Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Leo Dillon



I was sad to hear of the death of Leo Dillon who, in close (indeed inseparable) collaboration with his wife Diane had been one of the finest book illustrators of the last half century. The couple met on a design course in New York in 1953 and married after graduating in 1956, and have been together ever since, apparently rather reclusive and living in creative domestic bliss. Their book cover designs, which have appeared since the late 1950s, have always been dually attributed, and the signature Leo and Diane Dillon was a guarantee of a visually distinctive and strikingly imaginative graphic style. This was particularly gratifying as far as their work in the SF and fantasy genres was concerned, where clichéd images of spaceships, aliens and mighty thewed, sword-wielding barbarians and bronze-brassiered amazons were the wearisome norm. The Dillons style was very diverse, but always with an instantly recognisable signature. They produced blocky, heavily outlined designs which had the look of prints; watercolours in which translucent figures interpenetrated each other, often creating further images at the point of overlaid intersection; pictures resembling pieces of marquetry; illustrations with the jewelled colours and oriental atmosphere of Leon Bakst’s designs for Diaghilev or Kay Nielsen’s fairy tale pictures; intricate, intertwining pen and ink drawings; paper cut-out collages; paintings emulating stained glass (the beautiful cover to CS Lewis’ Till We Have Faces); and bright pop art assemblages (the cover to the US paperback of Harlan Ellison’s The Glass Teat). They often arranged images representing the subjects or moods of the stories they were illustrating into larger designs, so that a peacock might be made up of marching figures, trees, a river with boats and a bridge; or a sad woman’s trailing veil containing cars, basilisks, levered and crank-shafted mechanisms, triceratops, ape-like faces and the outline of a carrion bird with a skull extending towards its hooked beak (Ellison’s Deathbird Stories). Leo Dillon’s parentage means that there is a significant representation of African American figures in their work, too, which again makes their work particularly distinctive (sadly). They worked outside of the field of book cover design, providing the covers for many LPs in the Caedmon series of spoken word recordings. I particularly like their series of paintings for the Sing Children Sing records, which cover various countries around the world. They all have a large planetary globe with the country in question prominently outlined, a choir of open mouthed figures in costumes associated with the place, and a distinctive landscape in which well-known or vernacular buildings are placed. For Britain, we have the white cliffs of Dover, the houses of parliament, a castle and a small thatched cottage and an array of figures which includes Henry VIII, a friendly bobby, a pearly king, a yeoman of the guard, a Norman knight, an extravagantly bewigged Regency lady, a judge and a Scotsman. I think they’ve captured our character rather well.


Deathbird Stories


They have enjoyed a long and close personal and artistic relationship with the writer Harlan Ellison, who has himself always sat rather awkwardly upon the generic shelves to which his intensely felt short stories have been consigned. Their covers for Ellison’s collections display a unique and deeply rooted understanding of his work. They are expressionistic, reflecting the heightened style and feeling of the stories within. The cover of one of Ellison’s rare novel-length works, Spider Kiss, has the pattern of the rock star protagonist’s pink shirt made up of the anguished faces of his worshipping fans, whose looks of devotion are indistinguishable from grimaces of agony. Gentleman Junkie is a study in cross-hatched shading worthy of Mervyn Peake, whilst Web of the City is one of their woodblock prints (by the looks of it) whose distorted faces are reminiscent of those in the Expressionist paintings of Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann or George Grosz. The cover of the original hardback edition of Dangerous Visions, the influential anthology which Ellison edited in the 60s, is a hugely inventive and imaginative design, which manages to conflate a diagram of the eye with a stringed musical instrument, also incorporating a portrait of Ellison as some kind of knowing harpie. The image on the front cover, contained within the eye and projected by arrowed lines focussed through the lens, is deliberately slightly out of focus. An indication that what lies within is a projection of reality, and not reality itself – a highlighting of the artifice of art, and its permission therefore to explore what would be taboo in the society in which it operates. The lens itself is rendered so that it appears transparent, with a lighter green limning the white disc making it stand out from the background. The Dillons also produced a series of small woodblock prints which illustrated each story. These were done as a last minute commission, which Ellison insisted upon with the publishers, and as a result have a raw, instinctive immediacy which fits in perfectly with the tone of the book. Unfortunately, they are not terribly well reproduced in the 70s paperback editions which I have, which are also lumbered with hopelessly inappropriate spaceships and aliens covers. All of which makes you appreciate the Dillons even more. Of the Ellison covers, the one for Deathbird Stories is a particular favourite (and the story The Deathbird one of my favourites of Ellison’s). The blending of the elements is done so effortlessly, the composition working as a whole and then drawing in the eye to examine the details, the component parts which go to make up the strange amalgamation of the mourning woman and the crow (a different sort of deathbird to the one which Ellison writes about). The way that the long black hair of the woman morphs into the upward sweep of the crow’s black tailfeathers is superbly done, and the iridescent colours which bloom at the core of the outer darkness reflect the balance of the stories within, which vary from the ‘heart’s blood’ tales of intense introspection and moral interrogation to the demonically comical, carnivalesque stories which delight in loosing chaos upon the world. The mournful, noble profile of the woman at first draws attention away from the two small, red horns spiking up from her brow, an indication that all is not always as it seems. Although in Ellison’s fiction, demons are not necessarily to be considered a force for evil. The way in which the human skull is incorporated into the curve of the crow’s silhouetted cranium is beautifully done, the bird’s cold, dead eye staring out of the shadowy socket, and echoing the upturned, nictating eye of the lizard on the opposite side of the composition. The woman’s veil becomes part of the pattern on the mask, whose upper browns, curved and crooked, echo the claws of the crow, which themselves connect with the semi-organic machineries above. Everything connects with, or emerges from, everything else and it’s all marvellous. The cover of The Beast That Shouted Love At the Heart of the World is also fine, depicting a chthonic beast curled up beneath the earth like a seed waiting to unfurl. It sends its tongue up through the soil, its tip forking into a pink heart which expands into a bubblegum speech bubble, containing the words of the collection and its title story.


The Essential Ellison - front cover

The Dillons included affectionate portraits of Ellison on several of their covers for his books, reflecting the extent to which his personality inhabits his work (not least in the introductions he writes to most of his stories). Some of these take the form of an Ellison warped and transformed by the products of his own imagination. These are variants on Goya’s print The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, except that in this case, the author is awake, and the monsters, demons and night creatures are invited in and welcomed. On the back cover of Strange Wine, Ellison (looking alarmingly like a young Prince Charles) is crowned with a Dylanesque thicket of hair comprised of fungi and locusts (suggesting he’s been spending time wandering through the cities of Ambergris and Viriconium in the worlds of Jeff Vandermeer and M.John Harrison). On the cover of the Savoy Books edition of his collection of TV polemics, he is a goat-legged satyr, his curling tail holding up the aerial whilst green imps watch him type, the colourful smoke emerging from the platen bearing up further demons. The cover of the US edition of The Illustrated Ellison has a respectably suited and bow-tied Ellison pestered by his double, a grinning, wild-haired trickster with horned hat and coat with watch-faces and cogs – clearly a version of Harlequin from his renowned story ‘“Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman’. A further Harlan peers from a porthole in Harlequin’s hat, the writer as observer, watching this encounter with interest to see how it turns out, and how it can be used. A couple of particularly ingenious covers create portraits of Ellison from elements of landscape, architecture and assorted objects, in the manner of Arcimboldo or Dali. The Essential Ellison has his face composed of a ramshackle assortment of half-timbered houses on a mountainside, with a stream flowing alongside suggesting the lapel of a shirt. The same portrait is repeated on the back cover, but with a night full of stars having fallen, and Harlan’s eyes having shut. From the holes of mine shafts dotting the jagged rocks of his hair, figures fly in dream flight, the imagination taking wing. Ellison has always been effusive in his praise of the Dillons, and has clearly felt privileged to enjoy such a lengthy and fruitful creative relationship with them. He puts it clearly and unequivocally in his short piece on them in the 1978 collection The Illustrated Harlan Ellison, which includes a small portfolio of their work under the title An Ellison Tapestry: ‘Beyond my love for them and my understanding that they have influenced my ethical and moral life almost more than anyone else I’ve ever known, my respect for their artistic intelligence and their incomparable craft is enormous. Leo and Diane Dillon are the best. Simply put: the best’. Amen to that. Thankfully, you can find a large selection of the Dillons’ work over at the blog The Art of Leo and Diane Dillon.

The Essential Ellison - back cover


Trio Mediaeval and Arve Henriksen at St George's, Bristol


The collaborative grouping of early music vocalists Trio Mediaeval and jazz/improvising trumpeter Arve Henriksen played the last date of their current tour in England, organised by SoundUK, in St George’s, Bristol last Thursday (24th May). It was a perfect setting for their very Scandinavian take on early music and ethereal vocal improvisation. The early 19th century church, built in a Greek revivalist style, faces down the steep slope of Park Street, and is propped up by impressively monumental Doric columns. Inside it has the feeling of a temple as much as a church, with balconies on three sides resting on columns and a large relief of what looks like the Ascension high on the front wall, with prominent Greek lettering above. The interior allowed for the recreation of the hallowed ‘ECM sound’, both in terms of acoustic clarity and hushed atmosphere. The coming together of artists from the classical and European jazz wings of the ECM roster immediately begs comparison with the astoundingly successful collaborations between Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble. Indeed, Trio Mediaeval came together and developed their distinctive vocal style during the Hilliards’ summer schools towards the end of the 90s. Henriksen and the Trio have pushed at the boundaries of the classical and jazz worlds on their own accounts, however, feeling perfectly at liberty to incorporate elements of improvisation, folk music or modern composition into their respective fields. Henriksen employs the latest electronics to alter the sound of his trumpet, developing a line which runs through Miles Davis’ relatively crude use of effects pedals in the early 70s and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s mixing of his son Markus’ trumpet with synthesisers on Sirius and Michael’s Reise (the latter released on ECM). He also provides sampled and looped backdrops against which to solo.


