Saturday, 22 November 2014

Stephen Volk's Leytonstone and the Secret Heart of Hitchcock

Stephen Volk’s new novella (novelette? I never did work out the fine distinctions) Leytonstone is a tangential follow up to Whitstable, his acclaimed 2013 book, also published by Spectral Press. He once more fashions a story around a particular time, place and a real person inhabiting them. Whitstable offered a heartfelt portrait of the aged Peter Cushing wandering through the sleepy Kent seaside town in which he had settled with his beloved wife Helen and made his home. It reflected upon both Cushing’s gentlemanly manner, old world kindliness and Christian worldview and the moral rectitude and certainty of the more upright, crusading characters he played onscreen. These qualities were set against the backdrop of the harsh, increasingly desensitised world of the 70s in which such moral and spiritual convictions had begun to dissipate, and to which the fantasy world of Hammer with which Cushing was so indelibly associated was struggling to adjust. New fears and terrors, allied with the uncertainties attendant upon a declining economy, were arising to eclipse the gothic staples of the Hammer universe with monsters of a more grimly realistic tenor – monsters with a human face. Cushing’s personal crisis of faith and hope in the wake of his wife’s death becomes paradigmatic of the crisis of the country at large. In the manner of Boris Karloff at the climax of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 film Targets, Cushing has to face a contemporary monster imbued with all the ambiguous complexities of human nature. In that film, Karloff confronted a sniper who had turned his sights on the audience at a drive-in where one of his old cobwebbed gothics was screening. In Whitstable, Cushing intervenes in order to protect a young boy who has turned to him, or rather to Dr Van Helsing, for help in driving out the father whom he believes to be a vampire. In doing so, the actor has to face his own fears of redundancy and helplessness in a world he no longer understands, and feels he has no real place in anymore. It is a deeply moving portrait, full of the compassion and psychological insight Volk brought to difficult and upsetting subject matter in his supernatural TV series Afterlife. This was a fictional iteration of Cushing, but it spoke about the man and his work with great eloquence, revealing much about the enormous respect, admiration, and indeed love with which he is still regarded by so many (myself included).

Volk treads a parallel path in Leytonstone. Whereas Whitstable viewed the compensatory imaginative world of a child from the perspective of an adult, Leytonstone invites us to see things from a young child’s point of view. That child is Fred, or ‘Cocky’ to his schoolmates. We know him better as Alfred Hitchcock, or perhaps as ‘Hitch’, the nickname which he preferred as an adult to the crude name-calling of the playground or childhood streets. At this stage in his life he is a 6 year old boy living in the east end London borough of Leytonstone, in a house attached to the successful greengrocer’s business of his father, William Hitchcock.

Volk adopts a cinematic style appropriate to his subject, setting the scene with the acute eye of the accomplished screenwriter. There is some quick cross-editing in the first few pages, with Fred’s recitation of potato varieties intercut with close-up details of the street, indicating someone approaching (‘dark legs stride in mirror-black shoes’). The imaginary camera eye then pulls out to give us an interior and exterior view of the Hitchcock greengrocer’s. Later, there are expressionist shadows which turn a policeman walking the gaslit streets into a skull-faced ghoul: a nod to the German films from which the young Hitchcock learned so much in the formative years of his career. We get a foretaste of some of Hitchcock’s own cinematic devices too. Windows and peepholes provide voyeuristic screens within the screen, iris ovals which make the audience complicit in what they watch. Fred clears the misted pane of his bedroom window to look out onto the evening street below. Volk observes that ‘it’s black and white out there, like a film’. A view at a safe distance from the pick-up he half-comprehendingly watches take place. Later, he spies on a prototype Hitchcock blonde through a hole in a matchbox he had customised for a practical joke (played upon said blonde). This tiny matchbox is a miniature model of the prying lens of the movie camera. Echoes of Rear Window resonate down the years. The fact that the matches are of the England’s Glory make provides the potential for a crude joke (the glory hole) which Fred would have no understanding of, but which the adult Hitch most certainly would. His love of bawdy toilet humour is anticipated in Fred’s nervous inscribing of a cock and balls, copied from a piece of graffiti he has seen, onto the wall of the toilets at his Jesuit school.

Other well-recorded aspects of Hitch’s character and behaviour are also anticipated, lent dramatic context and provided with psychological insight: his compulsive comfort eating, his yearning for easeful luxury, his enactment of elaborate and cruel practical jokes, and his placid remoteness and emotionally distant demeanour. His iconic image is pictured at the end of the book seated onstage at the American Film Institute’s celebration of his life and work. It is an image of someone who is aloof and at a remove from ordinary human motivations, which he observes and sums up with a few dramatically weighted words of mordant wit. Volk describes him as ‘a vast Buddha as recognisable as any of the actors whose name he put up in lights’. It’s a description which could be applied to the giant sculpture of his head which rests, heavy-lidded and rustily bronze, in the centre of a complex of offices and flats built on the site of the Islington studios where his film directing career took flight. But this is a Buddha, Volk’s story suggests, who never achieved enlightenment; who remained in the dark, alone and filled with a paralysing fear which could only find release through his art. Behind the Buddha’s serene gaze lies a void.

Hitchcock and Truffaut
The first half of the story centres around an event which became a well-worn anecdote reeled off time and again by the mature and feted Hitch. His father took him to the local police station when he was a small boy (‘about six’, as Hitch told it). He had arranged for the policeman in charge to lock him in a cell for a short period of time (‘five minutes’ was the general estimate). ‘This is what we do to naughty boys’ the PC in charge told him by way of explanation. Hitch told this well-rehearsed tale, along with many others, as a way of deflecting any attempts at soliciting personal information. It offered a tidbit of prefabricated insight into the genesis of the ‘wrong man’ theme running through his work, along with the notion of transferable or latent guilt which attends it. The anecdote was duly brought out for the 1962 interview with Francois Truffaut which formed the basis for his 1967 book on Hitchcock. This was the only window on his early childhood he allowed his admiring interrogator, aside from a remark that, rather than being strict, his father was ‘a rather nervous man’. The only other glimpse we can get of Hitch’s childhood is the photograph of him posing next to his father, perched comfortably on a stout pony, in front of the luscious cornucopia of fruit and veg (including pineapples strung upside down like gamebirds) displayed in front of the shopfront with its proudly prominent sign reading W.Hitchcock – Fruit Salesman. William and Fred are both dressed in tropical khaki, the windows draped with flags to celebrate Empire Day (a celebration which the exotic fruits also implicitly play their part in). The photograph is incorporated into Volk’s story, which gives us some idea as to what might be going on behind the distant, detached gazes of father and son.

Volk takes the police station story and transforms it from the inflexible anecdotal shield it had become into a raw and pivotal moment in young Fred’s emotional and psychological development. The constant reiteration of the experience in the form of an amusing tale becomes a double-bluff; a piece of genuine self-revelation coated in the polished veneer of a light, carefully crafted recollection. It’s a pointer to the nature of Hitch’s films, the way in which he embedded his own deeply personal fears and desires beneath their immaculately contrived surfaces whilst never, ever admitting to any such dimension in public. In Volk’s story, the punishment meted out in the police station is a great deal more traumatic than the mild admonishment of the anecdote, the incarceration much lengthier than the brief incarceration Hitch outlined. Fred is left there overnight, bullied and tormented by a sadistic policeman who delights in telling him that Jack the Ripper is lodged in the adjacent cell. He has only a piss-stained bed with an indeterminately sticky blanket to curl up on, his lullaby sinister nonsense songs bellowed by the neighbouring drunk. It’s related with a Kafkaesque sense of existential terror. Fred feels utterly abandoned, and betrayed by his parents (his mother who let him go with a promise of his favourite steak and kidney pie upon his return). But most of all, he doesn’t understand. If he’s being subjected to this terrible punishment, he must be guilty of something. But what? Some latent sin he has yet to manifest? A universal guilt lodged within every human heart? It’s almost as if he is being guided to discover that guilt. At this juncture, he might as well be called Fred K.

The shadows of films to come are glimpsed throughout the story. There’s a certain game-like element to these allusions. They are partly speculative excavations, searching for the psychological strata underlying the stories Hitch chose to tell. But they are also offered with a nod and a wink, an enjoyable bit of movie spotting for terminal film buffs. The Ripper reference looks forward to The Lodger; the stuffed bird in the Jesuit father’s office, the transvestite and the police officer’s taunting ‘bit of a mummy’s boy, are we?’ to Pyscho; the ‘fluttering and scratching’ pigeons filling the upstairs room of a ruined house to The Birds’; the idea of hiding a body in a sack of potatoes to Frenzy….and so on.

