Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Elisabeth Sladen

The news of Elisabeth Sladen’s death came as a shock to me and I’m sure many others who were unaware of her illness. She’d still looked so full of life and vitality in recent episodes of the Sarah Jane Adventures, and the years had treated her well (usually a sign that someone has treated themselves well). She was the Doctor Who companion whom I had grown up watching, and so had a special place in my heart, and that of my generation. The companions are always the point of audience identification in Doctor Who, the Doctor himself being, of necessity, a somewhat aloof and strange presence. Katy Manning’s Jo Grant was a hard act to follow, having pretty much spanned the Jon Pertwee era and provided the definitive companion to his Doctor. Elisabeth Sladen, along with producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrnce Dicks, managed to create a character who was sufficiently different in attitude and manner, creating the necessary distance from Jo’s scattily endearing persona, and signalling a new era for the series. Sarah Jane Smith (the Smith surname indicating a certain everywoman aspect) was curious, assertive and resourceful, but also vulnerable and sometimes overly impetuous. She represented the new face of feminist strength whilst also frequently finding herself in old-fashioned positions of cliff-hanging peril – a difficult balancing act to pull off. Sladen managed to convey the complex mixture of bravery and fearlessness which didn’t preclude a healthy and sensible sense of fear. Her mastery of the tremulous voice and apprehensive look acted as the perfect expression of the audience’s pleasurable terror.

Sarah Jane in the beginning - The Time Warrior, 1973

Sarah Jane’s first adventure was The Time Warrior, its first episode broadcast on the 15th December 1973. She is presented as a journalist posing as her Aunt Lavinia, a scientist, in order to gain access to a scientific research centre which, as UNIT’s presence attests, is experiencing an outbreak of weirdness. Sarah stumbles into a Middle Ages past, and Sladen plays the comic aspects of her misapprehension of the nature of her surroundings very nicely. She believes for some time that she is in the middle of some historical re-enactment. Her encounters with the full-blooded chauvinism of block-headed robber baron Irongron (who goes through the whole panoply of goblet-thumping medieval actor techniques) is also an instant challenge to her emancipated outlook, and one which she rises to admirably. It boded well that the first alien creature she encountered was a Sontaran, which would go on to be a recurring foe, and one with enough staying power to become a ‘classic’ monster, making it through to the current incarnation of Who. There were some other enjoyable episodes with Pertwee (Death to the Daleks is an enjoyable quarry based adventure, with the embodiments of ruthless evil rendered temporarily impotent) but it was difficult to escape from the shadow of Jo, something which was particularly apparent in the Monster of Peladon, which was a pale shadow of The Curse of Peladon, to which it was a belated sequel. Unlike Jo, however, Sarah did make it to Metebelis 3 in Pertwee’s last adventure, Planet of the Spiders (just released on dvd, at last).

It was in the Tom Baker era that Sladen really came into her own. This started off with Robot, first broadcast on 28th December 1974, an enjoyable if far from classic adventure in which Sarah Jane develops a touchingly empathetic relationship with the tin-plated title monster, finally playing Fay Wray to its giganticised behemoth in the last episode. Sarah was put through her paces in these stories, often finding herself split off from the Doctor and having to fend for herself. She poses plays the investigative journalist once more in Robot in order to infiltrate a quasi-fascist cadre of scientists. She undergoes an agonisingly claustrophobic crawl through the air vents in The Ark in Space, with the threat of coming up against a squirming green slime grub around every corner (definite shades of Alien here, and in the story as a whole, some four or five years before that came out). That uncomfortable claustrophobia was repeated in a scene which haunted me as a child. In Planet of Evil, she was confined in a coffin-like box alongside the Doctor, which was to be ejected into space. The captain of the spaceship pressed the button and the boxes began to glide towards the exit ports. In Genesis of the Daleks, she turns revolutionary, and organises a rebellion against the Kaleds in the missile silo where she has been consigned to hard labour. Her climb up the scaffolding towards the missile head, bullets ricocheting around her, is a particularly memorable scene. In The Brain of Morbius, she is not only left alone, but in a state of temporary blindness. This leads to perhaps one of the most terrifying cliffhangers in all Who. Sarah blinks as her sight finally begins to come back to her. Joyfully declaring ‘I can see’, she turns tentatively around, only to be confronted with the hideous creature that has just arisen from its laboratory table: a patchwork amalgam of shaggy beast with giant insect pincer and brain in a fishbowl head.

Sarah Jane’s relationship with Tom Baker’s Doctor developed into a lovely double act. She grounded his eccentricity, refusing to take him entirely seriously, and there was even a sense that she was gently mocking his character at times. She could also provide a counter-argumentative voice, as in the classic exchange in Genesis of the Daleks, one of the central examples of the series strong moral core. Sarah Jane urges the Doctor to join the connective wires which will destroy the nascent Dalek race in its hatchery, but he hesitates, agonising over whether he has the right to commit a monstrous act in order to destroy a monstrous force. There were a couple of occasions on which Sladen had to play a Sarah who wasn’t Sarah. In The Android Invasion, there is a great scene in which the Doctor realises that she has become something other. Calmly telling her ‘you’re not the real Sarah’, she stumbles over and her face falls off, revealing the clockwork mechanisms beneath which are driving this replica. Sladen’s playful side really comes to the fore in her final adventure, The Hand of Fear, which begins in a quarry which really is a quarry. In this story, she becomes possessed by a long dormant alien being, and calmly walks into a nuclear power station, brushing aside all who get in her path with an impishly delivered assertion that ‘Eldrad lives’. In non-possessed state, her relationship with the Doctor is also at its most playful and teasing, and it’s a fine way for her to make her exit from the series. The final parting is beautifully underplayed. When she tells him not to forget her, he simply says ‘oh, Sarah’. It’s something neither he, nor the audience, could ever do. And there she, is left on the pavement of Hillview Road in South Croydon, although, just before the famous music crashes in, she wonders whether this is where she is at all.

K-9 and Company

It wasn’t to be the last of Sarah Jane, of course. She returned on 28th December 1981 in K-9 and Company, an underrated offshoot ill-served by its regrettably risible title sequence. This was in fact a very enjoyable tale of rural occultism set in the imaginary village of Moreton Harwood where Sarah had gone to visit her Aunt Lavinia. She teams up with her aunt’s young charge Brendan to crack the mystery of a coven which makes sacrifices to the Goddess Hecate. In a bizarre way, it anticipates the Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright film Hot Fuzz. It’s a real pleasure seeing Sarah Jane as an active heroine in her own right, and her protective, maternal relationship with her young sidekick anticipates the later Sarah Jane Adventures, in which she is also a mature and self-assured single woman who also plays the role of guardian. The Sarah Jane Adventures were hugely enjoyable as well, and offered the chance for re-unions or first meetings with the Brigadier, Jo Grant and David Tennant and Matt Smith’s Doctors. Sarah Jane had returned in the Tennant episode School Reunion, and Sladen beautifully conveyed the painful re-awakening of feelings which had lain dormant but which had never really gone away – a combination of sadness and joy, happiness and regret. Her presence elevated an episode whose surrounding story was less than wholly engaging. It was really good to have her back. The Sarah Jane Adventures was a particular pleasure in that it offered a mature female heroine, someone who was still at the heart of the action (and quite capable of joining in) but able to bring the wisdom of age and experience to bear. We need more of her kind.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Inside the Music Library

The world of library music, explored in Johnny Trunk’s radio 4 documentary Into the Music Library last week, is a rather hermetic and arcane domain, closed off to ordinary everyday folk, accessible only to industry insiders and those with the secret password, or to those obsessives dedicated enough to track down its faint tracks and traces. This obscurity goes towards explaining why such utilitarian productions have become so popular with record collectors of late. Library records were never meant to be available to the public. They were specially crafted functional cues intended for commercial use, provided upon request. Titles and subsequent descriptions were indicators of intended mood or suggestions for generic scene-setting or action accompaniments. Ex-Specials front man Jerry Dammers, a surprising library enthusiast, later boils down the prevailing moods to ‘activity and apprehension’, which he suggests largely encompasses people’s everyday experience of the modern world. Examples offered by the programme include Barbara Moore’s Hot Heels, from the Vocal Shades and Tones LP on KPM (considered an absolute classic by aficionados), which has the sonic description ‘bright, driving movement’, which would give commercial film, tv or ad producers an idea of the context within which it could be used. Steam Heat from the same LP has the rather more nebulous description ‘exotic, tropical, sinister overtones’, which, as Johnny Trunk pithily comments, could simply be reduced to one word: porn. Barbara Moore, who appears on the programme, sounds like great company and responds to Mr Trunk’s observation that she’s clearly holding nothing back on this track with a dismissive ‘listen, darling, I’ve been holding everything back for the last 30 years’, before going on to give a remarkably sensuous description of an Amazon canoe trip which the music might accompany. Titles and descriptions (or ‘remarks’ in this case) from Ron Geesin’s Electrosound LP (KPM 1102) include: Glass Dance (fast flowing complex rhythmic tinkling sound), Industrial Jungle (industrial sound, suggesting heavy machining, with deep tonal interjections), Enzymes in your Ear (harsh discordant notes in a random form over a repetitive riff), Electric Barbed Wire (metallic rhythmic drumming over a high-pitched modulating background), Car Crusher (grating dischordant metallic rasps with random high-pitched electronic background), and Spirograph A (slow wistful clarion in random time with fuzz chord interjections). All of which sounds like it could be instructions from an improvisatory John Cage score, or the soundtrack to an imaginary JG Ballard adaptation.

