London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 3: Cavendish Square – For The Convent of the Holy Child

The third of Dr Nick Maroudas’ photo-essays on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The series begins here

One side of John Lewis’s (“never knowingly undersold”) fronts bustling Oxford Street with its rabbits that dart on and off the buses to do their shopping. The other side of John Lewis backs onto a little oasis of calm, a green park in Wigmore Street. Cavendish Square is open (unlike the private squares of Bloomsbury) but mercifully it is spared a pounding from multitudinous feet. There some nuns set up a free school for poor children, which they financed by setting up a paying school for well-off children. The convent was bombed during WW2; after the war, architect Louis Osman was called in to restore No.12 and create a linked bridge with No.13. Osman had an idea for the facade of the bridge: a statue of the Holy Child would “levitate” against the facade, and it would have to be cast in lead – the roofing from the bombed building. He assigned this commission to Jacob Epstein. Naturally the prospect of a Jew creating a Christian icon raised some opposition, but Louis Osman backed his man. So, with great fair-mindedess, the Mother Superior interviewed Epstein about his views on a religious work. The happy resolution of this “clash of cultures” reminds me of the tribute, from a Hindu lady physician to Mother Theresa of Calcutta: “We may have differed on principles but when it came to the health of the child, Mother was right there”. The Convent of the Holy Child found that, when it came to doing a religious work, Jacob Epstein was right there. Their Mother Superior requested only that the face be changed to give the Virgin a more serene expression. And quite right too, a most happy suggestion. Artists have mannerisms, and Epstein’s mannerism is to lay it on a bit thick: “a look of suffering is the badge of all my works” .

So there they stand, Virgin Mother and Holy Child – three tons of lead suspended against a brick wall; you can see them through the archway (figures 12 to 16). The slanting shadow of the moving sun accentuates their placing. Epstein took great care with the architectural relation of his projected works to their environment. In this respect he was continuing the tradition of the ancient Greeks who, as an expression of civic pride, took great care in the placing of a temple in relation to the city, the hills and the sea; and took equal care over harmonious relations between the temple and the statues within it.

Epstein Cavendish Square
figures 12 to 14

Technically, Epstein has come up with a brilliant solution to his architect’s demands that the statue should (a) seem to “levitate” and (b) be made of lead – an absurd contradiction at first sight. He has made the figures very flat: this reduces their weight as viewed, and makes them seem to flit over the surface like the shadow (figure 12). Artistically, he accentuates their flatness by conceiving the figures in a hieratic style which has not been seen in Western Europe since 1300, when Dante noted that his realistic painter friend, Giotto, had supplanted Cimabue, painter of icons, in fame. The early Christian painters, it has ofter been remarked, were not ignorant of perspective – they rejected it deliberately, because they were using appearance to denote a reality beyond appearance. Strangely enough, Michelangelo also began to reject perspective in his final religious paintings: the Last Judgment, the crucifixion of Saint Peter and the conversion of Saint Paul.

“Time and Space may be illusions”, says one mathematical physicist. The little boy’s outstretched arms form a perfect cross, and his eyes with their deeply drilled pupils exercise an hypnotic intensity inside their perfectly circular sockets; intensified to the second degree by a perfectly flat halo – a halo with a cross inside, like a gunsight. His hair radiates like flames in the sun’s corona; this little genius born to be the Light of the World; this baby cradled in a manger who, like science, came into the world so quietly and then shook it.

Over her child broods the mother. Her face is quiet but watchful. What genotype, what phenotype is she? Her boy looks Hindu. There is a touch of Bantu in her thick lips, a touch of the Sahel in her long triangular chin, a touch of Indo-European in her big straight nose, a touch of the Semite in her receding forehead, a touch of the Tartar in her high cheek-bones and her broad temples. And here did she get those large, heavy-lidded eyes? She is the universal Mother of the Christian god, of its Church which calls itself Catholic because its founder instructed His disciples to go out into the whole world (kata holos) and bring the good news to “all sorts and conditions of men”.

Epstein Cavendish Square
figures 15 and 16

Epstein must have found an extraordinary model for this face; or else, I guess, he extracted a synthesis from his unusually large vocabulary of forms. He used to haunt the museums of London and Paris, and he assembled the largest collection of African art in Britain. Yet his Virgin is no mere composite nor generalised symbol; she is an ordinary young mother, you can meet her in any market place, she has a child to look after, there is a determined set around her mouth.

Time and Space might be an illusion to mystics and mathematical physicists, but they are no illusion to the flesh that is born to move to its destined end. The little boy is not yet ready for his bar-mitzvah, when he will go to Jerusalem and astound the rabbis in the great temple with his learning. He radiates an unusual power, and his mother is a little in awe of her wonderful child; but neither of them dream that a day will come when he will go down to the Sea of Galilee and train fishers of men, and preach the most revolutionary manifesto ever; that a time will come when and people will journey from afar to hear him and be healed, even from Jerusalem, even from Lebanon across the border. “Time in the mercy of its means” leaves them blissfully unaware of all that will follow. All is still.

May the bombs not fall again on this blessed spot.

Read the fourth of Dr Maroudas’ essays, on Epstein’s sculptures in Victoria and Battersea Park

London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 2: The Strand – For The British Medical Association

The second of Dr Nick Maroudas’ photo-essays on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The first is here

“Let’s all / Go down the Strand”. Walking along the Strand is always a pleasure because of its variety and the nearness of the river. “Hear the little German band / Ach du liebe Augustin”. Entertainments abound on all sides: on the east the University and the Law Courts; on the west Parliament, Admiralty House and the War Office. The comic spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan pipes its airy way into the Strand from both ends and down to its very centre, the Savoy. Somehow even the huge iron ribs of Behemoth at Charing Cross Station merely adds to the charm of the Strand: like a big dog lying down in your living room, at home among the knicknacks. It was at 142 Strand that young Marian Evans, a “loveable great horsefaced bluestocking” powered the wheels of Progress through her Westminster Review, and prepared herself for metamorphosis: not into some loathsome Kafkaesque insect but into that grave, sound, sane George Eliot who wrote “the only Victorian novel which can still be read by a grown-up”. Intellect and lightness meet in the Strand. So, all things considered, it was not unreasonable for a professional body like the Medical Association to build their BMA House at 429 Strand. With this act they set the scene for a tragic Whitehall farce. In 1908 their architect, Charles Holden, chose a promising young man to carve a Medical Frieze for the new building. It was a noble act, because that relative unknown would grow into the greatest sculptor of the 20th century, a pillar in an architectural tradition that spans more than 2,600 years: the tradition of putting a human form and a human face on public buildings. This tradition goes back from modern Europe, through the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages to the great temples of Periclean Athens and beyond, to the great temples of Ancient Egypt.

Epstein on the Strand
figure 6

At first sight, what remains of that Whitehall farce does not look like tragedy. In all my years of strolling or hurrying up and down the Strand, I never even noticed the Medical Frieze until, having become interested in photographing London’s Epstein sculptures, I set out one day to look for it. The figures were so high up and so defaced that I obtained only two shots of acceptable quality (figures 6 and 7; there are better shots on the web). Sour grapes whispered consolingly, “they were probably not very good anyway” and I thought no more about them.

It takes only two steps to erase a cultural memory. The first generation begins to forget; then the next generation forgets that there ever was anything worth remembering. I belonged to that second generation in London of the 60s, 70s and 80s. But decades later, while I was googling information for this essay, a few black-and-white photos of the original plaster casts flashed onto the screen – from an exhibition staged by the Henry Moore Institute (figures 8, 9 and 10). Fortunately for us, Henry Moore had remained ever mindful of Jacob Epstein (see forthcoming article on Epstein’s busts).

figures 7, 8 and 9
figures 7, 8 and 9

Henry Moore had seen the originals, and being himself a sculptor of genius (lucky Britain with Moore, Epstein and Hepworth!) knew that the Medical Frieze was a precious cultural artefact; he simply would not let modern Vandals sweep it into oblivion. Moore died in 1986 but his campaign persisted. The Courtauld Collection had preserved photos of the original plaster casts, and the Henry Moore Foundation mounted an exhibition of those photos. Moore made a vow never to exhibit at the Royal Academy, because the president of the RA, that hearty philistine Sir Alfred Munnings (“became the life and soul of any party as soon as he entered”) used to pop in to Rhodesia House to cheer on the demolition crew. For a good précis of Scandal in the Strand, see SU3A News and The Courtauld’s Art and Architecture.

The casus belli had already been neatly defined by Samuel Butler in verse; Butler once asked a Canadian museum if he could see their copy of Myron’s Discobolus, and was told:

“We keeps him in the cellar ‘cos he aint got no pants”.

So, this was the issue: ought not the BMA statues to be relegated to the cellar because they aint got no pants? The Press readily understood the threat to morality in 1908 (just as it understood in 21C that Milosevic was a genocide, that Sadam was about to destroy us en masse, that Gadaffy was a tyrant to be toppled…); and they went for him with a will. The Medical Association kept its nerve and held the line against a relentless campaign for years; but when BMA House becomes Rhodesia House in 1935, insanity rules – official.

The bureaucrats at Whitehall invoked Elfin Safety and his magic invisible eyewash (see TUC. Protruding front bits might fall on passers by; they must be hacked off lest man-in-the-street be bonked by a bouncing stone bust, or passing woman pierced by a flying stone penis. The hacking was vindictive and excessive. I can’t be bothered to look up the names of those old Rhodesia House officials, but the same type of Foreign & Colonial Jacks-in-Office, blessed by egregious narcissist Foreign Secretary David Owen, would later promote Robert Mugabe over Bishop Muzorewa as a suitable person to run Rhodesia; because Mugabe was obviously one of their own kind: glibly articulate and cold-bloodedly arrogant.

So far, with panic over dropped trousers and the resultant mayhem, it seems to be merely a routine Whitehall farce.

But with the rise of a new generation, 25 years after Moore’s death and 75 years after all that vandalism, the Royal Academy made some amends for the sins of Sir Alfred by hosting the HMI exhibition in January 2011; and their poster was what Google flashed onto my screen, months after the event. To my eye those few photos, in chalky white and greasy black, vindicate Epstein’s concept and execution alike (figures 8, 9 and 10). As far as I can judge, this artist has understood what a Medical Association ought to represent. The plaster casts express a collective atmosphere of science and calm objectivity, coupled with a warm humanity and, above all, a love of abounding health (“rude health” as it used to be called). Prudery has no place in medical science; neither has pornography.

Not since the ancient Greeks has a sculptor depicted the human body with such a zest for life. I wonder where Epstein found his models, because modern city dwellers do not enjoy the advantage of ancient Greek citizens: they are deprived of many physical tasks (including hand to hand combat) that are needed on a daily basis to develop all the muscles naturally. Compare this modern photographic nude by Ed Weston (figure 11): it is an elegantly simple composition because Weston was a genius of the genre; but the flesh is flabby, as are most nudes since the time of Classical Greece. Even nudes by Michelangelo, for all their bulging biceps, show a certain unctuous “morbidezza” in the curve. So on what broad back did Epstein see such hard, crisp muscle; did he dream it up?

Epstein’s general concept can be inferred from figure 10. The figures are nude because it is an “academic” work suited to the grave purpose of an Academy of Medicine. But the motive of this nudity is not what George Brassens had in mind when he sang to the callipyginous lady: “Madame! Je voudrai voir votre academe, et mourir”.

Epstein sculptures
figures 10 and 11

On the contrary, the word that springs to mind for this style of execution is “chaste”. I like the grandfather carrying his grandchild at his shoulder; I know how it feels. There are quotations because the statues are the work of a young man: the aged lady on the left has a touch of Rodin’s Belle Heaulmiere; and the man who stands square but looks sideways and upward, with arm curved over his pelvis, echoes Adam standing at the right hand of Christ in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. But the echoes are faint, and the mood is new.

Look at that great-grandmother (or aged midwife) holding a newborn child (figure 9). I call it l’Heritance because it catches the fulfilment of the old, when they see young life springing out of their own old life; a newborn springing across the gulf of time, while they themselves are sinking back into the gulf of time.

Consider that reverend professor who gives the Anatomy Lesson (figure 8). Although advanced in years he is in the prime of health. He is holding what looks to me like the cross-section of a pregnant womb; to right and left of him are figures holding fruits of the womb: infants whose health and wellbeing he has sworn by the Hippocratic oath to promote. Compared to Epstein’s concept, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp is mere grand-guignol: Rembrandt is simply telling us, “I wants ter make yer flesh creep”.

Leonardo also drew a pregnant womb in cross-section, but it was only an embryological sketch in a notebook, tersely annotated “much here is mysterious”. By comparison, Epstein’s anatomy lesson can be seen as a thoroughly worked-out pictorial tract about life-giving activity in a sane human environment.

This is where farce begins to approach tragedy: Henry Moore having opened our eyes to the magnitude of the loss, mental pangs begin to stir. Though it might not seem appropriate to apply the word “tragedy” where there has been no loss of life, nevertheless the loss of a cultural artefact as great as the Medical Frieze is the loss of a life-enhancing part of wonderful, grotty London town.

