Friday, 5 December 2008

Book Review: Occult London by Merlin Coverley

Having an open mind for discovering the marvellous in surroundings familiar and ordinary; transforming seemingly mundane environments, the suburbs, the city, into magical domains of enchantment, (or horror) are the prerequisite skills of the good imaginative artist. But anyone who nourishes their soul on the imaginative must ground themselves in the places where they exist and for me that place is London and its environs. In many ways I'm lucky as London is rich in shadows and mystery, exemplified by its writers and chroniclers-Ackroyd, Sinclair and Moorcock. I bought this little guide to the arcane for instance in the atmospheric Atlantis Bookshop, situated near the British Museum, in Bloomsbury; London's Occult district according to Peter Ackroyd. Alistair Crowley was a regular visitor to the shop in the Twenties.

Merlin Coverley’s, Occult London is a tiny book, no more then an extended pamphlet in hardback binding. But for those unacquainted with the subject it’s a useful reference tool for more in depth investigation-a reading list of the city’s magical literature and a lengthy appendix giving you an A-Z description of London’s occult locations. Chapters are in chronological order starting with the Elizabethan era as represented by the Magus, John Dee at Mortlake and ending in the present with its psychogeographers and antiquarians, Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd and bizarre leyline enthusiasts. In between we have amongst other things, snapshots of the occult architecture of Nicholas Hawksmoor, the visionary poet William Blake, and late 19th and early 20th century eccentrics-the benign Madame Blavatsky and the more sinister Aleister Crowley-and occult societies.

Two of London’s urban legends are given relatively detailed sub-chapters. The odd rather comical figure of Spring-Heeled Jack, who terrorised London during Queen Victoria’s reign and the Highgate Cemetery Vampire of the swinging sixties and seventies. If Hammer was to make a nostalgic homage to its vampire films of the era, then the supposedly Highgate undead and their real life amateur vampire hunters would be fertile material to base it on. Highgate’s Western Cemetery is certainly a wonderfully eerie locale, with its overgrown gravestones and dilapidated vaults-one of London’s genuine hidden areas of potent magic.

As a mere starting point into the labyrinth of London’s occult past (and present) this will do fine, but for more serious investigators though read Sinclair, Ackroyd et al.

Websites for further reading and information:

London Adventure

London Psychogeographical Association

Saturday, 29 November 2008

No Sex Please, We’re The Guardian

Liberal political theory in the abstract has a profound concern for personal liberty. All good and right thinking liberals should see individual freedom and human rights as sacrosanct. Many have championed free speech and opposed censorship and they have courageously stood shoulder to shoulder with campaigners for sexual freedom and openness.

Of course liberal theory very rarely relates to practice in the real world and you would have to be very naive indeed to think they have kept to these principles in all circumstances and historical periods. Statist and legislative measures to change peoples ‘bad habits’ are part of the liberal tradition as well as denigration of the struggles of the working class and the oppressed. This is clearly emphasised if you take The Guardian newspaper as a barometer of liberal opinion. The Guardian newspaper considered by many to be the heart and soul of liberality, advertises as the paper giving equal space to differing opinions and takes pride in its opposition to intolerance and bigotry, but when it comes to the difficult issue of commercial sex we get only one side of the story.

The dominant writer in the Guardian on the ‘sex industry’, to the exclusion of all other writers with opposing views, is Julie Bindel. A self-styled radical feminist, militantly puritanical and pro-censorship, Bindel is certainly no liberal. So why is she so prominent in a liberal newspaper? And why are sex workers, proponents of decriminalisation and anti-censorship campaigners excluded from a paper that prides itself of giving equal space to differing opinions? As new legislation is announced by the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, to criminalise men who pay for sex with women "controlled for another person's gain", as well as other laws concerning lap-dancing and pornography, the nature of contemporary liberalism, its sanctimonious finger-wagging and prudery are glaringly highlighted by the Guardian’s one-sidedness. Many of today’s liberals are pseudo-liberal or pseudo-left; basically individuals who have abandoned the principle of liberty.

Let’s have a look at Ms Bindel’s latest diatribe in the Guardian on the global sex trade as an example of her extreme illiberality. (For those who don’t read The Guardian, it’s important to keep in mind the prominence of Julie Bindel; nearly every article on the ‘sex industry’ is written by her or one of her supporters.) The piece is focused on an Australian ‘radical’ feminist, Sheila Jeffreys book on the sex industry-The Industrial Vagina. In the opening paragraph of Bindel’s article, like any right wing hack writing in The News of the World, we are expected automatically to feel disgust at this degrading business, afterall it’s, shock, horror, SEX! we are dealing with:

In line with the government, many Australian feminists had come to view prostitution simply as a form of work, and Jeffreys found herself appalled by this "neo-liberalism" - the complete lack of moral outrage about the buying and selling of women's bodies.

To Jeffreys (and Bindel) it’s not really an issue of economic exploitation-of workers denied decent salaries, forced to work long hours to feed their families under appalling working conditions-but a revulsion with sex itself. (or heterosexual intercourse at least)

The common theme of her work is her (Jeffreys) firm belief that men maintain power over women by the act of sexual intercourse, and that heterosexuality is therefore bad for women.

If their arguments were not based on visceral disgust with sex then why do these writers obsessively concentrate on the subject. I have never seen an article by Bindel on non-sexual exploitation of women workers in domestic or care work or the general corporate slavery inflicted on mainly young women in the global clothing industry.

The global ‘sex industry’ as understood by Bindel and Jeffreys is not merely prostitution but stripping (lap dancing) and pornography. Here we enter the realm of the monomaniac conspiracy theory; the idea of all men controlling all women through sex . (prostitution, stripping, pornography) Take a complex and multilayered subject (commercial sex), reduce it down to its most simple minded component (men oppressing women), and then sell it as an overarching tyranny at the exclusion of all other tyrannies. Men are to blame! Anti-Semites do the same with their idea of a conspiracy of Jewish bankers, the UN and the Israeli lobby. Jews are to blame! And like all conspiracy theorists if you criticise them it’s because you are part of the conspiracy: You disagree because you’re a man (or a heterosexual woman) or a Jew.

Reading this intolerant and fanatical piece you would think a writer such as Julie Bindel would not have a permanent position on The Guardian. But even worse sex workers and sex positive feminists are denied a voice in this quintessentially liberal newspaper; almost as if to hold the opposing view is now considered illiberal rather then the other way round. These two short articles on prostitution, one by Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, a researcher into sex work and Laurie Penny, a journalist and blogger, show what has been excluded from its pages-considered, well researched articles, devoid of sensationalist tabloid moralising, treating sex workers as active agents rather then degraded victims.*

So why the bias? Are we facing a growing puritanism (reflected in today’s liberalism and some sections of the Left as well as society at large) hand-in-hand with increasing government control over personal life? Julie Bindel not only writes for the Guardian but works for The Poppy Project, a mainstream charitable organisation that ostensibly helps trafficked women, but also lobbies to criminalize clients of prostitutes-see Laurie Penny’s article for a critique of this group. Or as New Labour are unwilling and unable to address economic exploitation they have turned to the old standby of law and order and censorship, once the prerogative of the Right. Again Julie Bindel has close ties with the Home Office and praised authoritarian Labour ministers.

The Left must take seriously this threat to our basic freedoms, liberties gained by the cultural revolution of the sixties-a freedom to engage in erotic practices between consenting adults (no matter how bizarre they are viewed by conventional society), to enjoy sexual entertainment or to consume pornographic media. All authoritarian creeds from religious fundamentalists to fascists and Stalinists are puritanical, starting out with the aim of suppressing the diffuse desires and the sexual imagination of human beings; do not allow a new form of puritanism, extreme gender politics, to get any more footholds in the movements for social change. Already the main liberal newspaper in the UK is under their control when it comes to the subject of commercial sex and feminism.