LP covers from the major libraries were largely unadorned with anything other than the company name and catalogue number, presented in clear graphic style. Covers from smaller libraries sometimes have striking, if cheaply produced graphics, which often have more in common with contemporaneous paperback designs, and which have exerted a strong influence on the likes of Julian House, with his work for the Ghost Box label and others. You can look at a sampling of some of the more interesting examples over at the Trunk Records site here. Despite the non-descript packaging, however, there are some real nuggets of characterful, atmospheric, quirky and brassily funky music to be found within. Mr Trunk’s half hour documentary provided the ideal introduction for the curious and uninitiated, as well as providing an opportunity for seasoned enthusiasts to hear from some of the legends of the scene who have at last emerged from the obscure shadow of years of dedicated, anonymous toil: the likes of Barbara Moore, Keith Mansfield and John Cameron. Johnny is, of course, responsible for bringing this heretofore neglected music to a wider public through various compilations on his Trunk Records label; Collections such as G-Spots (thrillingly subtitled, in true all-encompassing descriptive library style ‘The Spacey Folk Electro-Horror Sounds of the Studio G Library’), the Bosworth Archive, the wonderful Fuzzy Felt Folk, and single composer discs by Sven Libaek (Inner Space) and Basil Kirchin (whose Abstractions of the Industrial North, which has a rather marvellous graphic landscape cover, is mentioned in glowing terms in the programme). Here, he reveals his own passion for the music, invoking the sacred names of the major labels from the late 60s and early 70s: KPM, Chappell, Bosworth and de Wolfe (the latter a long-running family business which has been providing music since the days of the silent movies). He talks of a formative experience of trying to track down the beautifully simple music from 70s children’s programme Mary, Mungo and Midge, eventually discovering that it was written by Johnny Pearson and included on the KPM record 1045. The tracks taken from that LP and used to accompany Mungo and Midge’s descent from their top-floor high-rise flat in the lift and subsequent amblings around a bright and modern urban landscape were included on the anthology Girl In A Suitcase, compiled by Steven Wills for Winchester Hospital Radio, which almost instantly sold out. And what a great hospital radio station that must be. They are rather charmingly entitled Mini Walking, Mini Clarinet and Mini Movement, and Mini Link. The compilation is a real individual labour of love and offers a great general cross-section of the music, much of it nagging at the memory of those who grew up (or were grown up) in the 60s and 70s.

The sounds of Winchester Hospital Radio
There is a definite waft of nostalgia which adds much to the appeal of library music. The fact that it was used in such a functional, unobtrusive way, and was so casually ubiquitous lends it a greater claim to be the true soundtrack to the age, as opposed to the usual pop and rock which is more commonly used to evoke the period. Rock music might best convey the more dramatic upheavals of the time, and pop its fashions and youthful desires, but this music sums up the everyday experience – the glazed glide around a gleaming new supermarket or a water ski thrill-ride around a newtown lake. Music for work, leisure, holiday and the everyday – filled with an optimism and sense that life is there to be enjoyed in a land of, if not plenty, then at least sufficiency and certainty. This can’t help but give them a retrospective sense of being the soundtrack to a paradise lost, offering a memory of a world seemingly gone for good, its last foundations currently being demolished. Some pieces are now indelibly associated with particular tv programmes, whose repeated use of them as theme tunes or incidental music now trigger a Pavlovian connection of sound and image. Keith Mansfield talks about how an old piece of his from KPM was chosen to be the new theme for Grandstand, in preference to the one he had specifically composed for the purpose. John Cameron wistfully observes that library compositions are like children; you don’t know where they’re going to get to once you’ve introduced them into the world. His swooning Half Forgotten Daydreams has turned up on the Emmanuel soundtrack and in a George Clooney coffee ad. Other pieces of library music which became better known under different guises include: Neil Richardson’s Approaching Menace on KPM (Mastermind), Pop Looks Bach by Sam Fonteyn on Boosey and Hawkes (Ski Sunday), Johnny Hawksworth’s music for Roobarb and Custard from the de Wolfe library, Laurie Johnson’s Animal Magic theme from KPM, the Prima Ballerina by the Swing Bach Ensemble (Watch – scat and jazz Bach was very popular at the time), A Fuguey Day by the Ron Grainer Harpsichord Group (The World Around Us – surely an inspiration for Look Around You), Alan Parker’s lovely The Free Life b (Moody and Pegg), Alan Parker’s new wave-ish Motivation (nursing drama Angels), the fabulous Fruity Flute by the Reg Wale Group (Farmhouse Kitchen), and Gala Performance by Laurie Johnson on KPM (used for countless years as the This Is Your Life theme).

Generic covers - surprising content
Sometimes a piece was picked up for different programmes, creating a confusion of themes tunes, as happened with Alan Hawkshaw’s Chicken Talk, which you’ll remember as the theme tune from Grange Hill or Give Us a Clue, depending on whether you were a BBC or ITV person. Perhaps the best-loved of all library pieces is Left Bank Two by Wayne Hill, produced for the de Wolfe label. It’s better known for its use as the Gallery theme from Vision On, all shuffling brush drums, foursquare guitar strums and the famous floating vibraphone melody. It’s surprising to discover, then, that it was in fact knocked out in some spare time left over at the end of a session. The recording of library music was always undertaken with an eye on economy and efficiency, with musicians operating at a high level of technical skill. Tunes were laid down live in the studio, one after another, with brass, rhythm and string sections and soloists all playing together. No studio time was allowed to go to waste. Hence the off-the-cuff creation of a piece of music which instantly brings hazy childhood memories back into focus.

Histoire de Melody Nelson by Serge Gainsbourg - and Alan Hawkshaw & Alan Parker
The professionalism and instrumental accomplishment of library musicians meant that they were much in demand for session work in general. KPM composers and arrangers Alan Hawkshaw and Alan Parker are the unsung heroes behind Serge Gainsbourg’s celebrated Histoire de Melody Nelson LP, giving it a hard rock edge which offsets the yearning romanticism of Jean-Claude Vannier’s orchestration. The two would go on to work again with Gainsbourg on L’Homme a Tete de Chou, perhaps his last great album, by which time Hawkshaw had added the synthesiser to his musical palette. Barbara Moore and her singers can be seen backing Dusty Springfield on some of her BBC tv specials.

Library composers and musicians also had considerable leeway for experimentation within their given remit. The requirement to create atmosphere as much as melody meant that they could push the boundaries of musical form to a far greater extent than would be considered acceptable in a pop or rock song, no matter how psychedelic. Jerry Dammers cites Ron Geesin’s piece Duet for Choir and Tunnel from his Electrosound LP (KPM1102), which bears the descriptive remarks ‘echoing empty sound in a repetitive sequence’. At the head of the record’s back cover, Geesin sets out his non-conformist, anything-goes stall: ‘I present some tunes, untunes, anti-tunes, delightful and undelightful sounds for all sorts of purposes and state that: The pieces herein displayed may be combined with themselves (as much out of sync as possible) to achieve thicker diffuse atmosphere, and playing things at different speeds would not be wrong!’ Geesin would tangentially connect with the rock world from time to time, most conspicuously with his arrangements for Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother. Johnny Trunk also mentions Georges Teperino’s Weird Sounds no.1, a self-explanatorily freaky track from a French TV Music LP shared with Roger Roger (aka Cecil Leuter), who provided the ‘Crazy Sounds’ on the b-side. Teperino’s track can be found on the compilation Barry 7’s Connectors, on which the former Add N to (X) member selects music from some of the odder and more experimental (and often electronic) corners of the library catalogues. Industrial Underscore from the Studio G label, meanwhile, indicates the world which was perhaps most open to such experimentation, destined as it was for ‘scientific application’.

The late 60s and early to mid 70s were definitely seen as the golden age for library music. Studios have now proliferated, mostly operating from home studios. Barbara Moore is not impressed with modern cues, which she characterises as being for the most part drones, an emotionally manipulative and simply created way of creating the tension and unease upon which so much tv thrives. Derivative orchestral music of the emotively sweeping string-based variety typified by the Planet Earth soundtrack now predominates, accompanying similarly overfamiliar, restlessly sweeping camera moves. This is music which grabs you by the lapels and demands ‘you will feel awe, goddamn you!’ The library music of the old school lives on, however, both in its use as samples, and in occasions such as the KPM Allstars concert given on the South Bank as part of Jarvis Cocker’s Meltdown Festival a few years back.

Jarvis himself spent his Sunday Service programme on Radio6 in the BBC grammophone library. Well, not literally, since it was a recorded show, but the programme was based around his explorations. It is a music library which does indeed contain some examples of library music. Johnny Trunk was on hand once more to help him dig out some treasures, and came ready prepared with a list of desirable items and a BBC plastic bag in which to stash any finds. He sounded a little taken aback to find his first item on the shelves, Peppino de Luca’s soundtrack to the 1971 Italian giallo The Man With the Icy Eyes, which he estimates to be worth somewhere between 500 to 1000 quid. Former Duke Ellington soloist Paul Gonsalves’ 1964 British LP Boom-Jackie-Boom-Chick is a piece of swinging jazz which could soundtrack any London based scenes of the time. It’s slightly disappointing to discover that the rhythmic title is merely named after Gonsalves’ heroin dealer. Mr Trunk values this at something in the region of £1500. Jarvis wryly observes that this is better than the Antiques Roadshow. They also come across a copy of Serge Gainsbourg’s 1st 10” LP, from which they play a hissily sibilant sounding Poinconneur des Lilas, an LP of French library music called Cops, Crooks and Spies, from which Eddie Wan’s Manipulated Code is a tune with a bouncy, springing electronic rhythm conjuring up images of some SF cop chase on futuristic pogo sticks (in my mind, at any rate), and Basil Kirchin’s library LP Mind On the Run. Jarvis is also allowed into the secure vault, which is opened with much exaggerated gothic clanking of chains. Here he comes across the world’s smallest record, a 1” 78rpm recording of God Save the Queen made for Queen Mary’s doll’s house. You can see pictures of their explorations at the Sunday Service site, and watch a short video here,.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Record Store Day

This Saturday is Record Store Day. As the wording would suggest, this is an event which originated in America, but independent record shops are an endangered species the world over, so it has become very much an international affair. Shops which take part can avail themselves of various specially produced limited edition records or CDs, and some also play host to bands or performers. It’s a celebration of the kind of music which they do so much to promulgate and a chance to highlight the need for dedicated, small scale retailers who have a love for what they do and a real depth of knowledge and insight (and taste) which reflects that. These are the kind of places which it's a real pleasure to take your time browsing in, listening to whatever's being played and maybe getting into a conversation about it - discovering something new. You can find a list of participating shops (or stores, if you will) in this country (which, from my perspective, is Britain) or whichever one is local to you over here. Down in this corner of the South West, we’ve got Martian Records in Exeter, Onionheart in Exmouth and Drift Records in Totnes taking part. Drift Records is a great little record shop, and its best of the year recommendations led me to some fantastic music, in particular Luke Abbot’s Holkham Drones, a gorgeous album of layered and looping electronica. They specialise in the more interesting and adventurous end of the indie spectrum, and have just got in copies of the new Low album C’mon, Bibio’s Mind Bokeh and the High Llama’s Talahomi Way. When I was in Totnes the other weekend, they had a copy of Trembling Bells’ The Constant Pageant displayed in the window’s array of recommended records, with a succinct and eloquent summary of its qualities neatly written beside it. It’s the kind of knowledgeable and enthusiastic touch which really marks out the independent record shop. Inside, they’ve got a good selection of vinyl, and also had some interesting soundtracks, such as Bruce Langhorne’s sparse and haunting score for Peter Fonda’s post-Easy Rider western The Hired Hand, and the recent Finders Keepers release of the music (by the ultra-obscure Gallic group Acanthus) from Jean Rollin’s Le Frisson des Vampires (or Shiver of the Vampires, as it was rather prosaically translated). The Drift blog is steadily unveiling some of the treasures which will be available on the day, as you can see here. Particularly exciting is a gatefold Sandy Denny 7”, whose two tracks have been specially chosen by fans (presumably taken from the recent mammoth 19 CD box set). The first side is the second demo version of I’m A Dreamer (one of the later songs which I feel actually works with the oft-criticised Trevor Lucas string-saturated production) and the other side the first demo of possibly her defining song, the evergreen classic Who Knows Where the Time Goes. Drift also promises a live radio show, which should be well worth tuning in to if you’re in the area.