Given these photographs, it would not be difficult to reconstruct Epstein’s frieze. It would give worthwhile employment to some British sculptor with a talent for pastiche. Nor would it cost much. Mr Cameron might allocate some petty cash from the British government to repair its former damage to Rhodesia House. Or Mr Mugabe might divert a tiny trickle from Zimbabwe’s tobacco-and-diamond revenue toward Africa’s great heritage of Bantu sculpture, employing African sculptors to restore (or even add to) the wonders of Zimbabwe House.

Pigs might fly.

Read the third of Dr Maroudas’ essays, on Epstein’s sculptures in Cavendish Square

London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 1: Bloomsbury

The first of seven photo-essays by Dr Nick Maroudas on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London


I had read Epstein’s Let There Be Sculpture in South Africa, along with many other books, when I came to Imperial College of Science and Technology in 1956. I vaguely recalled some passages: a penetrating judgment on Rodin (Rodin had no sense of architecture); a strong view on patina (in favour); a rant against dealers (they prefer their artists dead); a complaint that a major work had been purchased only by a freak show. But like most people at the time I was not interested in Epstein sculptures either; I much preferred Rodin and (seduced by all those pretty madonnas) my first love, Italian art. In my blinkered Ph.D. ignorance I did not even know that Epstein dwelt less than 500 yards from where I was proudly slaving over my little thesis, and that the sculptor was completing a statue to the deceased prime minister of my own country. But even among those more aware of what was going on around them, few could have predicted that the old man still had it him to create two of his greatest works for London. Within three years both were in place, but only gradually did I begin to register their presence. They permeated into my consciousness as threads in the tissue of experience, which a great city weaves in the minds of those who live in her.

And that is how it should be.

Bloomsbury – for the Trades Union Council

Epstein Sculptures
figures 1 and 2

In 1956, the aged sculptor took up his tools to begin carving a huge block of stone, which had been set up before a volcanic backdrop of veined Italian marble in the forecourt of TUC House (figure 1). By that time Epstein had grown, in the words of Kenneth Clark, from “a master of style” to “a master of truth”. This monument to the dead of two world wars is really a first artistic vision of the magnitude of the powers unleashed by science and technology – and thus a fitting archaeological treasure to be excavated from the rubble of London in some remote future after World War 3. Everybody knows Einstein’s horrified prediction that, if WW3 is fought with nuclear weapons then WW4 will be fought with bows and arrows. Much less well known is the reaction of Edwin Muir to this prediction of wars being fought with bows and arrows: thank goodness, then we shall get back to The Horses (– a poem which T.S. Eliot described as the first poem of the Atomic Age). Epstein’s vision is less Arcadian (or Orcadian) than Muir’s, and more cosmic.

His volcanic marble backdrop dwarfs even his huge stone figures, it spears upward like a rocket launching into outer space (figure 1). The figures are not human – (at least not Homo Sapiens sapiens) and yet their gesture is the essence of what we humans call “human” – what the Bantu call “ubuntu”: fellowship and sympathy.

By the time Epstein conceived this sculpture he was long experienced in two opposing aspects of pictorial art, which he now combined. The first is the massive, impersonal public statement in an open space and on a large scale, with an emphasis on setting the work into its architectural and civic context. The other aspect of his art is the small scale portrait bust: an intimate exploration of an individual psyche, revealed by the set of a head and by fleeting expressions over a face. Now, in this colossal statue Epstein has combined a massive statement about public disaster with a haunting exploration of individual suffering. His two creatures are human enough for us to sympathize (figure 2). The dead one is as dead as dead can be; look at the limp arm (copied from Michelangelo’s pietà in St Peter’s, a public image instantly recognizable), the thin paralytic leg and the head flopped back. The ineluctable drag of gravity on the corpse is underlined by downward streaks of sooty patina, in a way that Epstein surely foresaw while he was carving the white stone. The creature who carries the corpse stands like Lear with Cordelia dead in his arms (another public image, “as instantly comprehensible as the clink of ready cash”). But the sculptor has given to the lives of the two creatures a facial expression and a psyche, which reflect not only sorrow but also a philosophy and a faith, which transcend Shakespeare’s concept. Shakespeare’s Lear, reduced by elemental exposure and grievous loss, ends up a bewildered, beaten animal:

Howl, howl, howl, howl!

Any philosophy in Shakespeare’s play is either a cynical nihilism:

As flies to wanton boys, so are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport

or (as T.S. Eliot pointed out) a sententious stoicism:

Men must endure their going hence even as their coming hither. / Ripeness is all.

to which Eliot opposes the Christian philosophy from Dante’s Paradiso:

E ‘n la sua volontade è nostra pace.

With this in mind, I think the bereaved creature’s face reflects a psyche nearer to the Judeo-Christian faith of Epstein and Dante than to Shakespeare’s stoic humanism.

Though He slay me, yet shall I trust in Him.

This is a vision of survival on an astronomic scale; and it sits there in prosaic commercial London, in the Trade Union office block, not a hundred yards from the YWCA where I used to take my English children for their swimming lessons.

Epstein sculptures
figures 3 and 4

The Renaissance archaeologists who dug up Classical Antiquities for the booming Italian art market were well aware that no Greek sculpture is complete without something missing; so a marble Bacchus by young and promising Michelangelo had a protruding front bit drilled out, to give it an air of greater antiquity. On this ground alone, one might say that some works of Epstein became classical antiquities during the sculptor’s lifetime (see the essay on Epstein’s sculptures for the British Medical Association). The memorial figures have not been mutilated, but when I visited London in the 80s, Epstein’s carefully planned backdrop of volcanically veined marble (figures 1 and 2) had already been replaced by monotonous ceramic tiles in a ghastly glassy green, the colour of cheap boiled sweets (figure 3). The stone figures had been scoured back to deathly white, and the patina that reveals their form to the eye of time (figures 1 and 2) had been wiped clean (figure 3): reset to time zero. Anyone who has read Let There Be Sculpture will know what a sin that would have been in Epstein’s eyes. The vandals seemed untroubled by guilt, as witness this proud postcard (figure 3). Resignedly I inquired the motive of the misdeed, and was told that the vandalism was official: it had been committed in the interests of Health & Safety (see also BMA essay). “Who will protect me from my friends?” No doubt the figures are more hygienic after a good scrubbing; and as for their architectural background in the atrium of TUC house, it is safer (and cheaper) to stick up blue-green swimming pool tiles than to attempt anything so tiresome as mundane maintenance on the sculptor’s massive slabs of polished marble. (I wonder if any craft union member lodged a protest against such skimping of the work.) Here is a note from the papers of the late David McAll RA, who assisted Epstein on the monument: 
 “It was carved from a 10 ton block of Roman stone and was originally backed by green Carrara marble running up to the roof; this decayed and has been replaced by green tiles as an economy measure”.

When nations grow old, the Arts grow cold
And Commerce sits on every tree

I hope that my amateur photographs (or preferably better ones) might survive to the 4th or 5th millennium for future archaeologists to reconstruct the architectural setting as the sculptor intended it, and as Londoners of my generation saw it – the way archaeologists of today know from traces of paint that Greek sculpture and its architectural setting were intended to be enhanced with colour, not remain coldly neo-classical white.

I was unable to photograph from near because a glass wall separates the atrium, but figure 4 is a finely expressive closeup of the statue by Geoffrey Ireland (sans patina because photographed when new). It was scanned from the catalogue of the 1980 Epstein centenary exhibition, of which more later (see part six of these essays on Epstein’s busts).

Epstein TUC
figure 5

TUC headquarters are fortunate in having a good piece of sculpture outside as well as in (figure 5); both sculptures are on the theme of solidarity, comradeship and goodwill: a reminder from bygone times, before the Left fell into the arms of Mrs (“there is no such thing as society”) Thatcher and begat Thatcher’s Children – “intensely relaxed about becoming filthy rich”. Woe to the country whose rulers ape the profiteer!

Read the second of Dr Maroudas’ essays, on Epstein’s sculptures in The Strand

PK: BibliOdyssey: Amazing Archival Images from the Internet

Reviewed by Sourav Roy

BibliOdysseyHow does one review a book like BibliOdyssey? This is not just a rhetorical question to open a book review, but also a genuine query. Because though BibliOdyssey feels like a book and looks like a (very handsome) book, is anything but.

It started its journey as a cabinet of curiosities of visual Materia Obscura, collected and curated from the depths of public internet archives, by PK from Sydney. When reborn in a book form, it retains most of the serendipity and adventure of its original form. The glorious randomness, the free association of thoughts, genres and timelines and above all the obsessive-compulsive joy of hopping from one breathtaking visual to the next. For all practical purposes, it’s hardbound internet with a gilded cover.

The kind of entity we all hoped internet would be when it grew up. A boundless sea of beauty, wisdom and surprises, where all you need to set sail is a blue boat of hyperlink.

The review tries to mirror that experience. Picking ten random pages from the book, I have paired them with ten random bookmarks from my personal collection. The only connection between them: those pages prompted me to look up these links, afresh. This is kind of coming full circle, as BibliOdyssey too, started its journey as a list of random bookmarks in PK’s computer.

May you bump into more and more wonder as you sail on the blue boat of hyperlink.

Bon Voyage!

[Please note: all images are hyperlinked to their sources. Happy clicking!]


Page 12: A Flying Ship and Alice’s Flight of Fancy

Flying Dutchman
Flying Dutchman, © Sergey Tyukanov, 2000

Formally trained as a graphic artist in the far east of Russia, Sergey Tyukanov combines elements of myth, folklore and fantasy in his unique etchings and paintings.

Tyukanov is an artist fixated, among other things, on Alice in Wonderland. And who can blame him? Even Salvador Dalí could not resist the siren call of it. Here is an excellent hyperlink about a rare edition with original illustrations by Salvador Dalí.


Page 72: Victorian Music Sheet Covers and a Parisian Love Story

Matrimonial Galop and Tabby Polka
Matrimonial Galop, 1860s, and Tabby Polka, 1880, Spellman Collection, Reading University Library

Music sheet covers were big business in the 19th century. Changes in technology and social habits fuelled demand for illustrated sheet music, particularly among the Victorian middle class. Innovations in piano design meant that by the middle of the century, upright pianos became a focus of family entertainment in many homes, in a similar manner to the television set in the 20th century. At the same time, people were attending more choral society performances and public concerts, and informal pub sing-songs were giving way to dedicated singing saloons. There was a growth in purpose built venues – music halls – that greatly contributed to the appeal of certain songs and artists. People clamoured for the music sheets so they could hear the popular music of the day in their own homes. The development of the lithographic printing technique, in which images were drawn with greasy crayons onto lime stones, made reproducing vivid colour illustrations easier and cheaper. Subject matter for the covers ranged from the nationalistic and political to absurd and humorous. Satires and comical images were especially prevalent as a reflection of the often light hearted nature of the music hall songs.

This page made me think about the circular nature of things, i.e. music album covers being a modern day avatar of music sheet covers. It eventually brought me to book cover art. This hyperlink celebrates first edition book covers in the famed antiquarian books section of Shakespeare and Company, Paris, via a love story between a skeleton and a vampire victim. Directed by Spike Jonze, stunningly felt-animated by Olympia Le-Tan.


Page 86: Sleepwalking into a Orwellian Nightmare a.k.a. Robida’s Future

Albert Robida
La Guerre au Vingtième Siècle, 1887, La Vingtième Siècle, 1883, Albert Robida, The Robida Association For The Future

French illustrator, Albert Robida, combined humour with an undercurrent of foreboding, in a trilogy of prescient futuristic books published in the last two decades of the 19th Century. He anticipated social advancements in the status of women, public transport and the quality of prisons; alongside improved mass killing machines, a polluted atmosphere and environmental destruction. His books were populated with imagined technologies and gadgetry – including installations of ‘television’ and ‘videoconferencing’ – but he seemed to suggest in his writing that there was no real progress ahead in the quality of life for the people. instead, there would be a continual need to adapt to a perpetual onslaught of unnecessary new devices. Robida’s ambiguous portrayal of a dystopian utopia suggests that he can be cast as either a luddite or a technophile, depending upon your point of view.

[The third book in the series was called La Vie Électrique (Electric Life) from 1892].

Robida’s predictions for a technological dystopia made my mind wander and latch onto this reader’s comment on a Guardian article about the future of books. While I am all for e-books, this comment makes my mind break into a cold sweat. May it never come true.


Page 94: Pre-History of Surrealism vs. the Future of High Art

Giovanni Battista Braccelli
Bizzarie di Varie Figure, Giovanni Battista Braccelli, 1624, Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library Of Congress

Giovanni Battista Braccelli was an obscure Florentine artist who produced an enigmatic series of nearly fifty etchings for his 1624 suite, Bizzarie di Varie Figure. The paired acrobatic characters appear through the book to be fashioned out of random household and mechanical bric-a-brac such as plates, screws, rags, geometric shapes and even tennis rackets. Although associated with the tradition of mannerist grotesques, Braccelli’s playfully stylised figures were true originals. They are more closely connected to the cubist and surrealist movements of the 20th century than with any contemporary influences, except perhaps as parody. The capricious forms resist a single, or even necessarily, a simple interpretation. As human simulacra, they evoke a correspondence with puppetry, dance and pantomime scenes, and they have even been touted as precursors to man-as-a-machine cybernetic culture of more recent times. For whatever reasons after it was published, Bizzarie di Varie Figure drifted into a mysterious stream of esoterica known only to a select minority of artists and bibliophiles (Horace Walpole noted in his copy in the 1700s that the author had a ‘wild imagination’) and wasn’t rediscovered and republished for a wider audience until the mid-20th century. Consequently, there are less than ten original copies known to exist and only two of them are complete.

