fairytale with elements of gothic horror it is the story of a young girl’s first steps towards the adult world. Her dreamworld is populated by a strange cast of characters, grandmothers, monsters, minstrels and missionaries whose identities are constantly shifting as if they were all part of some carnivalesque parade or harlequinade. Through her adventures she learns more about the world she inhabits and becomes more confident in negotiating her way around it, more sure of herself. Throughout it all she remains magically protected, partly through the agency of her magic earrings; her unassailable innocence is like a protecting veil, repelling those who would assault and corrupt her. It is a story about the usefulness of stories, the value to be found in fairytale fantasies which help us find our place in the world and warn us of its dangers without ever losing our sense of enchantment with its manifold wonders.


The psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim wrote about the value of fairytales in guiding children towards the adult world in his 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment, taking a Freudian perspective on their scarcely concealed subtexts. He suggests (and I’ve changed his use of male pronouns to make it more relevant to the context of Valerie) that ‘in order to master the psychological problems of growing up – overcoming narcissistic disappointments, oedipal dilemmas, sibling rivalries; becoming able to relinquish childhood dependencies; gaining a feeling of selfhood and of self-worth, and a sense of moral obligation – a child needs to understand what is going on within her conscious self so that she can also cope with that which goes on in her unconscious. She can achieve this understanding, and with it the ability to cope, not through rational comprehension of the nature and content of her unconscious, but by becoming familiar with it through spinning out daydreams – ruminating, rearranging, and fantasizing about suitable story elements in response to unconscious pressures. By doing this, the child fits unconscious content into conscious fantasies, which they enable her to deal with that content. It is here that fairy tales have unequalled value, because they offer new dimensions to the child’s imagination which would be impossible for her to discover as truly as her own. Even more important, the form and structure of fairy tales suggest images to the child by which she can structure her daydreams and with them give better direction to her life’.


Angela Carter was a little more wary of finding useful guidance for negotiating life’s universal dilemmas in fairytales. She liked Charles Perrault’s no-nonsense variations on Little Red Riding Hood and Puss in Boots. But she remembered bed-time readings of Hans Christian Andersen with horror. ‘Please make it stop, I used to say…but they kept on assaulting my sensibilities with Andersen’s fairy-tales with a grand air of self-satisfaction. Weren’t these dreadful stories Children’s Classics? Weren’t they only doing their cultural duty by forcing them on me? Isn’t the function of a good fairy-tale to instil fear, trembling and the sickness unto death in the existential virgin, anyway? And why should children have a good time? The sooner you learn your own impotence in the face of universal despair, the better’. She sought in her own revisionist fairytales, collected in The Bloody Chamber and elsewhere, and in her anthologies of traditional folkloric fairytales, to find examples which reflected women’s experiences; stories which might be of use to women and girls alike, presenting them with heroines they could identify with and learn from. In her introduction to her Virago Book of Fairy Tales collection she wrote ‘that I and many other women should go looking for fairy-tale heroines (reflects) a wish to validate my claim to a fair share of the future by staking my claim to my share of the past. She notes of fairy-tales that ‘on the surface, these stories tend to perform a normative function – to reinforce the ties that bind people together, rather than to question them. Life on the economic edge is sufficiently precarious without continual existential struggle. But the qualities these stories recommend for the survival and prosperity of women are never those of passive subordination’. Carter certainly found something of value in Valerie. She saw it when it received it premiere in the National Film Theatre in London, emerging in the 80s after a long period of obscurity languishing on the shelf of the banned. She loved it, and it was a strong influence on the writing of the screenplay of The Company of Wolves, her adaptation of her own Bloody Chamber stories, and her subsequent adaptation of her early novel The Magic Toyshop for a TV film. The Company of Wolves is a close cousin to Valerie, created very much in the same spirit.