* Admittedly the article by Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon is from the Guardian’s Comment is Free website, but was never printed in the main paper, where Julie Bindel has full dominance.

Organisations worth supporting:

Sexual Freedom Campaigns and Sex Positive Feminists:

Sexual Freedom Coalition

Consenting Adults Action Network


Feminists Against Censorship

Sex Workers Unions and Organisations

The International Union of Sex Workers

The English Collective of Prostitutes

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Book Review: The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell has created nightmares for a very long time now; picking up it seems every horror literature award available and exulted by the big guns of the genre-Stephen King, Clive Barker et al. But take a look at any horror section in UK bookshops, pushing aside the proliferation of Shaun Hutson and Dean Koontz, and most likely you will not find any Ramsey Campbell titles. Until recently, although an English writer, his books were published only in America. The Grin of the Dark is his latest novel and his first for Virgin Books. I doubt its sold many copies.

But if tales of terror are graded by there scaryness then The Grin of the Dark is a bona fide masterpiece, a five star marvel. Simon Lester, a writer on cinema, takes up the offer of researching the lost silent comedies of former music hall artiste, Tubby Thackeray. The terrifying presence of Tubby's grinning moon shaped head and his deeply unsettling films, dominate a first person narration of nightmarish anxiety, as Simon descends into madness or alternatively faces a dark force of primeval chaos. Campbell expertly uses his trade mark method of transforming the ordinary world of objects and people into sinister shapes or malevolent shadows, until eventually the truly uncanny slips into full view.

There is something close to the surrealism of David Lynch here, especially this novel, which is like an extended nightmare. The narrator’s everyday anxieties and his feelings of failure, anger and frustration, mix with the intrusion of the disturbingly strange as in Lynch’s Eraserhead. The sinister clown in horror fiction is a cliché but here the figure of Tubby Thackeray is used to delve into the gleefully insane nature of slapstick comedy. Madness and alienation are major themes and by the end of the novel you are unsure of what you have been reading; a Lovecraftian tale of cosmic terror or an unreliable narrator, confined to a hospital ward for the mentally ill, describing the unravelling of his mind. The writing style is deliberately dislocated at times, adding to the atmosphere of displacement and paranoia. Another cinematic influence adding to the novel’s many layers are Japanese and Korean horror, with its apparitions haunting and infecting modern technology; in this instance the internet.

Ramsey Campbell has excelled himself with The Grin of the Dark. His uniquely disorientating prose is employed to the utmost but the novel is not merely a vehicle for frights. Different themes (madness, alienation, the essence of comedy and the dark side of entertainment) are interwoven subtle into the story. This is a very rare beast indeed; horror that not only scares but makes you think.

Postscript: A major set piece at the beginning of the novel is situated in Virginia Water, part of Windsor Great Park, Surrey, although not named by Ramsey Campbell. As a child I went on walks with my family here and was fascinated by the huge Native American totem pole with its carved faces (mentioned in the novel) and the fake Greek ruins. More pertinent to The Grin of the Dark is the fact that adjacent to Virginia Water is Holloway Sanatorium (not in the novel) a gothic Victorian insane asylum now renovated as a gated housing estate. Simon Lester, the narrator of The Grin of the Dark, was a student at the nearby Royal Holloway College.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

A Short Story for Halloween: The Looking Glass House (Continued)

Awaking after a night of heat and restive dreams I washed in the basin, dressed and attempted to search for Alfred and Emily, but met the taciturn housekeeper instead. Mrs Johnston led me to the small kitchen where silently I sat at the stained wooden table and eat the meagre breakfast she grudgingly prepared.

I sat slumped over my plate of porridge unable to eat anymore, thinking despondent thoughts. If only I had not stayed away from Arnhiem Manor for so long or at least written more regularly. If only Alfred had informed me of Emily’s condition. So many ifs, all of them useless now; there only point being to inflame my mind with regrets. I jumped slightly when Alfred entered and in the stark light of morning his state was even more shockingly degraded. His hair was greasier, long and uncut, his beard like a bird’s nest; the eyes swallowed by nightmares of insomnia, red as blood. He was stooped like an old man, his breath stank of whiskey and as he sat across from me I noticed the unpleasant smell of rancid sweat.

“Dear God, Alfred, what the hell is going on,” I said, unable to contain myself. “You have to tell me everything. Everything for Christ’s sake!”
“Edwin, I want you out of my house by the end of the week.” His voice was surprisingly strong, belying his outward appearance.
Again I was speechless. By this one spoken sentence, Alfred was rejecting our close friendship, slamming a door on my love for Emily.
“But…” I gathered myself mentally, the dormant anger rising like an unleashed dragon. I was aware of this from the past, an unrestrained, irrational rage that occasionally burst forth. I was ashamed and had made the greatest efforts to control it. Now I almost lost control but although the provocation was immense I temporally smothered it.

I got up and said firmly without a stutter or tremble in my words, “I am not leaving Arnhiem Manor, Alfred. I love your daughter and I have proposed marriage. She has accepted my offer. Furthermore I demand to see Emily and wish to speak to her.”
Alfred’s shoulders shook, a stifled laugh was seemingly contorting his body but was he sobbing instead? I never had time to find out; with a rapid movement he fled from the kitchen. I tried to follow him but he ran outside into the bright gardens. Although my temper was urging me to hunt him down, another idea suddenly crossed my mind. I was loath to do so but realising Emily was still in her room I would knock and hopefully she would allow me egress to her sick bed. I was desperate to talk to her.

Tapping gently I spoke her name but no reply was forthcoming. Raising my voice slightly I knocked harder on her door and I thought I detected a sound, almost imperceptible, of a muffled moan, but I was not sure. Before I could commence with my attempts to raise Emily I heard footsteps on the stairs. Quickly I retreated to my room and withdrawing the key in the lock stared through the hole. It was Alfred and he was unlocking Emily’s chamber. I realised, my mind too confused to react with speed, he was keeping his daughter under lock and key. By the time this shocking realisation hit me, Alfred had shut the door. Again I hesitated. With an extreme effort I calmed myself and nonchalantly approached the shut door. Lowering my head I listened intently; I heard Alfred whispering words of comfort and disturbingly muffled, incoherent cries arose from Emily. Dejection claimed me then, forcing me to retreat. What else could I do in the circumstances; I was excluded, expelled from this intimate family group. Alfred in his despair saw me only as an unwelcome intrusion; his grief sending him almost insane, locking away his own daughter. Short of committing an act of unseemly violence I was helpless.

I sat on my bed, putting my head in my hands and gave vent to unmanly tears.

The day was spent roaming the grounds of Arnhiem Manor and walking the river path towards Hampton Court, in a daze of introspection. My mind did not take in the tranquil swaying of the willows in the breeze, the graceful swans gliding across the water or any details of this clear, fresh day, but the peacefulness of the countryside, after a few hours, relaxed my mental turmoil slightly. Around late afternoon I retreated to the near deserted Old Manor Inn and sat nursing a pint of strong beer. I had decided all was hopeless. Emily was fading away fast and it would not be long before she died. Alfred would no doubt eventually recover from his terrible loss so soon after the death of his own wife, three years before and once the crippling pangs of grief had passed he would apologize for his behaviour. Tomorrow I would return to Oxford; there was no other course of action.