Shadow selves - Guy and Bruno in Strangers on a Train
Other abiding themes running through Hitchcock’s films are also alluded to. The idea of disguised or hidden selves is present from the start in the form of metaphorical architecture – the division between the immaculate and bright streetfront display of the Hitchcock greengrocer’s and the dark interior behind in which the family lives. One of the bullying policeman’s methods of playing on young Fred’s imagination is to act as if he believes that his thorough knowledge of transport timetables and routes points to his being a potential spy. He turns something innocent, a source of intellectual pride, into something secret and despicable. Spies are key characters in a significant number of Hitchcock films: The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Sabotage, The Lady Vanishes, Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, North by Northwest, Torn Curtain and Topaz. Volk has Fred ask his father what a spy is. His answer sheds light on their role within these pictures. His dad also inadvertently describes himself and all adults who aren’t unblemished saints (ie all adults), and presents his son with a sketch of his future self. A spy, William explains, is ‘a person who keeps secrets. Somebody who says he’s one thing but he’s really another’. The spy theme and the idea of the self hidden behind a carefully maintained surface extends to the doubled characters which cast mirroring reflections across Hitchcock’s filmography. Cary Grant and James Mason (Roger Thornhill – or ‘Mr Kaplan’ - and Phillip Vandamm) circling each other in North by Northwest is the example that most vividly springs to mind. But there are also the pairings of Cary Grant and Claude Rains in Notorious, Farley Granger and Robert Walker (Guy and Bruno) swapping murders in Strangers on a Train, James Stewart scripting Raymond Burr’s murder of his wife to alleviate his boredom in Rear Window, deadbeat Jon Finch and his psychopathic mate Barry Foster (Richard Blaney and Bob Rush) in Frenzy and many others. In Leytonstone, Fred’s father William is doubled with the monstrous, bullying policeman. The latter is a bluff brute who lives to feed his appetites, without any moral compunctions which might curb them. William is far more uncertain of himself (the ‘rather nervous man’ of Hitchcock’s recollection), filling his life with labour to allay the fear that it might all be ultimately without purpose. Or rather, that he might never discover that sense of purpose which those around him seem intuitively to possess. The doubling theme finds interesting form in Johan Grimonprez’s 2009 film Double Take, in which footage taken from introductions to the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series is contrasted with interviews with and footage of a contemporary Hitchcock impersonator.

Villain as victim
There’s an often ambiguous borderline separating hero from villain in Hitchcock’s films. They are, to varying degrees, different aspects of a divided self. The hero is sometimes bland and rather weak, as with Guy in Strangers on a Train or Richard in Frenzy. The villain is contrastingly smooth, decisive and charismatic. In other cases, Psycho being the prime example, the heroes are little more than bullies, the villains damaged, fearful and misunderstood (save by the director and, perhaps, their victims). Fred exhibits sympathy towards the ‘villain’ as he appears at the beginning of Dickens’ Great Expectations. ‘I like him’, he says of Magwich after his mother has called him ‘a terrible man’.

The wrong man as Christ-like martyr - The Lodger
The doubled self also links in with the ‘wrong man’ theme. If there is a wrong man then there must also be a right man, or a man who bears the genuine burden of guilt. Fred is the wrong man (or boy) in Leytonstone. But in a sense he is also the right man. his imprisonment is a premonitory punishment (akin to the delayed punishments meted out by the Jesuit teachers at the hour of the pupil’s choosing). The notion of overwhelming and all-pervasive personal guilt, prevalent also in his Catholic upbringing and schooling, almost invites action to provide a palpably solid basis for its nebulous presence, an identifiable source for its oppressive weight. Volk suggests a religious dimension to the wrong man theme (a dimension explicitly evident in Hitchcock’s I Confess) by having Fred ask of the Jesuit schoolfather ‘but Jesus was crucified as a criminal. For a crime he didn’t commit. What was the crime they though he committed?’ So Christ was, from a certain viewpoint, and example of the ‘wrong man’ – the lamb taken for a lion. Or of the right man, taking on the guilt and sins of others, something only possible by virtue of a shared humanity. The wrong man takes on the sins of the ‘villain’ with whom he becomes inextricably linked. The guilt is, to all appearances, removed from the ‘sinner’, for the time being anyway. What happens to that guilt? Does it correspond to something that was always present in the ‘wrong’ man? Of course, it’s the nature of the plot’s progression that he tries to return it to its original owner. The analogies with Christ only stretch so far. As Father Mullins, the Jesuit teacher, states, desperately trying to evade the issue, ‘it’s complicated’.

Of course, there has to be a Hitchcock blonde. The prototype here is a girl called Olga from the local convent school. Fred is fascinated by her coolness in the face of his friends’ base schoolboy pranks. His confusion over his feelings towards her leads to the dramatic tension at the heart of the second half of the novella. A tension which mirrors that of the first, but with Fred now putting himself in a position of power. Taking up the director’s chair. It provides a psychological basis for Hitch’s treatment of the ice blondes in his mid-period classics (Grace, Kim, Eva, Janet and Tippi) which is directly linked to his experience in the police cell. The production of exquisitely manufactured scenarios of suspense and release as a means of subsuming personal, inexpressible fears, art as a means of controlling that which eludes you in real life. It is also, as the parallel events of the story make clear, an indirect way of trying to connect with someone, to create an intimacy based on shared fear. This perverse melding of romance and terror would characterise many of his films. It also suggests that if Hitchcock has his doubles onscreen, the characters which truly express the secret spaces of his heart, then they are not the suavely collected Jimmy Stewarts, Cary Grants or Sean Conneries, but the fearful, haunted Tippi Hedrens, Kim Novaks and Eva Marie-Saints.

Volk takes a certain amount of license with the facts in Leytonstone. The police cell incident took place when Hitch was about 6, and that is Fred’s stated age in the story. He attends St Ignatius Jesuit School, although Hitchcock didn’t go here until 1910, when he was 11 years old, by which time the family had moved from Leytonstone to Stepney (via Poplar). His precocious 6 year old self is already familiar with the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whereas Hitch spoke in interviews about having discovered him when he was 16. There is also no mention of his older brother and sister, William jr. and Nellie, who would presumably have been living at home at this time. But this is mythography, not biography. Volk is creating a fictional portrait based on aspects of a well-known public persona and body of work, drawing on elements from a whole lifespan. Hitchock’s version of his own life was as much fiction as fact (the same could no doubt be said of us all). Volk’s story, with its compression and folding outward of time, its collision of the real with the invented, reflects on Hitch’s fundamental, Kane-like inscrutability.

There have been many attempts to psychoanalyse Hitchcock, generally undertaken in an amateurish and highly speculative manner. They seem to take their cues from the psychology for simpletons lecture at the end of Psycho. Hitch was a master of misdirection and manipulation, both in his films and as regarded his private life. It’s tempting to reach for facile simplifications when trying to penetrate his implacable exterior, to draw on particular events to neatly summarise the complex contradictions of his character. Donald Spoto’s controversial biography, whilst admirably frank and honest in some respects, is all to ready to reach instant psychological conclusions. Volk’s book is partly a response to these versions of Hitchcock, which have reached their apogee in two recent films (Hitchcock and The Girl) which cast him in a deeply unflattering light. By portraying Hitch as the young Fred, a frightened and confused boy, Volk is able to examine the roots of his art and its universal appeal from a neutral distance.

Hitch’s films have affected an enormous number of people over the year, attracting an audience way beyond the coterie of cinephiles who continue (in the wake of Truffaut and the Cahiers du Cinema boys) to revere him. Vertigo has now displaced Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time in the weighty estimation of Sight and Sound readers and critics. Volk’s Hitchcock is ultimately a mystery to himself, just as his father is depicted as being. He’s not a monster. He remains that frightened boy, bewildered by the betrayals and machinations of the adult world; torn between adoration of his father, respect for his father’s authority and a rejection of both; and disconnected from the turbulent swell of his own emotions, and thereby from real communion with others. He is a tragic figure.

Reaching out for contact (see also the Anthony Perkins photo above)
Towards the end of the book, we encounter him in the form we know at the American Film Institute’s celebration of his life and work held in 1979, not long before his death the following year. The lost little boy is still there, unable to apprehend the love and professional respect being directed towards him. He remains adrift, the world never having truly made sense to him since that night in the police cells when he was confronted with such overwhelming fear and guilt arising from an unknown place, from no identifiable source. The films are phantom emanations, attempts to reach that emotion, to create a sense of commonality through fear and suspense. The adulatory response of the AFI audience is proof that he achieved that. The tragedy is that he is unable to share in that commonality. The depth of his films lies in the perception of the tragedy lying beneath their exciting colourful surfaces (and the nearness of that tragedy to the surface of Vertigo is perhaps why it is so critically revered). Hitch also persisted in asking the questions which Volk has his Jesuit teacher Father Mullins so definitively to answer. In a strange way, he was a religious director.