Is there a genome embedded into each piece of art that helps the eye map a connection between two pieces of art even if they are generations apart and look nothing like each other? If Braccelli can be related Picasso and Dalí, there are definitely more genome strands to be unfurled. is doing exactly that. It might change the business of art forever.


Page 109: When Maps are Not Just Maps

William Harvey (Aleph)
Geographical Fun, William Harvey (Aleph), 1869, The Map House Of London

The story goes that the brother of a certain fourteen-year-old girl was sick in bed and needed cheering up. The enterprising girl found an image of Punch (from Punch & Judy) riding a dolphin which she transformed into a comical map of England. This became the inspiration for her series of a dozen maps of European countries made out of stereotype caricatures and published in 1869, along with a short descriptive verse for each picture by the author, Aleph. In the introduction, Aleph tells of his hope that the amusing drawings will encourage young people to be interested in geography. Whether or not a fourteen-year-old girl was capable of developing all the sophisticated political and caricatural nuances portrayed is perhaps a moot point. Aleph was later revealed as the pseudonym of the journalist, William Harvey. Russia is formed by Tsar Alexander II standing back-to-back with a brown bear; Scotland is formed by the kilt-clad piper ‘struggling through the bogs’; and mainland Italy is represented by the revolutionary patriot, Giuseppe garibaldi, waving the flag and wearing the Cap of Liberty, while standing tall over the diminutive opponent of Italian unification, Pope Pius IX, as Sardinia.

Compared to the maps above these maps are science fiction. They track the tourist traffic in the whole world via geotagging the holiday photos on the net and colour codes it to help you travel off the beaten path. But both do the same thing actually , that is add a lot of fun into the drab life of maps.


Page 110: Elephants of Alphabets, Horses of Nudes

Kufic Script Animals
Kufic Script Animals, anonymous, 19th century, Professor Frances Pritchett, Columbia University

Arabic scripts have an intrinsic flexibility making them perfect vectors for a diverse range of calligraphic expression. Their curvilinear nature and and malleability inspired radical experimentation throughout history, but it wasn’t until about the 15th century, when the restrictions on religious iconography were loosened, the artists in Iran began to conjure shapes such as birds and animals from the script. The figural or zoomorphic calligraphy has traditionally incorporated text from the Koran. In the process of artistic abstraction of the letters into visual word forms, new layers of nuanced meaning may develop, where knowledge of the language is undoubtedly required for a complete understanding. The lion, bird and elephant images here are thought to be from a Kufic script from the 19th century.

Muslim script animals apparently are neighbours of Hindu animals made up of nudes (point 2, nari ashva). Why else would they share adjacent alcoves in my mind? Though they have completely different spiritual interpretations, we should love all the animals equally, irrespective of their religion.


Page 120: Napoleon, the king of cliches

Blicke in die Vergangenheit und Zukunft (Views of the Past and Future) and Das ist mein lieber Sohn, an dem ich Wohlgefallen habe (Thou Art My Beloved Son, In Whom I Am Well Pleased), anonymous, 1814, Division Of Rare And Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

At the beginning of the 19th century, a unique array of political and artistic circumstances conspired to produce one of history’s great targets for the caricaturist’s pen in the figure of Napoleon Bonaparte. Although subversive cartoons were hardly a new phenomenon, the military campaigns threatening Europe and the Middle East, combined with the megalomaniac and self-promotional tendencies of the great man himself and the widespread belief that an invasion of England was imminent, fuelled an industry of satirical illustrators led by James Gilray. English anti-Napoleonic caricatures in prints, newspapers and handbills were very efficient in arousing national patriotism, and the thematic and stylistic elements significantly influences the popular illustrative response in Europe. The rare German prints seen here date from the year prior to Napoleon’s eventual defeat at Waterloo. They are fairly vicious in their symbolism, casting Napoleon as the devil’s spawn and suggesting a legacy built on the deaths of his victims.

From Napoleon caricature to a Napoleon painting is not a big leap. But it brought back all the memories when I was standing in front of this painting in the Louvre and the excellent guide was doing a vivid art historical sketch about how the king was a royal arsehole and the painter was no better, despite being magnificent at their respective jobs.


Page 122: Reading with Taccola and Eating with Vinci

Mariano Taccola
De Ingeneis, Mariano Taccola, 1449, Kinematic Models For Design Digital Library, Cornell University

Mariano Taccola was known as the Archimedes of Siena and produced some of the earliest examples of the new illustrated style of engineering and machine manuals, that came into vogue during the Renaissance. Taccola’s training as a sculptor honed his drafting skills, and the social realities of Siena – lacking a stable water supply and being in a semi-permanent state of war – provided the technological subject matter for his imagination. The sketch book images here are details from De Ingeneis (The Engines), and Taccola was not averse to including whimsical drawings alongside the more serious creations. He has been variously credited with inventing pumps, bridge building and transmission systems, underwater breathing devices, water and windmill axle mechanisms and less likely, the trebuchet and catapult. Despite any difficulties we have now in attempting to identify specific inventions by Taccola, his manuals are important for their documentation of the innovative excellence of the Sienese engineers of the time period. Leonardo da Vici was known to have viewed some of Taccola’s manuscript work prior to sketching his own series of machine technology masterpieces.

A foiled plan to visit Vinci, Leonardo’s village of birth, while I was in Tuscany is what is behind this bookmark. If you are ever there, don’t forget to dine well. I will be sighing over here.


Page 143: The Cat Out of the Bag and into the Rain Cloud

The Comic History of Rome
The Comic History of Rome, John Leech, 1852, Poaner Memorial Collection, Carnegie Mellon University Library Special Collections

Many ancient history students will be familiar with the parade of visual gags displayed in the 1852 classic, The Comic History of Rome. This was the second collaboration by two members of staff at the humorous Punch magazine: Gilbert a Beckett and John Leech. Their first outing had similarly combined fact and satire in retelling the history of England. Beckett openly pitched the texts at people ‘willing to acquire information [and] in doing so as much amusement as possible’. Leech was very much a contemporary of George Cruikshank, and another inheritor of the caricaturist mantle from the school of Hogarth, Rowlandson and Gilray. His illustrative output for magazines and books (including Dickens) tended to be a little less severe and sarcastic than the work of his predecessors. The image here of Fulvia, the Roman political operative and third wife of mark Antony, is one of a large number of amusing intertextual details dotted throughout the book.

It’s one thing making up fake histories behind proverbs and it’s quite another to actually believe in them. Snopes shreds these urban hoaxes to pieces.


Page 156: Of Ghost Tracks and Bird Clouds

Thought-Forms: Mendelssohn and Gunod, Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater, 1901, The Culture Archive

Annie Besant was a prominent advocate in Britain for social reform and the advancement of women. Her intellectual development took her from Anglicanism to workers rights and strike organisation, through Fabianism and socialist politics, to birth control promotion, secularism, theosophy and home rule campaigning in India. She was a friend to the likes of Shaw, Krishnamurti and Gandhi and became both president of the Theosophy Society and the Indian National Congress Party.

Her theosophical beliefs were influenced by a meeting with Madame Blavatsky and the present work – Thought-Forms – was an attempt to depict ‘the forms clothed in living lights of other worlds’ and “changes of colours in the cloud-like ovoid, or aura, that encompasses all living beings”.

The thought-forms reminded me of many paintings of Wassily Kandinsky and Joan Miró but this one by Lyonel Feininger is, dare I say, spiritually the closest? They would have liked each others company too, I guess. Or not.

The Marvelous Captain Fawcett

Robert O’Connor enters the madcap publishing empire of Wilford Hamilton Fawcett, home of Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang and Captain Marvel during a golden age of comics

Captain Billy’s Wild Creation

The musical The Music Man is chock-full of references to the American Midwest and the America of 1912, especially in the song ‘Trouble’, sung by its main character, the smooth-talking con man Harold Hill. The most topical of the references he makes in that 720-word song are to Dan Patch, the famed racing horse and when he is telling the concerned mothers of River City, Iowa of the signs that their sons might be headed for trouble: “Is he starting to memorize jokes from Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang?”

Audiences today might not know what that is, but Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang was made by a company in Minneapolis. It’s also an anachronism, since the magazine began in 1919. The company that made it, Fawcett Publications, was also responsible for creating Captain Marvel, who at one time was the most popular superhero in America (beating even Superman) and the first-run paperback novel.

Whiz Bang

Fawcett Publications was the creation of Wilford H. Fawcett. Fawcett had a wild and eventful life. He was born in 1885 in Woodstock, Ontario, but grew up in Minnesota. He ran away from home at 16 and joined the army, lying about his age. He was sent to the Philippines and fought in the Philippine-American War, where the rebels against the occupying Spanish turned against their new occupiers. Some accounts, including the disclaimer inside Whiz Bang say Fawcett fought in the Spanish-American War, but that war was over by the time he got to the Philippines.

Whiz BangAn injury sent him home where becoming a police reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune (some sources say the Minneapolis Journal). He also fought in World War I, writing for the army newspaper Stars and Stripes. The newspaper didn’t print bylines, so there’s no way of knowing what he wrote for them. It was during this time he got the name “Captain Billy”. Stripes editors Harold Ross and Alexander Wolcott would start the New Yorker magazine in 1925.

When Fawcett was discharged from the army, he started Fawcett Publications in the Minneapolis suburb of Robbinsdale. He began publishing Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang in October 1919, intended it to be a joke magazine for servicemen in Robbinsdale and the surrounding suburbs. A “whiz bang” was a bomb that had been used by Americans during their brief participation in the war.

Fawcett didn’t forget his military roots, and dedicated each issue to “the fighting forces of the United States, past, present and future.” He also included a quote from Theodore Roosevelt at the beginning of each issue: “We have room for but one soul [sic] loyalty and that is loyalty to the American People.”

The magazine took off, and gained a nation-wide readership. In December 1921, Whiz Bang said it had 1.5 million readers. By 1923, according to a 1940 article in Time magazine, it had a circulation of 425,000. It sold so well that other digest-sized humor publications like Charley Jones Laugh Book took inspiration from it. The magazine declined in readers in the 1930s when readers took to the more sophisticated humor of magazines like Esquire and the New Yorker.

Whiz Bang would start with a long piece by Captain Billy, called ‘Drippings from the Fawcett’, talking about his life and what he’s encountered in it, sort of like an editor’s note, but more informal. His porter, Gus, made frequent appearances in these notes, as did his bull Pedro. Pedro died some time in 1921 and the magazine printed letters of condolences sent in by fans.

Its humor was lowbrow and bawdy. Many of its stories featured ethnic characters and were written to reflect the dialogue. ‘The Adventures of Sven’ appeared in 1921 for a short time and the prose had a Scandinavian color to it. When African-Americans appeared in stories, their dialogue had slang inflections as well. They also had jokes about drunks and alcohol well after Prohibition went into effect.

It had a section for advice from the Captain, where he would answer questions sent in by readers. Some of the questions he answered included:

Can you give me the technical name for snoring?
Sheet music.


What is Golf? – Ignoramus
Dear Ig: Golf is a game where old men chase little balls around when they are too old to chase anything else.

There was a section for poetry, but shorter, wittier and dirtier verses were put in the margins of the magazine, like this one:

Sleep, baby, sleep,
You’re mama’s pet;
Though your father voted dry,
You were always wet.

And this

Listen my children and you shall hear
of the midnight ride of a bucket of beer
– up the street and down the line,
I’ve got the bucket; who’s got the dime?

(Both are from October 1920)

Longfellow’s famous poem is parodied again in May 1921 with W.K. Edwards poem ‘The Midnight Glide of Pauline Revere’, which tells the story of Paul Revere’s wife during his midnight ride.

The magazine had a regular section on Hollywood gossip, focusing especially on relationships – the marriage between Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks and the breakup between Charlie Chaplin and his first wife, Mildred Harris were hot topics. If it wasn’t about Hollywood, it was about the latest stir in Broadway.

A regular contributor was Rev. G.L. “Golightly” Morrill, the founder of the peace church in Minneapolis. Morrill was just as eccentric as Fawcett, he would travel the world and give lectures on scripture that involved vaudeville performances, slideshows and music. During these tours, Morrill would send descriptions of the places he visited to Whiz Bang, describing the sins of the various places. In the August 1920 issue, he describes the practice of West African witchcraft in French Guiana.

On a 1922 trip to Havana, which he called “the land of liberty – personal and otherwise,” Fawcett learned that Cubans didn’t like Morrill after he called Havana a “fool’s paradise – a lunatic limbo for people with loud clothes, lots of money, loose morals and light heads,” among other things, in the October 1920 issue of Whiz Bang. When Morrill died in 1928, a phonograph recording of his voice preaching his funeral service was played at his funeral.