Here in Exeter we have Martian Records, as mentioned, who are particularly strong on the heavier end of the spectrum, and whose 3 for a tenner shelves offer many intriguing finds for the bargain hunter. Rooster Records is the place where the real vinyl treasure horde can be discovered, however, with both new and second-hand LPs aplenty. There’s no doubt about it, records are simply more pleasurable to browse through, offering the easier physical prospect of flicking through (without the unpleasant clacking together of plastic boxes you get with CDs) and the pleasure (or occasional disagreeable shock) of the appreciably sized cover artwork. Among the new LPs here I came across Trembling Bells’ Abandoned Love and Shirley Collins’ Adieu to Old England, from which the former draws the title of its first song. There’s Japanese cosmic travellers the Far East Family Band with their 1976 LP Parallel World, number 4 in Julian Cope’s Japrocksampler top 50. There’s a compilation taken from Compendium Records, apparently Norway’s first progressive record store and label from 1974-77. So if you’re curious find out what Nordic prog sounded like… There’s the LP of Sparks’ radio musical The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, which was premiered over here on Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone, and has to be heard to be believed. If you have 50 quid to spare and are keen on the intense, heartfelt and occasionally very loud instrumental (with occasional enervated vocal) rock of Mogwai (as I am) then there’s the box set of the recent live record Special Moves, which contains 3 LPs, the dvd of burning, set lists and a poster. There’s a copy of Comus’ dark folk debut First Utterance, first released to an unresponsive world in 1971, but since spoken of in reverential whispers in certain corners (particularly those associated with Current 93). The hushed and delicately beautiful collaboration between Helena Espvall of Espers and Masaki Batoh of Japanese psych band Ghost is also here. There’s jazz, too, with vinyl copies of some of Coltrane and Ornette’s Atlantic LPs. Personal favourites to tempt me (but no, I must resist) include Pram’s The Moving Frontier, Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan and Illinois albums (seemingly the only states from his grand project likely to be realised) and Gravenhurst’s The Western Lands. There’s also the cover by a favourite band of mine of a record which I absolutely loath, Flaming Lips’ version of Dark Side of the Moon with explosively named collaborators Stardeath and White Dwarfs, alongside guests Henry Rollins and Peaches, who presumably does that wordless, emotive gospelly bit.

Sun Ra - experimental cape music
There are plenty of great CDs here too, in case you’re one of the majority who no longer have, or perhaps never did have, a record player. There’s a good few free jazz re-issues from the 60s and 70s, if you fancy braving some more esoteric or fiercely abstract sounds: Anthony Braxton’s (father of ex-Battles member Tyondai) This Time, Albert Ayler’s Bells (originally rather stingily released as a one sided LP on ESP records), Sun Ra’s The Other Side of the Sun and Don Cherry’s Mu, his 1969 duet with drummer Ed Blackwell in which he began to display some of the world music influences which would come to characterise his later projects (such as the Codona trio with Collin Walcott and Nana Vasconcelos). The soundtrack section has a couple of Trunk Records releases, both relating to nature programmes, oddly enough: the compilation of Swedish composer Sven Libaek’s music, Inner Space (the title referring to a programme featuring oceanographers Val and Ron Taylor, whose expertise concerning great white sharks led to them being consulted by Steven Spielberg when he was making Jaws) and Edward Williams’ wonderful music for Life On Earth, played on orchestral instruments and then subtly recoloured by filtering it through the synthesizer technology of the time. For fans of obscure prog, there’s plenty of that to be found, with the largely forgotten likes of Titus Groan (they’d evidently run out of Tolkien based names by this stage) loving remastered and restored to life. If you want to get really far out, you could always investigate Magma’s Attahk or Udu Wudu (there’s some umlauts in there somewhere, which may or may not be important), LPs in which their leader, Christian Vander, created an entire self-contained mythology, located on another world, and then chose to invent his own language in which to tell it. The music is suitably otherworldly, albeit in a frequently rather cacophonous manner.

Doll's house cover I - Family
Exeter also has the Oxfam music shop (with film and art too!), which is filled with whatever second-hand LPs and CDs people are generous enough to donate. I say we because I am to be found on occasion beavering away with feverish intensity in the back room. When last I checked (which was this afternoon) we had some of the following delights on offer: There’s 60s psychedelia originating from the East rather than West Coast in the form of Earth Opera’s self-titled debut LP on Elektra, featuring the mandolin of frequent Jerry Garcia collaborator David Grisman. It’s probably the sort of thing which Frank Zappa would have hated, and he’s present too with an LP sampling his live You Can’t Do That On Stage Any More records, a series which showed off his best and worst sides. Please feel free to admire our juxtaposition of dolls house covers, the one from Family’s Music in a Doll’s House, and the other from the minimalist clatter jam LP made by Velvet Underground exile John Cale and Poppy Nogood band all-night flighter Terry Riley. Bizarrely, this came about through an entirely unintentional moment of rather spooky synchronicity, Riley and Cale being plucked from the shelve as a suitable cabinet replacement for the Elvis LP someone had just snapped up. This cabinet of disparate curios also contains a compilation of sunshine pop from the Association, ideal for the sunny summer promised, and its shadowy obverse, the black and purple covered Masters of Reality by Black Sabbath, with the Vertigo label swirl designed to send you into a queasy trance as it spins on the turntable.

Doll's house cover II - Church of Anthrax
We have Julian Cope’s selection of some of Scott Walker’s finest moments which he gathered together for the compilation Fire Escape in the Sky, hyperbolically (but accurately) sub-headed The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker. Julian is present himself in the form of the Floored Genius compilation of his work with the Teardrop Explodes. We have Magnum’s The Eleventh Hour (are you there, Mark? Is this one of their better ones?), which is, as ever, graced by a Rodney Matthews cover. There’s a rather battered copy of the Concert for Bangladesh box set, with a whole side dedicated to a raga played by Ravi Shankar (who reacts with rather terse sardonicism when his tuning receives reverential applause). There’s the delicate reverb-drenched guitarscapes of Vini Reilly in The Return of the Durutti Column. Don’t worry, it’s a reissue, not one of the original copies housed in sandpaper sleeves. Big Audio Dynamite’s Tighten Up I note mainly for the (rather crude) cover art depicting the Westway with Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower rising above it in the background. Marianne Faithfull’s comeback LP Broken English is full of cracked splendour, and includes Heathcote Williams’ remarkably scabrous lover’s complaint Why D’ya Do It to Me? (not one we’ll be likely to play in the shop). Derek Jarman shot some of his 8mm films to accompany three songs from this LP, and he also directed some music videos for Marc Almond, including the wonderfully camp Tenderness is a Weakness. The LP it comes from, Vermine in Ermine, is here, with a slightly torn cover, as if it has at some point been thrown into some glamorous gutter.

Lee Konitz - abstract expressionist jazz
There’s classical music here too. We have a 1973 record of Music From Dartington, just over the hill and through the valley from here, recorded in honour of Leonard Elmhirst, one of the founders of the whole Dartington artistic and agricultural project. There are box sets of Ernest Ansermet’s 50s and 60s recordings of Debussy and Ravel, and of Adrian Boult’s complete recordings of the nine Vaughan Williams symphonies with the London Philharmonic, released on EMI. If you want something to weigh down a recalcitrant floorboard or perhaps to use as some kind of trouser press, there’s a box set of Wagner’s Ring cycle released on Decca records which has the dimensions of a reasonably sized dog kennel, and whose housing seems actually to be fashioned out of metal. It’s testing the shelving to its absolute limits. You might want to bring a trolley. There’s a record of Holst’s music on Lyrita, conducted by his daughter Imogen, and including the Lyric Movement and the Brookside Suite, and a record of Vaughan Williams’ Folk Song arrangements played by the Deller Consort, which is on the Vanguard Stereolab label (so now I know where the name of one of my favourite groups comes from). And if you like your classical music with a bit of moog synthesiser attached, there's The Velvet Gentleman, released on the Deram label, the Camerata Contemporary Chamber Group's arrangements of Eric Satie pieces, with occasional electronic enhancement. Soundtracks and spoken word records have their own little corner. Prominently displayed is The Strawberry Statement, a sixties campus unrest drama with music provided by variants of the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young grouping, whittled down as necessary to Crosby, Stills and Nash or simply Young. Any LP which includes Suite:Judy Blue Eyes, The Loner and Down By the River has got to be alright in my book. You can hear the recording of Under Milk Wood made by Richard Burton and cast, which I find sounds more convincing than Dylan Thomas’ own attempt. Amongst the jazz are several volumes of Charlie Parker’s Savoy recordings, a 1981 Lee Konitz drummerless trio recording, Dovetail, with a pleasant abstract painting on the cover, Back to Back, an intimate small group meeting from 1959 in which Duke Ellington and his lyrical alto sax player Johnny Hodges relax and play the blues, and Tubbs Tours, 1964 live performances from the British tenor sax legend Tubby Hayes with his Orchestra.