Volk’s book brilliantly and movingly gives an origin myth to bring light to the ambiguous depths and tragic dimensions of the films, and to restore to Hitchcock his humanity, the wounded and confused pain and compassion at the heart of his work. The critic and playwright David Rudkin wrote, in his TV play Artemis 81, of Hitchcock’s camera being a ‘consecrating eye’, detecting the sacred aspect of his work, the yearning for a transcendent sense of connection, of profound love. This sense of the sacred, of shared fears and desires, is at the heart of Hitchcock’s great post-war work. It’s what has earned him his immortality, and has made such a profound impact on so many people over the years. We can all empathise with these feelings at some level, learn to fall together and find release from our fears. Hitch, forever Fred deep inside, remains outside, watching us with an impassive, unreadable regard, that famous profile a serenely blank mask. Perhaps he’s Buddha after all.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Alan Garner on Televison: The Owl Service, Red Shift and The Keeper


There is a tension in Garner’s work between the intuitive consciousness, sensitive to time, place and feeling, and the rational, empirically ordered mindset, which seeks to make sense of the world and its existence within it through intensive learning and the application of rigorous intellectual analysis. The former is open to the forces inherent in the environment it inhabits and to any connection which might be forged with them. As such, it is both vulnerable to harm and capable of attaining a heightened state of awareness, an elevated perspective such as that gained from the top of Mow Cop, Bartholmey Church or the mountain at the head of the valley in The Owl Service. Those inclining towards the latter mindset are to an extent locked inside their own heads, monadic presences within a landscape they can only regard with a remote vision. This is particularly the case with Garner’s autodidactic working class intellectuals, who lack the ready peer group with whom they could exchange ideas and work towards a consensus viewpoint.

Peter keeps a rational record - The Keeper
It is an opposition between the mythological and the mechanical worldview, the ancient and modern, the timeless now and the fixed progression of present moments dying into the past to give birth to the future. In Red Shift, Tom surrounds himself with his books and charts in his cell-like bedroom space within the larger cell of the caravan. The map of the night sky constellations on the wall above him opens out onto wider, near infinite spaces which expand within his feverishly enquiring mind, leaving red shift traces in their wake. He can recount the histories attached to the landscapes he travels through with Jan without necessarily sensing their spirit, the layers of time and emotion which have accreted on their surfaces. John Fowler in the Barholmey of the Civil War period is also someone with great intelligence and learning – he is a batchelor of arts = who is out of touch with his environment and with the people living in it. The same could be said of the ‘civilised’ Romans deep in the heart of territory they consider primitive and barbaric. In The Keeper, Peter sets up his scientific equipment in the haunted cottage in an attempt to gain the measure of manifestations of a spirit for which he has no natural feeling. Evan after it has made itself very much apparent, he still desperately scrabbles around trying to get a record of it, to fix it and reduce it to readily quantifiable form. Gwyn in The Owl Service has his books too. He lends his copy of The Mabinogion to Alison, infecting her with the power of the story, the virus carried by the age old language translated into a modern idiom. He evidently values his education very highly, since his mother, Nancy, uses the threat of its withdrawal as the ultimate sanction to keep him in line. When she makes good on that threat, he attempts to run away, to pull free from the delimiting gravity of the valley. Learning is precious to him, and not something he is able to take for granted. The elocution records which he tells Alison about are another way to escape his environment, to transform himself by altering the nature of his language. This is his version of the transformations undergone by the characters in the Mabinogion story which he is fated to re-enact. Words and their usage have power.

Learning and education is a curse as much as a blessing for these characters. It expands their mental horizons, but makes them all the more aware of their immediate physical ones, and increasingly disconnected from their surroundings. It shows them how vast the world is, and the universe beyond, how deep the gulf of time, and then leaves them unanchored, adrift. By thinking themselves beyond locality and place, consciously cutting themselves off from ancestral territory, they come to realise the value of what they lost. To regain what was once an instinctive knowledge requires a studied effort, a process of relearning and connecting. They will always remain essentially outsiders, however, even if they do return. The divide has been established and can never be adequately bridged again.

John Fowler watches Thomas Rowley watching, seeing things he'll never see - Red Shift
The intellectuals in Garner’s stories, who may very well be refractions of his own persona, splintered autobiographical shadows, are contrasted and often paired with visionaries. These are characters who are sensitive to the continuum of time, place and emotion. In Red Shift, Thomas Rowley gazes out to Mow Cop with a far away look in his eye. He seems to see across expanses of time as well as space, picking up the echoes of his temporal twins (his fellow Toms) in the past and future at this resonant place. It’s the site where he and Madge will settle in their cottage, so his rapt focus on this spot suggests some kind of predestined outcome to which he is vaguely attuned. John Fowler, the educated intellectual of the village, recognises Thomas Rowley’s visionary insight, and is also aware that it is something which he wholly lacks. He ascribes religious significance to it, which suggests that he has a yearning for the spiritual and wishes to learn from Thomas; to gain knowledge of something which his intellect is unable to encompass. ‘That man sees God’, he states before Madge Thomas, recognising an unmediated awareness of an immanent presence in the world which is occluded from his analytical, bookish mind. ‘He already knows more than I could learn’ he confesses at another point. Madge refuses to acknowledge any divine connection, perhaps realising that John’s desire to tune into any such communication might prove harmful to her husband.

Gwyn in The Owl Service is highly intelligent and learned in the lore of the land. But it is a distanced learning, an attempt to understand the place of his origin from which he has become disconnected. Alison’s empathetic connection with the human elements of the Mabinogion tale are what brings it to alarming life. There is a difference between an abstracted, analytical reading and one which fully absorbs the feelings and universal meanings the words are trying to convey. Such a reading translates thought and emotion and opens a direct conduit to the writer and to the time and place in which they lived. Those emotions then bleed into the present via the sensitive reader. For Gwyn, however, they remain no more than dead ideas and symbols to be picked apart for historical and cultural insight; inert stories safely locked into a distant past which has no relevance to the modern world. It’s a past which betokens primitivism and an inability to adapt and change (this despite the transformations which abound in the Mabinogion).

Logan programming Macey for blue-silver rampage - Red Shift
In Red Shift there is a similar distinction between the ‘civilised’ Romans and the ‘barbaric’ natives. The Romans are characterised by their adherence to ideas of discipline and a rational ordering of the world; an understanding which allows them to exert control over it. Macey, the Romanised Celt, is the mystic in their midst. His visionary powers are controlled and exploited for their own ends. Logan, as the legionary commander, uses him to gain insight into the tribal mindset. He also draws from his subconscious wells of rage to transform him into a berserker, a rampaging human weapon which can be switched on and sent charging into the melee. The exploitation of the visionary, the attempt of male characters to induce and then control the possessed state is also seen in John Fowler’s interrogative probing of Thomas Rowley. It is also evident in The Owl Service. Alison’s possession seems to greatly please Huw, as if it fulfils the great plan he is constantly making portentous allusions to (‘she is come’). When Sally finally ‘sees’ the invisible watcher in The Keeper and goes into a trance state in which she divines its nature and purpose, Peter’s reaction is to frantically question her, trying to glean as much information as possible whilst its retains its hold. He is still trying to maintain a rational approach towards the ineffable, to translate visionary insight into recorded observations which can be empirically analysed at a later date.

Shattering the barrier of time - Red Shift
In Red Shift, Logan prompts Macey’s possessions, his berserking fits, with trigger words. He controls him through tapping into his anger, the unstable lava flow of rage bubbling beneath the surface. Language is the key (language and colour). Logan tells him ‘get your big words’, and talks about the blue and silver. Thomas Rowley is a man of few words, and his wife Madge warns John Fowler not to infect him with his learning – the virus of language and the abstract ideas it conveys. For these visionaries, language clouds mental clarity and allows for manipulation and control. For Tom, in the present day, the blockage of his linguistic flow, the brilliant but often facile oupouring of words, in a moment of intense emotion leads him to press his hands against the caravan window until it shatters. It’s this instant of red, inarticulate rage which communicates down the years to the Toms of the past, the emotion of place overcoming the barriers of time. The localised storms towards the end of The Owl Service and The Keeper are also blown in on emotional weather fronts.