Valerie is often thought of as being the last of the films emerging from the so-called Czech New Wave, a group of filmmakers emerging from the FAMU school which had been established in Prague in 1947. Having been banned for many years by the authoritarian Communist government, with its reforged iron links with the Soviet Union, it has been rediscovered in the west in recent decades and has steadily built up a cult cache fostered by a dedicated band of proselytisers. Many of these have emerged from the musical world, amongst them Andy Votel of the Finders Keepers label, who organised a number of screenings and who released Lubos Fiser’s luminous score on Finders Keepers, and the late Trish Keenan of the group Broadcast. Trish had a particularly personal relationship with the film and voiced what many perhaps feel in her sleevenotes to the soundtrack release. Watching the film and subsequently listening to her cassette recording of the soundtrack, ‘it was like a door had been opened in my subconscious and fragments of memories and dreams rejoiced right there in my living room’. Broadcast have been a favourite band of mine for a long time and it was Trish’s reverence for Valerie, expressed in a number of interviews, which made me seek it out. I found a copy on an old Redemption dvd, a label which mixed horror and Euro exploitation, the self-produced photographic covers no less lurid for being in black and white. The print they used was faded and dust-flecked (they had no resources for restorations) but the magic shone through nonetheless. I was immediately entranced. It’s magical central European fairytale world seemed to work according to a dream logic all its own, but I felt wholly attuned to it, not worrying about whether it made any sense or had any overt meaning. Its spell was cast, its enchantment made manifest on some deeper level than the rational. I knew I would be returning again and again to the town square with its central fountain, to the strange underground crypts, the labyrinthine house, the surrounding fields and lakes. Trish wrote about being ‘confirmed by the church of Lubos Fiser’. I was a convert too.


The film is an adaptation of a novel by the poet and surrealist writer Viteslav Nezval. Nezval was a creative force in a number of artistic fields in the early twentieth century. He was instrumental in setting up the Poetist movement in the 20s, whose writers aimed to lyrically portray the Czech landscape and to view the world through a heightened, imaginative perspective. It was essentially the direct opposite to the socialist realist outlook which would predominate from the Stalinist period onward. Inevitably there was a manifesto, the Poetist Manifesto, which was written in 1924. It set out the poetist beliefst thusly: poetist art should be ‘playful, unheroic, unphilosophical, mischievous, and fantastic’, and offer ‘a magnificent entertainment, a harlequinade of feeling and imagination…a marvellous kaleidoscope’. The sense of playfulness, of a kaleidoscopic masquerade of the fantastic is certainly characteristic of the film Valerie. It is also shot with a beautifully lyrical eye, full of sun-dappled lakes and mist-hazed meadows, evocations of the sensual world in its landscapes and its small details (and there is indeed something very Kate Bushlike about Valerie). The lyrical feel is beautifully captured in the cinematography of Jan Curik, who collaborated regularly with Valerie director Jaromil Jires. The scene in which Valerie runs through the morning meadow has an almost mystical quality to it, the light and mist suggesting a heavenly otherworld. Curik manages to convey the feel of summer with an almost palpable warmth and freshness. His evocation of summer moods is particularly impressive given the fact that it was apparently raining for the greater part of the shoot.

This Czech lyricism found visual realisation in a number of films in the late 20s and early 30s on which Nezval collaborated with director Gustav Machaty. He wrote the scripts for Erotikon and From Saturday to Sunday and was also involved with the 1932 picture Ecstasy. This achieved a certain notoriety due to the scenes in which its female star, Heddy Kiester, goes skinnydipping in a Czech lake. No big deal in its homeland, where the lyrical feel for landscape was often accompanied by a sensual connection between character and natural environment. However, when Heddy Kiester relocated to America, changed her name to Lamarr and became a major Hollywood star, such innocent pleasures were seen as scandalous in the censorious climate of the post-Hayes code era. The Hayes Code had been written by Will Hayes in 1927 and subsequently revised in 1930, when it was given more clout in order to save the great American public from being corrupted by the movies and led into the ways of sin. With covert input from the Catholic church, its puritanical conservatism is ironically similar to the censorship imposed by the Soviet state (and all authoritarian regimes). Valerie would fall foul of such censorship, its anti-clericalism and depiction of a younger generation vampirically fed upon by a corrupt elder generation interpreted as veiled anti-authoritarianism. Its very lack of readily identifiable plot and morally unambiguous message was enough to outrage the philistine overseers of the iron state. If they failed to immediately understand a work of art, they deemed it ‘elitist’, assumed it harboured a dangerous subtext and banned it.


