Thursday, 8 March 2012

David Rudkin: Penda's Fen, The Ash Tree and Artemis 81


Artemis 81 - Cocteau mirrors
When Gideon wakes up, he finds himself in a wooden cabin by the side of the divided shingle shoreline which we are familiar with in its twin-sunned, vividly coloured alien form from the beginning of the story. But here, although the landscape is the same, its unstable components have shifted across the dimensions and washed up on the Earth. Gideon now shuffles along with a tentative, lame gait. He examines himself in the mirror as if seeing himself for the first time, touching his reflection as if expecting to discover that it is someone else behind a pane of glass shadowing his movements. As he reaches towards the mirror, we almost expect its surface to ripple like silvered mercury, allowing access to some world beyond in the manner of Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet and Orphee. Outside in the crisp morning, the angel Helith washes by the shore, feeling nothing of the cold even though he is naked. His unworldly nature is further revealed by the fact that he fails to cast a reflection in the mirror. Gideon is able to hesitantly acknowledge his desire, which Helith unconditionally accepts, and he sleeps that night with his head resting contentedly in his lap.

Entering the poisoned city
The next day, they sail to a city which has fallen under the power of Helith’s brother Asrael and has been infected by his sickness. It is a superimposed amalgam of Liverpool and Birmingham, with trams from the Crich museum in Derbyshire carrying its disconsolate, tubercular citizens across its scarred streets. The trams give it an East European feel, and the whole environment is suffused with a Kafkaesque atmosphere of ill-defined dread. Gideon loses Helith in the crowds as he gets off at a tram stop, realising too late that his angelic companion has not disembarked. He gets lost in a subterraenean warren in which crowds of the destitute and desperate pick through makeshift market stalls selling the scattered rags and relics of a fallen civilisation. A hazy pall of sickness hangs over everything. Gideon discovers a copy of one of his own books, published in a strange language which he doesn’t recognise. He is approached by a woman who looks like Gwen dressed up as the Hitchcock blonde from the Oxford library. With a fearful air of paranoia, she surreptitiously arranges a rendezvous in the cathedral the next day. Gideon spends a restless night on the streets of the city, the occasional chatter of automatic gunfire providing a soundtrack to the general atmosphere of threatening menace.

Gothic shadows - the bell tower
In the cathedral, he follows the siren figure of the blonde into the gothic guts of the building, which is in fact the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool, before which we have previously seen Asrael standing, looking up at Gwen. Gideon ends up in the solid, massively buttressed space of the bell tower, where he discovers Gwen’s blonde double hanging from a noose within the bell. He manages to climb up and lift her, bringing her seemingly dead body back to life but struggling to hold her in an embrace which will keep her from slipping back into suicidal suspension. It is a necrophile love scene which echoes the embrace of Scottie and Madeleine/Judy in the bell tower in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The bells are rung, under the supervision of the onlooking Asrael, and they become a deafened, helpless part of the mechanism. Gwen/the blonde slips from his grasp and, freed from the noose, is left hanging from the guttering of the cathedral tower. Her grip weakens and she falls to the ground far below. Gideon flees and returns to the corridor in the high rise in which he had slept. Here, he meets up with Helith once more, but the angel has changed. He feels the cold and his reflection now appears in the window. Gideon gives him his coat, and the camera circles them as they embrace, replicating Hitchcock’s moral, consecrating eye as outlined by Jed in his film studies lecture on Vertigo. As with Scottie and Madelein’s embrace, the background is transformed behind them, the dark corridor turning into the bright, clear shoreline of the shingle beach. Gideon and his fallen angel lie in each other’s arms, but in the morning Helith is gone, and he is left alone once more.