Starting in 1921, the magazine had a section called ‘Whiz Bang* Filosophy’, which had short bits of advice twisted around humorously, like

After man came woman, and she has been after him ever since


Before a man marries, he swears to love; after marriage, he loves to swear.

True ConfessionsAlmost immediately, Fawcett started publishing other magazines. They began True Confessions in August 1922, in the wake of the success of Dorchester Publishing’s True Story magazine, which offered true, or purportedly true, stories written by ordinary people about their experiences. True Confessions eventually had a circulation of two million a month. Promoting it in Whiz Bang, Fawcett called it “a baby brother to Whiz Bang.” Fawcett’s longest running title, Mechanix Illustrated, began in 1928. It began as a magazine of popular science to compete against the older and more popular Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. Mechanix gained fame for its ‘do-it-yourself’ articles and a focus on hobbyist topics.

Fawcett made other magazines that were less successful. Mystic Magazine, which focused on occult topics for a women audience, lasted five issues from November 1930 to March 1931. It was edited by August Derleth, who had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin. Derleth is best known as an associate of H.P. Lovecraft and the founder of Arkham House.

Pulp illustrator Norman Saunders got his start at Fawcett during this time. The company moved from Robbinsdale to Greenwich, Connecticut in 1934.

Robbinsdale to this day has a four-day celebration of the publishing house, “Whiz Days.” It happens every year the weekend after the 4th of July, with a parade, royalty, arts and crafts booths and more. The city’s website on the event says it was a celebration of the city started during the Second World War, and was named after the publishing house.

Fawcett bought a cabin near Pequot, Minnesota in 1921 along with 80 acres of land next to Big Pelican Lake. In 1922, he opened the Breezy Point Resort on that land. While it was advertised in Whiz Bang, it attracted mainly wealthy and famous customers. Clark Gable stayed there, as did future President Harry Truman when he was a Jackson County court judge.

Fawcett’s company was a family affair, as described in a family history written by Billy’s son Roger in 1970. Billy’s brother Harvey ran Fawcett Publications from its inception until he was fired in 1923 for taking dollar commissions on tons of paper purchased. Billy’s brother Roscoe, who stayed until 1936, replaced him. Captain Billy was the nominal editor and publisher at Fawcett, but he also travelled widely and even competed at the shooting events at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, achieving a final rank of 18. When Billy died in 1940, his oldest son Roger became Vice-President of the company.

Captain Marvel

On April 18, 1938, National Allied Publications put out the first issue of Action Comics (dated June). It featured on its cover the first appearance of Superman, smashing a car against a cliff. Its first 13 pages introduced Superman. By the late 1950s Action Comics became focused exclusively on Superman stories, continuing to be published to this day, save for two brief hiatuses in 1986 and 1993 due to the death of Superman. Last March, DC Comics announced it would re-launch all 52 of their titles (calling them “The New 52”) including Action Comics in September. A new Action Comics #1 came out on September 8th, written by Grant Morrison (who also wrote the acclaimed All-Star Superman and penciled by Rags Morales).

Captain MarvelFawcett founded a comics division in 1939. They brought in Bill Parker who created some comic heroes including a team of six superheroes having a super power given to them by a god or mythic figure. Fawcett Comics’ executive director Ralph Daigh told him to combine the six into one and brought in C.C. Beck to draw the character.

The character was originally called “Captain Thunder,” but was eventually changed to “Captain Marvel.”

Captain Marvel first appeared in Fawcett Comics’ first official book off the press, Whiz Comics #2 in late 1939 and dated February 1940. The #2 comes from the publication of Flash Comics #1 and Thrill Comics #1 that were put out for trademark reasons and were not sold (known as ashcan copies).

The cover is similar to Action Comics #1, with Captain Marvel throwing a car full of bad guys against a brick wall. Also like Action Comics #1, the first story was an introduction to Captain Marvel and his fight against his arch-enemy Dr Silvanus in a plot to end radio. The wizard Shazam gave mild-mannered kid Billy Batsen incredible powers, and when Batsen yells “Shazam,” a lightning bolt strikes him and turns him into the adult Captain Marvel. Batsen held down a job as a reporter for the radio station WHIZ, where he would tell the stories of Captain Marvel on-air.

“Shazam” is an acronym for the six figures of myth that give Billy Batsen his powers – Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury. It entered American slang, though it’s probably better known through Gomer Pyle’s use of the term on The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.

Whiz Comics was an instant success. Its first issue sold 500,000 copies (by comparison, Action Comics #1 had a print run of 200,000). Fawcett expanded its monthly comic line in March 1940 with Master Comics which featured Captain Marvel Jr., who’s real name was Freddy Freeman. Freeman became Captain Marvel Jr. after being saved by Captain Marvel from the hands of Hitler’s superhero Captain Nazi. After being knocked unconscious by the Nazis, Batsen passed some of his powers along to Freeman. Another Fawcett title, Wow Comics, featured Captain Marvel’s sister Mary Marvel. Mary Batsen was Billy’s twin sister and was given Shazam’s powers.

In 1941, Republic Pictures made a 12-part serial called The Adventures of Captain Marvel. Tom Tyler, who played The Phantom in another Republic serial, played Captain Marvel and Frank Coughlin Jr. played Billy Batsen. That same year, Captain Marvel got his own series, Captain Marvel Adventures. By 1944, it was selling bi-weekly at 1.3 million copies per issue. Whiz Comics continued to be an anthology book featuring Captain Marvel and fleshing out supporting characters and villains.

Bill Parker was conscripted into World War II, and primary scriptwriting duties went to Otto Binder in 1941. That same year, Marc Swayze was hired to illustrate Captain Marvel stories, but he also contributed many scripts for Captain Marvel Adventures.


National Comics Publications held the rights to Superman and sued several companies that made knock-offs of their property. In 1939, they filed suit against Fox Feature Syndicate saying their hero Wonder Man (created by Wil Eisner was too similar to Superman. They sent a cease-and-desist letter to Fawcett in June 1941).

Fawcett decided to fight their claim that Captain Marvel was a copy of Superman. They argued that while Captain Marvel was similar to Superman (having powers of super-strength, super-speed, invulnerability, a skin-tight costume with a cape and a news reporter alter-ego), the differences made the character unique. Captain Marvel’s alter ego was a child and his powers were magic based. A federal judge found that Captain Marvel was an illegal copy of Superman, but that National Comics didn’t hold the copyright to Superman because it had failed to copyright several Superman comic strips.

On appeal in 1952, the judge found that National Comics’ copyright for Superman was valid and that Captain Marvel was an infringement on that copyright.

Mad magazine parodied the legal dispute in their 4th issue with the story ‘Superduperman’. Because of the dispute, Captain Marvel and Superman have battled each other a few times since DC bought the rights to the character.

Comic books, especially those about superheroes had declined in circulation since World War II. The comic reading public gravitated towards anthology books of genre stories like westerns, romance, science fiction and horror stories. Fawcett had moved in this direction too, with titles like Strange Suspense Stories, This Magazine Is Haunted, Lash Larue and many others. Fawcett ended Whiz Comics and all of its superhero titles in June 1953 and paid National Comics Publications $400,000 as a settlement of the suit.

Fawcett Comics closed entirely in 1954, selling off its surviving titles to Charleton Comics. Marc Swayze moved to Charleton as well. C.C. Beck found work as a commercial illustrator. Otto Binder moved to National Periodical Publications (the new name of National Comics Publications. The company would be renamed DC Comics in 1977). While there, Binder created the Legion of Super-Heroes and Supergirl in 1958.

L. Miller and Son, who printed black-and-white Captain Marvel reprints in England adapted Captain Marvel into Marvelman (which has its own long history of copyright battles). DC Comics began licensing the character in 1972 and gained full rights to the character in 1991. C.C. Beck was brought back to Captain Marvel when his series, Shazam! Comics was started by DC. In the first issue, Otto Binder finds Billy Batsen and is astonished that after 20 years he is still a kid. Beck left the title after 10 issues due to creative differences.

Marvel Comics had trademarked a character of the same name in 1967 for its Marvel Super-Heroes series. As a result, DC isn’t allowed to publish books with the Captain Marvel name, or promote series with the character (hence Shazam! Comics).

Paperback Revolution

In 1945, Fawcett agreed to distribute paperbacks of the New American Library imprints Signet and Mentor, provided they didn’t compete and publish their own paperback reprints. By 1949, Roscoe Fawcett wanted to establish an imprint for paperbacks and felt that publishing first-run paperbacks wouldn’t violate the contract. He published The Best of True Magazine and What Today’s World Should Know About Marriage and Sex, two paperback anthologies of stories from Fawcett’s magazines not yet published in books. When those two books went through the loophole, Fawcett started Gold Medal Books to print first-run paperbacks, a first in the publishing industry.

Fawcett had a stable of artists for their magazines that would illustrate the covers of paperback originals. They and their imitators would hire artists away from the struggling pulp magazines to illustrate their covers and many of them would hire writers away from them too.

Pulp magazines were declining in circulation during the 1950s thanks to competition from television. When their talent pool jumped to the first-run paperback, their income fell even further and by the end of the decade, most of them had closed.

Some pulps, like the long-running Argosy and Adventure remade themselves into ‘men’s adventure’ magazines that featured male heroes rescuing a damsel in distress, supposedly true stories of daring adventure, pinup pictures and advice; basically glossier versions of what they were before. They also closed by the end of the 1960s.

In 1952, Ian Ballantine offered a deal with Houghton Mifflin, where authors had their books printed hardcover editions while a new imprint, Ballantine books, would print paperbacks. For its first book, Cameron Hawley’s Executive Suite, Ballantine sold 21 times as many copies as Houghton Mifflin sold hardbacks. Ballantine eventually became known for publishing science fiction and fantasy. Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 was first published as a Ballantine Paperback.

Fawcett’s magazines were sold to CBS in 1977, which continued to publish Mechanix Illustrated through a few incarnations until it stopped in 2001. Fawcett’s paperback imprints were sold to Ballantine Books (which by this point had become a division of Random House) in 1982.

Captain Billy was an adventurous spirit. He also had a sense of fun about what he did. These traits carried over into Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang and Captain Marvel. Part of the reason why the character did so well is because of the humor of the series and the ordinariness of Billy Batsen, in contrast to the tragic backstories of superheroes like Superman and Batman.

The Soma Records Story

Robert O’Connor revisits the Minneapolis label, home to 60s psych-trash novelty hits ‘Surfin’ Bird’ and ‘Liar, Liar’

“Everybody’s heard about the bird,” the song begins. Peter from Family Guy heard the song and it became his new favorite thing in the world. He annoys everyone by singing and dancing along with the song until Stewie and Brian steal the record and smash it Office Space-style. The song was in Pink Flamingos and Full Metal Jacket. There was even an attempt to make it the number one Christmas single last year in the UK.

That song is, of course, ‘Surfin’ Bird‘ by The Trashmen. But who were The Trashmen and who recorded that acid-flashback of a song?

The band was formed in, of all places, Minneapolis. And a local label, Soma Records, recorded and distributed the song. It was not the first nor the last hit that Soma would produce in its ten years of existence.

Switched On

It began at the Garrick Theatre, which used to sit at 2541 Nicollett Avenue. In 1955, Bruce Sweidin was the operator of the Schmitt Music company’s recording facility. That year, he bought their equipment and moved it into the theatre, converting the abandoned movie palace into a recording studio.

In 1957, Sweidin went to work for RCA and sold the studio to Vernon C. Bank and brothers Amos and Daniel Heilicher, who sold jukeboxes wholesale. Sweidin would later win Grammies for being the recording engineer on all of the Michael Jackson albums produced by Quincy Jones.

Bank renamed the studio after his wife and it became Kay Bank Studios. That same year, The Heilicher’s started their own record label, Soma Records, with the name coming from Amos spelled backwards. Kay Bank offered a deal to local bands: for $495, they would get three hours in the studio, a thousand copies of their single with 50 promo copies sent to radio DJs around the Midwest.

On February 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash outside of Mason City, Iowa. They were supposed to play a gig at the Armory in Moorhead, Minnesota that evening. The local radio station sent out an urgent call for a replacement band, and a 16-year-old named Bobby Vee showed up with his band of five buddies from high school. In the liner notes of his 1963 album A Tribute to Buddy Holly, Vee said he had been a fan of Holly and had organized the band the week before. They had been rehearsing with Holly’s music in mind. When they showed up at the Armory, they didn’t even have a name, so they made up The Shadows on the spot.

On June 1, the group went to Minneapolis and recorded a song Bobby had written in tribute to Buddy Holly, ’Suzie Baby’. It was popular on the local stations and the major labels wanted to sign the band. Vee eventually signed with Liberty Records. Some time during the month (the dates are unknown) Bobby Zimmerman played piano with the band, calling himself Elston Gunn. He was let go because he could only play in one key and Bobby Vee thought he had no future as a musician. He later changed his name to Bob Dylan.