Another collaborator on these three films from the late 20s and early 30s was an artist called Alexandr Hadkenschmied. His role was fairly loosely defined but he brought an experimental and exploratory aesthetic to bear on what was largely straightforward narrative drama. He emigrated to America in 1939 (he was obliged to leave the country after working on an anti-Nazi documentary), where he adjusted his name to Alexander Hammid and married the writer and filmmaker Maya Deren. They collaborated on the 1943 film Meshes of the Afternoon which bears some resemblance to Valerie in that it is a film which proceeds according to dream logic, shifts from domestic spaces to natural environments (the beach in this case), features magical objects and tokens, is filled with an atmosphere of heady surrealism and is viewed from a female perspective. There is a shot in Meshes, often reproduced, in which Maya Deren (who takes the dreamer’s role) stands at a window, hands pressed against the glass, looking pensively to one side, her face merging with the reflections of foliage and branches in the pane. This pose is almost exactly reproduced when Valerie gazes out from an oval carriage window. A conscious homage perhaps? You can sometimes see Maya peering up from the basement of the Cavern Club in Exeter when the door opposite the Boston Tea Party is open for bar deliveries. Incidentally, Meshes of the Afternoon, like Valerie, has been influential on a number of musicians. The group Pram, who emerged from the same Brum scene as Broadcast titled and EP Meshes and, in case this didn’t sufficiently spell out their love of Maya Deren, also wrote a song called Meshes of the Afternoon for their Helium LP.


Valerie and Maya Deren - on the threshold of dream
Viteslav Nezval was also a founding member and leader of the Czech surrealist group, which grew out of the concerns of the Poetist movement, and was officially established in 1934. Czechoslovakia was a significant site of surrealist activity, a satellite with a strong connection to the mother planet of Paris. This was perhaps unsurprising given the tradition of the fantastic in late 19th and early 20th century Czech literature; a tradition whose most renowned proponents were Franz Kafka and Gustave Meyrinck (author of The Golem), even if both did write in German. The novel Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a product of Nezval’s surrealist period. It was completed in 1935 but not finally published until a decade later, in 1945. By this time, Nezval had utterly renounced surrealism, poetism and any form of art which delighted in the unfettered imagination. He’d long been a communist, but he now grew more hardline and followed the Stalinist credo that socialist realism was the only valid form for art to take. Art which formed a useful social function or provided emotive propaganda for the state. Films about socialist martyrs were perennially popular. Jaromel Jires would make one in the wake of Valerie’s post-Prague Spring disappearance, And Give My Love to the Swallows. Nezval even sank so low as to pen a poetic paean of obsequious praise to Stalin. Like most manifesto-writing artistic tyrants, Nezval wasn’t content merely to follow his own artistic path. He wanted everyone else to travel it as well, with all alternative routes to be barricaded with road blocks. He attempted to dissolve the surrealist group in 1938, but fortunately failed to exercise his reductive authority. The group went underground during the war and the subsequent Soviet dominion but re-emerged during the Prague spring of the 60s. One of its major creative talents was the artist, filmmaker and animator Jan Svankmajer, whose superb, surrealist take on Alice in Wonderland, simply titled Alice, screened at Studio 74 in the Phoenix as part of the Animated Exeter festival last Friday. Alice was established as part of the surrealist canon from the early days of the movement, and its influence can certainly be felt in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, the film in particular. Alice was also a firm favourite of Trish Keenan, who particularly loved Jonathan Miller’s dreamy summer of love version for the BBC, with its languorous score by Ravi Shankar.

