Friday, 15 April 2016

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Friday, 26 February 2016

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Notes for a filmclub screening.


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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Midwinter Rites and Rituals


This is a slightly longer version of the essay included in the splendid Folklore Tapes release Calendar Customs III.

Midwinter is the low ebb of the year, the heart of the lifeless season when the sun describes a wearily flattened arc across the sky, it luminosity dimmed and wan, its passage brief. Shadows lengthen, the branches grow bare and bony, temperature drops and darkness prevails. The spirit sinks and a general sense of lassitude fills the soul. It is a season of shivering and sighs in which summer warmth and light become a hazy memory. There is a need for cheer, for hope and conviviality, for reminders of Spring’s renewal to come. Old midwinter rites and rituals, centring around Christmastide observances and celebrations, bring a little warmth and light into this chill time of scarcity and spiritual despond.



In the pre-industrial age, the pattern of the pastoral and agricultural year shaped the rhythms of human labour and rest. The midwinter period between December and early January encompassed weeks when there was little to be done save a bit of dung spreading. The holidays could extend from St Nicholas Day on the 6th December to Plough Monday, the first to fall after Twelfth Night. Plough Monday marked the recommencement of the agricultural year. It was a still interval of cessation during which the coming year could be contemplated and good fortune invoked through the observance of certain propitiatory acts (or the studious avoidance of others). Bells were tolled in various parishes on Christmas Eve to keep the Devil and his ill-doing at bay over the ensuing months. At All Saints, Dewsbury in Yorkshire, this involved sounding one clangourous knell for every year since Christ’s birth, spaced at even intervals between the hours of 10 and 12 (and thus requiring precise calculation). This feat was known as Ringing or Tolling the Devil’s Knell, a long funereal watch which, in keeping with the inversions characteristic of the season, was cause for celebration.



Wassailing was (and still, to an extent, is) a means of ushering in the luck of the new year. The word derives from the old Anglo-Saxon greeting ‘waes haell’, or ‘good health’. The standard response (although not necessarily in Anglo-Saxon England) was ‘drinc haell!’, or ‘I’ll drink to that’, presumably accompanied by the raising of a goblet or drinking horn and the hearty quaffing of its contents. Wassailers, who were predominantly women, would travel from house to house singing their wassailing song and bearing their wooden wassailing bowl (sometimes decorated with ribbons and evergreen boughs). The bowl was full of spiced ale with variant combinations of roasted apples, toast, nutmegs, sugar, eggs and cream; a dubious concoction, half drink, half bread pudding, sometimes known as lamb’s wool. The householder accepting the offered libation and offering food or other gifts in return would bring luck into their homes for the approaching year. The luck of the house was of particular concern at this time, what with the retreat into the domestic space in the face of encroaching cold and darkness.





Wassail songs are a species of celebratory folksong all to their own. A typical and particularly well-known one (largely due to its collection by Ralph Vaughan Williams) comes from Gloucestershire and the opening verse gives the general flavour, as well as revealing the wassailers on the occasion of the song’s recording to be male:
Wassail! Wassail! All over the town.
Our bread it is white, our ale it is brown:
Our bowl it is made of the Maplin tree,
We be all good fellows who drink to thee.
The renowned 17th century lawyer and scholar John Selden found the wassail ale very sour and grumbled about ‘wenches with wassells at New-Years-Tide’ who ‘present you with a cup and you must drink of the slabby stuff, but the meaning is, you must give them monies, ten times more than it is worth’. There was certainly an element of minor wealth redistribution to this and many midwinter traditions, and well-off men like Selden often found cause for complaint. Christmas might be a time of generosity and openness, but who were the deserving poor? And whey did they have to be so forward about claiming their share? Similar complaints were voiced about the annuities known as ‘boxes’ granted to tradesmen or those in the delivery trades on what came to be known as Boxing Day. The change of the day’s name from that of the first Christian martyr, St Stephen, to one marking what amounted to a holiday bonus charts a trajectory from the sacred to the secular and pecuniary which has been marked since well before the Victorian era. It was one reason why the parliamentarians banned Christmas.




This was an opportune season for the less well-off to earn a little extra in a time of scarcity and scant labour. They sold their entertainments, decorations and blessing (an possibly the cessation of their nuisance-making) whilst wielding the implicit threat of diminishing the luck of the house, or even of cursing the inhabitants on these spiritually charged days. The Scots, needless to say, were particularly good at the cursing part. A New Year song sung on South Uist whilst seeking hogmanay, or gifts, from local households had an extra verse in reserve should such generosity prove lacking:

The curse of God and the New Year be on you
And the scath of the plaintive buzzard,
Of the hen-harrier, of the raven, of the eagle,
And the scath of the sneaking fox,
The scath of the dog and cat be on you,
Of the boar, of the badger and of the ghoul,
Of the hipped bear and of the wild wolf,
And the scath of the foul polecat.

That’s some heavy duty scathing.