The previous occasion on which I encountered him, he was playing with Supersilent, a Nordic quartet whose performances are entirely improvised. This group features both keyboards and the electronica of Helge Sten, aka Deathprod, and veers between stately ambient dreaming and hectic prog thrash. They were very firmly in the latter mood when I saw them, producing a relentless, unholy racket with little shade or variance, perhaps in an effort to rouse the somnolent Exeter audience. In the context of his collaboration with the Trio, however, his electronics created subtle atmospheres suggestive of northern landscapes, full of swirling wind and creaking ice. His trumpet had a softened, electronically filtered tone which gave it a wooden flute-like quality. This fitted with the folkish cast of the music, overlaying the brassiness usually associated with the trumpet with a less sharply plosive breathiness. This trumpet-flute acted as an instrumental accompaniment to the voices, as opposed to the fifth voice which Jan Garbarek’s saxophone added to the quartet of the Hilliard Ensemble. The folk element was enhanced by the replacement of Torun Ostrem Ossum by the Norwegian folk singer Berit Opheim Versto for the duration of this tour. She joined the regular members of the Trio, Anna Maria Friman and Linn Andrea Fuglseth, and demonstrated her solo singing style with an unaccompanied traditional song at the start of the second half of the concert.


The evening started with a piece of mediaeval chant, Alma Redemptoris Mater, which soon extended into drawn out, Perotin-style syllables, imbuing the sacred words with a folkish, dancing lilt. This set the tone for the evening, which deliberately blurred the lines between sacred and secular, ancient and modern. Sometimes the Trio sang alone, splintering off into solo or duet components, and sometimes they were joined by Henriksen’s trumpet and electronics. The Trio retreated to their seats at the back of the stage to make way for a series of interludes in which Henriksen played alone, or with his phantom band, coaxed from his sampling and mixing board. Both kept to their discrete areas of the stage, their particular territories. It was as if lines had been drawn, ensuring that a certain distance was maintained and a degree of separation made clear, an element of difference emphasised. This worked to highlight the contrast in their sounds and approaches, with the surprising confluences and occasional creative disjunctures all a part of the unique nature of this collaboration. Henriksen at times both held and played his trumpet with one hand, the other twiddling the nobs and pressing the buttons of his magic electronic box. It was like a less showy and more compact evolution of the Rick Wakeman-style keyboard wizards of the early to mid-70s. The precendent of prog and jazz-rock, world fusions and classical ‘crossovers’ offer (in their worst manifestations) a warning of the dangers of excess and the shallow apprehension of unfamiliar styles; of forced musical marriages which reduce one or both partners from their original sublime, vital or intuitive state to one of pomposity, confusion and insipidity. There is also the potential for an over-reliance on the latest technologies, which can swiftly come to seem outmoded and rob the music of any timelessness. But Henriksen’s electronic manipulations were discrete and natural, and completely lacking in grandstanding showmanship. Instead of the ranks of synthesiser keyboards which would be played with ostentatious simultaneity by the classical keyboard wizard, there was just a small mixer and perhaps a few effects pedals; and Hendriksen eschewed the sequined cape in favour of a jacket of restrained elegance. He also sat throughout, reducing the scope for ecstatic poses marking the execution of a particularly florid run across the keys which a Wakeman, Emerson, or indeed a Jan Hammer might once have been tempted to strike. Henriksen did let loose a couple of vocal outbursts, however. They were pained howls and yelps which at times seemed to echo the cries of the Sami singer Mari Boine Persen (who has sung on a couple of Jan Garbarek records, Twelve Moons and Visible World), designed to echo out across the icy steppes, and also the impassioned vocals of singers from the countries around the Black and Caspian Seas. Their slightly melodramatic forthrightness struck a minor false note when contrasted with the quietly concentrated power of the rest of the evening, which managed to be emotionally affecting without recourse to histrionics. Henriksen also played a short, squat reed instrument which sounded like a cross between the plaintive Armenian duduk and the dry Egyptian ney flute. It brought out a Middle Eastern element to his playing as he wove arabesques of coiling Moorish modes. The chill sub-Arctic mood was suddenly dispelled by the hot currents of desert winds.


Henriksen was good, but the evening was really defined, for me, by the singing of the Trio. The weaving counterpoint, harmonies and general vocal interplay were exquisite, with occasional passages which were genuinely sublime, leaving me quite blissfully transported on this balmy, dreamy evening. They performed a number of traditional Scandinavian songs – three from Sweden and several more from their native Norway (they hail from Oslo). Some of the Norwegian songs were sung in a style known by a number of onomatopoeic names: tulling, sulling or tralling. It’s a kind of folk scatting which involves stringing together nonsense syllables invented for their sound and rhythmic quality, and is directly related to the Scottish or Irish ‘mouth music’ style, often sung to get into the rhythm of repetitive work (as with Hebridean spinners, for example). It was utterly bewitching, building up a gentle swing which proved powerfully hypnotic. For the traditional Nordic song Till, Till Tove, the members of the Trio dispersed to the far corners of the church, one to the back, one stationing herself to the side, under the galleries, and one moving to the opposite side of the stage, beyond their territorial boundaries. This sounded out the acoustical space of the church, and also gave an impression of distance, which was entirely apt for this song. It was an example of the singing style known as lokk or laling, a utilitarian music of incidental beauty designed to travel across long, mountainous distances and call in the cattle. The high, keening sound was electrifying, the voices seeming to meet and coalesce somewhere above our heads. The effect was furthered by the use of the side blown, split-toned flute familiar in the music of the far North, and played here by one of the Trio. Meteorological atmospherics were provided by Henriksen, whose ambient electronic backing suggested the creaking and groaning of glaciers or the slow shifting of masses of hard-packed snow. One of the Trio also played a drone fiddle accompaniment (on a hardanger fiddle, perhaps) to one of the early mediaeval pieces, which brought to mind Stevie Wishart’s early music group Sinfonye. There are certain similarities in the way that both groups bring a modern sensibility to the early music repertoire, along with an ability to improvise and an awareness of traditions beyond the standard classical canon. The Trio also used ‘chiming sticks’, lengths of hollow, squared metal with round rubber ‘clappers’ at the end of loosely attached rods. These struck the metal when the sticks were thrust ceremonially forward, producing a softly resonant chime which seemed to blossom from nowhere, with no initial attack. They were useful for finding the pitch, but sounded beautiful in themselves, and added a ritualistic air to the songs about to be sung, an annunciation bell. The concert was programmed so that there were only a few pauses for the disruptive intrusion of applause. But when they finished and took a bow in a hand-held line (the two separate worlds coming together in the end) the applause was effusive and unrestrained, the whoops and yells indicating that this was an audience which extended well beyond the aficionados of classical music. They came back on for an encore, and sang what sounded like one of the mystical hymns written by Hildegard of Bingen in the twelfth century, Henriksen softly blowing the melody on his downturned trumpet. It was gorgeous, a blessing to send us out into the warm night, where a hazy sickle moon hung in the clear night above the curve of the adjacent park. A wonderful concert in which the artists created a sense of suspended time, transporting us to a magical space apart from the readily apprehensible world for an hour or two.


Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Angela Carter in the South West



It’s great to see so many events celebrating the legacy of Angela Carter, twenty years after her untimely death on 16th February 1992, and many of them are taking place in the South West. She lived in the region in her younger days, moving to Bristol in the sixties with her first husband and studying English at the University. She left him and the country to live in Japan, using the money attached to the Somerset Maugham prize she was awarded for her novel Several Perceptions, an experience which had a strong effect on her subsequent writing. When she returned to England, she spent the turbulent years of the mid-70s (1973-76) living in Bath, before moving to Sheffield on an Arts Council Fellowship and then coming back down to settle in South London, her true spiritual home where she had grown up as a girl. She writes about Bath in an essay included in the collection Nothing Sacred, and originally published in New Society in 1976 (so perhaps its her farewell to the city). She celebrates it as a glorious sham, a place of ‘theatrical splendour’, with ‘the ethereal two-dimensionality of a town of dream’. Its lack of any appreciable purpose, with no industrial base or significant trade, is seen as a virtue, a quality which attracts the eccentric, the vagrant and the mad. She writes that ‘the uselessness of the city contributes both to its charm and its poignancy, which is part of its charm’. The unreal aspect of the city gives it a fantastical air, with William Beckford’s fanciful tower up on the horizon acting as a beacon for the unashamedly exhibitionist display of extravagant artifice (‘only rich madmen like Beckford went in for conspicuous consumption and vulgar display’, Carter writes). She describes it as being ‘a city so English that it feels like being abroad’. Returning from Japan, with its unique and insular island culture, she found that her own country was capable of offering an experience of estrangement within the familiar. She talks of Bath as embodying an artistic sensibility of peculiar Englishness, a melancholic, crumbling, autumnal sensibility which rejoices in genteel decay and contained wildness, the semi-pastoral of the untamed garden. She finds it in the neo-romanticism of the inter and immediately post-war years, the movement which was subsequently subsumed and, for most art historians, supplanted by the dominance of modernism from the 50s through to the 70s. It is ‘in the pictures of John Piper and Michael Ayrton and the Nashes. Mervyn Peake showed its demonic aspect’. None of these were exactly fashionable names to bandy about at the time, and indicate the extent to which Carter danced to her own tune, not oblivious to but simply uninterested in following the dominant artistic trends. Her work might well have found a sympathetic home in Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine in the late 60s and early 70s. She did publish a couple of stories in the early 80s in its spiritual successor (in its earlier issues, at least), the science fiction magazine Interzone: Overture and Incidental Music to a Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe. Bath was clearly a city which suited her well, and left its mark on the style and substance of her fiction, its rich, self-delighting language, wildly imaginative theatricality, and its unearthing of the fantastic within the familiar (and vice-versa).