It was almost dark when I returned to the dismal hulk of the Manor. I let myself in with the key the housekeeper had given me and was immediately struck by the high temperature. By some unknown agency, the heat, maybe created by the modern laboratory, was trapped. But it was a process I could not understand. The sweat immediately beaded on my forehead as I lit a candle, left thoughtfully by Mrs Johnston and I decided there and then to visit the library. Sleep tonight would be impossible. Lengthened and deformed shadows clustered around me as I moved and the pitch black corridors, the impenetrable darkness, appeared to be holes into endless space, extinguishing light without mercy. All around me the house seemed to elongate and expand into dark emptiness, as if the manor was reaching its true shape, lying outside the confines of its walls; a shape beyond comprehension.

Entering the library was like stepping into an immense cavern, but I soon found the gaslight over the reading desk and lit it with a match from my pocket. The faint glow released by the light only accentuated the deep wells of non-illumination encompassing the rest of the library. On the desk was the same ancient volume Alfred was reading yesterday and my eyes were drawn involuntarily to the illustration on the opened page.

Depicted in primitive style without perspective a dreadful human sacrifice was taking place. A bearded man in occultist robes, covered in obscure magical symbols, cut with a monstrous blade a foetus from the womb of a naked woman, tied on an x shaped cross. Crudely inked on both sides of this picture were the same type of mirrors in the alcoves, and making an apex of a triangle, with the bloody sacrifice in the centre, was a portrayal of a larger looking glass. The illustrated frame was seemingly crafted on one side into entwined foliage, on the other with human bodies of both sexes. A staring eye of hatred was at the top of the frame but beneath was another eye, this one filled with fear. This must be the artist’s impression of the missing mirror.

I sat on the chair beside the table and turned the pages carefully, surveying the Latin text and the frontispiece. The book was an account of a heretical 16th Century sect and their doctrines by one of their acolytes. Of course I knew of their leader Charles Marlowe, architect and occultist. It was he who built Arnhiem Manor, designing the house to specific dimensions, corresponding to his peculiar beliefs. What these beliefs were I did not know in any detail; I suppose you could describe them as a satanic form of Gnosis. Alfred had explained Marlowe’s irrational ideas but like all supernatural or religious dogma it was of no interest to me. The demise of Charles Marlowe and his followers did have an affect on my mind though because of its gruesome nature. A rabble of ignorant peasants led by a bigoted priest massacred the entire sect, the women and children included, blaming them for the disappearance of infants in the vicinity and the failure of their crops; the usual story of religious intolerance towards unorthodoxy played out monotonously throughout history.

But on closer study of this old tome I began to understand the antipathy held by the Elizabethan priest and his flock. Charles Marlowe’s cosmological theories were certainly unconventional. He believed the universe was created not by God but by the Devil. God did not even exist and was a mere fiction invented, alongside the concept of guilt, by the weak and powerless, to strangle the natural lusts and cruelties of the aristocracy. Arnhiem Manor’s architectural structure was specifically designed by Marlowe as a symbolic reconstruction of the ten Satanic Universes and as a means of entry to these diabolic realms. Here the three mirrors came into their own, acting as gateways or portals but only when an act of sacrilege like blood sacrifice was performed.

I smiled. To what ludicrous and irrational formulas did some people have to stoop to justify their acts of debauchery. But the depictions of horror and sadism this cult engaged in, specifically towards children and pregnant woman, was enough to wipe the smile off my face.

Distracted by the sound of distant footsteps echoing through the house, getting louder as they approached the library, I swiftly extinguished the light and hid in the dimness of the towering book cases. Alfred entered carrying an oil lamp and I retreated further into the musty shadows to escape its beam. Walking stiffly like he was suffering from cramp, he went to the vacant space between the two mirrors in the alcoves. Resting the lamp on the wooden boards of the floor, he stared as if transfixed into the mirrors; first one for about a minute and then the other. These manoeuvres became repetitive like a ritual; he swivelled, stared as if in a trance, than turned, staring fixedly into the opposite mirror and so on.

This display of obsessive behaviour frightened me at first but eventually fear gave way to irritation, then outright anger. I should have pitied him, obviously his mind had snapped under the terrible weight of his grief, but instead I felt exasperation at his ridiculous movements, while his daughter suffered upstairs, locked in her room. Without thinking I strode forward and seized Alfred by his shoulders and spun him around to face me.

I was almost on the point of raising my fist when I caught sight of the mirror on my left, nailed to the wall of bare brick in its alcove. Its absolute hideousness stilled my hand as the eye carved on the top half of the frame seemed to stare back. While the rest of the round frame was undecorated wood, the eye had been formed by an expert craftsman; it oozed hatred and seemed to quiver with its force. Reflected in the stained surface of the looking glass was its opposite on the other side of the library. It too had an artfully sculpted eye but this one was fearful as if terrified by the other. I looked at our reflections retreating to infinity and vertigo engulfed me briefly, as if I was falling down a well that had no end.

Alfred had fallen to his knees and tightly grasped my trouser leg. Tears were streaming down his sunken cheeks. He gurgled something incomprehensible but then visibly took himself under control. Taking his hands away he stood up and backed away.

“I’ve…I’ve a confession to make…Edwin,” he stuttered. His eyes darted urgently but refused to settle on my own. “I’ve…it is too terrible, just terrible what I have done. Edwin, end my pitiful, repulsive life, snuff me out like a flame but listen first to what I have to say.” As he continued his monologue his voice grow in confidence but he still refused to look me in the eye. “Something has happened, something awful. Emily is with child and…” Here he stopped and gulped back a sob.

I was speechless but what came next was beyond belief.

“Edwin, please Edwin, forgive me. It’s the house, the mirrors, maybe my drinking, I don’t know, but I was not in my right mind. I am the father of the child!”

This blunt confession took a few seconds to sink in but when it did I lost control. My fist, hard and fast, made contact with his face, knocking him to the ground. He scrambled to his feet, spitting teeth on the floor, dripping blood. My large hand held his collar and hauled him towards the door. What I was doing at that moment was a mystery even to me but unconsciously I was making my way to Emily’s bedroom. I suppose I wanted her to witness my fury towards her father, to see him beaten to a pulp for his crime. Alfred did not struggle but allowed himself to be dragged through the dark house, even though on the stairs I kicked him viscously below the knees when he held back slightly.

We reached our destination and I shouted “Give me the key.” Weakly, still spitting blood he did so, his hand trembling. I put the key in the lock and pushed open the door, my mind in so much turmoil, bubbling with rage, I did not bother to knock.

Now it was my turn to fall to my knees. Before me was a sight of the utmost horror which would imprint itself so forcefully on my brain it would haunt me until my death. I knew instinctively I would from now on awake on most nights screaming, my head incurably impregnated with nightmares. Red gore like thrown paint defiled the pale cream bedspread and the curtains of the four-poster. Leaning against the foot of the bed, her head thrown back, eyes’ staring in front of her, was my beloved, her body still alive, still twitching with residual life. Firmly held in her hand was a bloodied carving knife taken from the kitchens; with this she had torn open her own belly, exposing her innards. A whipping motion so quick I could not really comprehend it, maybe a piece of rope or a vine from a tropical plant, shot back to its source; a mirror attached to the wall. In these few seconds of movement I thought I saw coiled in its grip, a tiny malformed blob of once living flesh, roughly in the shape of a human baby. It vanished into the reflecting surface of the looking glass, directly in front of the four-poster and the vacant line of sight of Emily.