In a 1998 article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Amos Heilicher said he kicked Bobby Zimmerman out of his house for banging on the piano in his home. He also said that his daughter Elissa had met Bobby at Camp Herzl, a Jewish camp in Wisconsin the two attended as kids.

At first, Soma put out a lot of country and rockabilly songs, since that’s what most of the bands that came to them played. One group that gave them a big early success were The Fendermen, made up of two guys, Jim Sundquist and Phil Humphrey, who met as students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their hit ’Mule Skinner Blues’ was recorded at Cuca Records in Sauk City, Wisconsin, just outside of Madison. It was picked up by Soma and distributed nationally, hitting #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. All of the group’s future songs would be recorded at Kay Bank and released by Soma.

In 1962, a group called The Messengers from Winona, Minnesota released a single through Soma, ‘My Baby’. Soon afterward, their lead guitarist went off to college and their guitarist, Greg Jeresek moved the band to Milwaukee. They recorded a cover of Wilson Pickett’s ’In the Midnight Hour’ in their living room studio and managed to get it released nationally in 1965. That same year they became the first white group signed to Motown Records.

Hitting its stride

Soma hit its stride in 1963 with the release of ‘Surfin’ Bird’. The Trashmen had recorded it at the suggestion of Bill Diehl, a DJ on WDGY and a music writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He was at the gig where they first played the song. The band before them, The Sorenson Brothers played ’The Bird is the Word’, which had recently been recorded by The Rivingtons. The Trashmen hadn’t heard that song and decided to play it along with ‘Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow’, also a Rivingtons hit. Drummer Steve Wahrer improvised the middle section.

When he heard the recording, Vern Bank sent a note to Amos Heilicher saying “‘The Bird’ is the worst I’ve ever heard. Must be a hit. Call me if you’re interested. Vern”.

The song was a hit locally and was nationally distributed by Liberty Records. The song eventually reached #4 on the Hot 100 chart. However, lawyers for the Rivingtons added the band’s name to the credits due to it being their two songs.

The Trashmen followed up with ’Bird Dance Beat’ in February 1964.

That same year, Dave Dudley recorded his biggest hit ‘Six Days on the Road’ at Kay Bank. The song was distributed by Soma until Mercury Records bought the rights.

In October 1964, a group out of Mankato named The Gestures had a Soma-released hit with ‘Run, Run, Run’ which hit #44 on the Hot 100 chart. It’s B-side was ‘It Seems to Me’. The band sounds like The Zombies in the latter, who had a hit in August of that year with ‘She’s Not There’. Soma’s last single for the band was ‘Don’t Mess Around’ in 1965 The song was the B-side to ‘I’m Not Mad’, a Beatles-esque single with two lead vocals and a harmonica. But the official release put ‘Don’t Mess Around’ on the front with ‘Candlelight’ on the back. The band broke up in 1965 and their lead singer, Gus Dewey, eventually became the lead singer for City Mouse. He died in 2003 at the age of 57.

In December 1964, Soma had another local hit with The Chancellors’ cover of one of The Righteous Brothers’ first songs, ‘Little Latin Lupe Lu’. The Chancellors were from the western suburb of St. Louis Park. ‘Little Latin Lupe Lu’ was a B-side that did better than the a-side, ‘Yo Yo’, written by rhythm guitarist Mike Judge. They would later put out ‘Surf Beat’ and ‘I’m a Man’.

The band was the first artist signed to the talent agency Path Musical Productions, founded by Ira Heilicher (son of Amos) and Dick Shapiro. They would eventually sign bands like The Castaways and The Gestures, who would have singles released by Soma. When the agency dissolved, Shapiro and Bill Diehl (and later Owen Husney) formed the Central Booking Agency, which promoted many of the same bands.

The Chancellor’s lead guitarist was David Rivkin. Also known as David Z., Rivkin helped record the set of demos with Prince in 1976 that got him a deal with Warner Brothers. He was also a session guitarist with Lipps Inc at the peak of their success, though he didn’t play the guitar riff on their #1 single ‘Funkytown’.

In 1965, Soma’s next big hit came with ‘Liar, Liar’ by The Castaways. That one went hit #12 on the Hot 100 chart and the band played it in ‘It’s a Bikini World’, one of the last beach party movies made by American International Pictures. The single’s B-side is ‘Sam’.

Their next single came out that fall, ‘Goodbye Babe’ and ‘A Man’s Gotta Be a Man’. The latter was written by guitarist Robert Folschow, who sang the falsetto vocals on ‘Liar, Liar’, which was written by keyboardist James Donna and drummer Dennis Craswell. Just as ‘Liar, Liar’ had a scream before the bridge, ‘Goodbye Babe’ has a gruff laugh at the beginning.

That same year, the band The Boys Next Door from Indianapolis recorded a single with Soma, ‘Why Be Proud’ / ‘Suddenly She was Gone’. The All Music Guide dismisses the band as derivative of The Beach Boys, saying “not every unearthed batch of sounds from the mid-1960s has to be worth hearing”.

Another Indiana band, Sir Winston and the Commons had a song with Soma that year ‘We’re Gonna Love’. The B-side was ‘Come Back Again’.

The High Spirits had a hit with ‘Tossin and Turnin’, the B-side to a cover of ‘(Turn on your) Love Light’. The record was #1 in Kansas City and Dallas in the fall of 1965. It’s lead guitarist was Owen Husney, a relative of the Heilicher family, who would later be Prince’s first manager. They recorded another single with them in early 1966, ‘I Believe’ / ‘Bright Lights, Big City’, the latter being a cover of the Jimmy Reed song. David Rivkin left The Chancellors in 1965 and sang back-up vocals on ‘Love Light’.

Most of the bands that went to Soma around this time were garage bands. One exception was the Duluth band The Titans, an instrumental surf rock group, who recorded two singles for Soma in 1963 (’Summer Place’) and early 1964 (’Reveille Rock’). Another were The Gamins, who had an instrumental single ‘Freeway’ in 1965.

At some point, The Guess Who, from Winnipeg, made recordings at Kay Bank Studios. One of the songs recorded there, ‘His Girl’ hit the singles charts in the UK.

Another song put out by Soma was ‘UFO’ by Dudley and the Doo Rytes, which has a similar sound to The Animals. The Del Counts were one of the last bands Soma recorded, with ‘Bird Dog’ (which quotes ‘Surfin’ Bird’) and ‘Let the Good Times Roll’.

Winding Down

In 1964, Amos and Dan Heilicher purchased the Musicland chain of record stores from founders Terry Evenson and Grover Sayre. In 1968 Musicland merged with Pickwick International, a label and distributor.

Soma records was merged into Pickwick Records, with Amos as the head of its retail and wholesale operations. At its peak, Pickwick accounted for 10% of all recordings sold in the US and half of all recordings put out by independent labels. A 1970 feature in Esquire called Amos Heilicher one of the music industry’s most powerful figures alongside the likes of Mick Jagger and Berry Gordy, the head of Motown.

In 1976, Amos sold his stake in the company. Musicland had 230 stores across the country when it was bought in 1977 by American Can for $102 million. It was sold again to Best Buy in 2000 for $865 million.

Amos and Dan left the music industry and threw their efforts in to the real estate business, helping to expand the St. Anthony Main shopping complex and the now-gone Circus Pizza chain.

Dan died after a long illness in 2005 and Amos died of pneumonia on October 12, 2008 at the age of 90.

Ira Heilicher eventually owned a chain of record stores, Great American Music/Wax Museum, which had 17 stores nationwide by the time in closed in 1986.

Kay Bank Studios passed through a couple of names after Soma ended, but Twin/Tone Records had their offices where it stood beginning in 1977. Among the artists they released were The Replacements, Babes in Toyland, Curtiss A and the Suburbs, among many others.

Two of Kay Bank’s former employees, Tom Jung and Herb Pilhofer founded Sound 80 in 1969. Its most famous recordings were Prince’s demos with David Rivkin in 1977 and in 1974 when Bob Dylan rerecorded half of Blood on the Tracks there with a group of local musicians – specifically the tracks ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, ‘Idiot Wind’, ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ and ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’. In 1978, using a primitive digital tape recorder from 3M, Sound 80 recorded some of the first commercially released digital recordings.

There were a lot of independent record companies making rock music in the 50s and 60s, but the only ones that live on are the ones that made notable hits. Sun Records’ name lives on as the place that gave the world Elvis Presley. Soma Records gave the world ‘Surfin’ Bird’.

The IT Impact: Information Technology in the Developing World

Digital and mobile devices can bring huge improvements to the health and lives of the very poorest. Vanessa Zainzinger takes a look at the organisations attempting to bridge the technological divide

Last month, the non-profit organisation Worldreader held a video contest. The first price was a trip, but instead of the five star hotel one would expect for a price, Worldreader took the winner to Ghana to do some volunteering work.

Contesters were asked to submit a video that answered the question “Why do you want to help Worldreader bring ‘Books to All’ to the developing world?” This was great PR for the NGO, which has found much praise lately for its work of using e-readers to teach literacy in the developing world. While we take our access to technologies for granted, it is easy to forget that we are part of the mere 25% of the world’s population who have a wonderland of information at their fingertips – access to the internet. Mobile network connections, health data collection software, things that are such a vital part of our lives that they have started to seem trivial, are missing in the developing world as huge steps towards the end of extreme poverty.

Few NGOs, such as Worldreader, have started to use new technologies to tackle global development and humanitarian challenges. Worldreader aims to “put a library of books within reach of every family on the planet”, so the organisation decisively writes on its website. The idea itself has nothing to do with technology: books have been the basis for education for thousands of years, the information source that has been driving the human race in its development towards what we have accomplished today. Without books to learn from, we would be pretty stuck. At the Orphan Aid Africa school in Ghana, where Worldreader had the first trial of their concept in March 2010, kids were studying without having books available. It’s no new idea that we need books to learn, but it is new to have the technology to access a whole library with one single device not bigger than a paperback. With e-readers, we are reducing the cost and complexity of providing reading material even in the most remote areas. Thus we can teach literacy, increase the level of education and consequently boost a country’s economy through better educated graduates. With the cost of digital content falling quickly, the shipping being a mere fraction of what it would cost to take the same amount of material in books, it seems rather simple. Writers the likes of Cory Doctorow and Daniel Pinkwater are donating their work to make the content available on the donated readers even more diverse.

“The world is a better place when people have access to more information. The goal of universal access to all human knowledge is a noble one,” Doctorow says about his involvement with Worldreader.

Noble it is, but is it realistic too? The challenges of this cause can not be underestimated. Although the prices are falling quickly, e-readers are still expensive. They may seem easy to use, but for students who have never had access to a computer it requires time-consuming training to teach them how to use their new gadgets. Yet these are all issues that can be more or less easily dealt with compared to the two biggest challenges: a) you can’t download books without internet access and b) you can’t charge a battery-powered gadget without access to electricity.

Trying to fund a solar cell and satellite internet access suddenly take things to a whole new level – and quite a disillusioning one at that. Internet access is a luxury that organisations like the Web Foundation are trying to make a given for everyone, but this is far from being achieved. Instead, it has been mobile technology that has been giving NGOs the chance to provide tools that make a significant difference. The area that has profited most from this little revolution is health care.

“Very few technologies have scaled down to even the remotest village in sub-Saharan Africa. Cars haven’t, fridges haven’t, literacy hasn’t. But mobile phones have,” says Joel Selanikio, co-founder of US-based social enterprise DataDyne. He would know: DataDyne’s open-source, mobile data collection tool EpiSurveyor has tackled one of the main weaknesses of healthcare in developing countries. The lack of tools to gather time-sensitive health data quickly and systematically is a disaster when it comes to disease prevention, consultation, diagnosis and treatment. That is why the systematization of the collection of health data has absolutely boomed in the last ten years. Using mobile phones as a database and writing easy-to-use software has helped to fight malaria, diarrhoea (which is, sadly, globally seen still the leading cause of illness and death) and reduced the number of deaths from measles in Africa by 90%. All this just because health workers suddenly have the possibility to access a database of information, without an internet connection, to find out about disease treatment guidelines, essential drug lists and patients’ records within minutes, in remote, resource-poor areas miles away from the next hospital.

By using PDAs to transmit and receive data via cellular networks, US-based NGO Satellife connected 175 remote health facilities serving more than 1.5 million people in Uganda to a data collection platform. As the program was brought to scale, the health officers’ knowledge of health care needs increased significantly even in the most remote areas. They aim to improve. Advanced platforms like recently released GATHERdata are being launched, making the aggregation of data speedier, the software easier to use, the analysis more sophisticated. GATHERdata provides digital forms for the collection of relevant data and sends it wirelessly to the district health office and ministry, into one central database. The information collected will immediately be scanned for anomalies. If any are found, the ministry can notify public health officials within seconds by text message – the time saved saves lives.

“GATHERdata is made up of ‘best of breed’ software elements and we are constantly evaluating possible tools for incorporation or substitution into the platform. One of the key drivers behind this is trying to make GATHERdata easier for end users to employ in their projects,” Satellife’s Associate Center Director Andrew Sideman tells Spike. Training the end user to use a system has proven to be a challenge in any attempt at imposing new software in development projects. Even the least complex programs are difficult to adapt by health workers or citizens who have often never used a computer or mobile phone before in their life. Making systems simpler means less necessary training, ergo less time and less money spent. Andrew, who has led the development of GATHERdata, found that training was necessary even though the system is virtually the same as a paper-based version.