Both Bath and Bristol have already hosted major events. The Bath Literature Festival in March had a series of events, thematically divided to discuss her life, short stories and films. The ‘life’ discussion involved Susannah Clapp, who has just published the very personal collection of postcards she received at regular intervals from Carter (A Card from Angela Carter); Carmen Callil, the founder of the Virago Press which published so many of Carter’s novels and collections (including the first publication of her marvellous essays in book form, in Nothing Sacred and Expletives Deleted); her literary agent Deborah Rogers; and Dr Sarah Gamble, the author of Angela Carter, A Literary Life (we’re still awaiting the first full Carter biography, which is currently being written by Edmund Gordon and promised for 2015). The short stories were discussed by the writers Helen Simpson and Michele Roberts, and the novels by Ali Smith and the University lecturer Gill Frith who teaches Carter’s work on her courses (Carter is, for better or worse, a particular mainstay of University study). There was also a screening of the 1992 Omnibus film Angela Carter’s Curious Room, made just before her death and introduced by its director Kim Evans. If you happen to live in London or one of the other locales where it is available, you can see this in the bfi’s Mediatheque collection. Bristol, the city in which Carter first started to seriously write and publish fiction, marked its formative position in her development with a number of events contained within the sprawling Festival of Ideas earlier in May. There was an afternoon of screenings of her work on TV, which included the rarely seen 1987 adaptation of The Magic Toyshop (to be honest, not a particularly distinguished one), the Omnibus film, and her controversial 1991 programme for the Without Walls season, The Holy Family Album, in which she took a look at representations of Christ in art over the centuries in an irreverent way which was almost bound (and was perhaps designed) to stir up the more humourless and easily offended sections of the Church. A Screening of The Company of Wolves was introduced by Stephen Woolley, who produced it for his Palace Pictures company (and you can read what I wrote about this marvellous film, a long-time favourite of mine, on a previous occasion). Bath resident Sir Christopher Frayling gave a lecture on Carter, particularly focussing on her work in the 70s, and drawing on his own acquaintance with her during her time in the city, and was afterwards joined for a discussion by Bidisha, Susannah Clapp (as Carter’s literary editor, something of a spokesperson for her this year) and Charlotte Crofts, a senior lecturer in film studies at the University of the West of England who has written on The Company of Wolves and other aspects of Carter’s work, in particular those which touch on her Japanese experiences.


There’s more to come, however. Bidisha will once more be chairing a discussion on Carter in Bristol on Saturday 14th July at the Arnolfini Gallery. The focus this time will be her hugely influential collection of revisionist fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, and she’ll be joined by Dr Marie Mulvey-Roberts from the University of the West of England and the writers Kirsty Logan and Cassandra Parkin. Back in Bath, as part of the Music Festival, there will be a concert of music, words and poetry going by the enticing title The Dark Magic of Angela Carter. The evening will be narrated by Marina Warner, another friend who has explored similar subjects to Carter in her novels, and in wide-ranging cultural studies such as From The Beast to the Blonde, No Go the Bogeyman and Managing Monsters (looking at fairy tales, ogres and demons, and particular examples of the monstrous and the exotically strange respectively). She memorably writes of her friend, in From The Beast to the Blonde, that she was ‘the most recent and most original of the goose-footed queens, of the riddling, scabrous dames, to put hard questions’. The evening has several intertwining strands, one of which will be readings from Nights at the Circus, The Company of Wolves and some short stories by Harriet Walter. There will also be the musical selections which Carter chose for a putative Desert Island Discs, which her final illness prevented her from recording. Kiku Day’s shakuhachi will reflect Carter’s Japanese travels, whilst Martynas Levickis’ eastern European accordion will evoke the spirit of the carnivalesque in her writing, its anarchic gypsy soul. It may also summon up the kind of swirling, vertiginous circus sounds which would have accompanied the trapeze flights of the winged aerialiste Fevvers in Nights at the Circus. The multi-instrumentalist Bishi, who swaps accordion for sitar, or whatever else is to hand, from song to song, will represent the hybridised energy of London which Carter thrived on. Her LP Nights at the Circus, inspired by Carter’s novel, shows how the colourful imaginative vigour and sense of fearless invention continue to appeal to a younger readership to this day. Finally, some of the poetry which Carter wrote in her early years, and which has recently been unearthed by her biographer Edmund Gordon, has been set in a song cycle by the pianist and organiser of the event (and indeed of the whole festival) Joanna MacGregor. It sounds like a varied and celebratory evening is in store for all. Down in Devon, Susannah Clapp is on hand once more to give a talk on her friend at the Ways With Words Literary Festival in Dartington, in the handsome old barn. This was where Cecil Collins once held an exhibition of his paintings, angels and fools in visionary landscapes, and beatific portraits of his wife Elisabeth holding grails and ankhs and perching atop the crowns of trees. A few years ago, we saw Sebastian Peake give a talk about his father Mervyn there (and Peake himself spent a brief period of time at Dartington). Both were fellow spirits of Carter’s, part of the lineage of a British (not English, because she claimed and was very proud of her Scottish ancestry on her father’s side) romanticism which went against the grain of the twentieth century. But their persistence in the face of any resultant neglect or misapprehension led to eventual recognition as singular and individual talents. I’ve booked my ticket already, along with one for the biographer Fiona MacCarthy’s talk on the vexed friendship between Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. Carter would no doubt have had something to say about Burne-Jones’ pallid, listless mythological figures, his languorous, hollowed-eyed knights and femmes fatales, and his drawn, melancholic angels. She preferred her heroines to have a bit more meat on their bones, more of a vivid sense of life and an active volition. Big girls with get up and go rather than swooning aesthetic waifs.


If you can’t get along to any of these, then there’s an interview with Carter available to listen to over at the BBC archives page. It dates from 1991, and is taken from a radio 3 programme called Third Ear, which looked at the arts with a definite capital A. The presenter, Paul Bailey, has the typical tones of the third channel, cool, erudite and with impeccable elocution. He immediately declares Wise Children, then just published, to be her ‘best novel’. You can almost sense his relief; thank God she’s writing about something I can grasp – lots of Shakespeare and no Grimm werewolves, winged Cockneys, transsexual goddesses, fabulist assassins, 60s dropout loons or post-apocalyptic barbarians. Early on, he asks her if ‘class still permeates literature’, and she responds with an incredulous ‘yes’, as if amazed that he even needed to ask the question. She declares at one point that her books are still permeated with the ‘naïve of leftism of youth – which I’ve retained into middle age’, stating it with a certain defiant pride. They discuss comedy, politics, the literature of cleaning ladies (not of cleaning ladies as characters, but of characters with cleaning ladies), Shakespeare as a popular writer and ‘man of theatre’, her love of popular and anonymous storytelling as well as the ‘proper’ stuff, fatness and thinness in literary characters and so on. Her voice sound a little worn by the cancer, but her mental energy and spirit are undimmed. There is still the odd West Country vowel which comes out in her ‘er’ and ‘or’ word endings, too. By the time the interview is drawing to a close, she’s worn down the presenter’s professional aloofness, and he’s laughing along and sharing his enthusiasm for Max Miller, and the whole thing has become more like a lively and informal conversation. Many of the participants in the events above add to their credentials the fact that they were Angela’s friend. I suspect she had many, and that the talk always flowed, wide-ranging, passionate, amused and amusing, sometimes contentious but never dull. From the sound of this interview, they were lucky to know her. She sounds like absolutely marvellous company. I’ve just embarked on a sequential reading of all her novels, beginning with Shadow Dance (aka Honeybuzzard), her first, published in 1966. I may report back as I progress.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Gripping Yarns at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter


The Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter played host to a series of engaging and surprising performances the weekend before last (12th and 13th May), in collaboration with the Northcott Theatre and the Show of Strength Theatre Company, which went by the rather weak title of Gripping Yarns. Surprising in particular for those who didn’t know any such thing was going on, and came suddenly across a figure from history passionately wielding an English bible and entraining all to gather around, a fifties model posing haughtily on a pedestal, or a rampant, harrumphing nutjob in a moose outfit. The twelve stories which were played out across the day and in disparate parts of the building were a result of a writing workshop in which the participants were encouraged to choose a particular object from the permanent collections to spin a yarn from or base a character vignette around. Those considered most appropriate (to the space and to the members of the company) were adapted and worked up into monologues which would reflect on different aspects of the museum, and maybe make those watching see it a new light.

Stairway to the past, present and future
The various writers took a number of approaches, responding to the environment in different and sometimes surprising ways. Some conjured up ordinary people from the past, bringing to life the historical period as it might have been experienced on an everyday basis, and giving it a human face. Matthew Roberton’s A Civil War Helmet had a bearded (but not moustached) seventeenth century man gathering us around and addressing us as friend, firmly grasping his bible as he testified to his faith and his participation in the civil war. There was fierce pride in his voice as he pointed to the helmet, hung high on the wall, and told us that it was the one which he had worn during the siege of Taunton. The battle had been won, but now his son was joining up to take arms against James, whom our passionate friend believed would bring Catholicism back to the land. His voice wavered as he described how his other son had died in Holland fighting for William, who was now coming to the English shores, landing with his army at Brixham. Getting us all to testify with him, his monologue was a powerful and involving mix of the personal and the political. It underlined how deeply felt people’s religious beliefs were at the time, and how inextricably they were bound up with the unfolding course of history, of politics (and of course, if politics, then also economics). All of which resonates strongly with our own era.

Misericord, written by Yasmin Wilde, took place in the galleries forming a quadrangle above the café, where the Greek and Roman artefacts are displayed. A medieval artisan, coarse and loud-mouthed, leant over its balcony, her earthy, peasant presence anomalous amongst the relics of classical civilisation – a geographical, temporal and cultural miscegenation of the time streams. Like the old civil war militiaman, she too drew the attention of the crowd, although in her case this was more through insulting and intimidating them. The café below became imaginatively transformed into the front elevation of the cathedral, its colourfully tiled rear wall standing in for stained glass and painted stone. The old woman shouted down at some unfortunate enjoying a quiet coffee and piece of cake, telling them to shove off and find their own pitch in the open marketplace in the cathedral yard. Another member of the audience was called a basket case who’d gone blind from too much weaving for not recognising what her carving was. Its features were visible only to the eye of the imagination, however. What she actually grasped, along with her hooked carving knife, was a solid, unremarkable block of unworked wood. But her abrasive personality was also a loquacious one, and we were soon learning about the hidden meaning of her woodcarving. Hidden in the literal and figurative sense, given that misericords are the decorative undersides of the seats for the clergy in a cathedral. The carver related with great bitterness the ending of her affair with the philandering bishop, whom she discovered had been having his way with another woman (and perhaps more too), leaving her feeling used rather than special. Her depiction of a woman with a comb grooming another’s hair to remove nits was a way of reminding the bishop of what he’d given her. An insulting reference to his personal hygiene and an ironic rest for his ‘bum cheeks’, as she delighted in calling the high clerical behind. Her story was the age of old one of innocence lost in the face of the casual hypocrisy of those in positions of moral and political authority (the church encompassing both at the time). It also illustrated the inseparable intertwining of the sacred and the profane in people’s lives. Her misericord carving is a testament to the traces of anonymous individual artistry which can be found throughout British cathedrals and churches. These works, their meaning sometimes obscure, sometimes instantly comprehensible, express the character of their age, the inner lives of its ordinary people. And as with the civil war helmet, objects from the era which have survived have forgotten personal stories and feelings inherent in their substance. Coming across the misericord in the museum later in the day was a small revelation – so that’s what she was making, and that’s what she meant! The joke came into clear focus, the bishop put firmly into his place, and the nits (or lice) symbolically returned to a region impossible for a dignitary to scratch in public.