So this was where the missing third mirror was situated. It was as evil looking as the picture in the Elizabethan book, far more evil in fact, because this was the real item. The two eyes on the frame were crafted with phenomenal skill, staring with insane hatred and fear and the entwined tendrils of jungle foliage on the one side and the obscene naked bodies writhing on the other added to its primeval malevolence. The glass itself, I was sure of this although it was beyond scientific explanation, was void for a few minutes; I mean really black like a puncture in illumination, a fissure in reality. As the heat like the steamy tropics shimmered dizzily around me I felt pulled to this black chasm, this eternity of nothingness. Terror overwhelmed me beyond the mere fear of death as if I was on the point of being entombed forever. Alfred was now crouching in a corner, his arms wrapped around himself, rocking too and fro, muttering like a madman. I vomited profusely and mercifully blanked out.

The insane behind the iron doors moaned or chattered aimlessly, as Dr Redgrave with a burly uniformed guard, rattling with keys, led me to Alfred’s cell. The asylum out beyond Guildford was a bleak but secure place, surrounded by pinewoods and protected by a forbidding wall. I questioned my own sanity by going through with this visit. If I disproved my theory I was facing my own slow decline into madness. If the theory was correct I was facing something far worse.

Although a sensation in the more disreputable news sheets the trial did not last long. I was chief witness for the prosecution: in my anger and despair I condemned Alfred, backed up by the statement of the housekeeper concerning his irrational behaviour. I knew he was innocent of murder but this was beyond belief. He was guilty anyway of a heinous crime and deserved to suffer the full consequences of the law. My friend sat passively in the dock and refused to answer any questions, just nodding and shaking his head. In the end the defence’s plea of insanity was accepted and he was sent to the newly opened Millbank Asylum for the Criminally Insane, where he would undergo experimental brain surgery to calm his fevers; the only humane option.

After this I tried to forget. I returned to Oxford deciding I would write scientific treatises and teach at the University. When my mother died I received a large inheritance giving me an independent income and I gave up teaching and eventually my writing. I became a recluse, refusing all contact with friends and relatives. From the beginning I found it difficult to sleep; I was plagued by nightmares. Then the waking dreams began. Each time I glanced into a mirror I saw things, indistinct at first, wriggling beneath furniture or a rushing blur across the carpet. Then months later the source of these movements became more focused. Tiny creatures with many legs like centipedes, myriads of them scuttling and squirming, covering the walls and floors, the chairs, the tables, everywhere. But only behind the reflected surface of a looking glass; there was no trace of these things when I turned away and stared at the room I was standing in. This gave me hope; I throw out every mirror in the house. But after a calm couple of weeks when I began to believe I was free of these frightful visions, I begun to see in any reflective surface the same seething mass of insectiod forms. One night I awoke the servants with my screams when I caught a reflection of my head, devoured by these awful life forms, in a glass decanter.

There was evidence these ghastly apparitions were not confined to my unravelling mind. The temperature in my house began increasing to levels that would be unbearable in India although the few servants I had never complained. I became terrified of stepping out in my garden with its abundant vegetation, home to all kinds of crawling things. My skin began to itch and once when I lay awake in the sweating endless darkness I heard the distant susurration of minute creatures and horror of horrors, the feel of microscopic feet across my scalp and cheeks. At last what I feared the most happened and one day I found beneath the dinning table, a small insect entity no bigger then a fly; its mandibles drawing blood as I tried to pick it up.

I decided then that there could be only one solution to my appalling situation. But first I had to visit Alfred for a test, a test that would prove nothing nor save my life.

The thick iron door of Alfred’s cell was opened by the guard and I followed him in. The bare walls closed in with one barred window letting in only a minimum of light. Sitting on the pallet, dressed in the grey serge garment of the inmate, his protruding eyes staring into space and his head shaved with huge stitches on the top of the skull, was my former friend. I felt no pity for this wretched creature, the animal that had defiled my beloved Emily, only disgust. Dr Redgrave told me the lobotomy had completely pacified him, so I went over and took out the shaving mirror from my pocket and placed it in front of his face. Nothing happened, but then a twitch crossed his slack, drooling mouth and after a while he violently scratched and pummelled at his body, letting out a blood curdling howl of extreme terror and revulsion. The guard blew his whistle for assistance and Dr Redgrave pulled me away. The last sight of Alfred Boswell, once my mentor and closest friend, was a thrashing madmen held down on his hard bed by the orderlies as they restrained him with leather straps.

I sit now at my desk finishing the last paragraph of my account. I still do not understand what is happening to me; is madness like a disease that can spread from one person to another or has the gruesome suicide of my fiancé, unleashed a contagion from beyond space and time or from the depths of the remote past or the far future? I will never know. The solid reality of the revolver lies on the blotting paper of my desk as if willing me to pick it up, put the barrel to my head and pull the trigger.

Friday, 31 October 2008

A Short Story for Halloween: The Looking Glass House by George Matthews

Arnhiem Manor in the rain was ominous, even more so then on a bright summer’s day. The last time my eyes fell on its faded red brick architecture and uneven roof, was on such a warm afternoon, when my feelings were mixed with sadness. Now a clinging apprehension encouraged by the lack of light shining from the windows and exacerbated by the torrential downpour, was dominant. I took the tension to be at root my longing to see Emily after six months of separation. But the Manor’s severe demeanour, its crooked chimneys thrusting into the sky like twisted devil horns, turned this pensive ache into something far more sinister.

I stood in the cold dampness, hunching my shoulders, waiting for the cabman to bring my two leather cases. I pulled the door bell a second time. A peal of thunder echoed in the distance and another gust of wind whipped fallen leaves at my already sodden overcoat and upended my umbrella. I cursed the foul weather as my cases were at last left at my feet. The cabman extended his hand for a tip and roughly I rummaged in my pocket, thrusting a few coins into his hand. Leaving with a grunt he returned to his hansom, the one single horse frisky and agitated, neighing forlornly. I heard the cab rattle down the driveway leaving me alone in the dreary half-light, occasionally lit by weak flashes of lightning. But still the blank façade of the door remained unopened.

It opened after a third irritable pull of the bell. Standing before me was not a servant but my friend, Alfred. I rushed forward carrying my cases to escape the rain although by now it had done its worst. I held out my hand with enthusiasm but only received a grudging squeeze in return. Taken by surprise, he was normally an effusive man, I was forced to take notice of his features. Untrimmed beard, blood shot eyes, hair mussed, he looked older then his forty eight years. Instead of his usual wide grin of welcome, a grimace of forced recognition and bewilderment disfigured his face, which slowly turned to exasperation.

“Ah of course, you were returning today,” he said under his breath. “I had forgotten.” He turned his back on me and entered a doorway on his right, his gaunt and shabbily dressed body starkly illuminated by a flash of lightening. The peal of thunder which inevitable followed shook me unexpectedly. By the time I had recovered Alfred had disappeared leaving me with my cases and a puddle of rainwater at my feet.

The ornate wooden staircase leading to the second floor of the Tudor manor was obscured in a thick gloom. The darkness on the landing was impenetrable like a starless night, like a vacancy in perception. Although I could not see the lower stairs clearly, I could just make out the baleful curls of carved vines entwining the banisters with there overlarge ripe fruits. On entering Arnhiem Manor two years ago as Alfred Boswell’s assistant, these oddly unnerving decorations caught my eye for the first time. Afterwards I noticed other even more disquieting attributes of the 16th Century dwelling but those vividly realistic but grotesque tendrils stuck in my memory. At times in the dim flicker of electric light (the only house for miles around and probable in the whole of Surrey to be equipped with the marvel of electricity) I was convinced the vines actually moved and the fruit bulged outwards obscenely. The present lack of electricity, even any radiance from the spare gaslights and the mysterious shortage of servants kept me rooted in the hallway. But I acted soon enough and went after Alfred not without annoyance, leaving the cases and the broken umbrella.