Another wassailing tradition involved the blessing of an apple orchard. The wassail bowl was filled with cider, some of which was poured onto the roots of the greatest tree, the apple tree man. Trees were beaten with sticks and a regionally varying species of cacophony conducted via pots and pans, gunshots or ‘apple howling’. Was this driving out evil spirits lodged in the wood or waking the trees? Or was it simply for the visceral and slightly illicit joy of making a right racket to echo through the night air at such a dank and lifeless time? Pieces of toast soaked in the wassail cup’s contents were also hung from the branches or wedged into their forks; an offering for the robin, always a cheerful symbol of the season and a bird of good omen. A Somerset wassailing song praises the tireless creature: ‘a poor little robin sits up in a tree/And all day long so merrily sings he/A widdling and twiddling to keep himself warm,/And a little more cider will do us no harm…’





Good luck and its opposite, ill-fortune, were attached to particular days. Christmas Eve, or Adam’s Day, was a day on which supernatural and demonic forces were in abeyance. Therefore, it was a good time for auguries and divinations (particularly as regarded fortunes in love), activities which might otherwise attract unwanted attention. Ghost stories have always been popular on Christmas Eve, a tradition extending into the TV age, with the glowing set replacing the suggestively flickering fire and bringing the chilling tales of MR James into warm living rooms. Perhaps there was a vestigial sense that this was a safe time for their telling.





If you were born on Christmas Day you would be blessed with a blindness towards ghosts and spirits. Holy Innocents Day on the 28th December, on the other hand, was a cursed date. Sometimes known by the vaguely unnerving name of Childermas, it marked the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod. It was considered unwise to begin any important task on this day; it would only come to ruin. Fishermen refused to go to sea, the washing went undone (you might be ‘washing away’ one of your kin) and it was generally best to do nothing and just sit it out.




The earthing of malignant magic seems to have spread to St Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day) if the tradition of hunting the wren was anything to go by. Particularly prevalent in Ireland and Wales, this involved the ‘wren-boys’ setting traps in the early morning and then displaying their prize in a specially made and decorated cage in a laddish parade through the town or village. At any other time of the year this would have been the height of folly. The wren was sacred, the king of the birds, a crowning which ironically acknowledged its tiny stature. To kill it would have invited great ill-fortune into the foolhardy hunter’s life.



That it was permissible and safe at this time is indicative of the inversions of the natural and social order which were a feature of the season. This delight in turning the world upside down also manifested itself in the appointment of Lords of Misrule in wealthy, noble or royal households or university communities to oversee, with their retinues of mock courtiers, the reign of merry chaos which brought life to the dark days. The Lord (or his regional variants such as the midwinter sovereign or Abbot of Unreason) was a burlesque version of his master, with gaudily regal robes and a degree of pseudo-authority, right up to the ability to stage ‘executions’ on a prop gibbet. The masters of the household would affect to serve their staff during the ‘misrule’ of the temporary Lord, albeit to a limited ceremonial extent.



In ecclesiastical circles there was a similar tradition of appointing Boy Bishops for a period extending from St Nicholas’ Day on the 6th (the Turkish saint having a particular connection with children) and Holy Innocents Day on the 28th. The Boy Bishops would lead some aspects of the services in their specially tailored vestments and go on tours of the surrounding parishes. In Bristol, the Boy Bishop of St Nicholas Church and his retinue were invited to a lavish banquet on the saint’s day. The tradition continues or has been revived in some areas. The Boy Bishop’s tenure at Hereford Cathedral is particularly renowned, and forms a major plot element in Phil Rickman’s novel Midwinter of the Spirit, featuring the diocesan deliverance consultant (or exorcist) Merrily Watkins. The first Merrily Watkins novel, Wine of Angels, begins with a night-time orchard wassailing which ends disastrously. Rickman knows his calendrical rites and customs.



The inversion of the natural order is also a central component of mummer’s plays, or mumming. These are generally enacted on Boxing Day, New Year’s Day or Twelfth Night. They are fixed routines which are carried out with ritualistic solemnity, the stock cast of characters stepping forward like mechanical figures ratcheting forth from a town clock’s doors to introduce themselves and deliver their lines. ‘In steps I’ say the likes of St George (or another hero figure), his foe the Turk (or some other adversary reflecting contemporary antipathies), Bold Slasher, the quack doctor, a fool named Tosspot and occasionally a dragon or, trailing a whiff of sulphur, Beelzebub. Roland Hutton likens the latter, with his club and frying pan, to the Irish god The Daghdha. In parts of the Westcountry the play was introduced by Father Christmas, who stood outside of the rote action and had a little more leeway to extemporise a commentary. An element of guising (the donning of disguise) was also involved. Participants would blacken their faces, turn their jackets inside-out, bedeck themselves with ribbons or strips of newspaper and indulge in cross-dressing. The centre of the ‘drama’ (although the proceedings were studiously undramatic) was the combat leading to the death or dire injury of St George or his foe, who was resurrected by the concoctions brewed by the doctor. Their comically self-evident inefficacy hinted that magic rather than medicine was at work here. It was a resurrection myth in capsule form, an invocation of the dormant powers of life and a rite to bring fortune and abundance in the coming months. The mummers took the routing round the houses, bringing luck to those who rewarded them and finding their way by and by to the local inn.