Entrance to the Underworld
Having gained strength from Helith, at the angel’s expense, Gideon sets off along the tram tracks to the edge of the sick metropolis where he follows the steady rhythm of a low, pulsing thrum which emanates from beneath the earth like the beating of the city’s heart. He steals his way into a subterraenean world, its tunnels demonically lit with red lights and its hallways suffused with the green monitor glow of big science. This is a vast underground control centre similar to that found in Sons of Light and posited in Penda’s Fen, although here the means of control are technological and computerised. Gideon comes across a room filled with banks of instrumentation in which a lab-coated technician sits. He projects a shimmering blue plane of light created from lasers and dry ice into the space beyond, a technological refinement of theatrical smoke and mirrors illusionism. We see the people who had converged on Gideon’s tower, including Gwen, sitting in blank white rooms, staring at the mesmerising light show. Dull muzak numbs the mind as the controller’s voice hypnotically implants the suggestion that they are looking at the sea. This projected sea is a parody, a mockery of the paradisiacal shore besides which Gideon had awoken with Helith. It’s a step in the programming of their perceptions, a conditioning designed to foster an acceptance of a technological acceptance of a facsimile of the real, to seal them all inside their own private preset worlds.

Illusory ocean - the divine invasion
Gideon is horrified at what he sees, and is driven to violence, strangling the anonymous technician, a murder which taints him and also marks a further step away from his dispassionate detachment. Manipulating the control board, he manages to break through to Gwen, his face projecting through the ‘waters’ like an invasive Gnostic deity penetrating the surface of the false, manufactured reality of a malign demi-urge. She awakens and sees the illusion for what it is. Gideon explores the sterile corridors, lit with a jaundiced yellow light, wearing his technician’s lab coat as a scientific cloak of invisible anonymity. He comes across Jed in an empty cell, staring blankly at the walls. Attempting to awaken him, he kisses him on the forehead, an echo of Jed’s parting kiss in another time, another place. Gideon’s is a killer’s kiss, however, sending Jed into agonising paroxysms and leaving him lifeless upon the floor. The conditioning into numb death in life had become too deeply implanted. Continuing his search, Gideon soon comes across Gwen. She has killed the nurse who guarded her, throwing a bright red splash of blood across the wall, echoing the stain left outside the Oxford library and the cathedral by the ill-fated Hitchcock blonde. She, like Gideon, is stained by murder, literally in her case, since the nurse’s uniform which she dons is soaked in blood. ‘This makes it two of us’, Gideon remarks. They are brought together by their violent acts, just as the relatives of the suicides were united by the effects of inwardly directed violence on their own lives. They use Jed’s body as a shield and disguise, wheeling it through the corridors to the lifts leading to the tunnels, the business of death giving them an air of sober authority. It is further used as an obstacle to bring a transport van, taking the fully reconditioned subjects back to the world above, to a halt. They hijack the van and break through to the surface, where they emerge beside a concrete bunker, its tumulus rising beside an oak tree in an echo of the bent Magog rock formation hunkered beneath the isolated tree on the alien shore at the beginning of the story.

Echoes of Hitchcock - The Birds
We find them by the side of Lyn Celyn in North Wales, a reservoir created in the 60s to provide water for the English city of Liverpool (one of the elements of the nightmare metropolis from which they have just escaped). Gwen talks about the loss of the village of Capel Celyn, which was drowned when the waters were dammed, small scale human settlements sacrificed for the needs of ever expanding cities. Nearby is the monolithic block of Trawsfyndd nuclear power station, another example of big science in the landscape. Gideon tries to rouse Gwen from her state of despair. She criticises him for the escapist drive of his writing, his retreat into fantasies of rescue by angelic or alien forces, which deliver mankind or the individual from self-created catastrophe. Discovering that von Drachenfels is to be playing a broadcast concert in a minster in East Anglia (actually filmed at Southall Minster in Nottinghamshire), they decide to travel across the centre of England. He has included the Bach Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor in his programme, the melodramatically gothic piece which he has sworn never to play, and has thus sent out a coded message to them that some sort of climactic moment is at hand. As they approach the town along the main A road, a swarming flock of crows flies above them in the opposition, as if sensing an impending storm. It’s another nod to Hitchcock, in this case, of course, The Birds.

Unholy birth
As they get nearer, distracting illusions assail Gideon – a headless horseman and chanting children. He has to dismiss them from his mind and drive on through. At the minster, he has his Vertigo moment, hesitating before climbing a ladder leading to the roof and through the buttresses. Inside, amongst the arches and high walkways, they spot the Magog statue, placed in an alcove like some gargoyle or ancient, worn Sheela na Gig – a remnant of the old religion hidden within the new. Von Drachenfels is blindfolded in order to play his final improvisation, which is based upon a theme from Gwen’s apparently rejected composition. As its dissonances and ultra sonic notes accumulate, the statue begins to crack open, its womb revealing a phial of glowing yellow poison which, if released, will infect the world in the same way as the sick metropolis was infected. This unnatural birth is powered by the music being played below. Gideon edges towards the statue, attempting to conquer his fear of heights. Asrael, dressed in demonic black and red, has seen them now, and makes his way to the upper walkways to try to stop them. Gwen takes out the ultrasonic whistle which she had made and given as a protective talisman to Gideon and blows it, after first apologising, disrupting the music and symbolically severing herself from the imposing maestro whose influence and authority had seemed so absolute. Gideon is able to reach the statue just before Asrael reaches him, re-sealing it and returning it to unfragmented unity. Gwen calls to him to let go, and he allows himself to fall, completing the moral circle of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as described by Jed in his lecture, in a way that James Stewart’s Scottie was unable to achieve. Asrael also falls, and is impaled in true gothic form on a railing spike.

On the shore
We see von Drachenfels return to his house, which is engulfed in flames. In the basement, he joins his wife by her bedside, and they join in their own Gotterdamerung, Wagner’s music for Brunnhilde’s immolation scene booming all around them. We cut to the grave of Magog by a roadside, and pull back to see the small wooden cabin where Gideon had woken after his rescue by Helith. Gwen is now standing beside it, and she turns and walks along the shingle shore to join Gideon, whose leg is now in plaster, making him doubly lame. The alien landscape with which we started has been brought to Earth, thus turning away from the harmful escapism inherent in Gideon’s stories. Gwen’s story remains largely untold, as he remarks, but ‘we have each come our journey – we are here’. They sit on the lakeside border between land and sea, looking outwards, figures in the landscape with their arms around each other, taking comfort in each other’s presence. Meanwhile, out on the spit of land with its single, gnarled tree, under the pink sky with its alien suns, Helith sits alone, Gideon’s coat cradled in his arms, and heaves a sigh – a fallen angel now infected with the sorrows of the world.

Angels over the Malverns
Landscape is central to Rudkin’s plays and films. It provides an outward manifestation of the psyche, of history, culture and a sense of the self, both individually and collectively. Its topography, with all the legends, mythologies and beliefs which grow from it, forms a relief map of the soul. Simon Schama, in his book Landscape and Memory, suggests that ‘landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock’. Add psychology and a religious sense of moral conflict, and this is essentially the idea of landscape as Rudkin uses it. In Penda’s Fen, this landscape it the Malverns and its surrounding fields and villages, with Elgar as a presiding artistic presence, expressing the genius loci, or spirit of place, through his music. After we have seen an opening image looking down from the Malverns, the story begins with Stephen talking about Elgar and The Dream of Gerontius, immediately imbuing the countryside with a sense of sacred presence. ‘I think the greatest visionary work in English music is The Dream of Gerontius by Sir Edward Elgar’, Stephen categorically states as he listens to the piece and studies the music. ‘It poses the most important question: what is to happen to my soul?’ The music is directly linked to the landscape. As Stephen looks at the photograph of Elgar on the record sleeve, he imagines what it would have been like to have those sounds in your head, and to ‘walk those hills, and hear the Angel and the Demon…the judgement, on those hills’. At the end of the TV script which was published in 1975 (and which is available from the stack in Exeter library), Rudkin writes of Stephen standing on the ridge of the Malverns looking back ‘across the land in shadow: that outer landscape of the earth, and inner landscape of the head, across which this, his journey has been made’.

Projected landscapes - Elgar's inner worlds
Inner and outer landscapes are reflections of each other, each affecting and affected by the other. In Artemis 81, the landscapes to which the characters from the ferry travel to end their lives are bleak reflections of their inner state: the pool in an old quarry on Dartmoor and the scree-sloped edge of Wastwater in the Lake District. When Gideon and Gwen emerge from the underworld, still in a traumatised state of psychological rawness, they find themselves near to Lyn Celyn, the manmade reservoir with its drowned village. The towering, granitic tors massing above the cropped moorland of Dartmoor form a suitably stark setting for the hanging of the witches in The Ash Tree which will spawn the curse of barrenness and death affecting the land and its lord. In Penda’s Fen, the jagged ridge of the Malverns seems at times to form a rift on the horizon, a tear between earth and sky. It’s one of the borderlands found in Rudkin’s work (The Saxon Shore and the spit between lake and sea in Artemis 81 being others), a dividing line between different territories and different states. A geographical feature to be surmounted and its divisions transcended. This rift is echoed in the abyss which cracks open along the aisle of the church in which Stephen plays the organ, building up powerful dissonances, like that which occurs at the moment of seeing God in The Dream of Gerontius. There is a moving scene in which Stephen meets Elgar, his spiritual guide, in a deserted and ruined old shed. Elgar’s revenant, confined to a wheelchair, comes back ‘to look at the world, you see. The lovely world. The silver river and the verdant valley. The beautiful world’. He sees it all projected onto a dilapidated, prefab wall, projecting his inner landscape outwards. He has become a spirit of the landscape, containing it all within himself. He comforts Stephen, telling him ‘if, on the hills, you ever hear an old man’s whistling in the air, don’t be afraid. It will only be me’.

Fuseli nightmares - Demons of sexuality
Characters in Rudkin’s TV scripts are always riding through the landscapes, whether on horseback (Sir Richard and Lady Augusta in The Ash Tree), on a bicycle (Stephen, using the favoured mode of transport of his spiritual mentor, Elgar, in Penda’s Fen) or in a car or motorhome (Gideon and Gwen in Artemis 81). The open landscape is the setting for the struggle of the soul which forms the heart of his stories. This struggle is manifested by the emergence of archetypal figures, which emerge from and take their place in particular locales. The dark spiders, an unholy hybrid born of curse and suppurating subconscious desire, emerge from the roots of the ash tree and roam the countryside, feeding on local livestock, the source of the mysterious blight afflicting the land. In Penda’s Fen, angels and demons inhabit the landscape and buildings with which Stephen is so intimately familiar. In his TV script, Rudkin insists on the solid reality of these emanations. When we see an angel looking protectively over Stephen’s shoulder whilst he sits by the riverside, ‘tender and terrible, remorseless, kind’, Rudkin states ‘he is truly there’. Likewise, when a demon presses down on his chest whilst he lies in bed, in the manner of Fuseli’s Nightmare sprite, Rudkin describes it as ‘heavy, real’, and points out that when Stephen turns the light on ‘it does not disappear’, remaining still with its ‘knowing smile, mocking, inviting, terrible’. The angels tend to be emanations of the landscape, another one rising above the Malverns in Stephen’s imaginative inner eye, whilst the demons tend to be associated with buildings or interiors: Stephen’s bed or the rooftop of the church, where they perch like stone gargoyles come to life (immediately reminding me of the living gargoyle in a village churchyard in the classic 1971 Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story The Daemons). These are the demons of suppressed sexuality and deformed religion – both demons of ignorance and the control which encourages and uses it. The fact that a demonic visage causes him to crash his bicycle at the edge of the fenland is a reflection of the ill-use to which the playwright William Arne claims the government is putting it.

Symbolic landscapes - the bunker and the tree
The undermining of the landscape by governmental or other establishment forces is a recurrent theme. The creation of subterraenean complexes, implanting big science within the landscape, works both as a direct commentary on the hastening technologisation of society in the 60s and 70s, and as a metaphorical reflection on the way in which people’s psychological connection to landscape and place, the sense of identity which it brings, is exploited and used as a means of control. In Penda’s Fen, Arne, at a village hall meeting, talks of the hollowing of the fenland where, ‘somewhere beneath, is being constructed, something…what is it, hidden beneath this shell of lovely earth? Some hideous angel of technocratic death? An alternative city, for government from beneath?’ His fears seem to be borne out when we witness a bunch of teenagers drive out onto the fen at night. One of them wanders off for a pee only to return hideously burned and scarred. His condition is covered up by enigmatic, authoritative visitors to the hospital, who don’t allow his parents to see him. This undermining of the local landscape also serves to reflect the co-option of local histories and mythologies, the burying of a natural sense of deep lineage and gradual change. This accumulated knowledge is overlaid with an imposed system, with its own ideological intent. This is symbolised at the start of Penda’s Fen, when the title sequence, depicting the landscape lying in the shadow of the Malverns, is superimposed with a length of barbed wire, against which a hand is raised and caught. The land has been turned into prison camp of the mind, a zone of control. In Artemis 81, Gideon and Gwen also discover a subterraenean control centre, in which controlling forces desensitise citizens, programming them with an imposed sense of landscape (the illusory sea). The bunker adjoining the oak tree which marks the point at which they resurface is a paradigmatic, almost surreal depiction of big science in the rural landscape.

MegaCity - the sick metropolis
The modern urban environment is viewed with suspicion in both Penda’s Fen and Artemis 81. In Penda’s Fen, Stephen’s father puts forward an argument for the continuing centrality of the village to British life. ‘The village is sneered’, he says, ‘as something petty. Petty it can be: yet it works. The scale is human, people can relate there. Man may yet in the nick of time revolt and save himself: revolt from the monolith, come back to the village’. It is an expression of a kind of radical conservatism (with a very small c) which runs throughout Rudkin’s work. Stephen’s mother also warns him of the dangers of getting caught up in the machine, with which the city is associated. ‘You’ll finish on a conveyor belt’, she tells him, trapped in a cycle in which ‘his life’s whole rhythm gets chained to the machine’ which is called ‘Productivity’. The radical playwright William Arne also espouses such a small scale philosophy of green conservatism, telling Stephen (who no longer thinks of him as ‘unnatural’) ‘we are all Consumers, blind gaping holes at the end of the production line…we’re doped serfs, in some mad Great Wall of China enterprise’. He opposes the city, too: ‘One great hope for Man only. That when the great concrete megaCity chokes the globe from pole to pole, it shall already have, bedded in some hidden crack, the sacred seed of its own disintegration and collapse’. The sick city is vividly depicted in Artemis 81, a cold and violent place summed up by the image of a child gleefully pelting a jellyfish stranded on the muddy banks of a canal with rocks. If Arne and Stephen’s parents espouse a form of conservative radicalism, the question becomes what is the true vision of the land which it seeks both to resurrect and to conserve.

Jacob Epstein - Jacob and the Angel
The psychology and sexuality of his characters is a further important aspect of Rudkin’s writing. His protagonists stumble towards a sense of self which contains and balances contradictory forces, often leading them to become sacred outsiders. There is an element of transfigured autobiography in the recurrence of gay characters struggling with their sexual difference in his stories, a preoccupation perhaps rooted in his own bisexuality. The instruction written in Greek on the walls of Stephen’s school in Penda’s Fen, Discover Thyself, could stand in for his characters in general. Stephen’s dawning awareness of his sexuality trails that of his parents, whose quiet understanding belies the clichéd image of the vicar and his wife as unworldly and naïve. When his mother sees Stephen’s reaction to the young local milkman, his father comments ‘I was wondering when you’d notice. Milklad – hardly original’. ‘But so totally unaware’, his mother wistfully reflects. Stephen’s awakening to his sexual nature comes in the form of a dream, shortly after his father has told him that ‘your dream tells a truth about yourself. A truth you hide from while you are awake. A truth you need to know about yourself. For your…well being’. Stephen’s dream opens with a vision of an angel, which Rudkin describes, in his TV script, as resembling ‘the Epstein Lucifer – male and at the same time female; a power of darkness, yet radiant with light’. I’m not sure which of the sculptor Jacob Epstein’s works he’s referring to, but the most apt would seem to be his monumental 1940-1 alabaster sculpture Jacob and the Angel. This is drawn from the biblical story in which Jacob wrestles all nightlong with an angel, and Epstein envisages their embrace in a highly sexualised manner. Rudkin’s angels too are sexual beings. Gideon’s awakening to his true divided sexual nature in Artemis 81 comes through intimacy with the angel Helith. Stephen’s dream continues through images of male desire centring on his fellow pupil, with his suggestive surname Honeybone (described in Rudkin’s TV script as a ‘sexy Saxon (when he’s got over his dandruff problem’). These are followed by the appearance of the demon, squatting leeringly on his chest. ‘Unnatural’, Stephen moans, in tones ‘bleak, self-afraid’.