I had an inkling of where Alfred might have gone. The library was his retreat on the rare moments of vexation: he did most if not all of his extensive extra-curricular studies in this large book-shelf filled space. I never approved of his amateur interests; his pouring over crumbling medieval manuscripts, obscure and priceless Kabbalistic grimoirs and philosophical treatises of the supernatural. We were men of science. In our laboratory in the East Wing we researched the strange but rational properties of electro-magnetism and the tiny, minuscule particles powering the immense energies of the universe. But Alfred explained to me the links between the mumbo-jumbo of men mired in superstition and the early beginnings of scientific rationalism. The Elizabethan astrologer and occultist John Dee, a man who purportedly discovered the language of angels, was also an advanced mathematician, and the greatest scientific genius of them all, Sir Isaac Newton, had an immense collection of alchemical books. Alfred was fascinated with the parallels of the systematic occultist and the scientist; both manipulated nature to uncover the secrets of matter, transcending the mundane veneer of reality, reaching out to the mind of God.

Or maybe the Devil, I thought. Not that I believed in the Devil but a quick glance at the writings concerned provoked an atavistic chill inside. It did not help my state of mind to think also of the origins of Arnhiem Manor, its dark glamour and mystery.

The library at least had some light when I entered. It came from a gaslight over the main reading table, between two long worm holed bookshelves crammed with misshapen and stained leather bound tomes. Alfred was bent over a time-worn book large enough when opened to encompass the table, with his reading glasses on, a bottle of whisky and a glass by his side, gazing intently at what looked like a medieval woodcut illustration. Other then this tiny corner, the library was obscured with shadow. Brief illumination came through two stained glass windows high on the north and south facing walls, but only when bursts of lightening lit up the church-like interior.

There was something disturbingly unorthodox about the windows. The north wall window depicted the Tree of Knowledge from Genesis in intricately crafted colours, lush and tropical, wound with the coils of the Serpent. Unusually no Adam and Eve were present and the scene was incredibly accurate for a 16th Century interpretation. The Tree and the flora in the background were no mere imaginative versions of the artist but based on real types of equatorial plants. The snake was vividly evil, its eyes dead with a malign vacancy, its length crushing the Tree like living muscle. The stained glass window on the south side did show Adam and Eve but their nudity was a detailed carnality, shocking even to the most worldly of individuals. But for all this outlandish art it was the two mirrors in alcoves to the side of the south wall that upset my aesthetic sensibilities the most.

As I confronted my friend I was unable to see the hideously carved frames and smeared cracked glass. They had always been part of the house. The previous owner, who never lived in the building, citing uneasiness with the general atmosphere, particularly emphasised the mirrors in the library. Originally there were three; the missing mirror forming an apex of a triangle and directly beneath the south side window. Albert decided to move the third looking glass, and supposedly the most disconcerting, out of the library long before I arrived at Arnhiem Manor. I had never seen it and was reportedly in one of the rooms on the second floor.

“Obviously you are preoccupied, Alfred but I’ve travelled far and was expecting a warm welcome,” I said, realising in the instant I spoke I sounded harsh. “Please tell me if something is troubling you.”
“Nothing’s wrong Edwin as far as you are concerned. So leave me in peace and go to your room, you know where it is, it’s unchanged since you left.”
“But where are the servants, why no lights,” I said my voice rising. “I’m sorry but this is awfully odd to say the least.”

I’d been away from Arnhiem Manor for nearly six months to be with my elderly and infirm mother. At the time of my leaving Alfred was his ebullient self, upset though at my departure at such a crucial time in our experiments. Emily his daughter was unusually withdrawn even for her quiet and introverted personality. I had written to both of them over the intervening weeks and received replies up to a few months ago. This cessation of communication caused me only slight concern but looking back, Emily’s replies were short and strangely flat. This should have worried me more then it did but presented with the bizarre and unfriendly behaviour of my best friend, a more disturbing light was shone on these past events.

“I have rid myself of my servants except for Mrs Johnston, the housekeeper.” He abruptly ended his sentence and stared vacantly at the wall in front of him. I waited embarrassed for what seemed like a very long time, but eventually he lowered his head and began to read once again.

Irritation at my friend’s rudeness had faded, replaced by anxiety. Something was terrible wrong I belatedly realised. “Nothing has happened to Emily has it,” I blurted. With a sigh but more like a groan, Alfred rose from his desk. His fists were balled and his face deformed by a snarl. I backed away. Emily’s name had triggered a reaction in his brain and now he approached me, wishing to do me harm. But at the last moment he softened slightly and growled softly. “Get out.”

I turned around meaning to leave the library, my mind in chaos. Emily was ill, even dying I thought. This must be the explanation of Alfred’s irrational behaviour. I had to find Emily and it was no use relying on her father. Angry and frightened all at once I strode ahead, my back to my friend. A lightening flash illuminated the gloom. I flinched, as in a split second a ghostly wraith-like figure was revealed. But as my eyes got used to the half-light, I recognised Emily. The door leading to the drawing room was open and standing in her flimsy night gown was my fiancé, my darling Emily.

I rushed forward meaning to embrace her, but the mere sight of her close up stopped me, This was not my Emily of old but a different creature; emaciated and starved. Her face when I last set eyes on her was blooming and animated, but now her rosy features were deflated, sunken to a sallow paleness without flesh. Her hair was reduced to long strands of string, the life gone. And her eyes: empty and haunted, buried in the sockets of her skull. Her body was bone covered by a thin layer of skin, her belly enlarged with malnutrition.

“Emily, my dear…” I whispered in shock.
She spoke then, staring at her father, ignoring me, a ghastly husky parody of a voice. “Nightmares again, father…I’ve dreamt about the corridor, the infinite corridor.” She stood almost on the point of collapse. “It goes on forever, father. Into never ending darkness…” She droned on completely oblivious to my presence. I was too stunned to speak.

Alfred put his arms around his daughter, his anger replaced with concern. He led her from the library and I followed blankly, trailing behind like a forgotten servant. As I walked dejected into the hall, automatically picking up my cases but leaving the useless umbrella behind, my mind raced. My surmise was correct; my darling was dying and the cause of my friends’ strange behaviour. The sweat trickled from my forehead in the hot atmosphere and a terrible urge to shake Emily, to get some reaction from her, surged briefly in my befuddlement.

Alfred went first into the profound darkness at the top of the stairs. Disappearing as if engulfed I waited for him to re-emerge like a swimmer from the bottomless depths. Instead a soft glow like a dying halo revealed the features of my friend and I realised he had turned on the gaslight. Gingerly we plunged forward. Entering the second floor corridor was always unsettling but now the lightless expanse before me, only mildly alleviated by the gaslight, was like entering a tunnel. On both sides were doors embedded in whorled and almost black wood-panelled walls. Beyond the last set of doors, six in all, the abysmal dark began. I could well imagine Emily inflicted with nightmares by the corridor. In her precarious state of health, her feverish imaginings enflamed by the house were keeping her awake. I opened my mouth to warn Alfred about the effect this dreary and overheated pile was having on my fiancé, but as if I did not exist they both vanished into Emily’s bed chamber, shutting the door in my face.

I was left alone. The only move I could make now was to enter my own room. The gloom was less pronounced here but just as unnaturally humid. I was soaked in my own sweat and I stood and wiped my face with my handkerchief fished from my pocket. Throwing my cases into a corner and bypassing my single bed I went to the large bay windows and loosened my stiff collar and necktie. I hauled one window open, letting in the damp autumnal air.

The storm had gone revealing a bright full moon, marred only by long strips of cloud drifting gently across its cratered surface. The moonlight and the stars like uncountable pinpricks in the black velvet of the heavens transformed the garden below me into a mysterious shadowy landscape, where I could make out ripples of light in the pond and in the basins of the non-functioning fountain. A greenhouse loomed on my left beside a tumbledown fence separating the grounds from farmland, the panes dimly reflecting the rays of the moon, but the illumination was more pronounced on the water behind the Sycamores. Stippled with glittering beams the River Thames flowed on its way towards the smoke and grime of London which seemed to me as distant as the silver orb in the sky.

A terrible witch’s cackle arose from the grey fields and it was only after an archaic shock had passed through me its origin registered in my brain. It was a fox’s cry.

To be continued...

Friday, 24 October 2008

Book Review: A New Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema by David Pirie

I've always been attracted (and as a child terrified of) vampires, werewolves and things that go bump in the night. Back in the mid 70's when I was a mere nipper I had in my possession a book on horror films; a large hardback, full of black and white and a few colour stills, some of a gory nature. I don't know how I came to own such an adult book but I assume I had persuaded my parents to buy it for me, although they were slightly disapproving. It was the chapter on B-movie space aliens and Japanese monsters I was drawn to but the Gothic horror stuff scared and fascinated me. I think the title was something like 'The Pictorial History of Horror Cinema.' My friend stayed up to watch a horror film on TV and gave me an excited blow by blow account. The description stuck in my mind and later I came to realise it was Hammer's, Dracula, Prince of Darkness. I felt jealous but I also knew, even if my parents had allowed me, I would be too frightened to watch.

As my childhood self gazed with fear and enthralment at my book on horror cinema, David Pirie was writing or had published the first edition of The Heritage of Horror. His remit was to give critical respectability to what was then the disreputable world of British Gothic horror, specifically the product of Hammer Films. He viewed the horror film as quintessential British, drawing from myths buried deep in the English Romantic tradition. As the Western genre at its core is American, Gothic Horror was likewise our cinematic (and literary) legacy.

The new edition is the original but updated. The book covers all the different sub-genres and aspects of British horror, not only the Gothic mode as represented by Dracula and Frankenstein. Hammer is at the centre: Terence Fisher, the director most identified with the studio, has a whole chapter dedicated to him and his particular style of film making. David Pirie goes on to analysis Hammer's approach to the Dracula and Frankenstein mythos where the actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing loom large. The origins and history of Hammer are not ignored and of particular interest are the battles with the British censors. It is hard to believe but if the Board of British Film Censors had persevered there would have been no British horror films at all. Audrey Field one of the BBFC examiners describes The Curse of Frankenstein in 1956:

'This is infinitely more disgusting than the first script ...In fact really evil. A lip-smacking relish for mutilated corpses, repulsive dismembered hands and eyeballs removed from the head, alternates with gratuitous examples of sadism and lust...

The rivals to Hammer are looked at; Amicus of course but also Michael Reeves and his classic film Witchfinder General. But Michael Powell's original and disturbing Peeping Tom only gets a page and a half, while the atmospheric The Innocents is ignored entirely (the reason could be that the film was praised by the critics and was within the respectable confines of the ghost story, rather then the more lurid world of horror) He is also dismissive of Quatermass and the Pit (one of my favourite films) preferring Quatermass II. It is all down to individual taste but the unique brilliance of Nigel Kneale's concept for QATP transcends any slight limitations it may have. And I completely disagree the stage sets look plastic or the film lacks bite.

Another weakness of the book lies in David Pirie's dismissal of the camp in his attempt to give critical status to the genre. The films of the 70's are appealing for the very reason of their period trappings, erotic lesbian vampires and groovy music. But it's understandably I suppose. At the time these were symptoms of the decline of Hammer and all British horror. Unfortunately in the last chapter he is unable to make a very strong case for a revival of horror in this country as a serious genre. Personally I can think of only two recent films, distinctly British, that make the grade-28 Days Later and The Others.

There is something I love about the Hammer films; fairy tales existing in a studio enclosed, darkly Victorian universe of bawdy taverns and the richly decadent interiors of castles and manors, surrounded by gloomy woods and populated by exaggerated archetypes of sex and death. David Pirie's A New Heritage of Horror celebrates Hammer and its offshots and claims it's an art form with a particularly English resonance. He succeeds admirably, giving us history, anecdotes and theory in equal measure along the way.

Friday, 17 October 2008

The Crisis of Capitalism and Network Struggles

In my last post I attempted to write about the negative, counter-productive side of the British left (unfortunately the dominant, most visible section of it) from its so-called revolutionary wing to its reformist sections, as we face the crisis of Neo-liberalism. This is important because without self-criticism we cannot move on, we cannot learn from our mistakes. We enter a deluded consensus, full of vacuity and platitudes, which eventually leads to acrimony and animosity. But it's also important to highlight alternative methods of resisting oppression and transforming society. Without hope we have nothing. At best we sink into apathy, an atomised individuality, an embracing of alienation. At worst fascism or religious fundamentalism. So where in this commodified wasteland do we find some grounds for optimism and the movements that can instigate change?

I look to the libertarian left for inspiration-this includes varied theories and practices: anarchism, syndicalism, mutualism, 19th century utopian socialists like Fourier or William Morris, council communism, autonomous Marxism, situationism, social ecology and decentralist greens. As a libertarian then I believe organisation must come from the bottom up-horizontal networks rather then vertical top down structures. They should consist of diverse but interlinking groups able to act autonomously but co-ordinated on a national level (even the international level) via web-like structures. This is not disorganisation but a higher form of organisation, facilitated by the network nature of modern technologies like the Internet. Different groups with varied political perspectives, reformist or revolutionary, can link and disengage whenever it suits them. This would counteract centralised structures such as the Stop The War Coalition, ripe for take over by authoritarian sects and unscrupulous politicians or media personalities.

Network struggles and forms of organisation are not utopian, only existing in an imagined future or a vanished past. They exist now and in the very recent past. A classic example is the Anti-Capitalist or Anti-Globalisation movement which combines in its broad web; reformist NGO's, radical workers and peasant groups and western anarchists. Another example was the Anti Poll Tax campaign. Although The Socialist Party (Militant) was a strong influence, the Anti Poll Tax Federation was made up of hundreds of local groups consisting of working-class people, the hardest hit by this iniquitous tax. Through a mass campaign of non-payment and confrontation with the bailiffs the tax was stopped and Margaret Thatcher was ousted . A book to read on this subject is Danny Burn's, Poll Tax Rebellion, published by AK Press, which clearly sees the grass roots approach and its support of civil disobedience as the key ingredients leading to its success.

Also very much related to the above are the non-political and unconscious networks existing in our communities. If you look closely enough into British society you will find a myriad of localised campaigns against the closure of post offices, hospital wards and schools, privatisation and anti-social crime. Scattered and fragmented no doubt, lacking a political dimension, and any ultra-left glamour, but these groups are made up of everyday people in the community and directly deal with the issues affecting the lives of the working class. Any large scale struggle against capitalism in the UK will be triggered by economic and social issues affecting our daily lives. They encompass all races and religions; in fact they have the potential of bringing us together in struggle, and not dividing us like the middle class identity politics of the race relations industry. It's vital we engage and be involved with these local groups and campaigns now, otherwise fascists and religious sectarians will fill the vacuum.

And then of course there is the labour movement, probably the first widespread network of the oppressed in the modern era. Weakened externally by the onslaught of Thatcherism and by social changes and internally by Stalinism, stifling bureaucracy and legalism; but still with the potential of clashing with the exploiting class in the right conditions. Another book I would recommend very highly is Paul Mason's superb history of labour struggle and how it relates to the present day. It's called Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class went Global.

Now we come to the thorny issue of reform vs. revolution and the related issue of electoral politics vs grassroots action. I consider myself to be both on the side of revolution but also a reformer. Changing the world is a painfully slow process of general low-level resistance usually based on reformist demands, but marked occasionally by huge social upheavals, insurrections or revolutions, seemingly coming out of the blue, either taking society to another level or reversing the process, as reaction (counter-revolution) sets in. Reform itself is a product of pressure from below, from the countless revolts and uprisings in history, directed against capitalism and the state by the oppressed and exploited. The ruling class and its liberal reformist parties are merely reacting to this pressure, instigating reform to hold on to its power and wealth.

But in western consumer-capitalist societies of the present day where capitalism is the very air we breath, infiltrating down to the sinews of society, fighting for radical reforms is the only practical option we have (after-all what is the demand of bringing the troops home from Iraq or going on strike for better conditions.) A shrill ultra-leftism turned on by violent insurrectionist myths and out of touch with reality (witness the fate of the new left in the 1960's) is as alienating and futile as the politician coaxing the voters with promises of tax cuts. But our radical reformist demands must be solidly based on network struggles of the oppressed and a culture of resistance as described above, and we must be prepared to take things further if the situation merits. We must never limit our struggles or our imaginations to a soul-destroying pragmatism based on conventional party politics and capitalist concepts of efficiency and managerlism.

As for the debate surrounding electoralism, I would describe my own position as tending towards anti-electoralism on the national level but not necessarily at the local. Also of note in this instance is the green movement. Although it seems if you idly flick through the newspapers or watch TV, the greens are dominated by irritating eco-consumerists and patronising middle class life stylists, they have basically got it right-we are fast approaching another crisis, the terrifying effects of climate change. The UK Green Party, wedded to electoral illusion and liberal utopianism though it is, has an interesting left wing outside of the mainstream. Unlike most of the left The Green Party has some respect and support from ordinary people and has a presence on a few local councils in working class areas. Although they have taken a major retrograde step in choosing to appoint a leader, its democratic, decentralist culture as far as I know is still healthy and has much in common with left libertarian ideas. Libertarians should try to work with rather then against the Green Party at the local level, though recognising at the same time that any alliance is extremely fragile.

Finally we must support struggles outside our own country. With the revolution in IT and the Internet it's possible to link with people around the world fighting the same battles (but with more intensity) against the ravages of global capitalism, US and Israeli imperialism, tyrannical states and political Islam. We must embrace a global culture of resistance-an alternative globalisation. Also in this time of mass migration, of whole populations on the move because of war, poverty and oppression, a priority must be to oppose all forms of racism, religious fundamentalism and anti-immigration laws in the UK.

The future is indeed a blank page and social upheavals can explode when we least expect them. Back in 1988 I attended an obscure march of at most a hundred people, against a new tax to be introduced by the Thatcher government. Two years later central London was torn asunder by the Poll Tax Riots, the culmination of a huge civil disobedience campaign, which brought down Thatcher (but unfortunately not Thatcherism.) If capitalism goes into terminal crisis we can only hope this is the launch pad of mass social struggle, making the Anti Poll Tax movement look paltry.

Friday, 10 October 2008

The Crisis of Capitalism and the State of the British Left

We have been witnessing over the last few weeks momentous events on the financial markets. Not since the Wall Street Crash of 1929 has the system of capitalism been so threatened with complete collapse; so far only state intervention (socialism for the rich) has kept the nightmare scenario of global meltdown at bay. I'm no economist, I'm as perplexed as everyone else regarding the rarefied world of finance capital, but what is certain is the project of neo-liberalism is in serious crisis; it is facing what soviet communism faced when the Berlin Wall fell.

But unlike the ideology of state communism, where even within the ruling cliques of the Eastern Block faith in their dogma was beginning to slip, the myth of the free market and the worship of capital are firmly entrenched in our politicians and mainstream political parties; in our print and TV media, from the broadsheets down to your most moronic tabloid. Except for the large European trade union federations (mainly in the public sector) the social networks and working class culture of the past have decayed, mere exhibits in the museums of our industrial past. We in the west live as atomised individuals in a giant theme park of consumerism-but now seriously under threat. Like Catholicism was during the Middle Ages capitalism is the very air we breathe, the fundament of our very existence.

You would think this is the ideal time for the radical left in this country to come out of the wilderness. But there is a problem and this problem is what makes these events frightening. The left no longer exists as a viable force for freedom and liberation. What exists of the left, except for a few notable exceptions, are at best the surviving remnants of ancient battles, looking back wistfully on the glory days-1917, 1936, 1968, and at worst the pseudo-left, making up a hotchpotch of fragmented single issue campaigns: animal rights, vegetarianism, anti-racism, peace, feminism, the environment, but seemingly united by smug self-righteousness, puritanical moralising, a patronising attitude to working people, their everyday pressures and their life styles, snobbery and a willingness to make alliances with reaction. I'm not pointing this out to attack the core concerns of these campaigns, I support nearly all of them, nor the many well-meaning individuals involved. What I wish to say very strongly though is that the above attitudes are the overall tone, from the Guardian newspaper (house journal of the pseudo-left) to the feminist picket outside a lap-dancing club.

Back in the 90's a new movement seemed to be on the rise going under the umbrella term of Anti-Capitalism. For all of the youthful naivete's of some of its western participants (tempered though by the social and working class movements from the third world) it looked as if a new radical left was about to be born-exuberant, celebratory, confrontational, imaginative, holistically refusing to reduce campaigns to single issues, and above all libertarian. But then the planes hit the Twin Towers on 11th September 2001 and everything changed. The War Against Terror was launched leading directly to the horrors of the US invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. But the 3000 dead of 9/11 and the countless dead of US aggression thereafter were not the only victims. Almost overnight Anti-Capitalism disappeared from our TV screens and each demo attracted less and less people. (Of course the struggle against neo-liberalism continued on a large scale in the poorer counties, especially South America, but never reported in the mainstream western media.)

Taking its place, amongst left wing organisations in the UK, was the Anti War movement. It culminated on the 15th February 2003 with the biggest political demonstration in British history and a spontaneous strike by school kids, using mobile phone text messages to co-ordinate action nationwide. But this positive beginning was not to last. Again you had ever-diminishing numbers attending the demonstrations, becoming a bi-annual trudge through the streets of central London, shouting facile slogans-reaching rock bottom with 'We Are All Hezbollah.' These slogs inevitable ended at Trafalgar Square were the banner holding spectators (not protesters) listened to boring speeches from left wing worthies and Islamists. The protests' only achievement was to highlight our disempowerment.

Behind this charade of mass demonstrations were organisations who between them dominated the Stop The War Coalition, the main anti war grouping: The Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party, opportunist politician and self-styled maverick George Galloway and his Respect Renewal (now split from his alliance with the SWP) and the Muslim Association of Great Britain, the UK branch of the Egyptian based Muslim Brotherhood-a reactionary religious party. You also have to include the pseudo-left Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, an important partner in the Coalition and the sub-Stalinist Communist Party of Britain, who are behind the Morning Star daily paper.

I could write a small pamphlet on the multitude of sins of the above. For the moment I will limit myself to a short overview of the first three groups mentioned.

First up the Socialist Workers Party; a Machiavellian, almost Orwellian organisation, who supposedly subscribe to the tenets of Trotsky but really have more in common with Stalin, despite Trotsky's own penchant for authoritarianism. Wherever they go you will find animosity and division. Recently down played class struggle and embraced pseudo-lefty moralising, right up to the point where they support religious censorship more violently then devout Muslims.

Next George Galloway, one of the founders of Respect alongside the SWP; an egotist with the scent of corruption, whose own politics are a strange combination of 1945 Labourism, Stalinism, and right wing cultural attitudes-anti abortion and pro death penalty. An admirer of fascistic leaders like Saddam Hussein and now the theocratic Iranian regime, smearing with hints of homophobia, the gay and human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell as pro-war. His Respect Renewal Party has as members and affliates Yvonne Ridley-an ex Daily Express hack, Muslim convert and front person for the Iranian government's English language satellite channel; and The Islamic Party, anti-Semites and deniers of the Holocaust.

Lastly the Muslim Association of Great Britain, a political Islamist group who are not even remotly left wing. Their sister party in Egypt (The Muslim Brotherhood) are physically attacking the left, trade unionists and women's organisations. In a recent opinion poll only 2% of British Muslims believe MAGB represents them.

As the Anti War movement is the arena where the far left has gravitated too and prioritises, this depressing collection of authoritarians and pseudo left sermonisers are an excellent example of how progressive and radical organisations have degenerated or at best been led up a blind alley. Frighteningly in the background lurks the spectre of Fascism. The white working class has all but been abandoned to the influence of the British National Party. When the economic crisis really does strike hard at the populace any time now, the BNP have a good chance of becoming a dominant force in British politics.

So things look pretty grim. This is not the time for smug self-congratulation, that we saw all this coming; the possible consequences of the crisis and the human suffering involved are just too catastrophic. But before you accuse me of over-pessimism, in my next post I will look at this issue in a slightly more optimistic and hopeful light. The radical and progressive left does not only include those I discussed above.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Shepperton Water World: Part 2

On my next visit to Shepperton two months later I brought my father with me. He has read a few of J.G. Ballard's books and was interested in seeing his house, especially as my Dad frequented the Bell Pub at the top of Ballard's road a few times and drove his motorcycle down the street in the 50's and 60's. We decided to park the car in the large garden centre very near the motorway and situated only a ten minute walk away from Ballard's home (if you are walking you can cross the footbridge over the M3 and then you come to Nutty Lane which was the main road through Shepperton before the motorway was built, but is now virtually deserted.)

It was in the car park I came across a bizarre tableaux.

A big notice board attached high up on the side of the main building read 'Maidstone Aquatics' and beneath in large letters 'Shepperton Water World.' This is an aquatic centre in the main part of the garden centre selling tropical fish, their tanks and accessories.

'Shepperton Water World' conjures up Ballard's drowned landscapes and his references to his home town as a marine world:

"It was plainly not by chance that I had crash-landed my burning aircraft into this riverside town. On all sides Shepperton was surrounded by water-gravel lakes and reservoirs, the settling beds, canals and conduits of the local water authority, the divided arms of the river fed by a maze of creeks and streams. The high embankments of the reservoirs formed a series of raised horizons, and I realized that I was wandering through a marine world. The dappled light below the trees fell upon an ocean floor. Unknown to themselves, these modest suburbanites were exotic marine creatures with the dream-filled minds of aquatic mammals. Around these placid housewives with their tamed appliances everything was suspended in a profound calm. Perhaps the glimmer of threatening light I had seen over Shepperton was a premonitory reflection of this drowned suburban town?"

From The Unlimited Dream Company

"Water surrounded Shepperton-the river, the gravel lakes and the reservoirs of the metropolitan water board whose high embankments formed the horizon of our lives. Once I told Miriam that we were living on the floor of a marine world that had invaded our minds, and that the people of Shepperton were a new form of aquatic mammal, creatures of a new Water Babies."

From The Kindness of Women

The notice board would in itself be of only minor interest but to the side of the drab red brick building is a very odd object like an artificial palm tree or a lamppost, where a Sputnik style satellite had landed on its top; more a Ballardian art installation out of Vermilion Sands then anything functional.

Then you have the bleak warehouse facade, a few shopping carts and the car park itself adding to the atmosphere. Finding such a concentration of Ballardian symbols only a short step away from the Source was uncanny. It's almost as if the proprietor of the Aquatic Centre is a J.G.Ballard fan and was designed deliberately. Or was Ballard directly or unconsciously inspired by a visit to this place maybe to purchase the big tropical plant now blocking his front window from inside.

Most likely it's the fusion of the Ballardian landscape all around us with my own imagination, heavily impregnated with the visions of this wonderful writer.

Further Reading: Simon Sellars' brilliant article "Paradigm of Nowhere": Shepperton, a Photo Essay (part 1) on his own site.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Shepperton Water World: Part 1

I open Underground Man with a posting about Shepperton, a nondescript riverside suburb of London across the Thames from where I live in another ‘dull’ suburb-Walton-on-Thames. Its dullness is deceptive and only seen as such by those unacquainted with the work of the visionary writer J.G. Ballard. Ballard has lived in Shepperton most of his adult life and his corpus of writings have transformed the area into a lost kingdom of alienation and strange desire-see specifically his novels ‘Crash’, ‘Unlimited Dream Company’, ‘Kindness of Women’ and ‘Kingdom Come’.

I made my own journey to Shepperton last year to take a look at the house and the environs of the author who over the years, creeping up on me like an addiction, has become my favourite writer. His works of fiction were increasingly haunting my mind and living virtually next door, I had wondered, when occasionally walking to Shepperton railway station, if I might be passing his home. Of course there is a clue of his whereabouts in his autobiographical novel ‘Kindness of Women’, but idly I glanced at the local phone book and there to my complete surprise was his address and phone number. I cannot imagine self-important literary types like Ian McEwan or Martin Amis listed in the Hampstead (or wherever they live) directory somehow. I think this all shows JGB’s genuine modesty and lack of ego (and lack of a huge fan base as well I suppose.) The road (and the house) is as commonplace as any in the suburbs but it gave me an extraordinary feeling glancing at that very scruffy and unpainted semi. Here resides one of the great imaginative writers on a par with Wells, Kafka and Borges but I assume his neighbours are completely oblivious to this. I felt like asking the middle-aged couple who strolled out of a nearby house or the man taking his dog for a walk if they knew J.G. Ballard lived in their street.

At the end of the road is the evocatively named Splash Meadow as featured in ‘Chapter Six, Magic World’, of ‘Kindness of Women’.

“The splash meadow was filled with children playing on the grass and fishing for minnows along the reedy banks of the stream. I could almost believe that the bright summer frocks, fishing nets and children’s voices were a dream conjured from this placid stream asleep beneath the willows.”

Walking further on there is a concrete footbridge across the very Ballardian M3 motorway. This was constructed (I think) in the mid 70’s shortly after JG had written Crash, eradicating the ford or ‘water splash’ and dividing Shepperton. On the other side are the ‘gravel lakes’, reservoirs and the famous Shepperton Studios. As is the case with Ballard it seems uncannily as if his imagination had escaped from his head and infected or transformed the surroundings.

I decided to turn back and not visit the Thames river side where Blake’s stolen aircraft crashed in ‘Unlimited Dream Company’; that would be for another day. I caught a train from Shepperton station to Kingston instead to meet a friend. I was a bit early so I had an over priced coffee in the Bentall Centre, inspiration for the Metro-Centre, the giant shopping mall in the novel ‘Kingdom Come’, but I was glad to see the Teddy Bears had returned, encircled by their infant worshippers. In ‘Kingdom Come,’ the mechanical bears constructed to entertain children and encourage families to shop in this consumer paradise become religious totems to irrational violence.

On my return to Shepperton a few months later I made a mysterious discovery…