Here comes the equestrian statue - Major-General Sir Redvers Buller
Two stories took a humorous view of Victorian and Edwardian worthies, making buffoonish clowns of them. Literally so in the case of Penny For Your Thoughts and a Farthing for Mine by Joseph Loxton. This told of a playful, as related in court by a comical policeman in the Gilbert and Sullivan/Derek Guyler mould. An empty niche in the ethnographic gallery provided a platform for him to step up and give his evidence, pointedly referring to his regulation miniature top pocket notebook to more precisely outline certain of the far fetched facts, as scribbled down at the time. The spectre in question was a clown on a penny farthing bicycle, which, after leading the disgruntled copper on a merry chase through town, disappeared behind the large plinth bearing the equestrian statue of General Sir Redvers Buller. Apparently the old boy was keen on a spot of clowning when he wasn’t off leading his troops into battle in the Boer War. It’s an idiosyncratic aspect of his character which casts the stiff, verdigrised form with its plumed helmet and plumped out chest riding high on his horse in a rather less pompous light. The traffic cones with which he is perennially crowned now seem like an oddly appropriate tribute. The policeman’s vain pursuit of the elusive, mocking phantom neatly triangulated points of local geography, taking us from the costume shop on Fore Street, past the noisy weekend clubs and the central station to the clock tower and the statue on the junction at the crest of the steep hill leading down into the Exe valley. Further bizarre incidents were reported in the bobby’s strained formal diction, barely veiling his exasperation at the suspicion that this might all be some elaborate practical joke at his expense. Mysterious noises and vanishing food and drink at Downes House near Credition, the ancestral pile of the Buller family, suggested that here was a spirit still enjoying the finer things of life. The link between house and statue further keyed us in to the connections of people and place in local history and geography. Having given his disposition, the PC stepped down and moved awkwardly and stiffly off. It was all good, old fashioned fun.

As was Tiger Hunt, written by Bill Eaton, which took as its subject the specimen bagged by King George V in the late Edwardian era. The king himself was brought to glorious, blustering life, decked out in pith helmet, safari shirt and a sensible hunting trouser. He was first spotted (and heard) bellowing from the balcony, overlooking the animals and randomly assorted objects which jostle together in surreal juxtaposition. He descended the stairs, cursing his recalcitrant beaters all the while, and, upon finding his lookout spot amongst us, enjoining a young member of the audience to assist him in his tiger hunt. The pith helmet which this game chap was required to wear balanced awkwardly upon his head like a large fruit bowl. The piece made excellent use of the space, with the king crawling and ducking through the legs of the giraffe (the sainted bleedin’ ‘Gerald’ so beloved of the Exeter populace) and under those of the harpsichord, and peering between the tusks and trunk of the elephant. Big game shooting and the amassing of trophies was painted as the metaphorical equivalent to the posturing European politics of the time, as well as to the colonial rush for territory of the previous century. There were jeering references to ‘Cousin Willie’ or Kaiser Bill and his current ‘games’. The blithe indifference to wholesale slaughter and the constant, contemptuous entreaties to the beaters to ‘hold the line’ anticipated the massacres of the Western Front, in much the same way as did the game-shooting scene in Jean Renoir’s film La Regle du Jeu. Such underlying resonances aside, it was a very funny piece, with a great performance of sustained bluster and pomposity from David Reakes. It also slyly poked fun at the popularity of the animal displays, deflating the sentimentality attached to them by making their origins as big game trophies clear.

Animal magic - gallery of the stuffed
The animals themselves were given voice in two stories, the first of which again focussed on the stuffed specimens. Moose Talk, by Deborah January, drew our attention to a stuffed moose whose massive, heavily antlered form enjoys a disconcertingly elevated position surfing above the display cases on its platform, and easily missed as you pass by underneath. The actor who embodied the moose, Anthony Richards, was almost unrecognisable from the two quietly spoken characters he played in A Civil War Helmet and Vanishing. His face was daubed with brown face paint and his head topped with cloth antlers, a mouldering pelt mantled around his shoulders and a pair of alarmingly truncated briefs covering his moosely modesty. He was certainly not about to allow himself to be ignored. Before the performance, he draped himself across the balcony above the stairs, letting out the occasional harrumph, snort and shudder, before finally stirring into motion and mounting a step- ladder, gathering all around him. He was addressing us as the attendees at a meeting of STUFFED (I can’t remember the acronymic details), the organisation for stuffed museum animals, into which we were temporarily inducted members. Advice was given on matters of personal hygiene and deportment, and on the best ways to combat the inevitable decay and wear of the years. There was much absurd and bawdy humour, with a Carry On-style mining of double entendre potential from the word ‘stuffed’, and a selection of truly appalling moose-based puns (I’ll spare you the pain). Finally, we were all invited, nay required to join in the proud salute of the society – ‘stuffed and proud’ – which our chairmoose continued to repeat with vigour and volume for a surprisingly long time as he marched off down the stairs and through the corridors, startling and alarming a good few unsuspecting visitors along the way. There was something of a Night At the Museum air to the idea of exhibits coming to life after the doors had been locked at the end of the day. There was also a sense that this noisy and faintly unsavoury character was being used to mock the now rather aged beasts, questioning the continued prominence of their position in the museum some century or so after their demise.

Nkisi, by Su Bristow, was a tale of an African dog spirit, which inhabited a small carved figure in the ethnographic galleries. It was told in the enclosed square of the children’s area, a space within a space, walled off by surrounding display cabinets. This glassy retreat took on the hushed area of a sacred circle, the audience reduced to anticipatory silence some minutes before the storyteller put down the basket she was holding and began. The shaking of her rattle marked our transportation into the altered time of the story world, and she daubed her face with three ashen spots to allow herself to be inhabited by the dog spirit. Nkisi, who insisted that he was a ‘good dog’, told us of the time that he had followed the straying spirit of a sick little girl, lying in a fever in one of the village huts. She had been drawn towards a dark forest marking the boundaries of the otherworld, the land of death, by the enticements of a demonic spirit. A vibrating thunder drum drew us into this turbulent, shadowy realm. The dog persuaded her of the dangers of the forest, driving off the forces which would keep her there and leading her back to the village where her body lay, returning her from the brink of death. The celebratory ululations of the villagers were relayed through several galleries, a receding echo marking out imaginary distances. Just for a moment, we could have been gathered around a fire amongst mud and grass huts, on wide plains beneath expansive African stars. It was spellbinding storytelling, creating a sense of magical suspension, an entry into mythic time and space. The object in its glass case was brought to life and reclaimed its ritual purpose. At the end, it showed a sorrowful awareness of its current state, encased and enclosed, its power grounded. But it also saw into our souls, perceiving that, like the little girl, we were also lost and in need of guidance to find our way back.

Some stories marked the cultural shifts which the museum’s objects from local everyday life trace. Kick Off by Tim Sansom took a grandfather clock as its main imaginative prop. It was placed as a family heirloom which had stood sentinel in the living room for generations. A young man paced up and down in front of it, tensely aware of every second of the countdown to the start of the first England match in the European Championships, and vocally willing the time to pass. The clock became the passive, uncaring focus of his barely suppressed frustrations, which we sensed went deeper than an oft-thwarted desire for the England team to finally come good. There was an underlying air of a more pervasive disappointment, of a life drifting by and a building sense of despair at the growing awareness of this. His footballing heroes acted as surrogates offering vicarious excitement and the potential for feeling fulfilment and triumph. But there was an ‘it could have been me’ element to his fanaticism, which he voiced, an intense investment in the players which imbued them with his own unrealised, or never properly articulated dreams. The only time his flow of pent-up, fist-clenched ‘come on England’ energy subsided was when he compared the feeling of losing to a rejection from someone close to you. His momentary reflective silence spoke volumes, and hinted at a hidden and unhealed hurt. As he watches the seconds pass by, marked by the relentless swing of the pendulum he wills time to accelerate. He could be waiting for his own life to truly begin, for the advent of the significant event, the life-changing moment, the big break which would herald a new sense of purpose. The yearning for the brief blaze of the 1966 moment to ignite again is also suggestive of a wider social and national decline, of the country’s retreat into atomised division, the unity of the post war consensus long since rejected. ’66 begins to look less like the bright dawn of a new and triumphal era than the final sunset flare of the old. The football pitch, which would once have echoed its ideals, is now itself populated with unheroic representatives of the self interest and materialistic greed of the new society, our tense supporter divided by such a vast gulf of wealth from the players he is urging on that they effectively inhabit different worlds. The swiftly changing nature of the modern game was inadvertently demonstrated by the final line of the monologue. The bark of a dog, which the man had sworn to silence for the duration of the game, was heard off in the ‘stage wings’ behind some display cabinets. ‘Oi, Fabio’, he shouted, striding off with purposeful intent, possibly to kick the offending hound.

Posh Face, written by Marilyn Langridge-Jones, took place in a gallery in which a photographic exhibition was currently on display, and was about a model in the late 1950s or early 1960s preparing to pose for a fashion shoot. She is confident and knows how to use her charms, which she has had polished at the Lucy Clayton school in London. Being a working class girl from Yorkshire, she has had to learn how to put on an act in order to inveigle her way into the social scene of exclusive parties and events of ‘the season’, mingling with the debs and the scions of landed wealth. She views it all with an air of amused disdain, a necessary role which she has to play in order to get on. We see her in her relaxed down time, sprawling in a chair and letting her rounded Northern vowels roll around the gum she languorously chews. But she talks with real excitement of a new photographer just making a name of himself. His name is Bailey, and he shoots his young model protégé (Jean Shrimpton) in natural poses and casual everyday clothes in locations beyond the studio. She says the words rock and roll with relish, as if they were holy. The new music and attitude to style offer a release from the stifling rituals of the debutante balls and the class-ridden system of which they are such a rigid embodiment. There is an exciting intimation of change in the offing, heralding a world in which our model will no longer have to graduate from the Lucy Clayton, or any other school which aims to ‘polish’ girls into a uniform mould of mannered elegance. She will no longer have to put on a pose of aristocratic hauteur to further herself, but will be able to remain the natural, easeful self which we see and hear. Meanwhile, however, she must ascend her pedestal in the puffed out petticoats of her frock and strike an unnatural and uncomfortably statuesque pose, putting on her ‘posh face’.