Nezval’s loyalty to the party had one advantage in subsequent years however. It meant that director Jaromil Jires was able to get his long-planned film of Valerie passed for production by the communist authorities who dictated what was or was not acceptable. The presence of Nezval’s son Robert in the cast (he plays the check-suited drummer who leads the players into the town square) lent a further air of official sanction to the project. It’s certainly not the kind of thing which Nezval himself would have approved during his tenure as head of the Orwellian Ministry of Information film department from 1945-50. However, he was safely out of the way by 1969, having died in 1958, his reputation for unswerving loyalty intact. Sadly, his son, born out of wedlock and presumably unrecognised by his father in the hypocritically puritan climate of the party hierarchy, committed suicide in 1971, shortly after the film’s release.

Jaromil Jires was part of the Czech new wave movement which emerged in the 60s, taking advantage of the new spirit of post-Stalinist liberalism which led to the Prague spring of 1968. This was the year in which the reforming president Alexander Dubcek attempted to outline a new form of socialism and free his country from totalitarian control. A number of important talents emerged from the FAMU film school, including directors Frantisek Vlacil, Jiri Menzel, Vera Chytilov, Jan Nemec, Milos Forman and Ivan Passer. The new wave films of the 60s often had a spirit of youthful rebellion which fitted in with the more general worldwide sense of generational conflict which characterised the decade. The assumptions and authority, moral and political, of the older generation were brought into question, and the emerging generation attempted to forge a new worldview, a new way of living. Forman’s Loves of a Blonde and The Fireman’s Ball, Menzel’s Closely Observed Trains and Larks on a String, Juraj Jakubisco’s Birds, Orphans and Fools and, in particular, Vera Chytilova’s Daisies and Fruit of Paradise all partake of this spirit, as does Valerie. This congruence with wider countercultural trends is one reason why the films of the Czech new wave, and Valerie above all, have found such favour with musicians in the modern alternative rock sphere. Indeed, some of you may remember the Exeter collective Birds, Orphans and Fools, named after Jakubisco’s film, who brightened the city with music, art and screenings of strange and wonderful movies a while back. Another collective formed around members of the American psych-folk group Espers, going by the name of the Valerie Project. They got together to record an alternative soundtrack to Valerie, having already performed it live at several screenings, thus proving the transatlantic appeal of the film. The recording was released on the Drag City label in 2007, so you can cue it up and experience the film in an entirely different way. Although this does seem sacrilegious given the sheer sublime beauty of Lubos Fiser’s luminous score.


Several of the filmmakers associated with the Czech new wave left the country after the Soviet invasion of 1968 and found a natural place in the independent American cinema of the 70s, which had also emerged from 60s countercultural origins. Milos Forman made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Ivan Passer the underrated Cutter’s Way, a brilliant post-60 lament which heralds the dawn of Reaganite America. Valerie was made after the Soviet tanks had rolled into the streets of Prague in 1968, ending the brief, bright spring promising the summery air of freedom to come, now crushed beneath rumbling, clanking treads and smothered by iron grey clouds. It’s often regarded as the last film of the Czech new wave and therefore has a certain valedictory air to it (valedictory Valerie). Its summer idylls are dreams of what might have been, and in their universality, also serve in general as a requiem for the softer kind of 60s utopianism.