Doll's house cover III - Saint Etienne
There are plenty of CDs as well. Another of my favourite groups, Saint Etienne, are represented by Tales From Turnpike House, a dawn to night-time cycle of songs, starting with Sun in My Morning Morning and ending with Goodnight, and based around characters living in the eponymous block of flats. David Essex makes a surprise guest vocal appearance, duetting with Sarah Cracknell on Relocate, in which they argue out the relative merits of living in the countryside as opposed to the city. The songs are soaked through with Beach Boys backing harmonies, their sunshine clouded with melancholy which fully coalesces on Teenage Winter, a lament for fading youth and lost post war optimism, the aching nostalgia for which is transferred onto the tawdry relics which the album’s characters are reluctant to leave behind. Perhaps appropriately, this involves one of them griping about how you can’t find decent records in charity shops any more (the lady sorting through the stock in the one local to Turnpike House disconsolately puts aside ‘two copies of Every Loser Wins’ – haven’t seen many of them here recently), since everyone’s selling them on e-bay. Obviously that’s not the case here, though! There’s a bonus EP, Up the Wooden Hills, which consists of children’s songs (counting and naming animals being preoccupations here), reflecting the stage of life in which the band find themselves. Is that David Essex again on Bedfordshire, taking his son up the wooden hill and agreeing that the trees there are indeed green because it’s ‘the colour of Thunderbird Two’? The cover of the CD could join the Family and John Cale/Terry Riley LPs to form a doll’s house trilogy, by the way.

J-rock - Hucc Houyoku
There’s the Songs From the Rainwater EP by Velour 100, who are sometimes compared to The Cocteau Twins or Low, which is some comparison. 90s Los Angeles band Sukia, whose Contacto Especial con el Tercer Sexo is here, deserve a mention simply for naming themselves after an Italian vampire comic. There are several albums by 10,000 Maniacs (who take their name from a Herschell Gordon Lewis gorefest) – In My Tribe, Our Time in Eden and MTV Unplugged. We have CDs by both Mumm-Ra (named after one of the characters from the cartoon Thundercats this time), and Icelandic electronic dream pop band Mum (the Remixed album, and Please Smile My Noise Bleed mixture). Orbital’s Snivelisation is more fine electronica with a dissenting turn of mind, including the lengthy, philosophically enquiring Are We Here and Detached. Alison Goldfrapp’s vocals are judiciously deployed to their full operatic effect throughout. If you want to find out what J-rock (the Japanese equivalent of emo as far as I can tell) sounds like, there’s a CD by Hucc Houyoku which will enlighten you. It’s got a nice felt pen outline drawing of a bird soaring above towering office blocks on the cover, anyway. Finally, there’s Kristin Hersh’s Hips and Makers, her first solo album away from Throwing Muses, in which she turns down the volume but not the intensity for a collection of allusive, elliptical and evocative songs. Of course, by the time you get here, all manner of new and exciting jewels may have flooded in and filled the shelves brimful to bursting. There’s only one way to find out. But wherever you are, head down to your local record shop and celebrate the spirit of independence – before it’s too late.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Ken Campbell - The Great Caper

Last week’s book of the week on BBC radio 4 was Michael Coveney’s new biography of Ken Campbell, The Great Caper. It was engagingly read by Toby Jones, who managed a creditable impersonation of Ken, as well as bringing the voices of the likes of Bob Hoskins and Bill Nighy to life. Not exactly copycat impressions, but he captured something of their vocal mannerisms which made you realised automatically who they were. Happily, Ken himself was heard at various points via archive recordings, initially talking about what would happen to the universe if space was in fact infinite. It would go on expanding until it became very cold indeed, he explained, until the whole absurd enterprise simply ceased to be once more. This mixture of the sublime with the absurd neatly sums up what Ken was all about, although the word neat is probably not an appropriate one to use when summarising his chaotic and randomly curious approach to performance and life (there was probably little difference between the two in his mind). He once declared ‘I have a desire to be astounded’, and as a corollary to that wish, he endeavoured to convey some of that astonishment to his audience, or ‘seekers’ as he preferred to call them. Ken Campbel was at war with the ordinary, seeing dullness and mundanity as a sign that you just weren’t looking at things intently or perceptively enough. His delight in discovering new and strange perspectives on the world was perfectly conveyed by the nasal, flattened vowels of his Essex accent, which could be used to drawlingly elongate certain words or phrases, giving them an underlined significance.

The first programme began with a brief description of his funeral in 2008, the eccentric nature of which served to reflect the manner in which he had lived his life. He was drawn to his burial place in Epping Forest on a sled pulled by his three mongrel dogs. Coveney then proceeds to trace Campbell’s wayward path through the fringes of the theatrical world, always going against the grain and following his own ever-branching trains of thought, naturally attaining the status of ‘the outsider’s outsider’, as Mike Leigh put it. When he was a boy, he would spend hours playing in an imaginary world he had created from the patterns on the bathroom floor (the earthier equivalent of Alan Garner’s ceiling world), acting out the adventures of ‘the creatures of the lino’. Principal amongst these was his imaginary ‘mate’ called Jelp. Jelp seems to have been young Ken’s alter ego to a certain extent, and its impish character could be seen to have stayed with him into adulthood. It’s a somehow fitting name for the antic yet always curious performer that he would come to be.

Ken entered the world of the theatre in the 60s, when it was imbued with the radicalism and experimentation of the times. He worked with Peter Cheeseman’s theatre company in Stoke, and wrote a play called Jack Shephard, whose eponymous anti-hero was a piratical rogue in the Brecht/Weill manner. You can find a copy of this in Exeter library, although it has to be said that when Ken turned up for the first day of rehearsals with an armful of copies of the playscript for the cast, he announced ‘it’ll be a sorry day if we ever have to open these’. He showed his play to Lindsay Anderson, who was one of the principle directors at the Royal Court, the hub of radically-minded theatre. The two got on well, both outsiders in their own way, and Anderson helped Campbell to get a job directing Frank Norman’s prison-based play Inside Out. It was a valuable experience if only in that it showed him exactly what he didn’t want to do. Shortly thereafter, he was sent out onto the streets by the theatre he was working with to make people aware of their existence, and the shows they were putting on. This was a mistake. Ken was never likely to simply advertise something (although he did later do some car ads on the telly) and these promotional outings became attention-grabbing performances in their own right. He soon got the sack, but developed the spontaneous street shows into what became known as the Ken Campbell Road Show. This travelling vaudeville circus would set up in pubs and clubs, with the hat being passed around afterwards for contributions. It was, as Coveney describes it, ‘a type of superior busking’. Ken envisaged this as an escape from the conservative world of the theatres and a return to the days of the music hall, and variety shows. His troupe would be a new Fred Karno’s Army, with Bob Hoskins as a latter day Dan Leno. The shows involved physical comedy, inventive props and carefully choreographed slapstick which gave the impression of chaos and anarchy but was in fact extremely well-rehearsed. A later incarnation from 1979 can be seen in the Secret Policeman’s Ball film, in which Ken is joined by David Rappaport and Sylvester McCoy, who has a nail driven into his nasal cavity. When McCoy got the role of Doctor Who in 1987, much of the surrounding reportage questioned whether it was an appropriate part for a man more accustomed to shoving ferrets down his trousers. This was all Ken’s fault. The Road Show also used to perform a routine which went by the self-explanatory name of ‘the man who disappeared up his own asshole’, a title which conjures up visions of a strange marriage between William Burroughs and Buster Keaton (Buster Burroughs?) Ken addresses the Secret Policeman’s Ball crowd as ‘sensation seekers’, but for him the audience were simply ‘seekers’.

Such an appellation was never more appropriate than for his next great opus, The Illuminatus Trilogy, which he produced in 1976 for the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool which he had set up just for that purpose. Coveney describes Robert Anton Wilson and Michael Shea’s ultimate conspiracy epic as combining elements of HP Lovecraft, Hermann Hesse, Robert A Heinlein, Carl Jung, Micky Spillane, William Burroughs and Terry Southern. Working on the principle that something was ‘only worth doing if it was impossible’, Ken invited Sean Connery, Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando and Vanessa Redgrave to take part in what he described as ‘an enthusiast’s production’. He also sent a telegram to John Huston, suggesting a part which he throught would be perfect for him, adding ‘no money but great wheeze’. None of them replied (their loss) but he did manage to rope in Jim Broadbent, who said he would ‘do’ Connery, Bill Nighy and David Rappaport, the short fellow who would become the chief of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. The play became a sprawling 9 hour experience, first performed in a warehouse in Liverpool christened, with typical Campbellian grandiloquence, The Liverpool Theatre of Language, Music, Dream and Pun. Brian Aldiss, who became good friends with Ken, reviewed it for the Guardian, conveying something of his feelings of exhilaration, bewilderment and exhaustion. He described the way in which ‘Campbell performs miracles on a shoestring budget, inventing tiny beds and portable sets and singing dolphins and amorous female computers and alien jungles to support a plot which unravels like a paranoid octopus’. It opened the newly built Cottesloe stage at the National Theatre to great acclaim. It was later restaged at the Roundhouse in Camden, edited down to four hours. It didn’t work so well in this format, now feeling simply like an overlong play. As someone said, ‘it seemed longer when it was shorter’.

Illuminatus evidently wasn’t quite epic enough for Campbell, so he and the Science Fiction Theatre embarked upon The Warp, which lasted for 24 hours, give or take the odd break for food, drink and maybe forty winks. It is apparently the longest play I theatre history. Jim Broadbent and Bill Nighy returned from Illuminatus, but were savvy enough in the ways of Ken to avoid the major roles. That poisoned chalice was handed to Russell Denton, who still seems a little dazed by his experience. He describes how his character in the final act is exhausted and worn down by what he has gone through, a state which Denton was able to convey with no need for acting whatsoever. The play was performed at the ICA I January 1979, starting at 10.45 in the morning and ending at 8AM the following day. It went on to the Edinburgh fringe, where it took place in the ruined hulk of the old Regent Cinema. When Ken became artistic director of the Liverpool Everyman in 1980, The Warp was the first production he put on, and he managed to blow the entire years grant on it. He evidently had a great love of science fiction and weird literature. I saw him in 1987 in a show he directed called Science Fiction Blues, in which he, Brian Aldiss and an actress called Petronilla Whitfield read various of Aldiss’ stories in a dramatic fashion. I still have the programme, which bears the very Campbellian subtitle ‘An Evening of Wonders’. Ken’s profile mentions some of the other productions which the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool put on; intriguing sounding titles such as Psychosis, Unclassified, the End is Nigh and the Lovecraft adaptation The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

I went to see Ken whenever one of his one man shows came to Exeter. In these, he would essentially expound upon whatever projects he’d been engaged in. It was a way of revealing the progress of his experimental ramblings in which he followed notions which had caught his interest in whatever directions they might lead. For these explorations, life was the stage, so the one man shows were a way of gathering the evidence together and reporting back. Subjects included the ‘ventriloquial arts’, the achievement of the transcendent state of finding the universe both hilariously funny and unutterably tragic at exactly the same moment (a state which he astonishingly managed to embody in his episodic story, pitched in autobiographical terms, of the adventures of one Nina Plauschwitz), weird cults and beliefs, quantum physics (which could be filed under the preceding), cargo cults based around Prince Phillip, jamais vu (the opposite of deja vu), animal funerals conducted by appropriate glove puppets, and animal art. The latter was produced by his parrot Doris. He managed to tell the tale of Doris’ art and his attempts at selling it (successful, as I recall) to a local gallery for some time before revealing her parrot nature. The ‘art’ basically consisted of Doris crapping onto a canvas, which Ken, when he felt it had reached a state of completion, would frame. Action art. Doris came into Ken’s life in one of those moments of random spontaneity which he liked to allow to direct him at various junctures. His daughter Daisy had persuaded him that he really needed a computer to connect him with the world. He dutifully went off to the nearest computer shop, but was distracted by the pet shop next door and went in that instead. He came back not with a computer, but with Doris the parrot. He was in the process of teaching her to narrate her own autobiography, starting with the sentence ‘I used to be an egg, then I hatched out, didn’t I?’ He remarked that, since parrot’s have very long lives, his voice would live on after he was dead. I wonder whether she still is alive, and if so, how much of her life story she managed to memorise.