Contemplative space - the ethnographic galleries
There were a number of stories which featured visitors to the museum, looking at the way in which such a public space can become a locus for personal histories, for moments of profound reflection or of small everyday epiphanies. These had the air of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues about them, offering an insight into the small dramas of ordinary lives, and by doing so, holding them up as being of equal importance to the grander stories of the famous or notorious. Free Thinking by Gill Barr was set in the ethnographic galleries, here depicted as a quiet, contemplative space, set apart from the world outside. Its varied objects, gathered from the far corners of the world, prompt the mind to break free from the routine and the familiar. It’s here that we come across a young woman sitting on a bench. She tells us that she has arrived here having passed between the fierce samurai guardian (a full suit of armour) and the serene, sitting Buddha statue, two balancing forces which greet the visitor – action and contemplation. She ruefully notes how the peace of these dimly lit halls is periodically broken by children (or adults) who away on the balafon – the African xylophone – which is the noisy price of modern museum ideas of interactivity. She has come to a place with which she is familiar in order to think through a difficult, wrenching choice: whether or not to marry her girlfriend. We act as witnesses and a collective sounding board for her vocalised thought processes. Her confession of doubts and concerns creates a sense of intimacy, as we are made privy to some private and very personal aspects of her inner life. In this moment of life-changing decision, she becomes touchingly vulnerable, her feelings rising to the surface where they become exposed to a painfully honest self-analysis. Her worries and reservations touch upon what might be lost in the increased equality gained through gay marriage. The sense of a different way of being, of alternative social possibilities and ways of living. Even the feeling of being special and apart, for so long a status forced upon people, of not being bound to accepted conservative norms. The young woman’s fears are embodied in her view of the line of African drummers. At first, she thought they were joined together as slaves, their sticks shackles, and failed to notice the drums set out before them. She then sees them as being locked into an imposed rhythm, mechanically reproducing what they have been told to play. It’s indicative of the way that objects in a museum, visited on a regular basis, become imbued with personal meaning, and come to mean different things to different people. A personal relationship with historical artefacts or works of art is established, and they become part of a particular, unique life. Making a conscious effort to see things from a different angle, she concedes that they may not be slaves to the rhythm of a master driving them to play at his command. They may be beating to the rhythm of a different drum, individual patterns conjoining to form a richer whole. In the end, the story comes to a romantic conclusion, and she decides that yes, she will marry her, as an expression of the love which she unreservedly feels. ‘You’re the first to know’, she tells us with breathless excitement, and exits with an emphatic roll on the balafon to joyfully underline her decision.

New Beginnings by Lori Hilson finds a woman in her late middle ages standing in front of the Roman mosaic which is affixed vertically to the wall like a fossilized tapestry. We catch her rehearsing in front of a full-length mirror, placed there for smaller visitors to see what they look like in the roman tunics and helmets provided. She notices us noticing her and explains what she’s doing. She is trying to perfect her patter to pass the test which will authorise her to become a guide. We get to know her as she chats garrulously on, occasionally reminding herself that she must ‘focus’. She’d worked in Woolworths for years, on the tills and stacking the shelves. Then it went bankrupt and she was made ‘redundant’; not a kind word to apply to a human being, as she ruefully observes, and a damaging one as far as her self-esteem was concerned. She talks about how her daughter had always come to the museum, and had gone on to university, and about how much she’d learned from her. Her English teacher always tells her to use a wider vocabulary, and to substitute words like ‘wonderful’ or ‘gorgeous’ rather than calling everything ‘nice’. She catches herself a few times during her conversation and adjusts her phraseology with conscious effort, as if visualising the removal of one word in her head and picking another to put in its place. Now she is having to get her mind around Latinate terms such as ‘tesserae’, the small tiles used in mosaics. After a few hesitant attempts, broken off for more friendly asides, her attention having a tendency to wander back to the surface associations buzzing around her busy brain, we finally get to hear her speech about the mosaics. She pulls it off, and is so pleased with herself. It’s a minor triumph, and we can see that it means a lot to her, that this is something which will give her pride in herself once more. Her story shows the way in which public museums (and libraries) can offer a way to rediscover the joy of learning, of becoming a part of something which might have been considered beyond the boundaries of their background, and of recovering a sense of self-esteem and worth.

The Vanishing, by Samantha Randall, had another older visitor engaging with the audience by asking them if they knew how to operate the camera on his phone. He’d just come in with a couple of bags of shopping, as if he’d just been to the high street. This immediately positioned the city centre museum as a place which could be a part of the everyday routine, rather than an imposing edifice of culture which necessitated a special, reverential trip. It could be somewhere to drop into to look at a particular room or object on the way back from the supermarket – mixing the sublime with the functional, the intellectual or aesthetic with the material as a matter of course. The Show of Strength Theatre Company would agree with this democratisation of cultural experience, having regularly taken their public performances out into the shopping centres and onto the streets. This particular shopper wanted to take a picture of a 1950s dress, which reminded him of his dancing days, when he swept the floor with his wife Elsie in his arms. It was the same style of dress she’d worn when they appeared on TV in Come Dancing back in the 1960s. they had danced to an old Gracie Fields number, which he now had as the ring tone on his mobile phone. But now Elsie was confined to a home, suffering from the fractured memory experienced by those with Alzheimer’s. She frequently retreated into the distances of her own inner world until there was an ‘ocean of quicksand’ between them. The old man revealed what was in one of his shopping bags: the material from which he intended to fashion a dress which would be the likeness of the one in the cabinet, or as near as he could manage. She would put it on, and they would dance to the sound of Gracie, and she would remember the days when they would glide across the ballroom. As he tells us this, he himself slips into reverie. As Gracie begins to sing, he steps in gracefully spinning circles, his arms cradling his imaginary partner, and a revolving glitterball scatters refracted shards of light to cocoon his dream dance. For a moment he becomes unselfconscious and completely transported, lost in the past. He recedes from us in a similar way to that in which his Elsie recedes from him, experiencing a similar fugue state which sweeps him away from the present. But he comes back, and is awkward and apologetic once more, a tired and weary old man. He is, however, firm in his resolve. He will learn how to become a dressmaker, and draw his Elsie back across the divide. It was a deeply moving piece, acted with touching hesitancy and sensitivity by Anthony Richards (similarly fine in the Civil War Helmet story). The museum can be a repository of very personal cultural memory, which is not always without accompanying pain, but which also has the potential for connecting the past with the present, and creating a sense of living continuity.

The mirror of eternity - manga robots and archived souls
There was one story which stood out from the others in that it located the museum itself as being a preserved exhibit from a distant past, and depicted a post human future in which the ‘archiving’ of human personality had become a possibility. This brought to mind the neglected, crumbling museum which the traveller comes across in the far future Earth of the Morlocks and Eloi in HG Wells’ The Time Machine. Actual Reality, by Annette Chown, had the idea embedded in its title that ‘reality’ now needed a qualifying adjective, distinguishing it from the various levels of virtual or constructed reality; soft, malleable forms of manufactured experience which were now regarded as having an equal or perhaps even greater validity. The piece took place in a ‘dead’ space of the museum, a featureless vestibule giving access to a pair of lift doors. These glid open to reveal a blank-faced woman with business-like clothing and a pink bob-cut wig. She was a robotic mannequin in the manga style, her downloaded personality programmed for corporate spiel. Her peddling of a dream life was accompanied by narcotised synth cues from her tablet computer, surrounding her outlining of the concept of an eternal ‘archived’ existence with a seductive cloud of synaesthetic perfume. Sounds of ambient drift wafting through from the geological and prehistorical gallery across the corridor also added to the atmosphere of unreal persuasion. Our guide informed us about the museum in whose lobby we waited. It was a simulacrum, offering ‘authentically’ real sensations for our hooked up minds, copies of which had been taken at the point of entry. For example, we could enjoy the genuinely synthesised taste and texture of coffee, a substance long since consigned to the past. We were told that our mental maps, downloaded and copied, were now the property of the Cameron Corporation. Our personalities, perhaps even our souls, were no longer in our possession, but had become corporate property, something which, in this airbrushed future, was evidently a long-accepted state of affairs. We had the option to have them stored, presumably with the potential for activation within bodies such as the one which was addressing us. It was something of a Faustian pact, the price of immortality being the signing over of one’s soul, as well as a large proportion of one’s wealth. The museum archives visible through glass panels in the wall behind us, rows of shelves with catalogued drawers and boxes, became the storage chambers for ranks of human memory, sensation and individualised personality. A futuristic, digitised version of the museum’s storehouse of experience, but made immaterial, stripped of its physical actuality, its concrete attachment to the past. And a museum which was now under corporate rather than public ownership. The history presented in such an incorporeal noplace, disconnected from any need to anchor its stories in the objective study of the real, would be malleable, subject to any revision or editing of the past which might suit the Corporation’s purposes. And the purposes of a corporation are always, in its very nature, the maximisation of the profit margin by any and all means necessary.