Valerie was Jaromil Jires’ third film. The first, made in 1963, was The Cry, whose central protagonist is a TV repairman who gains glimpses into the lives of the customers whose homes he enters and who also reflects on his own life. It’s loose, playful and full of incidental observations and incorporates dream and fantasy sequences in a way that Richard Lester would in his 60s movies with or without The Beatles. The year before making Valerie he shot The Joke, an adaptation of Milan Kundera’s novel of the same name. A real product of the Prague spring in that it was unthinkable that it could have been made earlier, it cast a bitterly ironic and straightforwardly critical eye on the Stalinist period of the 50s. Its central character suffers terribly for a throwaway quip on a postcard sent to his girlfriend which reads ‘long live Trotsky’. The film was still shooting when the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. Inevitably, it didn’t fare well with the new regime.
Valerie was unlike anything Jires had previously produced. This undoubtedly owes a great deal to one of his key collaborators on the film, Ester Krumbachova. Krumbachova was a figure of major importance within the Czech new wave. The fact that she only directed one film herself (The Murder of Engineer Devil of 1970, surely due for rediscovery and re-release) merely serves to undermine the French auteur theory which would ascribe the director as the singular creator behind any given picture. She wrote, or co-wrote, a number of scripts for the landmark films of the new wave, including Jan Nemec’s Kafkaesque The Party and the Guests, his lyrical Martyrs of Love, and collaborated most fruitfully with Vera Chytilova on two films towards the end of the 60s, Daisies and Fruit of Paradise. These surreal, highly colourful pictures both feature wilful female protagonists who act out their desires in a manner both strident and playful. Fruit of Paradise in particular has a lyrical sensuality and feel for landscape and palpable texture which is very reminiscent of Valerie. The symbolism of the forbidden apple and the fruit of paradise, of the Edenic garden also links the two films. Valerie cheerfully crunches into one of the apples which have been lined up around her funeral bier. Indeed, she eats a variety of fruits throughout the film, as does the protagonist of Fruit of Paradise. This natural sense of pleasure, the pleasure in the natural, is very different from the conspicuous consumption of the doll-like automatons of Daisies, who self-consciously ‘go bad’ to fit in with a world which they have decided has no meaning or purpose. They end up cramming their face full of rich meats, creamy desserts and cakes from a banqueting table which they raid and thoroughly trash.

Krumbachova was, in addition to being a writer and sometime director, a costume and set designer, roles she fulfilled for Valerie. Clearly she was a woman of manifold talents and her creative influence over Valerie was considerable. This female signature on the film is important given the sensitive subject matter of a young girl’s coming of age and her vision of the adult world of sexuality through the symbolic lens of folkloric fairytale. Her authorship and her creation of the film’s visual look noticeably transforms the tone of the book and avoids any element of exploitation which might otherwise have tainted the story. This is Valerie’s film, Valerie’s dream, Valerie’s useful fairy-tale. We see everything through her eyes. She may be subject to various threats, confronted with disturbing and even horrific sights, assailed by vampires, wereweasels and perverted priests. But she remains magically protected throughout, either by her enchanted earrings, or by Orlik, or increasingly be her own command over every situation. Her adversaries try to bind her to the machineries of time, but she soon masters the mysteries of dream logic. She becomes a lucid dreamer, recognising that ‘it’s just a dream – I’m dreaming it all’. And if it’s her dream (the dream of life) then she can control it, wander through it and watch, learning all the time. Valerie observes her own story with curiosity and even, later, amusement (the moment where she sticks her tongue out at the priest whose about to burn her at the stake is priceless). The adult world is initially frightening and bewildering, with its secrets, hypocrisies and contradictions (represented by the shifting nature of the familial characters, their ever-changing masks). But as she learns, loses her fear and gains command of her environment, it becomes something to anticipate with equanimity and pleasure, stripped of its secrets and lies. The final parade and circle dance offers a world of guiltless pleasure ,the repressive, hypocritical priest penned in a domed cage like a squatting black toad to keep him from doing any further harm. But Valerie isn’t ready yet. She wanders around the sunny glade, watching and smiling before retreating to her familiar white bed, drifting into peaceful sleep to wake from her dream.