Counter-possession - Logan's phantom charge in Red Shift
The attempt to control those possessed by visions, to treat them as if they were puppets, has its inherent dangers. Logan is poisoned by the corn goddess and in his delirious state is commanded by a tearful Macey. When he is ordered to ‘charge’ he does so, and leaps straight over the edge of the sheer rock face. It’s a symbolic killing of the father, a rejection of male power and influence in favour of female wisdom; a pre-Roman notion of the sacred. Similarly, Thomas Rowley turns from the command of John Fowler, with whom he has a fight on the roof of the church tower, and ends up cradled in the arms of Madge. Both Macey and Thomas are wounded or damaged visionaries. Logan tells Macey ‘you’re finished’ shortly before his own end. But they find salvation and healing through female power, persistence and wisdom.

Confronting the controlling mother - Red Shift
In the modern day, the pattern is reversed however. Tom is tormented by the prurience and oppressive control of his mother. His father is in her thrall, weakly acting as her mouthpiece. In The Owl Service too, Gwyn is controlled by his monstrous mother, Nancy. We never see Margaret, the mother of Alison and step-mother of Roger, but her influence is felt throughout, her off-stage power evident. Clive is another weak father, intent on appeasing Margaret and acting as her ambassador. This is particularly the case with Roger, his son, who rejects his new mother and is deeply unhappy with the promiscuous nature implied by her nickname, the Birmingham Belle. If the historical periods in Red Shift saw a turning away from the father, the modern day is characterised by an attempt to gain freedom from maternal influence.

Alison at home and at ease in The Owl Service
Class plays its corrosive part, too. The relationship between Gwyn, Roger and Alison is further complicated by their respective social status. Gwyn is effectively a servant in the house, and his subservient position makes him vulnerable. It is easy for the others to assert their superiority over him. This is explicitly voiced in the novel when Roger calmly explains to Alison, as if this observation were a given, ‘he’s not one of us, and he never will be. He’s a yob. An intelligent yob. That’s all there is to it’. And the barriers come down. In the TV adaptation, this is implicit in the way they both completely ignore him as they pass him crying on the stairs. When it is convenient, he simply becomes invisible.

Nancy remembers her moment of triumph - The Owl Service
The house belongs to Alison, who inherited it from her father. She’s from an upper class lineage, although her mother’s soubiquet ‘the Birmingham Belle’ suggests that she originates from a lower class. Indeed, the jibe may be so much viciousness directed at someone who married ‘above her class’ and is assumed to have used her wiles to gain social advancement. In this respect, there is a connection between her and Nancy. We learn that Nancy’s former lover Bertram was a previous owner of the house, but that ‘they’ arranged for him to be killed in a motorcycle accident. She has a feeling of being denied what was, in her mind, rightfully hers; the home which she might have come to live in as her own, as the lady of the house rather than as a domestic housekeeper. She takes delight in manufacturing a situation in which Clive is made to feel socially awkward, ‘making him look a fool’ by giving him the wrong utensil to eat a pear. It’s a twisted act of inverse snobbery which makes it clear that she believes her rightful position is sitting at the table, not serving it.

Furious Nancy - The Owl Service
Nancy is highly sensitive about her status, even (or perhaps especially) with her son. His precocious intelligence and progress at school strike her as a sign that he’s getting above his station. The education which might enable to break free from the limitations of his environment is seen by her as a betrayal, a rejection of his upbringing, his class and ultimately of her. ‘I’ll not be looked down by you’ she snaps when he gets too smart, and threatens to take him out of school so that he’ll have to work behind the local Co-op counter (another touch of inverse snobbery on her part). Gwyn is also deeply self-conscious about his social status. His ambition to be a scholar are connected with his desire to break free from his background. He associates the world he wishes to become a part of with middle class diction, and has therefore acquired a set of elocution records for himself. They’re a symbol of his sense of inferiority on both a personal and national level. The idea of making anything of himself whilst burdened with a working class Welsh accent seems simply impossible to him. Whe his ownership of the records is discovered by Roger, they become a means of ridiculing his pretensions to become someone other than who he is, to break through the barriers of class and race.

Where Gwyn’s mother threatens him with removal from school and a premature curtailment of his dreams of escaping through native intelligence, Alison’s mother controls her by threatening to suspend her membership of the tennis club and choir; privileges of class which are viewed as essential to belonging and maintaining her place amongst her social peers. She is compliant in the face of this potential disruption to the smoothly ordered surface of her life. It is this, in addition to the betrayal of his confidence regarding the elocution records, which makes Gwyn realise the gulf which lies between them, and the wholly provisional nature of any intimacy they might have shared.

In Red Shift, Tom is the son of working class parents, his father an army man in the lower ranks. Jan is the daughter of middle class parents, teachers of some sort, whom we never see. But we learn that they regularly have to move due to the nature of their work. Tom’s father has pretensions to middle class values, to ‘sophisticated’ tastes. He displays them in his ostentatiously expressed appreciation of wine. Jan offhandedly trumps him on this score by instantly identifying his mystery Moselle. It turns out she has spent a holiday on a German vineyard. When Tom learns that she has slept with the vineyard owner, it feels like a double betrayal. The older man, whom he sees with Jan in Euston station, has the easeful charm and seigneurial suavity which wealth and the stability of the privileged upbringing breed. To make things worse, Jan seems to have dressed up to meet him. He’s out of his class, and in his mind, there’s nothing he can do to compete.

John Fowler directs
In the Civil War period, John Fowler is at a remove from the villagers. He is the son of the pastor, and has also been raised up by his learning and academic qualification. When we first see him, he rides towards the church on a handsome white steed whilst others trudge along on foot, bent beneath the burden of their belongings. He takes on the direction of their defences with a natural assumption of power connected to his position in the village. In the Roman time, the class divisions are also national, as they are to an extent in The Owl Service. Romans over Romanised Celts and tribe against tribe. In the Civil War period, the villagers in Bartholmey are besieged by Irish Royalists. The massacre which follows is a slaughter made easier by the dehumanising us and them divisions hardened by national difference. In The Owl Service, the local Welsh villagers seem to act with a gestalt mind to prevent Gwyn and his mother from leaving the valley.

The origins of class are found in the initial period of invasion and occupation, and the divisions of land which ensue. Macey is adopted by Logan, but is seen as little more than a pet (a ‘boy’). He is kept as long as proves useful. But when it becomes clear that he will no longer function as a killing machine, Logan tells him that he’s finished. The tribal soldier, the village peasant or the modern servant is not granted individuality, but is seen only in terms of their functionality. Macey keeps saying that the killing is ‘not from me’ and that ‘I’m outside when Macey kills’. But this murderous possession is the only aspect of his self which is of interest to Logan and the Legion, the part which makes him a useful shock trooper, the wild joker in the ranks. There is a sense of depersonalisation at this level of society, a dull awareness that your feelings, your desires, your notion of your self are as nothing in the face of social, historical and even cosmic forces. Tom feels this helplessness when he learns of Jan’s brief holiday affair. Their relationship is subject to external forces, and a wealthy landowning aristocrat can take her away from him merely be showing due consideration and kindness. The rage which connects him to the forgotten footsoldiers and peasants of the past is the violence of emotional dispossession, the pain caused by the dislocation of self.

Delta Orionis as a constant body to orient by - Red Shift
Colour plays an important symbolic role in Red Shift and The Owl Service. We have already seen how Roger, Gwyn and Alison have their own colour motifs which correspond to the old wiring of a plug. In Red Shift, the polarity between blue and red, the colours at the opposite ends of the spectrum, is central. Red is the colour of blood, rage, violence and a martial outlook. It’s also the colour of passion, particularly when it has gone nova and tipped the balance of reason. Blue is the colour of calm, reflection, coolness and tranquillity. It’s also the colour most frequently associated with spirituality, depth and eternity, the colour of the heavens. Red is a correspondingly physical, material colour, shading into earth tones. The Virgin Mary’s mantle is usually represented as blue, painted with sumptuous and expensive lapis lazuli pigments in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It is the mantle of the sky, sometimes jewelled with stars; a befitting garment for a sky goddess. Stella Maris, star of the sea, is one of many manes given to the Virgin, a guide and protector for mariners in the night sky. Tom chooses a star to orient himself and Jan whilst they are apart. A distant, constant body (from their perspective) to unite them at a particular temporal instant. Perhaps significantly, he picks Delta Orionis, one of the stars in the belt of the martial male constellation of Orion the Hunter. He uses its dryly scientific designation rather than calling it by its Arabic name of Mintaka.