In the North-East, mummery was accompanied by sword dances, although the mumming aspect gradually faded away. The sword dances, using flexible blades or sometimes lengths of wood, culminated in the formation of a locked pattern in the form of a pointed star (a significant form?) or rose. This was usually lowered around the head of one of the attendant fools or cross-dressing ‘bessies’, offering a mock sacrifice where once the death might have been all too real.



Another form of ritualised drama taken round the houses over the Christmas period involved the parading of a horse’s head on the end of a stick, with the bearer hidden beneath a covering sheet. These heads were wooden in the case of The White Mare of the Isle of Man or the Poor Old Horse of Yorkshire and Derbyshire. But the Mari Lwyd of Wales was the bleached skull of an actual horse, its eyes glassy marbles, its hair strands of coloured ribbon. It was a nightmarish apparition, and one which haunts M.John Harrison’s Viriconium and Light novels and stories. The Mari Lwyd also goes through the pantomime of death and resurrection, and its difficult not to see a symbolic enactment of the seasonal cycles. The Hooden Horse of North Kent is accompanied by a team including a mollie, or transvestite, and its is still paraded through the streets of Whitstable, its health assiduously maintained by the Ancient Order of Hoodeners. I like to imagine the long-term Whitstable resident Peter Cushing observing the ceremony, perhaps even taking part, leading the Hoodeners with a solemnly purposeful yet kind and compassionate Van Helsing gaze.


A celebration in time of darkness requires light, and fires were indeed started with due ceremony. If Christ was the light of the world (John 8:12), then the fixing of his date of birth at the Council of Tours in 567 also served to usurp the claims of others to bring light into the world. The Mithraic celebration of divine birth in the world also fell on the 25th December, as did that of the cult of the unconquered sun, or Sol Invictus, which the Emperor Aurelian established as an official state religion which lasted between 274-323. With the Roman Saturnalia and Pagan solstice festivals also occurring around this time, it was good sacred territory to tactically stake out and colonise. There is inevitably a sense, however, if not of Pagan roots showing through, then at least of a continuity of human experience and spiritual need. The warmth and conviviality engendered by a fire or flickering candle flame serve as a reminder that the summer sun will be reborn.


In Stonhaven, near Aberdeen, fireballs were swung in small cages at the end of long chains or ropes, forming small, whirling meteorite trails through the evening air. Allendale has its flaming tar barrels, lit as the old year turns into the new and worn like Arthur Brown hellfire bonnets. It’s an enthusiastically revived and maintained carnivalesque tradition celebrated in the Unthanks’ beautiful song Tar Barrel in Dale. In a variant of wassailing traditions found in the border counties of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, and similarly intended to bless the next year’s crop, twelve bonfires were lit in a circle on Twelfth Night, often with a larger central one – Old Meg as it was sometimes known. In Ross On Wye, an effigy was erected in the centre of the fires and burned.




Plough lights were kept burning in many parish churches, often glinting off the idle blades of the plough itself which was kept propped against the wall until Plough Monday. Candles also served to light the evergreens which were brought into the house – holly in the living room, ivy in the porch, and sometimes bay and broom as well. The ashen faggot was burned in Devon on Christmas Eve, a bundle of ash twigs which crackled and kindled one by one, marking the progress of the evening like an irregular clock. As each popped and hissed into flame, the onlookers would take the opportunity to stand up, loudly wish each other good cheer and pass around a large communal cup of cider.



The best known Christmas flame came from the yule log, however. It was a large log prepared over a lengthy period and giving off plentiful light as well as heat. It was to be lit from a piece of kindling saved from the pervious year’s log, and kept burning for Christmas Eve and Day to preserve the luck of the house. Richard Carpenter warmly depicts the yule log tradition in a Christmas episode of The Ghosts of Mottley Hall, although unfortunately the wood chosen is inhabited by an old elemental spirit which spreads discord and ill-humour through the house before being coaxed to its airy freedom. The word yule itself derives from the old Saxon, via Nordic languages: the Norse Jol, Swedish Jul and Danish Juul. These were words for the Scandinavian midwinter festival, suggesting further layers to the hybrid and ever-evolving native traditions.



The contemporary character of Christmas and midwinter festivities bears little resemblance to the old celebrations and observances. We have inherited wholesale the imports and reinventions of the Victorians, which themselves have been recast in hyper-commercialised late capitalist mould. The frenzy accompanying the season can sometimes seem to verge on the psychotic. But the genuine excitement many still feel indicates a certain continuity with the spirit our ancestors. There is a continuum of human experience, a need to find comfort and light in a time of darkness. Even with the pitiless and relentless glare of shopping centres providing the permanent, blazing illumination of a false sun, we are not fooled. We still need to be reassured that the true sun will return in radiant glory. The dying of the light is not permanent. There will be resurrection, new life, a new year with all that fortune may bring.
So a jolly WASSAIL! to you all.