This was a dystopian future of a Huxleyan rather than Orwellian character, closer to the corporate society of happily doped drones depicted in Brave New World that to the brutalised, authoritarian bureaucracy of 1984. The satire might have seemed a little too explicit, with the naming of the overarching Corporation (perhaps by now one vast, singular entity) after David Cameron and the unveiling of previously archived personalities at the end via the illumination of photographs of Joanna Lumley, Bruce Forsyth, Richard Branson and the plasticised Joan Rivers rooting it a little too firmly and overemphatically in the present moment, with its cult of youth linked in with a drive towards total marketisation. Mind you, Huxley had his society venerating Henry Ford (‘Our Ford’) and by extension the idea of mass culture and manufacture, with the ‘T’ as their holy symbol. Cracks in the continuum of eternal being began to become apparent during the piece, however, with glitches and catches in the smooth sales talk of our glassy-eyed guide. Words and phrases were stuttered and repeated in a mechanical fashion, signs that the downloaded consciousness was degrading. The promise of digitised eternity turned out to be a false one. Even this virtual existence, which tried to eliminate the physical frailties of the real, was subject to entropic decay, to an inevitable running down. The use of the ‘dead space’ here was particularly effective, suggesting a bland and airless corporate future sealed off from the inconvenient processes and changeable environments of the natural world. The lift provided the perfect entrance and exit point for the robot guide. The actress playing the part, Alice Tatton-Brown, who also took on the very different roles of the characters in Posh Face and Free Thinking, carried it off with icy cool. She unhesitatingly incorporated a riposte to a comment from an audience member (‘would you like to be archived, sir’) and delivered her glitch-inflected, digitally skipping lines in a convincing fashion. With her stiff walk, subtly suggesting a doll-like robotic nature without pushing it into the territory of pantomime, she imbued the part with the unnerving and creepy quality always found in something mechanical taking on human appearances and characteristics. As she departed, the lift doors sliding shut on her fixed, dead smile, all that was needed was the sighing swoosh accompanying the operation of the doors in Star Trek (original series, of course). It was a wonderfully imaginative and amusingly disconcerting way to finish a day of varied, enjoyable and involving stories, marvellously acted by the four performers from the Show of Strength Theatre Company. It seemed to be a great success on this occasion, with an appreciable and appreciative audience, so let’s hope it’s an event which will be repeated in the future. There are many more tales still to be told.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

David Rudkin: Penda's Fen, The Ash Tree and Artemis 81

PART FOUR


The organ plays a key part in the climactic church scenes of Artemis 81 and Penda’s Fen, with both Stephen and von Drachenfels threatening to shudder the walls and buttresses apart. This is in part another element of transfigured autobiography, Rudkin himself having learned to play the organ as a young man during the course of his music studies. Stephen and Gwen in Penda’s Fen and Artemis 81 respectively are both organ students. It is the gothic instrument par excellence, with a swelling sound of majestic power, irreducibly associated with the religious buildings in which it is often housed, and the richly resonant sound which such stone encasement affords. Classical and sacred music plays a significant part in Rudkin’s work. He scripted the film Testimony (1987), about Shostakovich’s trials in Stalinist Russia, wrote Symphonie Pathetique (1992-5) about Tchaikovsky, and the BBC radio3 play The Haunting of Mahler (1994). It is Elgar’s spirit which presides over Penda’s Fen, inhabiting the Malverns and their surrounds, the landscape which has so inspired his music. Stephen’s analysis of a passage of the Dream of Gerontius at the start of the story immediately establishes the centrality of music to his life, and to his sense of himself and the world. It evokes the power of music, its connection with the landscape, its ability to tangibly evoke complex mental and spiritual states and to approach an expression of the ineffable. Stephen’s statement about Elgar’s great choral work is like a testament of faith. ‘I think the greatest visionary work in English music is The Dream of Gerontius by Sir Edward Elgar. It poses the most important question: what is to happen to my soul?’ He goes on to speak (in an essay composed in his head) of Elgar’s creative gift which an awed reverence, also locating him within a particular sense of place. ‘To be a man…have Heaven and Hell between your ears…and write them down, in notes. And walk those hills: and hear the Angel and the Demon…The Judgement: on those hills’. He will undergo his own Judgement and see his own versions of angels and demons at the end of the story. Stephen definitely feels the spirit of the music, and is attuned to the landscape in which he has grown up, and with which he is so familiar.

Stephen with Elgar - Projected landscapes
We get the sense that Stephen yearns to feel some of the transcendent sensations which Elgar experienced, and maybe find his own way of expressing them. For all the youthful arrogance and unyielding certainty which he displays in the early part of the story, he exhibits a due humility in the face of what he perceives as creative genius. When he meets Elgar in the course of his explorations of the surrounding lanes and fields, the composer appears like another incarnation of the angel which has been looking over him, but which he hasn’t been aware of. This angel he sees, however. The angels in the story tend to be associated with the landscape, the sacred topography, whereas the demons (of which Stephen is far more aware) are more connected with buildings and their interiors, as well as with the tainted fen, with its imagined technocratic underworld. If Elgar is an angel, then he is a very human one. He is old and frail, seated in a wheelchair and confined to an old, crumbling outbuilding. He whispers the secret of the Enigma Variations, the hidden code, to Stephen, as if passing on the flame to a new acolyte. Elgar’s spirit returns to inhabit his own blessed, Edenic place. ‘I come to look at the world, you see’, he points out to Stephen. ‘The lovely world. The silver river and the verdant valley. The beautiful world’. He sees all of this in a dank, featureless wall, to which he points as if it is a screen across which a film plays. It’s an indication of the vivid power of the imagination, the creative vision which contains worlds within and can project them outwards. Rudkin writes in his playscript that ‘he may see the Severn Valley, Cotswold, Bredon. But we, coldly behind Elgar, squarely see only the mouldering wall before his pointing hand’. Stephen is ecstatic after his encounter. As the playscript puts it, ‘he has been vouchsafed an encounter with the noble giant who has haunted him; glimpsed his mortal reality; been told his secret’. The camera-eye point of view soars over the landscape, gliding on the surging updrafts of Elgar’s overture In The South. It’s as if it is following in the slipstream of Stephen’s exultant spirit, finally alighting in his bedroom to focus on the portrait of Elgar on the sleeve of the Gerontius sleeve. The birth and death dates below it are a concrete affirmation of his mortality. The mystery of what happens to the soul, which Stephen had identified as ‘the most important question’ at the heart of the Dream of Gerontius, seems to have found its answer in his visionary meeting with the composer. Elgar’s soul lives on through his music, and through his love of the land and the ‘beautiful world’ which it expresses. ‘If, on the hills, you ever hear an old man’s whistling in the air…don’t be afraid’, Elgar tells him. ‘It will only be me’. It is a tender and benign haunting by a blessed spirit of place.

Von Drachenfels - blind improvising
We’ve already seen how Artemis 81 and Penda’s Fen both include improvisations on church organs as climactic preludes precipitating moments of crisis. Both Stephen and von Drachenfels play music which invites chaos and destruction, an acknowledgement of the power of art to invoke darker forces as well as to elevate the spirit. Von Drachenfels, the great organ maestro in Artemis 81, plays the role of the Elgar figure in Penda’s Fen as far as Gwen is concerned. In his case, however, he actively discourages her from pursuing her dreams of becoming a composer or a virtuoso such as himself. Attempting to make light of her disappointment, she tells Gideon that she’ll have to give up on her ‘though of being another Gillian Weir’. Weir was (and still is) one of the great contemporary organists, particularly renowned for her interpretations of the music of Olivier Messiaen. Von Drachenfels is very much the Faustian figure, the artist whose genius and penetrating vision comes at a great cost to his soul. His discouragement is perhaps an attempt at diverting Gwen from suffering a similar fate, or he may be pushing her towards finding her own voice and style, partly through a more general process of self-discovery and the assertion of personal strength and conviction. He uses her score, which she brings to him to look over and which he half borrows, half steals, to send a coded message to Gideon and herself. His final improvisation, which he knows will be the last piece he will play, uses the theme which she composed as a central motif for it. It seems to be an acknowledgement that he finds worth in her music after all, and considers her to be ready to continue her artistic pursuits in the wake of her transforming experiences. Von Drachenfels eschews the melodrama and grandiose Gothicism which are often associated with the organ, partly due to its placement within the framework of gothic architecture. He vows never to play Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor, the hackneyed staple of so many gothic horror films, regarding as a piece of empty showmanship rather than a work of genuinely expressive art. The reduction of creativity to recycled and mass produced cliché is another indication of a world dulled into a mechanised, programmed facsimile of authentic experience. When Gwen and Gideon hear that he is to include a performance of the Tocatta in his programme, they know that he is sending them a signal that all is not right, and that events are reaching a climax. They immediately set out for the abbey at which he will be playing.

The fiery descent
Wagnerian themes and music also permeate Artemis 81. Von Drachenfels himself is a very Wagnerian figure, with his cape, scarf and long sweep of white hair. As he descends the winding stair into the basement beneath his house, the walls are illuminated with baleful red lights as if he is approaching some fiery, molten furnace. The Magic Fire Music from the Valkyrie, the second opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, thunders around him. His Brunnhilde lies below, in a state of suspended half-life on a bed surrounded by the flickering electronic fire of medical instrument readouts. The picture on the wall which he looks at before climbing down depicts a woman with winged helmet and spear, suggesting that his wife may indeed at one point sung the role of Brunnhilde. At the end of the story, the immolation music from the final Ring Cycle opera, Gotterdamerung, surges and swells as von Drachenfels joins his love on her burning bed for a last embrace. It all conveys a sense of the grand drama of life, with mythological archetypes resonating through into modern times. Gideon’s descent into the underworld beyond the sick metropolis also approximates the hellish foundries of the dwarves in Niflheim in Wagner’s mythology, where the treasures and material goods are made for the use and pleasure of the gods. Here, the material being forged is human, however, the mind melted down and shaped into a uniform mould. Gideon’s art, his writing, has taken on a similarly joyless and basely materialistic quality. When he leaves Jed, rejecting his attempts to reach out to him, he mumbles a quick and dismissive ‘back to the forge’. It’s a retreat from a genuine connection with the world or with the self, an escape into baseless fantasy. We see him writing on his golf-ball typewriter, the latest technology for an author at the time. The phone is off the hook and Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the first of the Ring Cycle operas, blasts from his boombox in the background. For him, it is mere noise to block out the world, and he is completely shut off from external reality in his glass-walled, high-rise eyrie. Gwen, in real need of his help, tries to get through to him on the phone, but he has taken it off the hook. He is unreachable.