Ken continued to work with younger performers, including his daughter Daisy, with whom he produced a series of Shakespeare plays translated into the pidgin language of the South Sea island of Vanuatu. He claimed that the limited number of words contained within this language (a matter of hundreds) concentrated the plays down to their essence and made them better as a result. He also got into the realm of improvised sonnet making. Members of his troupe would be encouraged to pick a lady or gent out of the audience who attracted their eye and use them as inspiration for an instant sonnet. One performer relates how he saw someone who he particularly liked, but felt shy about approaching her. ‘Go on, sonnet her’, Ken encouraged. They were later married. He also produced the ‘bald trilogy’ of what might be called confessional (not that these confessions can be thought of as in any way reliable) one man shows in the 80s, so named because the National Theatre was concurrently staging the ‘Hare’ trilogy of plays by David Hare. You can find the scripts of these shows in the Exeter Performing Arts library (see what we’ll miss if library services are cut!).

Ken had a way of being both hilarious and profound, the two qualities seeming to arise inextricably one from the other. His inquisitiveness was both mischievous and genuine, his antic nature a testing of boundaries. His attitude to the world, and to life, was that it could be both absurd and beautiful, and that beauty often resided in the apparently absurd. He was a great composer of aphorisms, nuggets of wisdom and truth contained in pithy and concisely worded phrases. My two favourites, which I find particular pertinent personally, are as follows: ‘I’m not mad, I’ve just read different books than you’, and ‘I don’t believe I can believe, but I suppose I can suppose’. Anyway, I shall continue to follow Ken’s example and attempt to fulfil the ‘desire to be astounded’.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Alan Garner - Return to Brisingamen

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of Alan Garner’s first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and BBC radio 4 acknowledged the enduring importance and popularity of this and subsequent Garner novels with a short documentary last Thursday entitled Return to Brisingamen. It was presented by John Waite, best known as the voice of gentile indignance and well-mannered outrage on You and Yours, a long running consumer affairs programme on radio 4, whose fixity within the schedule is assured by the revolutionary fervour of listeners when faced with any substantive change to their daily radio routine. Its prosaic and indubitably valuable focus on the mundane minutiae of the everyday world and the gripes and grumbles which dealing with it engenders is at the far opposite end of the spectrum from the mythic framework within which Garner’s stories unfold. He is the ideal host, then, to convince a sceptical radio 4 audience that a documentary about a book which is not only fantasy, but fantasy written for children, is worthy of their attention. It should be added at this point that Garner has said (in the essay A Bit More Practice) ‘I do not write for children, but entirely for myself’, although he goes on to add ‘yet I do write for some children, and have done so from the beginning’. He elucidates a couple of paragraphs later, stating ‘only recently have I come to realise that, when writing for myself, I am still writing for children; or, rather, for adolescents. By adolescence I mean an arbitrary age of somewhere between ten and eighteen. This group of people is the most important of all, and it makes the best audience. Few adults read with a comparable involvement’. It’s a good argument for the importance of ‘children’s literature’ in general, and its appeal to a readership beyond the age of those at whom it is ostensibly aimed. Philip Pullman, who also appears in the programme, carefully defines him as being ‘one of the greatest writers of books that children read’. Waite reveals his own love of the book, which stemmed from a childhood reading, and talks of the very personal way in which it affected him. He grew up in Wilmslow in Cheshire, with Alderley Edge, the setting of the novel, looming constantly in view through the bedroom window above the corner shop his parents ran. Waite describes this prominent outcropping as being ‘the Ayers Rock of the Cheshire Plains’. One day, in the shop, he served a man who he was told was the local writer Alan Garner, who’d written a story based on the local legend of the Edge.

Like many a post-Tolkien fantasy, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen includes a map in its opening pages across which the reader can trace the questing trail of the story’s characters. In this case, however, it represents not the secondary world of the author’s creation but a real landscape with which Waite was intimately familiar as a boy; the landscape of Alderley Edge. The fact that Garner used a real place in which to stage magical scenes allowed him to feel that he was a part of the story, since he could locate the specific sites at which various events took place. It’s like finding a location used in a favourite film. The place, ordinary as it might be, acquires a certain glamour through having had a story overlaid, an aura of immanence created through the association with a particular scene. Why else would efforts have been made to save a brutalist car park of the most unforgiving starkness in Newcastle were it not for the fact that it had been featured in a memorable car chase and murder scene in Get Carter. With Alderley Edge, the magic and sense of otherness was already inherent in the landscape, and naturally attracted an accumulation of stories and legends which gave expression to its special atmosphere. Garner’s use of the legend of the Edge, with its hero king and his armoured knights lying dormant beneath its slopes, guarded by an ancient wizard, waiting to be re-awakened for the final battle in which they will ride again, demonstrates the power of myth to evoke the spirit which inhabits certain places. These places are marked by the potent intersection of generations of human habitation with the formations of geological time, history and culture with stories, language and literature. Landscapes with isolated hills, ridges or escarpments erupting from otherwise low-lying surrounds seemed to have a particularly rich accretion of layers of legend. These sometimes involve giants or dragons, tales suggested by the resemblance of geological features to the awkwardly arched back of a recumbent gog or magog, or the ridged, scalar spine of an arête gently inclining down into a still curve of tail, its sinuous folds filled with the potential for sudden motion. There are also many myths, of which the legend of Alderley Edge is one, of figures from a fabled golden age lying in hidden halls reached by secret entryways beneath the hills. The location of Arthur’s resting place beneath Glastonbury Tor is probably the best known of these, but Cadbury Castle in Somerset, Torbarrow Hill in Gloucestershire and the Eildon Hills in the Scottish borders offer further examples.

The Voice That Thunders - great, great grandfather Robert Garner's Wizard Well carving
The programme centres around Waites’ interview with Garner, who also takes him on a wander around the Edge to find some of the landmarks found in the book. He points out a sacred well, which he speculates almost certainly dates from pre-Christian times, and which is now known as the Wizard’s Well. Its stone receptacle bears a carving of a bearded face, shaded green by a light coating of moss. This was made by Garner’s great-great grandfather, a stonemason, in the mid nineteenth century. His family have lived here for generations, and have made their mark on the landscape, whether literally, in the case of Robert’s carvings and stone walls, or in a more notional sense, through the knowledge, values and stories which they’ve passed down. Garner talks about his great-grandfather William Jackson, a Fabian deeply engaged with social issues, and his wonderfully diverse, autodidact’s library of books, which he left behind upon his death at the age of 93 in 1942. These were discovered by the young Alan during a summer spent with his grandmother, William’s daughter, and indiscriminately devoured. He was effectively absorbing the outward remnants of his great-grandfather’s particular knowledge and interests, the physical projections of his inner world. It was a powerful and influential legacy to inadvertently bequeath. In the programme, Garner mentions Marx’s Das Kapital (in English) and the Hindu epic The Ramayana, which was particularly important in opening his mind to the power and universality of mythic storytelling. In his essay Aback of Beyond (included in the collection The Voice That Thunders) he goes into more detail about the range of literature and ideas which he absorbed during this intense summer of reading. In a hot July and August’, he writes, ‘I swallowed The History of the Co-operative Movement, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, Elements of the Fiscal Problem, The Golden Bough, Hone’s Popular Works, the corpus of Thackeray and of Spenser, Carlyle, Swift, Dickens; British Battles at Sea, Nietzsche’s Human All-too-Human, The Living Races of Mankind, The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, The South African and Transvaal War, Capital:from the German and Engel’s Communist Manifesto of 1848.

Grandfather's stone wall

Garner refers to the vernacular phrase ‘to get aback of something or someone’, from which the above essay title is derived, as expressing the idea that you have to live up to the example of your forebears, but also create a certain distance, choosing to make your own particular mark on the locality in which they lived and worked. Garner’s ancestors were craftspeople, his grandfather a smith, and he tells their generational story in the Stone Book Quartet. His eventual decision to become a writer was partially arrived at whilst sitting opposite a wall which his great, great grandfather Robert had made. It’s a wall which he shows us in the 1980 tv documentary The Edge of the Ceiling, included in the extras of The Owl Service dvd. Garner’s grounding in his great-grandfather’s library had set him on the path of book-learning, and he progressed from Manchester Grammar School (in fact an independent school which took in scholarship pupils) to Oxford University. He had determined that he would be a prominent academic, preferably the chair of Greek classics at Oxford. This would really have been getting ‘aback of beyond’, in the words of his elders. But self-doubt set in as to the purity of his motives, and he began to think that this kind of ambition was merely a way of seeking power as an end in itself. Perhaps it was the craft heritage of his ancestors which drew him to the idea of writing fiction, creating with words rather than stone or iron. His tutor at Oxford encouraged him to test his abilities with his own sardonically wise variant of telling him to get aback of his parents and grandparents. ‘Discover if you’ve got an original mind’, he suggested. If he then found out that he didn’t, he could devote himself to studying the work of those who had.

