Sunday, 18 March 2012

ATP Interlude

Saturday Book Fairs

On the Saturday morning of the Jeff Mangum All Tomorrow's Parties Festival (see post below for a review of Friday's music), we sneaked past the Butlins border guards and evaded the patrols to head into Minehead. A book sale at the Methodist church hall provided an incidental additional pleasure to the weekend, and together with the book stall on the railway station (where a Somerset and Dorset line engine was steaming up for the first of the day’s excursions), provided several treasures to weigh my backpack down on the return journey (‘never travel light’ might as well be my motto). All seemed to link in with the festival in more or less tangential ways, albeit through associational links in my head, which was preoccupied with the day’s forthcoming musical bill, containing as it did some particular favourites. The Selected Works of Alfred Jarry contained a couple of his scabrous, authority shucking Pere Ubu plays, poems, stories and essays, including the practical guide How To Construct A Time Machine, and the absurdist ‘pataphysical’ scientific and philosophical musings attributed to one Dr Faustroll. The influence on leftfield rock music can be found not just in Pere Ubu’s adoption of the name of Jarry’s monster of unbridled, anarchistic ego, but in the Pataphysical Introduction, Parts 1 and 2, on the Soft Machine Volume 2 LP from 1968. I had also been unaware up until this point that JG Ballard’s 1966 story The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race (included in his collection The Atrocity Exhibition, itself the inspiration for a Joy Division song) was a pastiche of Jarry’s The Passion Considered As An Uphill Bicycle Race.

The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, a 1964 paperback, has a cover which packs the visual elements of the supernatural tale into its crowded frame. An overgrown, semi-wild graveyard with its outcrops of listing, grey tombstones is populated by a pale, skeletal hound with watery red eyes and a startled owl, wings puffed out in preparation for flight. A dead, gnarled tree reaches out twisting, grasping branches above the weed choked graves, and what might be the vaguely defined features of a blank, staring face are coalescing in the background out of the swirling mists. The collection was edited by Robert Aickman, who begins his introduction with the bold assertion ‘there are only about thirty or forty first-class ghost stories in the whole of western literature’, before going on to outline the particular characteristics which he feels define this very particular form, and lead to such exclusivity. He includes one of his own, fairly lengthy early stories, The Trains. It’s a characteristically unsettling tale in which an ordinary setting is imbued with a threatening sense of incipient otherness, and can join his fellow canal enthusiast LTC Rolt’s The Garside Fell Disaster, Charles Dickens’ The Signalman and the latter part of MR James’ Casting the Runes as ghost stories which use the atmosphere of old railways and their manmade landscapes to haunting effect. Aickman’s story takes its place alongside Algernon Blackwood’s tale of a terrifying spirit, The Wendigo, reawakened in the American wilderness (something which might haunt the songs of Mount Eerie or Lost in the Trees), J.Sheridan Le Fanu’s Victorian classic Squire Toby’s Will, and more by William Hope Hodgson, Marjorie Bowen, DH Lawrence (the ghost story has always been deemed acceptable for literary figures to dabble in, with Freudian undertones suitable alluded to) and others. All good reading to prepare for the occult electronica of Demdike Stare and the Crowleyian crawl of Earth later on.

Bob Copper’s A Song for Every Season gathers recollections of rural farming life in and around the Sussex village of Rottingdean in the mid to late 19th and early twentieth centuries, as experienced and recounted by several generations of his family. It’s seasonal round forms the background to the folk songs collected in the back, many of which were performed by Bob in The Copper Family in folk clubs across the country. The Copper Family were a key group in the revival of English traditional folk music in the 50s and 60s. Having consciously preserved and collected their own songs, rather than having had a visit from a more academic recorder, they could offer them up for others to use, tapped directly from the source. They thus became transformed by those who followed and changed the music again through the psych and rock hybrids of the 60s and 70s, which have had such an effect on current musicians. Several of these songs were sung by another offspring of the Sussex soil, Shirley Collins, either on her solo albums, with sister Dolly, or with the various incarnations of the Albion Band: Hard Times of Old England, Banks of Sweet Primroses, Spencer the Rover and Claudy Banks. As Joanna Newsom writes in Sadie, which she would sing later in the day, ‘this is an old song, these are old blues/ This is not my tune, but it’s mine to use’. The book has a lovely naïve art style cover by Michael Dempsey, in which the farmer sits in the same position throughout the seasons, staff in hand, the character of his lunch changing along with the appearance of his fields.

Michael Moorcock’s The Rituals of Infinity is a relatively rare foray into fairly straight SF territory, a tale of multiple Earths which anticipates the more nuanced development of the idea of the multiverse which would come to characterise and provide a connecting structure to his fictions. It was one of the novels which he casually tossed off at speed during the New Worlds era of the 60s, when funds were low and steady and prolific production an economic necessity. Hardly an essential part of his oeuvre, but it’s written with cheerful brio and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Moorcock continues his New Worlds programme of trying to add a little sex to the chaste and buttoned-up SF genre. Our hero and heroine, Dr Faustaff and Nancy, sort out all the metaphysical machinations and political power struggles associated with the alternate Earths, and with everything set right in all real and potential worlds, ‘they went into the house and were soon rolling about in bed together’, as the final sentence reads. Leaving them, if not happy ever after, then at least having fun for the time being. The cover is an interesting conflation of 70s paperback SF art and Paul Nash English landscape surrealism, rather spoiled by the prominent figure fannying about in the foreground. I also picked up a copy of Roger Dean’s Views, which includes the artist’s 70s airbrush take on the tradition of the Romantic sublime, several of which formed inner and outer covers for Yes albums, unfolding in all their double and triple-gatefolded glory. Also included are his designs for curvilinear complexes of living ‘pods’ – an idea for future Butlins chalet refits, maybe. I concealed it from the withering disdain of the prog police as we made our way back onto the site.

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