The Ash Tree - shadows of the past
The divided and fragmented self, turned inward and denying a part of its true and whole nature, is a recurrent theme of Rudkin’s work. In The Ash Tree, Sir Richard’s divided self is suggested by the re-emergence of the past in his perceptions of the present. His modern and ‘enlightened’ Jacobean qualities are undermined by the oppressive shadows of Puritan judgement which he sees outlined in the windows and against the flickering firelight. The portrait of his ancestor, Sir Matthew Fell, also looms above him whenever he ascends the stairs, its baleful stare draining away his own character and infecting him with the self-delusion, weakness in the face of authority, and denial of desire which his forbear had displayed. Thus he leaves himself vulnerable to a renewal of the deadly curse delivered by Mistress Mothersole from the scaffold. The fragmented self is reflected in Artemis 81 by images of divided and occluded vision which run throughout the story. We open on a close up of Gideon’s mouth and then his eye, before the camera pulls back and he puts on his large, rounded glasses and uncovers his typewriter, after first taking the phone off the hook. Verbal and visual communication and perception are modes of expression and understanding which he has rejected in favour of writing, of creating his own insular subworlds. The glasses and the other screens through which he sees the world – the windows of his flat, the windscreen of his motorhome and the glass eye of the TV, always on but largely ignored in the corner of his room – become a symbol of his retreat from direct engagement with life. His dream of converting the tower, located on a rise of remote moorland, into a new home would isolate and elevate him completely apart from and above the concerns of the world, and complete the building of his impenetrable self-armoury. Here, too, the stone foundations are topped by a glass walled living space, more screens through which to gaze out at the world without any danger of being touched by it. More screens representing false sub-worlds are found in the story. There are the space invaders arcade games on the ship, the medical screens in the basement which lend an illusion of life to von Drachenfels’ wife, and the false projections of the sea which provide a programmed technological replacement for the natural sublime. Early on in the film, on the ferry over from Denmark, we see a small, rather reserved boy with his mother and a priest. He looks very much like a younger version of Gideon. He too wears large glasses, but one lens is frosted, shattered in some accident. He is shown a dried blue flower pressed in a book, the same blue flower which we will later see growing at the sorrowful sites to which the passengers travel before succumbing to the death impulse which has infected them via the fragments of the Magog statue. Just as the blue flower is a symbol of hope amidst bleak despair, so he carries with him the potential of a brighter future. We glimpse him later on the television news, his mother pulling him away from the self-immolated body of the priest, burning in the streets of a town on the east coast of Northern Ireland. When Gideon looks at himself in the mirror in Helith’s hut, it’s like he is seeing himself for the first time. He doesn’t wear glasses from this point on in the story, an indication that his vision has been ‘cleared’. The traumatic moment of the explosion on the Welsh cliffs which has destroyed his motorhome, the mobile fortress in which he ventures out into the world, has shocked him into a renewed perception of reality.

Artemis 81 - the robotic eye
Language and its construction can also act as a potentially occluding veil, a means of obscuring rather than exploring the true nature of the self. We see Gideon examining the spherical golf ball components of his electronic typewriter, with their letters and symbols raised from the surface, holding them in front of his eye. They look like detachable metallic eyeballs, cyborg organs which enable only mechanical vision. Gideon’s writing, as a result, is soulless and empty, and offers a facile and even dangerous form of escapist wish-fulfilment. With this technology, Gideon is able to erase instinct and authentic feeling, effectively censoring and suppressing his self in an act of semi-automatic self-delusion. This erasure of language can also lead to true vision, the veil of self-deluding words torn aside. This is the key to the riddle etched onto the stained glass in the church by von Drachenfels’ home: ‘such as when these writings shall disappear you shall know my face’. In Gideon’s visionary dream, these words themselves are erased, in a similar way to the erasure of the type on his modern machine. This removal of the barrier of obfuscatory and evasive language, used to keep the authentically real at a distance, allows for vision of the Magog figure, the lumpen chthonic rockform which is the destructive power let loose by Asrael in the world. Seeing his own face beneath the obscuring cowl, in classic dream-revelation style, shows that the heart of this potential for destruction lies in the dislocation and dissociation within and between people. The debased form of Artemis as Magog, a hunched, granitic stone figure twisted painfully in on itself, is an outward projection of Gideon’s soul. His state, unacknowledged by himself, is an example on an individual level of the wider atomisation and the resultant sense of dull despair on a social level that the re-awakening of Magog/Artemis will bring. Phaedra, in Rudkin’s translation of Euripedes Greek tragedy Hippolytus, articulates this state, musing ‘always in me this backing away, from the reality of others, into a still safety of the self that’s no security at all’. Von Drachenfels, talking to Gwen in the ‘confessional’ of the organ booth in his church, likens Gideon to one who is ‘in thrall to Artemis’, just as Hippolytus is in Euripedes play. He is ‘withdrawn, within beyond our reaching – a prisoner in his own nature’. The divided self nurturing and protecting its fragmented nature within an armoured and impenetrable shell of its own careful and thorough construction. Gideon stands by an open grave outside the church, and von Drachenfels subsequently philosophises to Gwen, in the kind of dramatically formal stage language which retains the flavour of Rudkin’s classical interpretations, that beyond ‘that death we die, that ends’, there is also ‘that death whose grave bonds form around us as we live’. This is the living death into which the prisoners of the underworld in the parallel world to which Gideon and Helith cross over are programmed before being sent up to the surface once more. In Penda’s Fen, Stephen’s father talks to him about the division of the self in the modern world, proclaiming that ‘only by being nonselves can we survive in our own mortal shrouds we weave around us. And what shall this ‘survival’ profit us? In this day of the mask, this day of Corporate Man’. Having hijacked the van in which the living dead are being transported and driven it to the surface, Gwen and Gideon abandon them, locked in the back like so much livestock. They consider them to be lost, beyond redemption and scarcely even human. In breaking free of their own conditioning and escaping the underworld, leaving two dead bodies in their wake (their sloughed off selves?), they bring some of its taint of moral disconnection with them to the world above. The people in the van may be wretched, but in abandoning them to their fate, Gwen and Gideon exhibit a lack of compassion and a readiness to judge which takes them a step towards becoming equivalent to the dispassionate operators of the technocratic machinery of control from whom they have just fled.

Penda's Fen - Dream Demons
Gideon’s divided state is revealed to him in a dream which he chooses to ignore. Dreams as conveyors of hidden truths are also important in Penda’s Fen. They become so vital that they break out into the real world, the angels and demons battling within manifesting themselves in palpable form. Stephen’s awareness of his difference, of his homosexuality, emerges in a dream. He sees a mighty, radiant angel descend from the Malverns, and transform within the hall of his school, beneath the Greek inscription reading ‘know thyself’, into one of his classmates, Honeybone, with whom he has a rather fractious relationship. A hand, presumably his own, runs down his naked torso until it reaches his pelvic region, further exploration denied by a burning, brilliant torchlight. Waking up, he finds the gargoyle-like demon squatting at the foot of his bed, and knows himself to be, in his own mind, ‘unnatural’. He also, with innocent naivety and disregard for the potential for mockery, relates one of his dreams to a disinterested teacher during a class, a dream which he suggests is ‘like a parable’. In it, he sees a demon on the roof of his father’s church, and through an effort of will, transforms it into a shining angel. Having discovered his power to transform the nature of these manifestations, he then turns it back into a demon again. He later asks his father about what dreams mean, and is told ‘your dream tells a truth about yourself. A truth you hide from while you are awake. A truth you need to know about yourself. For your…well being’. He goes on to suggest that ‘the responsibility of the dreamer (is) to acknowledge what truth about yourself the dream reveals. Then act upon that truth’. The demon can thus be confronted and transformed into angelic shape, and back again if need be, the marriage of heaven and hell consummated and the demonic and angelic aspects united. The ‘balance of mind’ offered as an ideal by the Greek dictum inscribed on the school wall can thus be achieved, the divided self made whole again.

Artemis 81 - The Hitchcock and Dreyer wall
Cinematic references abound in Artemis 81. They are made explicit by having Gideon’s old friend Jed teach a course in film history and theory. He elucidates the substance of the Hitchcockian undercurrents running through the film in his lecture on Vertigo, and specifically the embrace between James Stewart’s Scottie and Kim Novak’s Madeline/Judy. Jed talks of the camera which circles them as being a moral, consecrating eye, imbuing it with almost religious power. He claims ‘it tells us we do right to dream and for our sanity we must learn to fall’. The transformation of the backdrop around Scottie and Judy, the woman he has moulded into the form of the dead Madeline, as the camera circles them, the cheap motel room at some point disappearing to be replaced by the tower in which he witnessed the fatal, traumatic moment of her fall, is a transition into the emotionally expressive vision of the inner eye. Scottie embraces the first Madeline (who is in fact Judy as well) in front of a turbulent Pacific Ocean which is rather obviously a back projection, an expression of his passionate and troubled inner state. This projection of an unreal ocean is realised in a more literal fashion in the cells of the technocratic underworld, with the indoctrination of the experimental subjects into seeing the sea in an auroral curtain of dry ice and shimmering laser light being a step in the process towards complete mind control. Rather than an expression of overwhelming emotion, it has become instead a means of manipulating feeling and directing the inner eye, dulling the senses and creating a compliant, malleable mentality. Further Vertigo references are found in the scene set in the bell tower in the cathedral of the sick metropolis. Gideon holds on to the ‘Hitchcock blonde’, who is also his idealised image of Gwen, trying, and failing, to save her from falling. He also has his of camera consecrated embrace with the angel Helith, the bleak tower block in which they have found meagre shelter transforming behind them into the safe haven of the sea by which the homely hut in which Gideon had, in all senses, awoken stands. Through offering him his compassion, love and the warmth of his coat, Gideon saves the angel, who has become infected by the sickness of this dark city, a sickness brought about by his brother Asrael. But Gideon also compounds his fall, his descent into the human world, where he now feels the cold and sees his reflection, a level of sensation and self-awareness previously unknown to him. The last we see of Helith, he is sitting on the shore between lake and sea, the planetary moons once more sinking towards the horizon. Now completely alone, his brother for the time being broken and defeated, he clutches Gideon’s coat and gives off a rather pitiful sob.

Artemis 81 - Learning to fall
Gideon has his own Vertigo moment in the abbey towards the end of the story. He looks up at the ladder which stretches up to the roof, and temporarily balks at climbing it, before Gwen urges him on. In the galleries inside, he has to overcome his fear of heights in order to edge along the narrow walkways and reach up to the Magog statue in its nook, preventing it from cracking open and releasing its poisons. Finally, he learns to fall, tumbling from the elevated arches, his face filled with beatific acceptance rather than rigid fear. He survives his fall, the broken leg which he suffers complementing the limp he acquired in the explosion on the clifftops. Both are an outward replacement for the spiritual lameness which has been healed, the physical cost of his inward transformation. More Hitchcockian allusions are to be found at various points in the film. As they approach the abbey along the A road heading east in order to hear von Drachenfels’ recital, a huge, locust-like swarm of crows rushes overhead, as if fleeing an apocalyptic oncoming stormfront. It’s a fairly obvious nod to The Birds. Amongst the posters on Jed’s wall, we see ones for late Hitchcock films: The Birds, Torn Curtain and Family Plot. Jed also has numerous stills from Carl Dreyer’s film Vampyr on his wall. Dreyer is a particular cinematic touchstone for Rudkin. In his bfi Classics book on Vampyr, he testifies that ‘I revere Carl Dreyer more deeply than any other artist of my time’. He cites a circling tracking shot in Dreyer’s Ordet which observes the holy madman Johannes as he comforts the little girl whose mother is dying in the neighbouring room. ‘The camera passes quietly around them in a perfect circle’, he writes, ‘enfolding them and consecrating them’. It is the Vertigo embrace again, suggestive of an intensely focussed inner vision.