Krumbachova’s set designs contrast the clean sunlit rooms aboveground with the dusty crypts below; the sepulchral gothic world of tombs and cobwebs with the obsessively tidy and well ordered spaces of the grandmother’s house to which they are connected, providing a subconscious underside. Valerie’s room is a pure, unsullied white, her sanctuary and the outward manifestation of her inner world. It is briefly and shockingly invaded by the black-clad, predatory priest as he tries to possess her physically and colonise her secret self. But he is repelled by her power of innocence, confronted with his own monstrousness. His assault on Valerie’s innocence kills him, as will the weasel’s later on (although death is a relative state in this dreamworld).

Krumbachova’s costume for the weasel, with his lustrously black vampiric cape, draws heavily on traditional gothic elements. The monster make-up, with white face and bald head, pointed ears and prominent teeth, is a variant on the look of Max Schreck’s Nosferatu from FW Murnau’s 1922 classic (a film which Nezval hugely admired). The weasel (more literally translated in the novel as polecat) takes the vampire back to the peasant figure familiar from old Central and Eastern European folklore. Far from the aristocratic figure of Bram Stoker’s novel, these creatures of village superstition were more animalistic and more likely to be a threat to your livestock than your maiden daughter. Rather than fearing garlic, they were likely to reek of the stuff.

Krumbachova suffered like so many in the wake of the Soviet invasion, and retreated from the world of film for a while. She did return in triumphant fashion in 1976 however, designing the sets and costumes for Karel Kachyna’s wonderful fairy-tale film Mala Morska Vila (The Little Mermaid). Her creations include the incredible blue undersea hairstyles sported by the merfolk – resplendent impermanent waves. They’re the finest movie hairstyles since Ernest Thesiger’s Dr Pretorius grandiloquently unveiled Elsa Lanchester’s white-streaked art deco Bride of Frankenstein barnet back in 1935. The blue mermaid look was one which the singer Jane Weaver adapted for her 2010 album The Fallen By Watchbird, her own version of a Czech-style fairy-tale fantasy.

Mention finally has to be made of Lubos Fiser’s gorgeous score. With its lullabies and fanfares, gothic organ chords and delicately plucked lutes, children’s choirs and lusty male choruses, lyrical themes and crashing dissonant chords, music box waltzes and meditative harpsichord nocturnes it is the perfect accompaniment to Valerie’s kaleidoscopic dream and the constant abrupt transformations which occur within it. The lightly tinkling celeste motif which heralds the magical transformations wrought by Valerie’s earrings is a recurrent sound and perfectly evokes the aura of enchantment which surrounds her like a shimmering shield. Fiser went on to score another colourful gothic fantasy in 1972, Juraj Herz’s Morgiana. But he was also a prominent composer in the post-war Czech world of classical music, although he suffered neglect through his failure to conform to the requirements of the state. His piece 15 Prints After Durer’s Apocalypse gained him international recognition after it won a UNESCO prize in 1967. His classical work benefitted to an extent from a revival in the period after the Velvet Revolution, and the process of rediscovery continues to this day, some 17 years after his death.


Fiser’s lullaby theme for Valerie, the music we hear both at the beginning and end of the film and throughout in a procession of variations, was adapted by Trish Keenan for the Broadcast song Valerie, included on the 2003 album Haha Sound. This presented her own take on the film’s aura of enchantment, voicing her identification with Valerie and her wondrous adventures. I’ll leave you with the lyrics as a guide, Trish’s code for entering the dreamworld of Valerie:

Inside the mask another disguise
I fall to sleep before closing my eyes
Tiredness draws in my head a cartoon
Sun at the window, good things coming soon
Shake your earrings over my head
Lay down your dreams on my pillow
Before bed
The silence of ice at the borders of day
Sun in my face will not keep them away
Sinking me into the white of your room
Sky through the curtain, good things coming soon
Shake your earrings over my head
Lay down your dreams on my pillow
Before bed.