Oxford is the other central site of significance in Garner’s life, if only in that it showed him what he didn’t want to do. He listened to lectures there by CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, in the latter days of their professorships. Waites goes to visit Philip Pullman, another resident Oxford writer of fantasy, to hear of the high regard I which he holds Garner, and the formative influence which he had on him. He points to the clarity and natural rhythm of his writing, the unique and surprising quality of his imagination, the mythic focus on forces greater than human life, and yet his concurrent ability to encompass elemental human conflicts and emotions within such a grand frame. He cites The Owl Service as a book which particularly struck him when he first read it, and which combines all of these elements. Garner’s papers are now housed in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and Waite is granted a look at those pertaining to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. The librarian comments on the beautiful italic hand in which he wrote, which would suggest that the original manuscript was handwritten. There are also some early drafts over which Garner has scrawled some savagely dismissive comments in red pen. His assessment of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen in his essay A Bit More Practice, included in The Voice That Thunders, but first published in the Time Literary Supplement in January 1968, just after the publication of The Owl Service in the previous year, would seem to indicate that he is his own worst critic (although some of the children’s letters he quotes in the later essay Hard Cases show that he’s had some pretty stiff competition at times). ‘My first attempt, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’, he wrote, ‘is a fairly bad book, but there had to be a start somewhere, and consolation rests in the even worse first drafts of the opening chapter, which I pin up when things seem to be going well’. Hopefully the book’s continued success (it has made it to the Waterstone’s best 150 novels of all time, and has never been out of print) has made him feel a little more kindly towards it.

Rooted in local particularity - The Stone Book Quartet

Garner delves back into the early days of his childhood to trace the roots of his intensely vivid imagination and his ability to enter into the different, interesecting planes of time which the local landscape inhabits. His early education was characterised by attempts to eradicate the Cheshire dialect of his grandfather (he names the teacher who used to wash his mouth out with carbolic soap), and his mother’s efforts to correct his lefthandedness (a sign of wrongness and potential deviance). It has to be said, the former project seems to have been very successful, as he now shows little trace of an accent of any regional origin, although the milieu in which his subsequent schooling and higher education took place may have had as much to do with this loss. The memorialising of local distinctiveness, both in terms of place and of dialect and custom, which can be found in all of his novels could be seen as a way of regaining what had been programmed out of him, and of making sure that a record of it remained. This concentration on the ‘inner time’, as he puts it, of a particular place has continued through to his novel of the 90s, Strandloper, and of the 00s, Thursbitch (read the M.John Harrison review here). Like a craftsman who takes his own good time, he generally manages a book a decade now. As for his insistence that myth and imaginative storytelling relate a form of truth as valid as any rational, empirical observation (if the writer or narrator is a good one, that is), that seems a very lefthanded point of view.

When he was six, Garner contracted whooping cough, measles and then meningitis, and at one point was so ill that he heard a visiting doctor declare him to be beyond help, having apparently started slipping irrevocably towards death. This authoritative declaration, a dismissal of life which brooked no argument, and to which he could offer no response anyway, filled him with anger, and it was this inward rage to which he attributes his survival. The young Alan spent long periods confined to his bed, virtually immobile, and he talks of his sickness as having concentrated his imagination. He projected himself out of his recumbent body through a conscious act of will, and lost himself in a landscape which revealed itself to him as he lay staring up at the white plastered ceiling, its uneven surface suggesting hills, rivers or roads. He describes it in more detail than in the programme in his essay The Edge of the Ceiling, once more included in The Voice That Thunders, also noting the direct inspiration it provided for a later novel. ‘The world of the ceiling was three-dimensional’, he wrote. ‘Objects were solid, visual perspectives true. I never ate or drank in the ceiling (as I later found out was the rule for the Other World). There was no wind, no climate, no heat, no cold, no time. The light came from no source and was shadowless, as neon; but before I knew neon. And everywhere, everybody, everything was white. It was the genesis of the dead land of Elidor’. Sometimes, however, the landscape disappeared and the ceiling was taken over by ‘a plump little old woman with a circular face, hair parted down the middle and drawn into a tight bun, lips pursed, and small pebbled eyes…she was a waning moon: her head turned to the side, as if she had broken her neck’. He knew he must not enter the world of the ceiling when this fearful figure appeared, nor let it enter the room where he helplessly lay. This was his death, patiently waiting.

Forge of creation - the writer at work
Garner’s experience of an imaginary world, which often seemed more solid than the real one reductively framed by his bedroom window with its distorting panes of glass, is also recollected in the 1980 TV documentary Alan Garner – The Edge of the Ceiling, which is, as previously mentioned, included as an extra on The Owl Service dvd. This documentary also allows us to have a look around Garner’s , which is in fact two conjoined houses meeting each other at right angles. Outside, inter-city trains occasionally rush past on the railway line, and on the other side of the tracks, the large dish of the Jodrell Bank radio telescope cranes its face to the sky – the technological sublime towering above its pastoral surrounds but somehow fitting in nonetheless. Even when it comes to his home, he collides different eras, eliding great swathes of time. The timber frame of his original house dates from 1850 whereas the later addition, moved from elsewhere in 1970, dates from 1550. The room in which Garner is seen at his table, researching and writing, is a large open space with a timber vaulted roof and joists, and a small open fire in the centre, sending smoke up to gather beneath the ceiling. It certainly feels like a place in which to tell tales.

DVD of the 1969 Owl Service adaptation - including the documentary Alan Garner:The Edge of the Ceiling

He guides us around the landscape of the Edge in this programme, too (as indeed he does more recently in this short Guardian video). In this case, the accompanying music bears no resemblance to the extract of Elgar’s cello concerto used at the beginning of the radio 4 documentary. It is filled, rather, with the unsettling polyphonic choral mutterings and chattering whispers of Bill Connors’ score, whose restless spectral sounds seem to leak out from the timbers, stones and earth, faintly picked-up ancestral voices fluttering in the surrounding aether. 1980 was still effectively the 70s (the first couple of years of any decade can generally be considered a part the previous one), and this was an era in which children’s fantasy programmes such as Children of the Stones, King of the Castle and Doctor Who (and indeed the 1981 adaptation of The Day of the Triffids) would be eerily soundtracked with atonal scores written by composers clearly in thrall to the modernist strain of contemporary classical music – the likes of Ligeti, Stockhausen and Berio exerting a strong influence.

Garner takes Waite to the Devil’s Grave, the cleft in the rock through which Colin and Susan crawl to make their claustrophobic escape from the forces of evil which are pursuing them. This involves Colin getting stuck in a nightmarish bend in a narrowing passage, an experience which Garner half-jokingly likens to a birth trauma. Finally, Garner and Waite end up at the rock (a ‘great tooth of a rock’, as Garner describes it) which, in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, cracks open to reveal the iron gates which guard the tunnel to the chamber in which the sleeping king and his knights lie dormant, waiting for a sign. Waite naturally has to strike the rock with a stick, the wizard’s ‘open sesame’ in the novel. The way fails to open for him. It’s clearly not yet time for the final battle to commence. But don't worry, it may not be long.

Friday, 8 April 2011

The Films of Val Lewton Part Thirty Five

Bedlam - Part Five

Lord Mortimer's new pet

From the brutal force-feeding of hard currency to Nell in the squalid, straw-strewn surrounds of Bedlam, we dissolve to a close up of Poll the parrot being fed a nut. It’s a pointedly comparative juxtaposition of images, switching disconcertingly from brutality to indulgence. The camera pulls back to reveal that Poll is sitting on Varney’s arm and the provider of the tasty nuggets he is snapping up in his horny beak is Lord Mortimer. The link between people and pets is once more made. Nell has been separated from her alter ego and symbolic emanation, and from the man who used to provide for her. The contrast between the stone floor of the central hall of Bedlam upon which she now crouches and the gilded furnishings of his lordship’s bedroom is an indication of the huge gulf between the opposite poles of society. Poll is now the familiar of Varney, who had until recently enjoyed the protection of Nell, one step down in the hierarchy of favour from Lord Mortimer. Her patronage was benevolent and based on friendship, but he has now been forced to find an alternative, and the parrot on his arm (a variant of the monkey on the back) is the token of his new position as Lord Mortimer’s pet dandy. It may just as well be him who is being fed the nuts. Varney has sold himself at the same time that Poll has been taken off the market and thereby silenced. He is unlikely to repeat such insubordinate behaviour as Nell indulged in, particularly given his knowledge of her fate. Varney’s employment as the ‘new Nell’ means that Sims’ niece Kitty finds herself displaced, a fact which she immediately recognises and accepts with the equanimity of worldy-wise experience. She wears an extra ‘beauty spot’ now, a souvenir of her brief relationship, perhaps. Such spots were commonly used to cover syphilitic scars (so hers would more likely be a gift from a former lover) and thus provided a neat metaphor for the deceptive divide between appearance and reality, the cosmetic veneer of beauty disguising mortal and moral decay. The features of characters in Hogarth’s narrative sequences of prints such as The Harlot’s Progress and The Rake’s Progress are positively dotted with irregularly sized patches, which chart their steady and inevitable decline into physical and moral ruin.

Kitty - resigned acceptance
Varney looks on with an expression of dreaminess mixed with mild chagrin as Lord Mortimer explains to Kitty that they will be going to the country ‘to rusticate’, and that her presence will not be required. It’s to be a ‘bachelor affair’ involving ‘manly things’. ‘Sports, you know’. Kitty does indeed know. The script indicates that she eyes Lord Mortimer’s tight trousers in a knowing fashion. These two feminised men have found their ideal mirrored partners, but must remove themselves from society in order to enjoy each other’s company. There was a degree of tacit tolerance of homosexuality in the mid to late eighteenth century. This was partly a reaction to the excesses of crusading organisations such as the that for the Reformation of Manners, who had engineered a spate of sodomy trials in 1726 which resulted in the execution of four men. Such zealotry, far from reforming manners, turned the public against the attempts, using dishonest methods of entrapment and deception, to persecute people for failing to observe a narrowly defined and censorious morality. They probably realised that this kind of puritanical intolerance was only liable to widen its sights if given the chance. Prosecution for the catch-all offence of ‘sodomy’ could still bring with it the death penalty in 1761, the year in which the film is set, or a spell in the pillory, which might entail the same result should the mob be in a vindictive mood. It would certainly be wise, therefore, for Lord Mortimer and Varney to retire to more discreet surroundings. Kitty sighs and says ‘I see’, gracefully acknowledging that ‘all good things must end’. She is wiser than her appearance and manner might suggest. She may not have the bright, sophisticated wit of other courtiers, but the very fact that she is not concentrating all her mental energies on composing the next bon mot leads her to see things with simple clarity. As she knocks back a consolatory gin or two, she mentions that there is a Quaker out in the corridor waiting to see his lordship. Varney instantly becomes alert.

Power in inverse proportion to stature
Outside we see Hannay conversing with Pompey, their height differential strikingly apparent as he leans forward, the wide brim of his hat shading the boy’s tiny turbaned form. Pompey is dissimulating, denying that he has ever heard of someone called Nell Bowen. Despite his lesser physical stature, he is the one with the authority here, a power bestowed upon him by his master. Nell has effectively been erased from existence within this circle. Having left no physical trace (her possessions were loaned and have been reclaimed) she remains only in memory, from which her recent presence can easily be denied, the past disremembered and reconfigured to suit. Hannay is dismissed. Pompey starts munching on a snack. Like Poll, he is also a pet fed by Lord Mortimer. His denial of the truth stems from a base level of self-interest, which simply looks to where the next meal will come from. Moral compromise and lowering of principles are a matter of survival at the lower end of society. You’ve got to eat somehow, haven’t you?

Basking in approval - Varney and Hannay
Varney bursts through the door and interrupts him mid-bite, asking where the Quaker has gone, and runs out to catch up with him. His new position may prevent him from acting directly himself, but he can still provide the inside knowledge which will enable Hannay to come to Nell’s aid. Out in the street he breathlessly accosts him and says ‘I’ll tell you where she is, they put her in Bedlam’. He refuses to go with him to the asylum, pointing out that he’s employed by ‘milord’. He seeks to justify himself, stating ‘I have to live. You yourself said I didn’t have enough muscle for honest work’. Honest work is seen as physical or productive labour. The kind of ‘work’ to which Varney and Nell have dedicated themselves is more self-serving and produces nothing, not even the literary works to which Sims aspires. It is all simply a matter of social advancement. But Varney is still prepared to help his friends, even at the risk of losing his own tenuous position upon the social ladder. Hannay recognises this quality of loyalty and tells him ‘it’s enough that thee is an honest man’. Varney beams at this approval and understanding. Even though he is weak, and ready to admit it, he has a keen conscience and a steadfast moral core.

Paired statues - Nell and the 'madonna'
We return to Bedlam where we are presented with a tableau featuring a man sitting at a desk and writing, another leaning against a pillar reading, and Nell in the background, still pressed defensively against the wall. It’s a strangely civilised scene, one evoking an almost languorous air of contemplative leisure. From another angle we see Nell in the foreground with the catatonic ‘madonna’ parallel to her in the background, also pressed against the wall. This visual mirroring serves to offer a presentiment of the state to which Nell might in time descend in such surroundings. A retreat inwards which neutralises all-consuming fear by shutting out external stimuli. An echoing cry of ‘Nell Bowen’ is thrown around the hall by its inhabitants, and the reader, clearly an educated man from the manner of his speech, tells her it may be a name called from the street which they have picked up and repeated in this strange hocketing fashion. The inhabitants of Bedlam have become depersonalised, a homogenous and generically defined group – the mad. There are many Nell Bowens here amongst whom her individual identity will eventually be lost. She runs to the window, pushing her way past tow wild-haired women, and looks with wide-eyed desperation through the bars. There is no one to be seen. The camera views her through the bars. Already she is beginning to appear like a frantic animal, contained within a cage, halfway towards becoming like the women behind her.

Hannay, meanwhile, has gone to the entrance hall where he attempts to pay his tuppence to take a tour. He is refused entrance, but insists upon his right to visit. Sims comes in to deal with him, and agrees that he does indeed have the legal right to go in, and accepts his coins. He then notes that ‘it is a rule of our institute that all who enter the main hall must hang their arms up on that rack’. Since Hannay has none, he can’t go in. It’s a piece of bureaucratic absurdity which demonstrates the power of language to act as a shield, protecting against sense and reason. It is a version of the deflecting wit employed in Lord Mortimer’s circles, which serves to evade direct expression and opinion. In this domain, walled off from the world at large and until now free from its scrutiny, Sims is in charge, and it is his word which counts. He is the Lord of the ‘loonies’, and as such his cruel, sharp intelligence can be given full reign. As he says to Hannay ‘I break no rules’. He is far too clever for such crude displays of extra-legal power.

The walls have arms - in the dark corridor
Hannay walks back through the stonemason’s yard where he stops to talk with some of the people working there. He is comfortable and relaxed in their presence, even though they gently mock him for his beliefs, and he helps them in their work. He wryly observes that it was work for which he bid, and they tell him that he didn’t get it because of his principles. He helps them with their work, taking his hat off to do so. Such productive work is carried out in the presence of God. Together, they carry a building stone into Bedlam, and the men point out the corridor leading into the main hall to him. Physical labour, which has been seen as a hallmark of honesty within the context of the film’s superficial worlds of merry wit and glittering appearance, offers him the means of entrance which Sims linguistic sophistry has denied him. The corridor has the same inky blackness which confronted the detective in The Seventh Victim, and is lined on either side with the barred doors of the inmates’ ‘cages’. Hannay now slowly embarks on the Lewton ‘night walk’, familiar from so many of his films, from Cat People’s Central Park scene onward. There’s no deceptive ‘bus’ shock this time, just a sudden thrusting forward of a wavering thicket of grasping arms accompanied by a burst of gibbering, demented laughter. It’s a scene which has great visual power, representing the intrusion of the uncanny, or the unbidden manifestations of the subconscious, smashing through into the rational world to shocking effect. It is echoed in similar images in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and George Romero’s Day of the Dead (and to more dreamily surreal effect in the disembodied arms which serve Beauty and her father in Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bete), in both cases as a subjective indication of the protagonist’s declining mental state, the erosion of the walls between conscious and subconscious levels of experience. Hannay makes it to the end of the corridor unscathed and looks into the main hall, where he soon picks out Nell, sitting by her stretch of the wall.

A house is not a home - Nell's new dwelling place
Nell sits beneath a childish drawing of a house graffitied onto the wall, which now serves as the roof over her head. It’s a play school representation with door, cross-paned windows and pointed roof. It’s a symbol of all that she’s lost, and of the similar sense of displacement felt by whichever lost had scrawled it there. Her shelter is now communal, and she must stake out whatever small corner she can for herself. The hall of Bedlam is an interior space which is really an exterior, the street relocated beneath its roof. The relayed polyphony of voices calling her name, cued by Hannay’s stage whisper from the wings, at first sends her in the wrong direction. She walks towards a madman whose hands are clasped in fervent outward sign of intense, internal prayer before she is called back by Hannay. We see him from the perspective of the interior, behind the bars of the back entrance door. He is placed as if it is he who is confined, a religious maniac like the other towards whom Nell had been drifting. His face is pressed against the bars, his arms reaching through to attract Nell’s attention, leaving him in much the same position as the mad prisoners whose grasping hands he has just evaded. The divide between madness and sanity is ill-defined, a fluid boundary whose limits are determined according to the dictates of current convention. Hannay’s dissenting religious views could easily be seen as tantamount to insanity. In Roberto Rossellini’s film Europa 51, Ingrid Bergman’s selfless acts, which would once have had her categorised as a saint, lead in the modern day to her being declared insane and confined to a mental hospital.

Wild-eyed and desperate
Nell runs to Hannay and asks in a declarative voice ‘you’ve come to take me away’. She displays the kind of desperation and fear whose persistence will lead to madness. Hannay has to tell that this is not the case. Like Sims, he breaks no rules. He is a strange kind of hero, cautious and pedantic, but persistent and indefatigable at the same time. Nell immediately thinks of Wilkes as an alternative saviour, someone with more power and influence. To Hannay’s plea for patience, she replies ‘I’m terrified…these people are like beasts’. Already she is beginning to distinguish herself from the others, fear making her view them as less than human. ‘The same thought as Sims’, Hannay points out. ‘They’re dirty, savage, mindless, disgusting’, Nell continues, an adjectival outpouring which expresses her horror through logorrhoeic excess. She still wants to help them, ‘but I cannot here, not here where they’re all about me’, she asserts. Philanthropical and charitable acts are more easily achieved from a distance, from where they involve no direct contact with the unseen objects of conspicuous generosity. ‘Thee has thy kindness and courage’, Hannay insists, but Nell is after something more material than such moral and spiritual values. ‘I want better weapons’, she responds, harshly. She notices the mason’s trowel which hangs from Hannay’s belt, and asks him to hand it to her. He objects, saying ‘that is to build with’. Tools intended for constructive and creative purposes are turned to destructive use throughout Lewton’s films, particularly in Ghost Ship. The trowel here is also a symbol of secret, Masonic power, the routes of advancement and favour blocked off to the wider populace. For Hannay, it simply represents honest labour, the production of something worthwhile which benefits society, as well as a symbolic means with which to build the shining celestial city of Heaven on Earth.

Nell confronts him with the possibility that her appearance, which he evidently finds so pleasing, will be ruined, digging into her inner verbal thesaurus to ask ‘would you have me maimed, scratched, scarred?’ She pauses for a beat before adding ‘my face’, in a tone which suggests that she has shocked herself at the mere contemplation of the prospect of its disfiguration. Her beauty had provided a major portion of her currency in the world of appearance in which she had managed to negotiate her not inconsiderable value. She has not been above using it to achieve her ends, both in attracting the support of Wilkes and in deflecting Hannay’s judgemental opprobrium. Her awareness of her beauty has also been flaunted in order to show her contempt for Sims, who she described with disgust as ‘an ugly thing in a pretty world’. Now the world has been turned upside down and she is a pretty thing in an ugly world. Sims was unable to make himself pretty enough to fit into her world, but this world is likely to work its accelerated entropic effect on her in the natural course of time. ‘The Lord will not let it happen’, Hannay assures her. ‘Give me the trowel and I’ll not let it happen’, she instantly snaps back. She is, as ever, eager to take an active rather than passive role, taking control and turning this tool into a weapon. Faith is balanced against pragmatism, and she favours the latter. She uses her charms on Hannay, consciously softening the tone of her delivery, filtering out the harsh frequencies of violence and desperation. ‘Look at my face again’, she coos, ‘shall it be scarred?’ Hannay immediately hands over the weapon, unable to contemplate such a desecration. Nell manipulates him in the same way that Sims manipulates Lord Mortimer, both using their sharply observant insight into the desires and values (or lack of them) which define these men’s essential natures. Hannay’s pacifism has been momentarily relinquished, even if it is at one remove. Knowingly providing the means through which violence can be committed is effectively allowing for that violence to take place. Nell has convinced him in this instance of the need for defensive action as opposed to relying solely on faith in the protection of God. Having got her way, Nell swiftly switches her tone to one of command, ordering Hannay to ‘get to Master Wilkes. Wilkes will have me out of here’. She puts her faith in politics, not religion, the material rather than the spiritual. She looks triumphant at the prospect of release which she is sure that Wilkes will duly offer. But wariness soon eclipses her old self-assurance as she looks behind her. The ‘tiger’ rattles his chains in his cage and makes a grab for her. Until Wilkes comes through, she must focus her energies on surviving from moment to moment.