Artemis 81 - gothic glow
The gothic is a central visual motif in Artemis 81, and Rudkin and director Alistair Reid summon it up with several references to and borrowings from Hammer films. Red and black are predominant colours throughout, from the red lining of von Drachenfels’ Inverness cape, to the black suit and red tie sported by Asrael in human form. Red light emanates from the porch of von Drachenfels’ church, from the basement below his house and from the tunnel entrance to the technocratic underworld. Asrael and von Drachenfels are both eminently gothic characters. They are generally to be found in or near the gothic surrounds of churches or cathedrals. The name von Drachenfels melds the key character of gothic horror, Dracula, with a prefix denoting Germanic nobility, and the Teutonic roots of the modern gothic. Whilst von Drachenfels looks more like a figure from a Dreyer film, Asrael has the customary well-dressed and suave manner of the monstrous Hammer adversary, be it human or fiend, Cushing or Lee. With his vulpine features and jet black hair swept back from a sharp widow’s peak, he it the traditional image of Satanic persuasion, the smooth face of evil. His final fall from the abbey galleries and impalement on the spike of an iron railing draws directly from the finale of the Hammer film Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, in which Christopher Lee’s Count suffers a similar fate, plunging down onto the sharpened end of a large gold crucifix. In case we miss the allusion, there is also a thin trickle of blood which drools from the corner of Asrael’s gaping mouth. The overhead shot of his face, half-imploring, half full of hissing, animalistic hate, hand reaching our as if to grab hold of life and cling on, is very much akin to the parallel shot in the Hammer film. The scene in the bell tower of the cathedral, in which Gwen/the Hitchcock blonde hangs within the bell, which Asrael sets to ringing, is also a blend of the finale of Vertigo and the beginning of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. The Hammer film begins with the discovery of a woman’s body, drained of blood, hanging pendant within the bell of the local church, muffling its clangorous morning call to prayer. The plot to release a deadly plague into the world supervised by the vampirically styled Asrael also brings to mind Christopher Lee’s final outing for Hammer as the Count, The Satanic Rites of Dracula. In this intriguing contemporary re-imagining of the cycle, the Dracula has become the head of a corporation, with an office suite at the top of a high rise, and uses his position to synthesise a new and virulent form of the bubonic plague, which he intends to use to precipitate Armageddon, thus ending his cursed eternal half-life. As Gwen and Gideon approach the abbey in her car, frightening and disturbing illusions manifest from a mist in front of Gideon’s windscreen view in an attempt to turn him from their path. Children robed in white sing a ritualistic chant and a headless rider rears up on his horse. They are very much like the phantoms sent to strike fear into the hearts of the characters gathered in a magic pentacle and thus to drive them out of its protective boundary in the Hammer film The Devil Rides Out.


Alternative impalements - Artemis 81 and Dracula Has Risen From the Grave
Penda’s Fen and The Ash Tree also show an awareness of British horror traditions. The former has a flavour of the Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood strain of British supernatural fiction, with its re-emergence of long buried Pagan traditions and figures inherent in a particular, localised landscape. Penda’s Fen is one of a good many TV series and plays from the 1970s which were set in rural areas (usually in the West Country) and which found mystery and magic in ancient landscapes. Amongst these, Children of the Stones was filmed in Avebury, The Moon Stallion around Wayland’s Smithy and the White Horse of Uffington, and The Changes roved through a rural Midlands traumatically thrown back into a pre-technological age by what turns out to be the pulsations from a powerful sarsen stone which has been disturbed. These, fine as they all were, were broadcast as children’s programmes, whereas Penda’s Fen was scheduled as an adult drama, and was thus able to deal with adult themes more directly, even though its central character was a boy on the threshold of adulthood. The Ash Tree, with its bucolic backdrop jarringly mixed with acts of base brutality carried out in the lovingly filmed pastoral settings, displays a definite debt to Michael Reeves classic Witchfinder General, which balances similar stark contrasts between the picturesque and the cruel. In Artemis 81, we also see a crude exploitation horror poster on the wall in the dark metropolis, its title, Zitpilakoda, suggestive of a collided Esperanto of East European languages. The imagery is unsubtly Freudian, redolent of the sexual revulsion and fear evident in some horror films and fiction, which reflects Gideon’s former state of mind. A gloating Asrael figure leers out whilst a naked man is grabbed by the claw of a giant crab. A reference to 70s pulp horror writer Guy N Smith, perhaps, who wrote a surprising number of novels featuring giant, flesh-eating crabs, which were an ubiquitous sight on the wire bookracks in newsagents at the time.

Artemis 81 - Tarkovsky interiors
Other film references beyond Hitchcock and British gothic are also evident. The maze of the technocratic underworld which Gideon infiltrates and then escapes from with Gwen is like a James Bond villain’s hi-tech subterraenean lair, as realised on a BBC budget. The poisoned city, with its ramshackle market underneath abandoned factory vaults is like something from Eastern European cinema, with a Kafkaesque sense of the world tilted off its axis of normality. A man with a bowler hat and thickly coiled scarf, and a couple of kids running by in Nazi uniforms add to this atmosphere of an old Eastern Europe of the mind, various aspects from different times gathered together in a temporal collage of imaginary geography. The monumental interior of the cathedral, with its drifting mists suggesting a vastness which generates its own atmospheric conditions, brings to mind Tarkovky’s Andrei Rublev and Stalker, as well as the cathedral interior/exterior which provides the transcendent conclusion to Nostalgia, released a couple of years after Artemis 81 was broadcast. Stalker also begins and ends in a poisoned landscape, in which both the environment and the people who inhabit it have become degraded and sick, physically and spiritually. The lighting in the cathedral sequence, especially in the bell tower sequence, with its long, pronounced shadows and strong contrasts between shadow and light, shows the influence of German expressionism. Metropolis is a particular inspiration for the whole sick city section of the film. Gideon’s bewildered wanderings through this dark urban landscape are also reminiscent of those of the titular character in Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark as he explores the strange, fantastic city of Unthank, which may be his own personal purgatory. Jean Cocteau and his modern mythological film Orphee is also summoned up when Gideon regards himself in the full length mirror after awakening in Helith’s cottage. He reaches forward to touch his image as if the silvered surface will prove to be a window or doorway, as it does in Orphee and Le Sang d’un Poete. One of the fated passengers on the ferry at the beginning of the story is himself a film director. Gideon goes to visit his wife in the course of tracing the pattern of the ferry suicides. Tristam Guise was known, and notorious, for his ‘shock film’ The Dark Night of the Earth. It sounds like the kind of taboo breaking British picture associated with several directors from the 70s. He is a Lindsay Anderson, Nic Roeg or Ken Russell, with his best years behind him and his fires damped down. Indeed, there is something of Roeg’s Don’t Look Now in the scene in the cathedral, with Gideon being lead breathlessly on by the figure in white, who always remains just tantalisingly ahead of him on the stairs, disappearing through a door or standing for a moment on top of a buttress bridge. Guise’s The Dark Night of the Earth may be a film into which Gideon strays when he passes over with Helith into the dark metropolis, or a preview of what is to come should Magog’s poison be released by Asrael.

Penda's Fen - The British visionary tradition
Rudkin’s TV plays are certainly not without their faults, as he is himself only too ready to admit. On his website, he writes of Artemis 81 ‘I acknowledge that the piece is uneven – in the writing and in the realizing’. Some may find the dialogue too stagey, with the language occasionally taking on the declamatory quality of the mythic rhetoric of classical drama. This creates a distancing effect when used in a modern context, most people expecting contemporary drama to be essentially realist, with speech patterns like those of everyday conversation. Some of the acting, particularly in Artemis 81, can be a little tentative, giving the impression that the characters are notional archetypes rather than fully formed characters. Even this fits in with the general mythological atmosphere, however. BBC budgets didn’t allow for a full realisation of Rudkin’s more elaborately visionary ideas, but, as with Doctor Who over the decades, the imagination can colour in the basic sketch. The accusation of pretentiousness has been levelled at the films, with Artemis 81 once more being especially singled out by the critics, perhaps because by this time the fantastic and the allegorical had lost favour with the cognoscenti. This contempt for anything deemed ‘pretentious’ is a particularly British obsession, the idea of people overreaching themselves being viewed with dismissive disdain. Brian Eno talks about this in one of the appended essays in his book A Year With Swollen Appendices (the essay in question forming one such appendix). ‘In the arts’, he writes, ‘the word ‘pretentious’ has a special meaning: the attempt at something which the critic thinks you have no right even to try’. He decides to turn the word into a compliment. Artemis 81 and Penda’s Fen do stretch audience comprehension and tolerance at times. But they also challenge the viewer. If they have an overriding fault, it’s that they try to include too much – to attempt a grand synthesis of the personal and the political, the philosophical, mythological and spiritual. If this results in failure, then a least it’s a noble one, the result of huge ambition and a desire to draw everything together to form a new Blakean worldview. As such, these films are in the great tradition of visionary English art, which always slips in and out of tradition, but remains as an ineradicable undercurrent; from Milton to Blake, the new-Romantics (Paul Nash, Cecil Collins and David Jones) to Derek Jarman and Andrew Kotting, through to the modern resurgence of interest in musical explorations of the mysteries underlying English landscape and memory (as typified by Damon Albarn’s new opera based around the life and work of the Elizabethan astrologer John Dee). It would be good to see more attempts to construct such overarching modern mythologies, to resurrect the British visionary spirit once more. Penda’s Fen currently remains unreleased on dvd, having failed to make into the recent Alan Clarke box set, having perhaps been deemed out of step with the rest of his work. A shame.

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE