Friday, 31 October 2008
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
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
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
Friday, 3 October 2008
'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.