Invitation to the table
Nell’s faith turns out to be ill-founded. Hannay enquires after Wilkes at the printers only to be told that he’s on the road electioneering and won’t be back for some indeterminate time. Wilkes’ concern is for the populace at large, and in particular their votes, and the individual and immediate attention which Nell requires is impossible for a politician such as he. She is one amongst many, and he deals with collective masses and broad issues rather than particular people and their specific problems. Hannay is the one who is interested in her as an individual in and of herself rather than for what she represents or the value which she might provide. He is aware of and concerned about her current state. In short, he is there for her. Back in Bedlam, we see the shadows of bars on the walls and hear the tolling of a bell. The shadows of windows and bars are common throughout Lewton’s films, and hint at a level of existence beyond the limits of everyday perception, at a right angle to the daylight world. The tolling of the bell is a reminder in this essentially timeless place, in which the days are indistinguishable one from the other, of the normal passage of time and the quotidian progress of events in the outside world. We see the writer and the reader from the earlier scene sitting at a table adjacent to a pillar, playing cards. There is a triangle sketched onto the pillar’s surface, its ideal geometrical form a hopeful symbol of rationality, of the ordered mind. The reader, whom we had first encountered lost in the pages of his book whilst leaning against this pillar, seems, along with the writer, to embody this rationality. He invites Nell with exaggerated formality to join them in their card game. She seems calm and collected now, an appearance which prompts this approach. Appearance remains important in here. With the addition of a young man sitting on the floor nearby, he brightly suggests ‘we can play paroli’. The civility and gentile manners of this corner seem to create a small oasis of order amongst the surrounding madness. The reader points out that they don’t play for money, ‘we play on our word’. This little bit of word play, with its implied sense of a code of honour, makes Nell realise that these are people to whom she can talk. ‘I have a wealth of words’, she replies. It is like the old exchanges of witty phrases which she used to enjoy, but the extraction of the monetary element removes the underlying competitiveness which charged them with a vicious energy. Here, they betoken an unaffected offer of friendly company.

A relaxed game of paroli
The reader introduces himself and the others. The writer is Oliver Todd, a mute. The young man is Dan, who ‘sometimes…fancies himself a dog’. Another instance of the comparison between people and animals, in this case of the harmless domestic variety (like Nell and Varney), and therefore not in need of being locked up in a cage. His adoption of a canine nature is an instance of acting according to the manner in which you are treated, becoming what others determine you to be. The reader introduces himself, with occasional darting looks to the side, as Sidney Long, ‘the crown solicitor whose enemies will not let him practise at the bar’. His voice shifts into a rhetorical stage register, accompanied by a proud theatrical pose as he declares ‘I, the most skilled of them all’, a statement which we will come to recognise as his signature catchphrase. Climbing down off his imaginary podium, he apologetically mutters ‘I have many, many enemies’, voicing a rather bashful paranoia. Nell looks at them with a kindly smile, and says ‘I understand’. Her perspective has shifted from its instinctively reactive attitude of fearful shock, and her natural compassion and empathy has come to the surface once more. These people are not to be feared. Their madness is an exaggerated extension of their former position or vocation. The writer’s inwardness, the solicitor, used to judging others, developing the sense that it is he who is now being judged, and the young man whose poor treatment has led him to identify with the creature which so often bears the brunt of otherwise unexpressed household hostilities. Sidney explains that ‘we who are near the pillar are the safe ones…the good ones, the wisest’, and warns her about the rest. There is social stratification within Bedlam, too, a hierarchical ranking which generates its own ‘us and them’ divisions and disparaging references to a homogenous ‘other’. Bedlam is a skewed model of the world beyond the walls, with its customs and values magnified, their inherent absurdities made apparent. The card-playing clique are allowed a candle at this upper end of the hall. Its illumination is representative of the light of reason, knowledge and empathetic understanding which comes with education and literacy, and the freedom from constant labour which allows time for their cultivation.

Enjoying the game - Sidney and Nell
Nell is enjoying the game, and winning, too. The stakes are imaginary, a reflection of the notional nature of currency as a whole, be it in the form of money or some other token of exchange. An element of trust is implied, an agreement to take whatever token of value is currently used seriously. Here, the exchange is in the mind only, and a real element of carefree playfulness is therefore possible, with Dan using different types of dog as his stake. It’s another form of wit, of amusing sport and wordplay. Everything is becoming rather civilised. But Nell is repeatedly distracted by groans emanating from the darkness beyond, the gothic ambient of night shadow. They are the sounds of a man in pain, she is told, of someone to whom Sims has administered a ‘dose of iron’. When she asks why none of them help alleviate his audibly evident suffering, Sidney blandly replies ‘why should we help? We are the people of the pillar’. In this model world within the world, she has found herself in the social circle analogous to that of Lord Mortimer and his ilk. It evinces a similar blank indifference to the injustices and inequalities from which it seeks to distance itself, preferring to maintain a state of willed ignorance. Nell takes up the candle, the light of illumination and knowledge which the people of the pillar have chosen to horde, to keep solely for themselves. She takes it out into the darkness, spreading its light and the promise which it bears, casting distorted noir shadows on the walls . She looks like a saintly Florence Nightingale figure, the lady of the lamp, albeit a lady with a sharp edged trowel clutched at the ready in her good right hand. She passes the catatonic Madonna. Her rejection of a fearful retreat into self-defensive passivity in favour of outward engagement and positive action has removed the visual parallel drawn earlier between her and this motionless statue, who appears to be a physical outcropping of the wall to which she is permanently attached. Now she is just a haunting figure whom Nell heedlessly glides past.

The Lady with the Lamp
Nell finds the man uttering the pitiful sounds of pain, a pain which arises from the bands and chains within which Sims has confined him; His ‘dose of iron’, as Sidney had described it. The script memorably describes his encumbrance as consisting of ‘a curious and frightening contraption of steel plate and chain, a terrifying travesty of chivalrous armour’. It’s a nice reference to the source of many a gothic chill, the groans in the night in the castle or baronial hall which seem to originate from a suit of armour, whose hollow human form appears to move slightly in the peripheral vision. It’s a convention which dates right back to the origins of the gothic novel, with Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and its deadly, crashing, oversized antique helmet. Here, the shadowy fears of the gothic are confronted and dispersed, along with the terror of madness which they also trail with them. This spectre is a human figure, and his groans stem from physical pain and discomfort rather than any supernatural torments. The evaporation of her fear upon confronting the reality of the inmates’ pitiful condition, her dispersal of the shadows, is represented by the fact that she drops her weapon, the trowel. She concentrates instead on trying to help this suffering soul, placing bandaging cloth between metal and flesh. A hand moves into the frame and draws the discarded trowel away. Nell may have put aside the idea of violence, but the means of its perpetration which Hannay has provided are taken up by another. His pacifism is still compromised, even at a second remove. When Nell notices it’s gone she scrabbles around for it, but soon abandons her search. She doesn’t seem overly concerned at its loss, certainly no longer exhibiting the desperation with which she pleaded with Hannay for its protection. The shadows of fear and their encumbent suspiciousness and mistrust have been diminished by the illumination of direct experience and compassion. Hannay was right all along in seeking to deny her arms. She had her kindness and her courage, and that was enough.

Back at the pillar, she makes light of her actions. ‘I don’t care for sad music with my game of paroli’, she jests. She is no longer full of the self-satisfaction at her ordering of good deeds which she exhibited in the company of Sims and Lord Mortimer, and is not any more interested in using them to entrench or further her own position. It was a deed done directly and for its own sake, without undue reflection or calculation. She is no longer practicing philanthropy from a distance and has actively begun to play her part in helping in situ, ‘here, where they’re all about me’, as she had negatively put it to Hannay. Meanwhile, Sims approaches silently from behind the pillar. He pats the cheek of the catatonic Madonna with a smile of pleasure which mixes recallection and anticipation. It’s a loathsome gesture which implies a history of abuse. Hearing the stakes being cheerfully called out from the table, he approaches. Dan the dog instinctively cowers, presumably in remembrance of past blows received. Sims introduces a note of sardonic insincerity to what had previously been an innocent gathering, recalling the guarded, calculating manners of the world of the Lord Mortimers beyond. ‘So nice to find you here amongst the upper classes, Mistress Bowen’, he mocks her. ‘I see you’ve joined what little we have of society’. Its narrow compass is in keeping with the proportion of ‘society’ in relation to the wider majority of the working populace in the world beyond the walls.

Mocking ideology
He suggests that she’s forgotten her reforming ideals, given that she’s been here a week and her only friends are ‘our nobility’. He feels the need to best her on ideological grounds. She maybe confined within his domain, under his suzerainty, but her ideas and ideals are still potent. They offer a challenge to his power, and on a more personal level, to his own worldview. Idealism is an affront to him, a personal insult. He speaks in mocking tones of ‘the brotherhood of man’, a refutation of the very notion of spiritual or moral values affecting the way in which the world is run or structured. She tells him that if he gives her the means (straw, soap and water) she will work for them to realise the egalitarian state embodied in the words. A model for the world beyond. She is seeking the kind of physical labour the very idea of which she and Varney had shied away from in the stonemason’s yard. The surroundings and company of Bedlam are having a transformative effect on her, but rather than dragging her down into madness, as Sims might have hoped, it is lifting her up and giving her emergent morality greater force and determination. It is imbuing her with an ideology grounded in direct experience. Sims departs, saying ‘I’ll leave you to dream of these Augean labours’. This is a reference to one of the labours of Hercules. (number five on his list) in which he was obliged to clean out the stables of King Augeas, which housed 3,000 oxen. Their immortality meant that they were able to produce a copious quantity of dung. This task was designed not to allow Hercules to display prodigious feats of strength or endurance, but to humble him through lowly and dirty physical labour. It didn’t achieve such a potentially beneficial end, since he cheated and rerouted the courses of a couple of nearby rivers. The use of such an analogy indicates once more Sims’ regard for his inmates as no more than filthy animals. Sims doesn’t believe that Nell will prove to have the character for such physical endeavour, which is well beyond what she has been used to in courtly circles, in which all such effort is provided for. The social provision which she envisages in this model world will go begging not due to lack of resources so much as a deficiency in reforming will. It is up to her to prove his cynicism unfounded, to rise to his challenge. The duel has recommenced.