“There are invariably differences of interpretation on the part of end users. We always hope that pre-testing of the form will have resolved any questions related to language, as in what the questions on the form are actually asking for, and logic, like how the questions are ordered.”

GATHERdata involves built-in business intelligence modules, which are used to automatically send messages to authorities to alert dangerous situations – a vital feature to prevent often occurring pandemics. Software like this can be implemented in many other areas than ‘just’ health care. Like it has been used in Mali, to track school construction projects as part of an education system decentralization program. Or in Liberia, to survey school facilities and assets. Working towards constant improvement, GATHERdata is fully exploiting what java-rosa based forms make possible.

“We are developing and will deploy in Bangladesh a system using SMS to notify end users that a form is available for their use with a link to a web page,” says Andrew. “End users will access the form and use their mobile phones to fill out short web-based forms. Data will be stored in the GATHERdata back end to allow aggregation with data gathered or integration with other data sets.”

What mobile networks in combination with simple Java software have achieved is impressive on its own. Compared to the technologies available to us in the western world it is, of course, ridiculous.

How long until we bridge the digital divide in internet usage and use the technology we have to create a connection between all parts of the world, allowing access to the same network of information to everyone? It seems like the obvious next step after the mobile phone wonder. Making e-readers available in schools with the possibility to download books, sending and accessing health data via WiFi, are just two concepts which could make current efforts easier, faster, richer in information. The Web Foundation believes that making certain information available could enable local entrepreneurs to build up businesses relevant to their country, or help farmers trying to grow vegetation in harsh environments. The latter became the Web Alliance for Regreening Africa project, an attempt at growing trees and crops in the desert by spreading the knowledge to do so to thousands of farmers. This knowledge is mostly local. When serious droughts severely damaged farming conditions in many rural communities in West Africa in the 1980s, a number of innovative locals in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali developed techniques to rehabilitate large areas of degraded land. With this kind of knowledge already existing, it is the sharing of it that comes as a challenge. The project tries to achieve an efficient sharing of ideas by exploiting the available infrastructure of internet cafes in larger towns, mobile phones and radios.

Is this the way to use information technology in development work? For now, yes it is. Making good use of the technology already available to share information is the most efficient way to make an impact. It is basically the spreading of knowledge that is successfully fighting some of the developing world’s most urgent challenges. Diseases, fought by aggregating health data. Bad education, fought by providing the invaluable content of books. Hunger, fought by sharing knowledge to grow crops. The key word in this kind of help is ‘sustainable’ – sharing knowledge isn’t charity, it is setting the basis for self-help. NGOs around information technology are certainly working towards using the tools they have in the best possible way. But until the technologies we take for granted have become truly ubiquitous, the divide in information access will stay insurmountable.

Further Resources:

The Seven Original Sins of a Book Addict vs. Seven Original Book Stores of Mumbai

Sourav Roy from Mumbai battles gluttony, despair and cricket fever to hunt down seven utterly original book stores of the city

As somebody who has been taking books to bed way before hitting puberty, I have it on good authority that the addiction of buying and reading books, is not so very different from any other addiction. Your ears prick up at the mention of new releases, your breathing changes when you meet a strange book review and your legs do their own walking when they see a bookshop close by. But just like any veteran junkie would tell you as the monkey on your back gains weight, only higher doses just don’t cut it.

The fume of addiction grows denser, splits into veins and develops its own ecosystem of multiple sins, each demanding its own special fodder of words, pages and genres.

As your fix changes, so does your peddler. You start avoiding the standard-issue, brightly lit, bestseller-clad, staffed-to-the-gills-with-idiots chain bookstores and ache for the ones little-known: the roadsiders, the rare, the forgotten and the niche. A bookshop with that glorious musty smell, shady alcoves where you can disappear for hours and an owner as obsessed as Calvin Tower yet as colourful as Willy Wonka. In short, a Flourish and Botts for adults.

As one evolves into a reader every author daydreams about – “ah, and a lover of lists, a twiddler of lines. Shall this reader be given occasionally to mouthing a word aloud or wanting to read to a companion in a piercing library whisper? Yes; and shall this reader be one whose heartbeat alters with the tense of the verbs? That would be nice…” (1) – your quest for the ideal book store becomes more and more fervid. You are neither intimidated by previous wisdom – “If Jack Kerouac had set out to find a real bookstore in the suburbs, he would still be on the road, Phileas Fogg would still be in the air, the Ancient Mariner wouldn’t have had time to tell anyone his story” (2) – nor are you disheartened, even if the city is Mumbai, where Mammon is the said ruler, fantasies apparently come attached with business plans, and devoted readers are said to be as rare as authentic book stores.

The Despair of Discretion vs. Strand Book Stall

As courtship with books turns into a long-term relationship, the usual tricks up a book’s dust sleeve – the bold and bright bestseller insignia, the gushing blurb, the shady ellipses in the praises section – start losing their charm. They only make you more wary instead of more enthusiastic. You tread with caution remembering all the times in the past you have been hasty and burnt. You look for genuineness and magic which don’t fade out once you are back home with them. 

When it comes to loving books truly, madly, deeply, it is hard to find somebody more genuine than late T.N. Shanbhag, founder of the 63-year-old Strand Book Stall. Driven out of a bookstore for browsing way too long, he started his own bookshop at the lobby of the elite Strand Cinema, Mumbai. He started with not one but many quixotic dreams which come true everyday at seven of their outlets across India for hundreds of readers – one in Mumbai, three in Bengaluru, one in Mysore, one in Pune, one in Hyderabad. Except the major two in Mumbai and Bengaluru, the rest of them are by request of IT majors Wipro and Infosys in their respective campuses.

The dreams of a book stall where browsing is held sacred, only genuinely good books are stored (bestsellers are sourced in a jiffy too, if you insist on being a yokel) and most importantly every book comes with a discount of at lest 20% on the cover price, are dreams no more. The discount is actually the margin from publishers, aka profit, handed over to the readers. None of them seemed to make any sense for a businessman, but Mr. Shanbhag was a reader first.

And now that Strand Book Stall is run by his daughter Vidya Virkar in Bengaluru and the family of his Man Friday and Manager, Mr P.M. Shenvi in Mumbai, things have only turned sunnier for readers.

Strand Book Fair, a brainchild of Vidya, is now a bi-annual pilgrimage for Bengaluru and Mumbai book lovers. Huge exhibition spaces are hired and the entire warehouse of Strand Book Stall turns up in full glory. When this collection joins hands with up to 80% discounts, the book lovers’ eyes glaze over with lust and their wrists ache with plastic bagfuls of haul.

True love for good books compels Strand Book Stall to take up occasional publishing endeavours of exceptional books, simply because nobody else will. Like the 1931 book A Case for India by the noted philosopher Will Durant. A book which went to great lengths to praise India’s poise under British fire and its upcoming glory. This book has since been conveniently let go out of print. Now republished by Strand Book Stall in English and several Indian languages it’s finally getting its due share of attention.

And it’s again true love of books that makes them think twice before spending money on expanding, computerizing or sprucing themselves up. Because who would want yet another shiny book shop that keeps the profit and sells bestsellers at cover price?

Strand Book Stall, ‘Dhannur, Sir P.M. Road, Fort, Mumbai 400001. Tel: 0091 22 2266 1994/2266 1719/2261 4613,

The Gluttony for Bargains vs. City Book Centre

There has been at least one recorded instance where a biblioholic has paid the price of a steady girlfriend for a rare autographed book. (3)

And there have been gazillions of instances where book addicts have spent other equally obscene amounts on books. In fact, there is someone, somewhere blowing the roof off his credit limit right now at a book store. But inexplicably, if there is anything which this species enjoys more than overspending of books, it is saving money on books. They will go anywhere, even the deep entrails of the internet to get a great deal on books.

They also go to City Book Centre. It was transported to the suburbs after being evicted following the Municipal Corporation’s enforcement of their no-hawking policy at Fort a couple years ago. Very few of the wonderful roadside booksellers have been so successfully replanted.

As soon as you cross the crowded street, you are thrown headlong into books of all sizes, shapes and ages. The readers are just as varied. Mothers buying books for children, Engineering students fingering text books, Medical students looking at them irritatedly (medical books are not stocked due to their high price) and pretty much everybody leafing through modern day penny dreadfuls and the latest Man Booker winners.

Nobody leaves empty handed from City Book Centre because even if you don’t want to spend a pittance (it’s impossible not to like even a single book in this tiny yet jam-packed darling of a store), there is a lending library system with dirt cheap refundable deposits and variable fees. The beauty of the fee structure is the resale value of the book is less than the deposit. So the books are theft-protected.

The owners reveal that they source their rich haul of secondhand books from containers at Mumbai ports. I could have pressed on but I shut right up when the throw in a cup of tea in my bargain haul of books.

I smile as I wade through knee-deep traffic.

City Book Centre, Shop No 5, Sukhamani Building, Junction of S.V. Road & V.P. Road, Near Archie’s Gallery, Andheri West, Mumbai 400058. Tel: 0091 22 6553 2739,

The Sloth of Familiarity vs. Victoria Book Centre and VCD DVD Library

Every book lover has a favourite position in bed, for reading. (4) Lying on your side, lying on your back holding the book up with your strong hands, doing the half-cobra pose with your hands propping your cheeks, pillow under your stomach with the book against the wall, and several others which might best be kept inside bed rooms. But no matter how uncomfortable your position sounds to others, it is instant Nirvana for you. The moment you and your book strike that pose, the cares of the world fade away, the day slowly slides off your shoulder and you are home.

I feel the same aura of familiarity when I enter Victoria Book Centre and VCD DVD Library, even though I have never been there before in my whole life. Past the faded, hand-painted ‘Wanted Help’ posters (not a single spelling mistake, by the way) and racks and racks of magazines, I enter the store and learn that the owner has been out for lunch for the last couple of hours. As a strong supporter of both independent spirits and long lunches, my heart gladdens and I start browsing. A shopfront with multiple sections for new books, old books, magazines and soon to be added text book section, it’s a place with a whole long, lazy summer afternoon’s worth of browsing. Luckily, it was a long, lazy summer afternoon. I spot usual suspects, vintage favourites fallen from grace and a surprisingly eclectic collection of Indian writing in English.

As I chat with the lady in the store and the owner on the phone, I wonder why this 60-year-old store seems so familiar to me. Then, a bunch of kids walk in to browse, and I know the answer. This was how all bookshops used to look when I was a kid.

The kids turn out to be a few of the thousand plus members of the lending library who pay a laughably low fee to read hundreds of books. When I ask the owner why the fees are so low, he laughs indulgently and says most of the kids who are members today are third generation patrons of the store. Then he mentions the really high number of members to make it good, as well as the advantages of being located next to a school. Then he stops for a moment and hastily cracks a joke about me being a probable income tax agent in disguise.

When I step out, I notice the owner has trust enough in strangers like me and many others to keep the keys hanging from the glass cases. I let out a contented sigh. All seems to be well with the world.

Victoria Book Centre and VCD DVD Library, 12 L.J. Road, Between Sitladevi Temple & Victoria School, Mahim, Mumbai 400016. Tel: 0091 22 2446 1897

The Lust for the Niche vs. Marine Sports

There is a very thin line between discretion and niche-snobbery when it comes to the reading habit of biblioholics. For example, a fellow biblioholic had started an online group for discussing books so niche that only a handful of people had read them, an idea poetically doomed to some and simply doomed to most. On the other hand, there is another biblioholic who refuses to read Harry Potter books simply because they are way too popular. But no matter which side of the line your err in, just like the occult to the masses, the niche has an Eldorado’s appeal to biblioholics.

Reason why I landed up at Marine Sports, Mumbai’s and India’s only sports bookshop, despite being gloriously underaccomplished in all kinds of sports since childhood. The Cricket World Cup 2011 has just been over. I have avoided it like the plague and cursed it repeatedly for hindering my bookshop-hopping. But there was another, secret reason. I frankly could not believe that there were enough books about sports that could fill up a bookstore. Because playing sports are all about not reading books and vice versa, right?

I realise how wrong I was, the moment I step into the store. Only cricket rulebooks cover up a sizeable portion of the wall. Then there are some more cricket. Biographies, analyses, history, rare Wisden Almanacs and encyclopaedias. Though the three-fourths of the store are cricket books, there are books on tennis, netball, rugby, water sports, cycling, football, hockey, judo, table tennis, sports psychology, sports medicine and, most importantly, Olympics. I also spot a gorgeous giant tome about the automobiles of Maharajas. In fact,their online catalogue lists sports alphabetically with sometimes multiple entries under each letter. And then there are how to videos, recorded matches and other paraphernalia. When a gentleman drops in for a history of table tennis, he is confidently told that no such book existed yet, otherwise it would have been available.

When the affable owner, Theodore Braganza drops in to chat, I get to know the amusing birth story of this store. Started by his father late Bruno Braganza in Marine Lines, Mumbai as a sports goods store it slowly turned itself into a bookshop. All because of his abiding love for books and increasing distaste of the murkiness of sports goods business. And his acquaintance with the leading sports institutions and sportsmen of those days certainly helped. Legendary cricketers dropped in often, asking for books on opponents, before they went on tours. Thanks to extensive networking with sportsmen, sports journalists and genuine eye and nose for sports books, Marine Sports has grown into the institution it is today, supplying to hundreds of library and thousands of individuals worldwide. Prudent moves like a website and regular presence at all major sporting events have not hurt either. In fact, so encyclopaedic is their collection that many a devoted mail order customer have been shocked when they have walked into the tiny store.

This unique access to the sports fraternity has also helped them publish unique books, mostly on cricket that are considered collectibles by the discerning. India’s recent Cricket World Cup 2011 win has spurred him into publishing two books, once for the serious cricket junta and one for wide-eyed fans.

After an unusually long chat and browsing, when I finally get up to leave, I realise my apathy to sports has come down several notches thanks to the familiar empathy with books I saw at the heart of Marine Sports.

Marine Sports, 63A, Gokhale Road North, Dadar West, Mumbai 400028. Tel: 0091 2432 1047/2436 6076,

The Pride of Idealism vs. Gandhi Book Centre

No bibliophile ever says this out loud but all of them secretly believe that books can change lives. And this belief has not come to them from any self-help book but from themselves. They know how books have changed their own lives, helped them travel through time, discover deep bonds with perfect strangers, made them live hundreds of lives in one lifetime, made them less judgemental, more compassionate and most importantly less bored. That is why when I come to know of a bookstore that only sells Gandhi-related book, I take down my shield of cynicism and get going without any delay. After all who has changed more lives than this man in loincloth and a pair of round glasses?

With the latest idiotic Gandhi controversy (5) still buzzing in my head I approach the book shop, my vision stumbling into Mumbai’s tallest building sticking out like a sore thumb in the background. A few moments after I walk into the store and start browsing a little self-consciously, the staff rush to my help, stricken perhaps by my utterly non-Khadi appearance. My ruse of browsing over, I meet up with the man at the helm, T.R.K. Somaiya. And from him I come to know the surprising origin of the book centre and why Gandhi Book Centre is anything but a book centre. The story had, not surprisingly, had less to do with lofty thoughts and more to do with down-to-earth actions, just the way Gandhi intended.

The year was 1982. Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi was running in Bombay to packed theatres and Gandhi-ism was in the air. T.R.K. Somaiya, a dedicated Gandhian, decided to make use of the opportunity and started selling The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Gandhi’s autobiography) in front of theatres. The plan seems to work wonderfully and thus was born Gandhi Book Centre. Twenty-three years later, the Gandhi Book Centre is hardly a book centre but an exhibition, a museum and most importantly a Gandhian nerve centre that sends out his thoughts in periodic waves throughout the country. As a book centre it stocks more books by Gandhi than on Gandhi with a special emphasis on affordable books in Indian regional languages. It also stocks works by Vinoba Bhabe and Swami Vivekananda, both considered Gandhi’s spiritual blood-brothers.

While personal monetary losses mount every year, T.R.K. Somaiya doesn’t hike the mark-up on his titles, neither does he man every exit of city cinema halls but looks for more practical and exciting ways to take the message of Gandhi forward. He doesn’t stop at the usual exhibitions, seminars, exchanges and speeches. He visits the principals of schools and colleges and wardens of prisons in person and convinces them to join the Gandhi Peace Examination Programme, a unique written examination, where the study materials and question papers are supplied from the centre and the prizes as well as certificates are arranged by the respective institutions. About 35,000 students from 73 colleges and 67 schools and 500 prisoners have taken the examination this year. The moment you secretly start scoffing at the naivete of it all, he would smile and introduce you to Laxman Gole. Currently a corporate consultant, he used to lord over a nine member extortionist gang. Charged nineteen times with various crimes and already six and a half years prison sentence over his head, he was all set to go places in the Mumbai underworld. But that was all before he wrote the Gandhi Peace Examination.Now a model citizen, he is one of the living, breathing results of Mr. Somaiya’s experiments with truth.

And whenever T.R.K. Somaiya takes a short break from spreading the truth, helping hands show up from everywhere. Like Professor Aparna Rao from NITIE, a respected local management institution, who helped sell 6,000 copies of Gandhi’s autobiography in a month through her students as part of a management experiment.

While India’s relationship with Gandhi remains ambiguous, a curious mixture of hate, idolatry and occasional surrender (the sales of Gandhi-related books show a sudden spurt whenever there is a national crisis), the relation with T.R.K. Somaiya and Gandhi has remained rock solid in foundation but fluid enough to change with the times. Quite like the tetra-packed buttermilk he gave me to drink.

But next morning Anna Hazare (6) breaks his fast with fruit juice.

Gandhi Book Centre, 299 Tardeo Road, Nana Chowk, Mumbai 400007. Tel: 0091 22 2387 2061/2388 4527,

The Greed for Serendipity vs. Smoker’s Corner Book Stall

“Secondhand books are wild books, homeless books,” said Virginia Woolf. “They have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

Book veterans would agree wholeheartedly. The joy of secondhand bookshops are more in the chase than in the finish. So imagine my anticipation after finally making into very suggestively named Smoker’s Corner Book Stall after three misses. More than half a century ago, the entrance of this store had a tobacco shop frequented by sailors in transit and hence the name.

The readers in the know had told me this was one of the best second-hand bookshops in town. And I am not disappointed. With a zig zag of glass cases, nooks and alcoves, I am already in a biblioholic’s candy land, a secondhand book version of Alice’s wonderland, a little musty, a little dog-eared but with infinitely more character. I wander aimlessly and meet lavishly illustrated German fairy tale books, Harlequin romances, oddball science fiction all tied up in strings, looking out like orphaned puppies in an animal shelter for a second home. I comply.

Smoker’s Corner Book Stall, Botawala Chambers, Sir P.M. Road, Fort, MumbaI 400001. Tel: 0091 22 2216 4060

The Longing for the Lost vs. The New & Second Hand Book Shop, Kalbadevi

The journey unfortunately comes to an end with an obituary. No book pilgrimage in Mumbai supposedly should exclude The New & Second Hand Book Shop, Kalbadevi. I was forced to commit this blasphemy. Because the book shop no longer exists and has given way to a computer goods shop recently. From a report from the past, by

Founded in 1905 by Vishram’s grandfather Jamalbhai Ratansey, this corner store started out selling raddi paper, moving on to include school texts and exercise books before finally introducing fiction and non-fiction around the Second World War.

Ask whether people still read a lot nowadays and Vishram smiles somewhat ironically, “to use modern terminology, the ‘feedback’ is not so great.” He rues especially the decline in the number of younger readers thanks to media like television and the Internet, saying that “most now read only if they have to, if the book happens to be in their curriculum.”

Even though there’s no (apparent) order within each section, browsing through these shelves is like taking a chronological crash course in Mumbai’s reading preferences. From the frail 1855 copy of the Poetical Works of John Dryden (Rs 350), to the quirky Rise and Fall of American Humour (Rs 150), the beautiful illustrated 366 Goodnight Stories (Rs 120) and an outdated Cassette Guide from Penguin (Rs 150). (7)

May the soul rest in peace. Amen.


  1. In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, William H. Gass
  2. Michel Winerip, The New York Times
  5. Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, Joseph Lelyveld

Images Courtesy: Prarthana Singh (, Fiona Fernandez (

Positively 4th Street

Photograph: Josh Palmer (Creative Commons, some rights reserved)

Robert O’Connor reports from the Minneapolis Dinkytown and West Bank scene where Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan

The University of Minnesota’s main campus is divided into two campuses – one in St. Paul, the other in Minneapolis. The one in Minneapolis is divided in two again, straddling the east and west sides of the Mississippi River. On both sides are neighborhoods where musicians, artists and writers hang out. Both of these neighborhoods have their own music, their own character and their own legends – some of them have gone away and become more well known like Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt.

Dinkytown on the east and the West Bank on the west are the names of these two places. Dinkytown’s business district is two blocks long on 4th Street, between 13th and 15th Avenue. It got its unusual name because of the trolleys that ran between the two U campuses – called Dinky’s – used to be housed nearby.

The center of Dinkytown is the corner of 14th Avenue and 4th Street, where the Loring Pasta Bar sits. For the last 10 years it’s sat in the place where Gray’s drugstore used to be. Bob Dylan and his then-girlfriend Ellen Baker would sip sodas there while he had a room upstairs with a rent of $30/month.

When Bob Dylan came to Dinkytown in the fall of 1959, he was still Bobby Zimmerman. He had played a few gigs with Bobby Vee in North Dakota under the name Elston Gunn that summer and he arrived in Minneapolis to go to the U of M. He stayed in the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity while taking a few classes in the U’s liberal arts program.

He started playing at the 10 O’Clock Scholar, which used to be on the corner of 5th Street and 15th Avenue. He would play for a few hours in exchange for a meal or a percentage of the sales. While at the Scholar, Bob played with Spider John Koerner – the first guy he met there – and Tony Glover, both of whom he talks about in his book Chronicles. When he asked for a raise, he was kicked out and started playing at the Bastille and the Purple Onion Pizza Parlor in St. Paul. There’s a Purple Onion on University just next to Dinkytown, but the name is apparently a coincidence.

Bob only played covers then, most of them traditional or Woody Guthrie, Jimmy Rogers or Johnny Cash songs. He spent the summer of 1960 in Denver, where he met a young Judy Collins. When he came back he had his harmonica.

His friend Dave Whitaker gave Bob a copy of No Direction Home, Woody Guthrie’s autobiography. Bob devoured it and adopted the name Bob Dylan, after the poet Dylan Thomas. He changed his dream of being a rock star to being a traveling troubadour. He left Minneapolis in December 1960 for Chicago, landing in New York on January 24, 1961. And the rest is history.

John Koerner came to the U of M as an engineering student in the late ‘50s. He was given a guitar and some blues records and became “Spider John”. He was a regular at the Scholar, playing with Bob and Dave Ray. Koerner, Ray and another bluesman Tony Glover started playing together at the Triangle Bar on the West Bank. They would play off an on until Ray’s death in 2002.

In 1968, Glover had an overnight radio show on KDWB-AM where he’d interview musicians, including Jimi Hendrix and The Doors, who were passing through town. He also started writing about the blues for the Little Sandy Review – one of the first publications to write about Bob Dylan. The LSR’s co-founder Paul Nelson later became an A&R man at Mercury Records and signed The New York Dolls to their first label. The LSR was also edited for a time by Barry Hanssen aka “Dr. Demento”. Glover’s since written for Rolling Stone, Creem, Sing Out and Circus! (where he had one of the earliest reviews of the Allman Brothers)

Koerner went to New York in 1966, but was sent back to form a band by Electra Records. With pianist Willie Murphy he recorded the album Running, Jumping, Standing Still.

Ray was the producer and engineer on Bonnie Raitt’s self-titled debut album, where she played Koerner’s song ‘I Ain’t Blue’. Willie Murphy also produced the album and played on it along with members of his band The Bees. Raitt’s brother Steve along with Ray ran a studio Sweet Jane Ltd. in Cushing, Minnesota where The Bees debut album was recorded.

Murphy had a show on KFAI when the station began in the Walker Community Church in south Minneapolis in 1978. The following year Murphy helped get a show for Lazy Bill Lucas.

Lazy Bill Lucas got his name from Little Walter Jacobs. On his radio show he’d bring in blues musicians when they stopped in town. Joel Johnson took over the show after Lucas died in 1982 and continued it until his own death in 2003. Harold Tremblay’s show House Party continues the spirit of Lucas and Johnson’s shows on KFAI. He plays a Lazy Bill Lucas track on every show.

Prairie Home Companion
Garrison Keillor moved to the West Bank in 1964. He was a student at the U and the editor of its literary magazine Ivory Tower. He’d hung out at the Scholar, which he describes in Homegrown Democrat and wrote about his stay in the West Bank in the introduction to Cyn Collins’ book West Bank Boogie.

In 1969, he found a job as a morning show radio host on KSJR in Collegeville, Minnesota, not far from St. Cloud. He played a wide selection of music and eventually had his own house band, The Powdermilk Buscuit Band, made up of friends of his, naming the show A Prairie Home Companion.

The players were local musicians like Bill Hinkley on the fiddle, Judy Larson who sang. When Bill Hinkley left, Mary Dushane replaced him on fiddle. Butch Thompson was the house pianist on the show until 1986, though he still frequently performs there. The show moved to St. Paul in 1974 and it’s been there ever since.

Hinkley and Larson also played in an Australian bush band with Maury Bernstein. Bernstein played folk songs at the Scholar and helped bring musicians there. He taught ethnomusicology at the U for a few years.

Pop Wagner organized the June Apple Musician’s Co-op with Bob Bovee. Mary Dushane and Jerry Rau were members of the collective. It had been inspired by Utah Philips’ Wildflowers Co-op in Saratoga Springs. He also started a label, Train on the Island, for musicians to put out their records. Dakota Dave Hull and Sean Blackburn’s album Here’s Sean Again was the first they put out. Hull currently has a show on KFAI.