As a heavenly colour, blue can vary between shades of light and dark – from morning translucence to midnight opacity. Its moods shift accordingly, and remind us that blue is a colour also associated with depression and despondency (the blues, in a blue funk). It serves as an expression of Macey’s confusion and despair, a chromatic representation of the fragmentation of his personality. The blue-silver of Macey’s colour visions and the blue and white light of Thomas’ fugues clarifies the tone, bringing it into focus and placing it at the lighter end of the spectrum. Blue-silver is also suggestive of an alloy, a modern metallic shade. Having attained a state of calm equilibrium (the tranquil blue), Macey tells the corn goddess that he’ll continue to ‘watch blue silvers’ because ‘it might matter some day’. A cut to the modern day reveals an inter-city train with its blue and silvery white livery.

Kandinsky - Blue(1927)
The artist Wassily Kandinsky elucidated his own feelings about the symbolic associations contained within shades of blue in his 1912 work On the Spiritual in Art. ‘Blue is the typical heavenly colour’, he wrote. Blue unfolds in its lowest depths the element of tranquillity. As it deepens towards black, it assumes overtones of a superhuman sorrow. It becomes like an infinite self-absorption into that profound state of seriousness which has, and can have, no end. As it tends towards the bright (tones), to which blue is, however, less suited, it takes on a more indifferent character and appears to the spectator remote and impersonal, like the high, pale-blue sky. The brighter it becomes, the more it loses its sound, until it turns into silent stillness and becomes white.’ That remote brightness corresponds with the blue-silvers Macey perceives, the silent stillness the state he and Thomas attain after all the conflict and torment.

Blue and red (or sometimes yellow) have often been defined as male and female colours, with associated symbolic characteristics. The values change. Mondrian, for example, saw red as the feminine colour, partly because he regarded the intellectual and spiritual realm as male. Kandinsky initially regarded blue as a male colour, as did his fellow Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) artists. He later reversed his views, however, switching the spectral polarity of the genders. On balance, blue has been regarded as a female colour, red as male. Garner combines the cultural significance of colour, its emotional and spiritual resonance, with its scientific aspects. He thereby creates complex layers of metaphor which both bring together and contrast modern and pre-industrial worldviews.

Red shift is a piece of scientific terminology which refers to the effect experienced by a stationary observer when an object is moving away from them. In sonic terms, this is analogous to the Doppler shift from a higher to a lower tone when a train has passed by. The red shift is a phenomenon particularly associated with astronomy and cosmology, however. Observed in stars and galaxies, it can be used to deduce that the universe is expanding, astronomical bodies moving apart from one another (deductions made by Edwin Hubble in 1929). In terms of emotional metaphor, red is a lonely colour, the tone of parting, of isolation and loneliness. Blue, on the other hand, is the sound of the train approaching, the end of the spectrum betokening coming together, unification, communication. The ‘us’ with which the corn goddess blesses Macey at the end, holding out the promise of a future together. These scientific metaphors, applied on a human level, are reminiscent of the way in which entropy, an embodiment of the tendency towards running down within a closed system as delineated in the second law of thermodynamics, was used as a central motif in the British science fiction of the 60s emerging from New Worlds magazine under Michael Moorcock’s editorship.

Palm-pressed pane
From Tom’s rooted perspective, everything seems to be disintegrating, the shattered fragments falling away from him (a touch of personal entropy afflicting him, as if he had strayed into New Worlds territory). Jan is moving away, his relationship with his parents is becoming poisonously antagonistic and he is retreating further into himself to cope, isolating himself within his studies and his headphone mind. When we witness his moment of breakdown, his splintering of the caravan window into jagged fragments, we see the pink-red of his palms which become bloody as they slice through glass. When Thomas and Macey sense his presence, however, they associate it with blue. He is coming towards them from that moment of emotional crisis, approaching with a temporal blue shift. They feel his pain and rage, but there is no reciprocal emotional echo. He remains alone, a disconnected body in a cold universe. Thomas and Macey move in the end towards the blue end of the spectrum, away from the red, and away from Tom’s inchoate rage. They are both rejecting blood, violence and the dominance of the male perspective which gives rise to it. Both end up cradled in the arms of a woman who helps to heal their wounded minds and bodies. The reversal of the red shift signifies a psychological realignment, both on an individual and a historical and cultural level. A cessation of conflict and competition in favour of settling down and establishing a stable community.

Ground sun-setting - Red Shift
The Swiss psychologist Max Lüscher devised a colour psychology scale in the 1940s. John Gage outlines the system in his classic study Colour and Meaning: Art, Science and Symbolism. ‘Blue…is held to be concentric, passive, sensitive, unifying’, he writes, ‘and thus to express tranquillity, tenderness, and love and affection. Orange-red, however, is eccentric, active, offensive, aggressive, autonomous and competitive, and hence expressive of desire, domination and sexuality’. When Tom finds out about Jan’s fling with the man in white (a neutral non-colour) he rejects her embrace, pushing her violently away. There is none of the blue shift union which brings together Madge and Thomas, Macey and the corn-goddess. The reversal of perspective from red to blue is symbolised by the goddess’ turning of the milling wheel ‘sun-setting’ or anti-clockwise. The sun as male symbol is pushed beneath the horizon, occluded. The meal thus produced poisons Logan and his men. Logan goes insane, kills his men in a berserking fugue and is directed over the edge of Mow Cop by Macey, a terminal charge to attack phantom forces. Tom tries to reverse the red shift by turning partings with Jan at Crewe station into hellos. The blue-silvers of the inter-city trains seem to conspire in supporting this willed illusion. From a certain perspective, they are seen as a union. Macey sees them bathed in blue shift light, images travelling back through time to reach him. For the final parting, however, Tom leaves her with a tentative ‘see you’, as if no longer certain that they will meet again. She greets this with a smile, acknowledging a possible shift in perspective on his part; a more realistic, balanced outlook.

Red Axe

Blue Axe
Macey and Thomas both end up enveloped in the dark, crepuscular blue of evening. We cut from these final scenes of calm repose and see the blue-silvers slip away from Tom’s vision. As the camera focuses on the doors slamming shut, a blinking sequence of red flashes contrasts with the blue; the inside of the doors is orange-red. This is no longer a blue-shift hello-goodbye. The red shifting reality of parting is made apparent. Tom looks to the side, into the gloomy shadows beneath the station vaults. The light turns red and we dissolve to a shot of the axe head in its museum case. It’s suffused with a red glow, which fills the whole room. It’s as if the axe is once more coated with the blood which had been washed off with Macey’s healing, the exorcising of his violent alter ego (his other Tom) and the rebirth of his female soul. It has been denuded of its power, its physical embodiment of unity and domesticity, of violent rootlessness transformed by love and trust; the connection made through touch. Now it is a symbol of isolation, disconnection and distance. It has been correctly identified and labelled, but is no more than an inert historical artefact, its emotional and spiritual resonance locked away. As the camera zooms in on it, the red light fades away, however. We see the axe head in close up as a night-time blue-grey. We are taken back to the evening calm in which we left Macey and Thomas. The blue reminds of the axe’s symbolic guise as an object of union, love and domesticity. The end titles are superimposed on its flat edge: Red Shift on a blue background. It serves to underline what Tom has lost.

Tom red shift is partly an attempt to distance himself from his own inner turmoil. ‘I need a red shift’ he says after a fraught encounter with Jan in which his language has become fragmented and he seems on the verge of a breakdown. He wants to take refuge in a part of the mental spectrum where the frequency is less intense, wavelengths more widely spaced out. But it is also a turning away from intimacy and connection. It is characteristic of the male psychodramas at the heart of The Owl Service and Red Shift. The female characters are more or less refracted through the lenses of these crises, whether as objects of love and desire or as forces of control (the domineering mother). The possession to which Alison and Sally are subjected transforms them into archetypes rather than individuals. They become mysteries to be solved. The rational intellect of Garner’s self-contained autodidacts is incapable of parsing that mystery, or of dispelling the illusion of mystery and getting to the simple human heart of the matter.

Alison's agony - the final possession in The Owl Service
Tom recognises this when he tells Jan ‘my head knows. The rest of me will catch up. Heart and mind have become sundered, abstracted intellect having occluded emotional intelligence. The same is the case in The Owl Service. When Alison is going through her storm-wracked torments at the end, assailed by invisible owls which score her face and cascade her with feathers, Huw and Gwyn can only stand by, powerless or unwilling to help. As Huw laments to Gwyn, ‘you have only hate in you’. It is Roger who brings an end to her suffering through simple empathetic connection. He comforts her and shows her love and compassion, asking nothing in return. In a sudden moment of illumination, he offers the same to Gwyn, voicing a sympathetic awareness of his pain and the bitterness it gives rise to. Gwyn can only turn away with impotent shame. In the book, the frantic flurry of feathers is transformed into a soft shower of fragrant petals. Alison/ Blodeuedd becomes flowers, not owls. It’s a transformation which was anticipated in the flock of Alison’s folded paper owls which Roger discovered in the locked garage. From a distance, they looked like a field of flowers, gathered sprays of white meadowsweet.

The shock of recognition - Peter in The Keeper
In The Keeper, Peter distances himself from the protective embrace within which he and Sally have enfolded themselves during the spectral storm. He turns his back on her and returns to his charts and instruments, the safe world of measurable fact. It’s a reflexive retreat back into the self-contained rational mindset. When he is confonted with Sally in her possessed state, he is forced to look her directly in the eye, to tsee the fire burning in the dark centre of the pupil. ‘Who are you?’ he asks, a look of horror on his face. She, or the spirit of the guardian she is now possessed with, reflects the question back at him. His face slackens from its rictus of terror into a look of understanding and dull acceptance. ‘You’, he weakly replies. It’s a recognition of unity, the dissolving of separate personalities into an all-embracing commonality. This is a dissolution which entails the utter destruction of ego, the disappearance of the self. They are gone, absorbed into the spirit of the place. Part of the haunting they came to investigate.

The inner flame relit - The Keeper
In Red Shift, John Fowler asks a similar question of Thomas Rowley when he comes out of one of his visionary fugues. Thomas says of the figure he has seen ‘I know him’. John interrogates him, asking ‘do you see God?’, and then, as if it were a natural progression, ‘is it me?’ He sees himself as a completion of Thomas, the head which meets and unites with the visionary spirit. Madge is the heart. For John, they are fragmented shards of a whole. Madge and Thomas prove to be whole unto themselves, however. John is one of the fragmented selves scattered through time, symbolised by the shattered shards of glass smashed outwards by the angry tension of Tom’s pressing hands.

Mow Cop folly
Tom confronts Jan over her infidelity in the folly built on top of Mow Cop in 1754. It stands in contrast to the ruin of Thomas and Madge’s cottage in which they’d discovered the votive stone axe-head; the thunderstone which Thomas had built into the fireplace and the ‘bunty’ which Jan had fixed upon as a special object physically embodying the connection between her and Tom. In One Pair of Eyes, the 1972 biographical documentary about Garner included in the recently released BFI dvd of Red Shift, he describes the folly as ‘ridiculous’ and completely non-functional. It is a non-place, neither domestic nor wild. As such, it’s an ideal constricted circular arena in which to play out the tortuous drama of their relationship’s ending. Earlier, Tom had thrown out the quote ‘love is not love which alters when alteration finds’. He fails to observe its meaning, though. His lack of wisdom and self-knowledge is unconsciously elucidated in his follow-up quote: ‘more know Tom Fool than Tom Fool knows’ (both of these quotes taken from the book).

Tom has his words, his complex language. But in moment of emotional intensity he becomes completely inarticulate. John Fowler also finds himself speechless at the moment when all look to his leadership. When the Irish Royalists are at the door, he cannot think of what to do. His words fail to translate into action. When his is given the opportunity to reveal himself by the leader of the Royalist forces, to sacrifice himself for the villagers, the noble words once more fail to come to his lips. Jan explains Tom’s shattering of the window pane to his parents by observing ‘he ran out of words’. Or as his mother less kindly puts it, ‘what can’t speak can’t tell’. Rage fills the void left by loss of language.

Confining folly - Circling confrontation on Mow Cop
The illusion of idealised love is laid bare in the folly. It is revealed as being as fake as the fabricated ruin, built on similarly romantic foundations. Tom’s ideal of ‘perfection’ can’t withstand the complex tangle of real emotion. His language dries up and he is reduced to short, staccato phrases. Jan despairs that he is now ‘no talk, No fun. Just grab’. She has become an object, a body to be possessed. In this case, the possession is of a physical nature, rather than the spiritual possession of Sally and Alison (although there is a metaphorical dimension there, too). She voices her resentment at his objectification, bitterly spitting out ‘it would like to go now please. It feels sick’. Language, particularly when employed by a keen mind, can become a tool for creating and sustaining a self-delusory state. It can become a barrier against rather than a gateway to knowledge of the self. Thomas and Macey find peace through silence after the noise and hysteria of conflict and chaos. ‘Silence forgives’, the corn goddess tells Macey. Thomas has remained taciturn throughout, speaking only when necessary.

Disconnected headphone mind - Red Shift
In the end, Garner’s male protagonists are left isolated. They remain in the landscape to which they are anchored, but are at the same time disconnected from it. They are all Tom Fools, locked inside the prison of their own intellect. Self-contained bodies drifting out into the cold spaces of the expanding universe, red shift traces trailing behind them, marking their lonely voyage for any who might care to observe from the distant perspective of home.

PART ONE is here

PART TWO is here

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Folklore Tapes Calendar Customs I: Fore Hallowe'en

The latest release from the Folklore Tapes folk (the Devon prefix dropped as they search further afield), Fore Hallowe’en, finds them taking a new direction, recalibrating the co-ordinates. Previous recordings have focussed on the stories and atmospheres which suffuse particular places and areas, lending them that indefinable sense of magic and sacred presence. Fore Hallowe’en (a title to file alongside Sandy Denny’s After Halloween) marks the beginning of a new venture, resetting the co-ordinates for time rather than space. It’s the first in a proposed series ordered under the title Calendar Customs, which will investigate the ritual observances, customs and moods of seasonal festivals and sacred days. Calendar Customs 1 guides us through one of the most powerful and atmospheric of these periods, the smoke-wreathed and cinnamon-scented days of Hallowtide. The ten artists who contribute to the compilation unearth and re-animate the spirits of the Celtic festival of Samhain, the foundation upon which Halloween and the All Saints and Souls days of the Christian period have been erected.

As with most cultural and spiritual transitions, there is no sudden and absolute transformation. Rather there is an evolution which leaves many elements of the beliefs and customs which have ostensibly been incorporated, co-opted and supplanted intact. It was a subtle evangelising tactic on the part of the early church in Britain to absorb and recalibrate rather than confront and destroy a deeply ingrained worldview and the long-observed rituals associated with it. Indeed, it was an approach specifically put forward in a letter from Pope Gregory to St Augustine in the late 6th century. He instructed the missionaries who were setting out to convert the Britons ‘do not pull down the temples. Destroy the idols, purify the temples with holy water, set relics there and let them become temples to the True God’. The aspect of this true God becomes subtly altered by what remains of the old ways, however. More localised and vernacular, reflecting aspects of the landscape and environment, and the culture which they shape. It inadvertently serves to illustrate the universal ground connecting all religions at some deep level, the common need for a sense of meaning and sacred presence in the world which they express. Britain my have gradually become nominally Christianised, but people’s lives still centred on the routines passages of the agricultural year. It was around these that celebrations and holy days of whatever doctrinal colour were moulded.

Samhain was a festival marking seasonal transition. The harvest had all been gathered in and it was now time to prepare for the encroaching cold and darkness of winter. In the Celtic calendar, this was the deathly start of the year, beginning at sunset (the inverted dawn of the Celtic day). It was tenebrous moment in which the world was less fixed and stable than usual, the boundaries more permeable. Supernatural forces were able to pass through with greater ease. The dead were available to commune with, and goblins, demons and witches were abroad, full of capricious or evil intent, determined to make the most of a night which lent them such potent license. It was brief interlude filled with fearful danger and intoxicating possibility. It is this spirit which the Folklore Tapes artists seek to evoke.

We begin at the end, with The Summons of Death. Ian Humberstone’s track opens with spectral winds, synth white-noise susurration from which shifting masses of Ligeti cloud voices coalesce. Glinting sounds in the background hint at something ghostly darting and swooping within the rushing currents of air. A faint, piping melody emerges, distant, haunting and half-heard. It’s both sinister and lulling, a lilting, swaying charm of a tune, leaving the listener hypnotised and rooted to the spot with rapt, immobile fascination. And then, a crashing upstruck chord on distorted guitar marks an appearance, a landing. IT’S THERE. Death has made its dramatic ‘boo!’ entrance from the smoke of a stage explosion. The soft piping melody is picked up on electric guitar (because Death is, like, heavy), the wah-wah fluctuations suggesting the beating of wings or the sharp swish of the scythe. Popping Casio percussion provides the bones of a skeletal rhythm, the carpal steps for a dance of death. This is something of a pantomime Reaper, a figure from a medieval pageant played out in the village square (or even in the graveyard of the parish church) rather than the saturnine chess-player of Bergman’s Seventh Seal. Sounds of flight at the end, the beat of displaced air, leave him winging his bony way into the night, the appointed soul harvested.

Magpahi's EP on Finders Keepers
The title of Magpahi’s Derwen Adwy’r Meirwon is Welsh for the oak at the gate of the dead. It’s the name given to a notable tree standing sentinel at the head of Adwy’r Beddau (the Pass of Graves). It bore arboreal witness to the Battle of Crogen in 1165, a triumphant day in the annals of Welsh history. It was here, beneath Castelh Crogen, that Prince Owen Gwynedd ambushed the cocksure army of Henry II and massacred them. The ancient oak is now fantastically distended with age, its bole bloated with layers of fungal growth. Magpahi (aka singer Alison Cooper) invokes the spirit of the oak in its dying days, taking on its voice and celebrating its longevity and the centuries of history (‘1004 winters’) to which have passed around it. The lyrics adopt the anthropomorphised perspective of the oak, portraying it as a sentient, self-aware being. The fragile, echoing vocals and circling acoustic guitar figure are tinted with small touches of instrumental colour: a breath of harmonium, a flutter of recorder, a passing buzz of bowed overtones and a scattered shower of percussive rain. It’s a sound which draws comparison to psych folk old and new, from Mellow Candle and Vashti Bunyan to Espers and Marissa Nadler. The melancholy beauty of the song recognises that the great oak’s days are nearing an end. ‘I’m splintered in two’ it laments, ‘branches next to dew’. For the ‘keeper of these gates’ it is ‘time to depart’. We hear those gates open with a rusty skreek like the scratching of branch against glass. The wordlessly crooned outro sounds like a mind wandering, fading away, language put aside for once and all. As with Ian Humberstone’s track, it ends with a departure. The dissipating ghost of the melody is something which will, perhaps, remain in the air as an aural haunting. The imprint of the spirit of place.

Snail Hunter’s Domnhuil Dhu has absolutely nothing to do with Sir Walter Scott’s famous poem Pibroch of Donuil Dhu, a misty-eyed bagpipe clarion call designed to stir the patriotic blood of the Scotsman It is far, far stranger than that. The title may offer some clue. It’s Gaelic for Black Donald, an old Highland nickname for the Devil. Such a familiar mode of address points to the common belief that the Devil and the pre-Christian supernatural beings from which his malevolent trickery descended were living amongst everyday folk. Only a few subtle, tell-tale signs distinguished them to the sharp-eyed observer, dispelling their veiling disguise.

Snail Hunter’s track is essentially an imaginary soundscape, a programmatic piece whose effects are prompts for pictures projected onto an inner screen. An intitial descending sprinkle of notes sounds like an arpeggio stroked from an omnichord, the 80s electronic autoharp which resembled a plastic artist’s easel. It’s a landing, a fade-in, or the drawing apart of a cinema curtain. It’s also vaguely reminiscent of the glittering descending chords punctuating the soundtrack of the 1970 Czech film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which alert us to moments of magical transformation and protective enchantment. The sense of cinematic scene-setting is furthered by the introduction of a late 70s high-pitched, ethereal synth drone à la Shine On You Crazy Diamond. We gain the impression of having passed into some otherplace, a territory adjacent to but at some remove from the mundane world.

Graculus - the friendly cormorant
Footsteps church through shingle. Then, in the distance, we hear a weird, choking gull squawk voice, which appears to be spitting out the words ‘what is this?’ in a tone of horrified disbelief. Is it a shape-shifter caught somewhere between human and avian form. Perhaps it is a cormorant, a bird which has amassed a good deal of folkloric associations over the ages. It is often seen as an embodiment of ravenous hunger and greed, largely due to its ability to gulp implausibly large fish down its gullet. It’s black plumage and habit of sunning itself with wings outstretched like a gothic cloak have inevitably led to comparisons with the Devil. Milton makes such a simile in Paradise Lost. In a passage concerning the Devil’s winged travels he writes ‘up he flew, and on the tree of life,/The middle tree and highest there that grew,/Sat like a cormorant’. It has also been seen as a bird of ill omen, portending doom, often in the form of an oncoming storm at sea. It is associated with death, and there are Nordic myths which hold that fisherman drowned at sea can return home from time to time in the form of a cormorant. It’s importance in ancient folklore and mythology was recognised by Oliver Postgate, who made the loyal watchbird of Noggin the Nog, Graculus, a cormorant.

A sharp intake of breath in the aural foreground suggests that our point of view protagonist is taken aback by this apparition. It is something he has come across by chance, a strange spectacle which is both fascinating and alarming – and also potentially dangerous. Mellow synth fluting reminiscent of the music produced by Radiophonic Workshop composers Peter Howell and Roger Limb for early 80s Doctor Who whistles in the background, maintaining the otherworldly ambience. As the bird voice grows more prominent in the sound spectrum and we creep nearer to whatever is making these guttural utterances, we also hear the break and recession of waves. We are on a shoreline, then. The cormorant (let’s for the sake of argument assume this is what it is for now) repeats its three words pained bewilderment. Has it become suspended halfway between a magical transformation from man to bird? It seems to be choking something (there are those associations with gluttony). Has it been poisoned? Or caught its gullet on a fish hook and line? Or is it spewing up oil from a slick it got washed up with? I have a picture in my mind, but I won’t reproduce it for you. It’s for each listener to discover their own mental movie. Our POV character, having approached nearer and nearer with a stalker’s stealth, now reveals himself. No longer fearful, he bursts into harsh peals of cruel laughter, a devilish guffaw. It’s the self-delighting mirth of the villain at the point of triumph, when he realises that his evil masterplan has been realised to the last detail. Perhaps he was a huntsman all along, the birdman his prey. The subliminal background atmospheres suddenly explode into a wild electronic bacchanal, a frenzied and violent freak out of blurting, distorted synth. There’s a furious sloshing of water, as if something is being held beneath the surface and is thrashing about, desperately trying to get free. And then all is calm again. Whatever has been done has been done. Perhaps the cormorant’s power has been appropriated, absorbed. We end with an ascending chord, the mirror of the descending chord with which we started. The curtain is closing, the scene fading out – or it may be an ascent and another flight.

More watery shoreline sounds set the scene for Eva Bowan’s Aos Sí. The Sí are perhaps better know as the sidhe or the shee, the supernatural fairy race in Irish and Scottish folklore and mythology. The shoreline atmospheres and subaquatic compression of sound suggest that we may be encountering a selkie, the mythological Celtic and Gaelic creatures who transform from seal into human form when they leave the sea (a sort of wereseal in effect). Unstable, wavering arpeggios evoke the bob and sway of oceanic swell. A girlish voice whispers half-decipherable lyrics in a high Bjorkish register. It is dispersed in blurry ripples of phased and floating reverberation. Foggy guitar chimes sound like a narcotised version of Robin Guthrie’s hazy Cocteau Twins chords. The whole song passes in a slow dazed drift, heavy-lidded and somnolent. The voice becomes progressively more processed until it is just another element in the dreamy soundscape; the selkie gradually divests itself of all traces of the human side of its nature. It becomes submerged in the harmonic drone of the sea from which it briefly arose, until we begin to wonder whether we really heart it at all. A few sounds at the end conjure one last picture. Steps on the shingle, bells calling the watcher back inland, waking him from his reverie, and the ever-present wind which, if you listen carefully, might still carry the faint voices of the siren singers.

The cold wind blows into the next track, sometime Clinic duo Carl Turney and Brian Campbell’s Punkie Night. There’s a thoughtful continuity in this connectivity of atmospheric weather conditions which makes for a satisfying whole. It gives the impression of a journey, with magically instantaneous transitions from place to place, granting a multiplex perspective on this special night. It’s like a sonic equivalent of Ray Bradbury’s novel The Halloween Tree, in which a group of children take a supernatural flight across the world to learn about the varied traditions of Hallow’s Eve and the Day of the Dead. One of these, Punkie Night, is particularly prevalent in Somerset. Children march through villages or towns carrying lanterns made from pumpkins or mangel-wurzels, sometimes following a cart on which the punkie king and queen ride. They sing the punkie song as they go along: ‘It’s punkie night tonight, it’s punkie night tonight. Adam and Eve would not believe it’s punkie night tonight’. The lanterns, with their grotesque carved faces, were supposed to ward off evil spirits, but can often seem to gather them together instead, their fiery glow transforming children’s faces into flickering shadow-masks with mischievous goblin grins.

The wind whistles in the chilling pitch it is constricted to when blowing through the cracks in doors and windows, or fluting down the long flue of the chimney. A struck match reinforces the impression of a stark, bare interior, now lit by candle or rushlight. Choral synth voices flowing up and down hint at aethereal spirits abroad in the windblown night. A children’s chorus begins to chant the punkie night song. It’s a repetitive and banally declamatory refrain which seems to grow stranger with every re-iteration. An eerie resonance gradually envelops the words until they become spatially ambivalent. Are the chanting children still outside or have they somehow gained access to the domestic interior? Or, more terrifyingly yet, have they taken up residence in the intimate, private spaces within the skull? Ritualistic, tub-thumping drums beat out a hopping and leaping processional, which is joined by a rolling melody. Low metallic harpsicord hammers and repetitive folk techno patterns bring to mind the occult electronica of The Haxan Cloak, or Pye Corner Audio in certain moods, with a similar indebtedness to horror movie scores. Rising, gliding notes in the background conjure images of lines of floating punkie heads bobbing along, angular eyes and serrated grins aglow with fluttering candlelight. The synth choir of strange angels comes soaring back in, and we have the sense of a great assembly coming together. A colourful village custom being enacted for another year, or something less innocent? Once more, we are left with the wind whistling its chill tones through the cracks in the doors and windows, the procession receding into the distance outside. But is there anyone left inside, or is the room now empty, its gathering shadows dimly held at bay by the dwindling stub of a sputtering candle?

Such troubling speculations are dispelled by the clatter of junkyard rhythms as the Taskmaster, Trickster, Troublemaker of Bokins’ track takes to the makeshift stage. This dancing, skeletal percussion brings to mind Tom Waits’ Bone Machine. Clicking spoons and clanking iron, shaken bunches of keys and rattled tins full of dried beans provide the dry, jerky moves for a bony reel. A guitar adds a disjointed melody, phased effects giving it a broken, hesitant flow. Strummed intervals give it the sound of a spirit-possessed Appalachian dulcimer at times, lending a folkish aspect to the grim merriment. A hobo ghost dance around a fire some way from the mountain trail, perhaps, glimpsed peripherally by the weary traveller. A few synth blurbs are added to heighten the sense of the uncanny. The analogue synthesiser is definitely the chosen means through which to evoke the supernatural on Calendar Customs I, and has proved adept at doing so in many other contexts too. A babble of voices becomes vaguely audible, pouring forth a chittering, half-human burst of goblin scat. Then there is a change in register. A sinister drone shrouds all sound, somewhat in the misty mould of John Carpenter’s score for The Fog. It’s a ‘something inexorably approaches’ drone. We hear clanking, hammering, rusty creaking and the actinic glint of sparking metal. Some dread forge or unholy workshop, perhaps. The track ends before we are able fully to divine the nature of this infernal space.

Children of Alice are a trio bringing together James Cargill and old Broadcast compatriot Roj Stevens with Julian House, Ghost Box co-founder, graphic designer and artist (under the guise of The Focus Group). This is an incredibly exciting venture for fans of Broadcast, amongst whom I unhesitatingly number myself, suggesting as it does a new post-Broadcast direction. Their debut piece, The Harbinger of Spring, was released on Folklore Tapes V – Ornithology last year. Something of the same concrete collaging which the characterised the Broadcast and Focus Group collaboration Witch Cults of the Radio Age is used to delineate the strange dimensions of the Liminal Space (the edgeland or interzone), their track on Calendar Customs. It begins with a tuning in, a crackling sweep across the frequencies until the desired wavelength has been fixed. A trundling, ratcheting rotation suggests motion, as does the plodding, pedestrian bass pacing which lopes alongside it. Fragments of fluting synth melody paint impressionistic glimpses of the passing world. These are low key sounds, soft and muffled, their origins obscure. They seem to be coming from somewhere else – the liminal space. Through one of the jump cuts and aural transmutations which were a feature of Harbinger of Spring, the wheel is displaced by a watery trickle. Perhaps it was a waterwheel all along. It’s a gentle, liquid sound which also seems to carry the faint murmur of voices. This sense of voices emerging from and merging with natural sounds is a characteristic of the Calendar Customs compilation as a whole.

We hear some kind of clicking and ratcheting clockwork machinery. It’s the kind of complex, interlocking polyrhythmic patterning which ran through Roj Steven’s Ghost Box album The Transactional Dharma of Roj. Are we inside the mechanism of a large clock, like the one which features in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders? The Children of Alice, individually and collectively, are expert at transporting us through a progression of discrete spaces and states. It’s the equivalent of an aural psychedelic trip, something which Broadcast singer and writer Trish Keenan used to talk about. We hear the opening melody and the trundling rotation again. It feels different in the context of what we have heard since. Could it be a strange music box turned by a small handle? The piece is anchored and given structure by these repetitions, lent variety and contrast by the juxtaposition of different sound blocks. A coconut clopping once more gives the impression of movement – the horse pulling the cart whose uneven roll we have been listening to, perhaps. Backward vocals are slowed and processed until they are no longer recognisably human. They become part of the general ambience, the hum of the aether, tuned out. This music which is all about transformation and transition. The wheel keeps on turning, but it’s travelling in no readily identifiable direction. It is non-spatial motion – a temporal rotation, fitting for this new calendrical Folklore Tapes venture. And then, suddenly, it stops.

Mary Stark’s Nos (Us?) creates a sound picture of a huge, resonant space – a cavern, perhaps. It is filled with the scuttle and stridulation of insects and the call and fluttering flight of birds. Some stertorous breathing and sighing suggests a living presence; The case itself as a womb filled with life. Bat squeak and pizzicato droplets add further detail to the scenario. The swell of an organ drone, which has the overtone shimmer of church bells heard from within the nave, gives this the feel of a sacred space. And then the echoing, compressed resonance, which has mapped out a confined interior, is gone. We are in the open air, the birds still singing. They have made the transition between states. There’s a sense of relief, of horizons expanding and light flooding in. It’s as if we have arrived at some illuminating conceptual breakthrough, one which has finally allowed us to walk out of the Platonic cave.

David Orphan’s La Mas Ubhal (Quinque Sect) refers to a drink which mixes spiced ale, cider and roasted apples. Sometimes referred to as lamb’s wool, it was made for the old Irish feast of apple gathering, which used to take place on All Hallow’s Eve. Quinque Sect means, roughly, The Fifth Way. The track begins with roughly bowed notes, scratchy and coarse. The apples being peeled, perhaps. The piece as a whole has something of the feel of free improv, with the kind of small, discrete sounds which AMM or the Art Ensemble of Chicago used to deploy. Warm analogue synth notes are introduced, full and rich, adjusted to give off a flickering vibrato shimmer. This is the solar sound of a fire burning steadily and comfortingly in the grate. More small instrumental noises suggest quietly purposeful activity: The tracery of a thin, synth oboe-like pattern of notes (a tendril of cinnamon scent curling from the pot, Bisto-style), a slack jazz bass twang and an electric bass riff. Bowed overtones glint into the shadows, and there’s a strange trumpeting, some beast emerging or maybe just stomachs rumbling. The electric bass takes up a Fog ‘something’s getting nearer’ riff – four beats with the first strongly emphasised (DUHN, duhn duhn duhn). We hear a coalescence of voices, half chanting, half gasping (they want some of the mas ubhal, and now). A slithering, shuffling approach with sweeping guitar effects hinting at something uncanny in the air. A chanting voice is abruptly cut off. The Quinque Sect is never revealed to us. Perhaps it is a mercy.

Rob St John finishes the Calendar Customs survey with a lovely instrumental piece, Old Growth, which is full of wistful seasonal melancholy. Descending chords are picked out on a classical guitar which sounds like a lyre or Celtic harp. They are limned by delicate synth accompaniment, the mellow light of the late October sun. This descending sequence paints a picture of bronzed and yellowed leaves slowly spiralling to the ground. As the title suggests, it as an end, but also a beginning, making way for new growth in a new year. A blackbird sings its heavenly song, and further songlike synth notes are added to fill out the mantric repetition of the underlying chords. It fades out on a long held chord, which encourages you to add you own humming drone to the autumn harmony.

It’s a beautiful, prayerful note on which to end a really fine and varied collection, which evokes, through means traditional and experimental (the two poles blending without any sense of contrivance or strain), this magical time of year in all its varied moods: beautiful and unsettling, dark and illuminated, wistful and impish, fearful and full of hope. The first exploration of Calendar Customs has produced riches and treasures aplenty. I look forward eagerly to further investigations.