Dream Ritual
Further truths are revealed to Stephen in a dream which comes to him after he’s crashed his bicycle. He enters a symbolic landscape of neatly tended gardens in which a ritual is being enacted around a tree stump. The censorious Christian ‘mother and father of England’, whom he has set up as a national ideal in his mind, preside over a ceremony in which smiling children approach the blood-soaked stump upon which they lay their hands, which are then severed by a chopper. Everyone maintains a blandly cheerful demeanour throughout. I don’t think you need to dig out a dog-eared copy of Freud to figure out that this is a castration dream, in which sexuality is violently neutered with a pretence that it is all for one’s own good. Stephen looks on in horror when the ‘mother and father’ approach him, beckoning for him to take his own place at the stump. He wakes up to find Joel the milkman leaning over him, pulling him up and making sure he’s alright. Stephen looks at him with momentary befuddlement before coming to his senses. He instinctively lowers his hands, which are grasping Joel’s shoulders in order to raise himself from the ground, downwards, as if preparing for an embrace. Joel sees what he’s doing, is aware of the impulses behind his actions, and gently but firmly rebuffs him. But the dream has pushed Stephen into accepting his sexual nature, and thus also the status of sacred outsider which it carries in Rudkin’s work.

The Ash Tree - The innocent regard
Repression and denial of one’s true self, sexual or otherwise, is seen by Rudkin as truly unnatural and destructive. Stephen chokes on his sense of shame when he meets Joel the milkman on his rounds, now aware of his desire for him. As a result, he is unable to tell him about the fledgling sparrow sitting helplessly beneath his wheel, with the result that it is crushed as Joel drives off. The flame of Stephen’s potential angelic nature is snuffed out by such denial, and he thus fails to act as a godly agent, enabling the divine awareness of every sparrowfall. In Artemis 81, Gideon rejects the affections of both Gwen and Jed, pushing them both away. His denial of sexuality is explicitly embodied in his self-censorship. He goes back and erases the word ‘sexuality’ from the novel he’s working on, using the magic early 80s technology of the golf ball typewriter. His disconnection from his self, the world and those who care for him is reflected in his art. Gwen later points out to him that his work tends towards an escapist reliance on miraculous intervention and instruction from outside forces, whether they be aliens or angels. Such repression invites political or religious oppression. In The Ash Tree, Sir Matthew’s attraction to Mistress Mothersole is initially depicted in almost Edenically innocent terms. He smiles at her from a bridge crossing a stream, and she smiles back whilst she picks herbs from the riverbank. But he comes under the sway of the Puritan witchhunters, who march into the village to the solemn, unvarying beat of a drum. The witchfinder embodies the repression of sexual desire under the guise of religious purity. The power of the church holds sway over the generations, with the local pastor Croome present, alongside Sir Matthew, at the hanging of Mistress Mothersole, and still alive to advise Sir Richard over the exhumation of her body to allow for an extension to the church to incorporate a personal pew. Another disruption of the land which leads to disaster, reawakening the old curse. Sir Richard is initially sexually very open, enjoying banter with his fiancé an exhibiting a taste for bawdy literature and art. But when he is left on his own, his uncle’s influence, and the influence of the Puritan witch hunters whose outlined shadows he has visions of against the windowpanes, begin to exert their influence. Men without women, both Richard and Matthew, suffer from a lack of wholeness, an imbalance which sets their minds adrift, and has fatal consequences in both cases.

To Be Continued...



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