Dakota Dave Hull has a show on KFAI every Thursday morning, where he plays folk and roots music with either local musicians like Andy Cohen or Tim Eriksen or the ones who pass through town.

Jerry Rau continues to play his own songs around the University campus and downtown Minneapolis.

The West Bank is a mix of the older folks – the people who made it the Haight-Ashbury of the Midwest a generation earlier, and immigrants from Somalia.

Dinkytown still swarms with students and independent shops, though a few brand stores like McDonalds and Potbelly Sandwiches have gotten in. The Scholar closed down and went through a bunch of changes before becoming a video rental store for a while. When that closed, the building was torn down.

The Loring Pasta Bar and the Varsity Theater are the places to find local music in Dinkytown, while Nomad’s bar, the Cedar Cultural Center and Palmers bar are the places to find the legends, new folks and those passing through town. The Acadia Cafe on the corner of Cedar and Riverside has a growing stable of younger artists who work for a meal or a small amount of change, just like Bob.

The folks you’ll find at these shows are the kinds of people Garrison Keillor saw living in the West Bank when he moved there almost half a century ago: “They had jumped off the career bus and were living for what they loved – the true American Dream, to buck the trend and go your own way, guided by your heart”.

Further Resources:

Pop Goes Literature: The Decemberists

An authentic literary sensibility in pop music is rare but according to Ben Granger The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy has more than enough to share

Pop music and literature are two separate miracles, the silent shout and the screamed secret, two wonders working to their own, different and divided rules. Each has seductive thrills of its own. Pop music has no need to attain the form of literature to achieve greatness. A great many of its practitioners have thought otherwise however, and there have been countless pretenders of one form to the other. Whether its Iron Maiden raiding Coleridge or The Eurythmics mugging 1984, the straightforward homage, sad to say, usually rings false. Frank Zappa’s denunciation of rock music writing was “like dancing about architecture” and the ‘category error’ is just as stark the other way. The essence of one does not easily translate into the other. That doesn’t mean it is not possible however, that the breadth, sway, richness and ambiguity of literature cannot be captured in song. A true – successful – literary sensibility in pop music is a rare thing indeed, but it can happen. It doesn’t come from showboating references but a much deeper understanding of the texture of literature. Colin Meloy is firmly and defiantly in this tradition.

Meloy’s Oregon band The Decemberists have shone out in the past decade like a lighthouse through the murk of mediocrity, conveyor pop shite and landfill indie alike. Unfashionable dedication to virtuoso musicianship has played its part in this, and it’s certainly a special band which is capable of single-handedly rehabilitating the accordion as a musical instrument. But it’s the lyrics which make The Decemberists unique. Meloy uses words very rarely found in pop songs. Words like ‘frigidaire’, ‘ravine’, ‘parapet’, “odalisque” and “cardamom”. He rhymes ‘flue’ with ‘1842’ and ‘mirage’ with ‘shiraz’ and then ‘applause’. He sings “I was wedded and it whetted my thirst”. No other songwriter would write the couplet

And I say your uncle was crooked French Canadian
And he was gut-shot running gin,
and how his guts were all suspended in his fingers
And how he held them, How he held them, held them in.

Sometimes they are self-consciously archaic, especially when the scene being captured is explicitly rooted in the past (i.e. “and what irascible blackguard is the father?” from the Hazards of Love epic). More often than not though they are not so much archaic as parochial and particular, evoking an immediate time, place and essence. They are certainly unafraid to seem florid. Pop music, even in ‘sophisticated’ pose, usually sticks to a convention that verbosity strangles vitality and immediacy. Orwell wrote that Yeats was the exception to the rule that poets tend to avoid self-consciously ‘poetic’ language. Meloy is the exception to the rule that self-consciously literary language has no place in pop. When he sings that “Pretty hands do pretty things when pretty times arise / Seraphim in seaweed swim where stick-limbed Myla lies”, you could wince at a grandiosity that is ‘out of place’ in pop. Or you could delight at what is, quite simply, a gorgeous lyric.

Beyond phraseology, further proof that Meloy’s is a truly literary style is his single-handed one man revival of the Narrative – capitalise that N! – in pop songs. Storytelling is more common in both the folk and country musical genres that The Decemberists also straddle, but Meloy is rare in bringing this back to the indie-rock sound which remains their base.

And such Narratives. Laudanum-drugged French Legionnaires dreaming of home, the un-resting ghosts of poverty-stricken barrow-boys and stillborn babies, runaway 10th-century female harem slaves and 20th-century male prostitutes, vengeful sea-crew and psychopathic Ulster Protestant terrorist splinter groups, lovelorn honeytrap victims of rogue security service agents. From first album, Castaways and Cutouts, until the fourth, The Crane Wife, The Decemberists proved themselves the masters of capturing the skewed short story in song. Most pop lyrics are a bastardised cousin of verse poetry, but this was a truer poetry finding its form in novel or short story prose – to emphasise the fact, the lyrics in the liner notes to Castaways are written out in prose paragraphs rather than verse style. Stories in the true sense (though usually not true stories), these were vignettes which didn’t just carve out their scenes with precision, but also gave an inner life to the characters within.

The narratives do not always follow the traditional linear form, and to employ literary labels Meloy is open to the modernist as well as the realist style.

‘Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect’ employs a drugged, dreamlike drift in the narrator’s identity across different nations and ages. ‘Red Right Ankle’ takes the blood vessels and sinews of its eponymous appendage as the narrator of its first verse. Disjointed, displaced in time and space, they are narratives nonetheless. A broadly realist short story style predominates however, and this aspect reached the perfect peak in this form in 2005’s Picaresque, which, as its title suggested, captured the perfect form of tarnished anti-heroes battling through a colourfully grimy, chaotically uncaring world.

Picaresque showed also however that the Meloy’s sense of the literary goes beyond the Narrative. Its poppiest moment – ‘Sixteen Military Wives’ – is a sardonic satire on the Iraq invasion, sneakily taking the back-door route of mocking its media coverage: skewering the TV commentators, from distinguished academy chairs, to pontificating celebrities with “Wretched chequered lives” and “pristeen moderate liberal minds”. The unreal, disjointed disconnection between the fatuous media circus and the bereaved tragedy of the military wives is presented without a hint of either mawkishness or heavy didacticism, making its point all the more poignant, and wrapping it in a euphoric chorus. This isn’t a narrative as such, there is no beginning or end, nothing “happens”. But it has still evoked characters, and illuminated themes in a startlingly original way, shedding light into corners previously dimmed by dull cliché and repetition. Another song without a narrative is ‘Angels and Angles’, a brief, slight gorgeous meditation on the “angles” of a loved ones features as she fills in a crossword. A finely carved sculpture of a song, fragile in its material but immortal in its robust finish, a miniature marvel to behold. This is why Meloy is a literary songwriter, and not just a yarn-spinner.

Meloy perhaps reached his zenith on the same album with ‘The Engine Driver’. Against an impossibly gorgeous, languid, sonorous backing, he takes on a variety of brief two-line personas with their own brief, terse narrative – an engine driver “on a long run, so will be my grandson”, a money lender who has “fortunes” but is “ever tortured” – but whose chorus whittles these away to reveal that each one of these personas, these forays into fiction, are just the sad standbys, the necessary imaginary retreats of an author “writing pages upon pages trying to rid you from my bones”. A strange, post-modernist self-commentary (is the writer of fiction himself still a character? Or is it, finally, Meloy himself?) is injected with the vitality of raw, pulsing emotion to create a song which nourishes the mind as surely as it grabs at the heart. It also allows it the true status of the literary song.

And yet literate pop is not literature, it still needs a voice, not the authorial tone but a flesh and blood trachea that makes a noise. Meloy has self-deprecatingly dubbed his singing voice “my famous donkey bray”. “Mannered” would be a polite criticism, “whiny” a less polite one, and when one considers this voice is at times singing interpretations of folk tales from medieval Irish mythology, it is easy to see how some may think at first, second and even third listens that here is the nadir of clever-clever self regarding “college rock”, to coin a hideous phrase. And yet, ultimately, it is the raw, naked tremulousness of this voice which gives the final spark of life to these songs. What at first sounds mannered quickly shows itself as an instrument whose every stray inflection counts, not a syllable goes astray. When the word ‘tramp’ in ‘We Both Go Down Together’ extends one syllable into four, the effect is startling, and an anguished truth carries along its contours.

Some of the tales Meloy tells are so far out and fanciful they would be easy to dismiss as arch or pastiche. Sometimes, undoubtedly, the melodrama is played for laughs, as with ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’, a bloody, syphilis-ridden tale told from within the belly of a whale. Often there is an air of whimsy. But even in his most playfully outlandish narrative realms, Meloy’s red-raw voice, backed by the pitch-perfect instrumentation, manages to give the characters a hauntingly real emotional resonance – yes, even from inside a sperm whale’s stomach. With fifth album The Hazards of Love, the band moved from the short story to the novel, from the song in a single to a full-blown album length rock opera. In theory this should be the very height of overblown prog-rock pretension, especially when you consider that the plot concerns the star-crossed love between a young maiden and a fawn which shape-shifts into a man under the jealous tutelage of the Queen of the Forest… And yet, what could so easily seem risible, instead becomes magical, an emotional odyssey which sweeps you along with the characters, and showing that the narrative is a runic metaphor for the travails of the heart as well as a baffling medieval oddity. It is that too though, and the idiosyncrasy only in increases its lunatic appeal. Its centrepiece, ‘The Rake’s Song’, is an amazing piece of work which shows in the starkest relief the tension between the emotional honesty of Meloy’s delivery and the outlandish nature of the subject matter. We are once again into Meloy’s most melodramatic territory, a ‘rake’ who after his wife’s death following “her womb spilling out babies” seeks to “divest his burden” so he can live the bachelor life once more – by murdering each one of his children. This character is so monstrous as to be Tex Avery cartoonish and, on one level, it is certainly black humour. And yet once more that voice gives it a terrifying edge of sincerity. As the cod-Dickensian argot of the rake’s chorus “Alright! Alright! Alright!” ritually repeats itself the effect is certainly funny on one level, but genuinely sinister and shocking on another. This is the success of duality, the marriage of tragedy and comedy which the greatest works of literature attain.

Written while in pastoral retreat in the remote Oregon countryside for a year, with 2011’s The King is Dead, Meloy has swung the pendulum altogether away from the narrative epic of Hazards of Love – some would say one extreme to another. These are short, straightforward songs with neither extended nor individual story-telling narratives between them. At first listen The Decemberists aficionado may feel short-changed. With these relatively amorphous, impressionistic outings, where is the intellectual grandiosity which makes them the weird wonders they are? This however, is to forget the other more subliminal elements in The Decemberists’ make up being brought to the fore here, the sense of place (the rural West) more subtly hewn, itself bringing out a deeper edge to the contours of nerve-scratchingly raw emotion in its examinations of lost childhood and lost children, of joyous working solidarity and defiant class struggle, and most of all of the infinite sublimities of nature to be found in the year’s seasonal turnings. This is clearly Meloy at his most personal, not cloaked amid his ever-myriad personae. The paintings created are from a more subdued but no less beautiful pallet. Perhaps this is the album where the music and that beautiful voice are left to do the heavy lifting, but still there is time for a comedic dream about Armageddon, where apocalyptic Andalusian tribes lay waste to the world as our hero is exiled to a new civilisation below ground “and I’ll be crowned the Community Kick-It-Around”. Understated-ness, it seems, can only go so far in Meloy’s world. Long may that remain so.

Literature is sometimes held to be an elitist form. In strict literal terms it is, if by elitist we mean staying true to individual vision and not allowing itself to pander to crowd pleasing, quasi-democratic mediocrity. The Decemberists are the very definition of the ‘cult’ band, one whose followers have a fevered adoration to their idols and a snobbish view of the outsiders who will never “get it”. And yet this proud secret of their bookish acolytes are now finally breaking into the mainstream, with The King Is Dead topping the US charts, something beyond anyone’s most fevered imaginings even a year back. Already you can hear the whispers of “sell-out”. Yet this would be as unfair as it is untrue. There is no need for Meloy to water down his literary sensibility as wider popularity beckons, and nor has he. And nor, I strongly suspect, will he. One last literary parallel: what is at first denounced as a perverse irrelevance, of interest to only a cliquish minority, often comes to be accepted as genius by a much wider audience a few years down the line. We shall see. In “I was meant for the stage” Meloy claims his destiny is for applause and derision alike. There will never be any shortage of the latter from those who think that the literate has no place in pop. But a growing number are applauding, and this applause is sweet music itself.

Coast Guards: Laurent Gbagbo and the French

US Senator James Inhofe equates French involvement in Côte d’Ivoire with a history of colonialism. Greg Houle argues why he’s wrong

For somebody who constantly boasts about his knowledge and understanding of the African continent, US Senator James Inhofe (R – Oklahoma) sounds shockingly naïve when addressing the recent events in Ivory Coast which has done on a regular basis in recent weeks.

Last month, following the capture of former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo after he refused to leave office despite losing his election to challenger Alassane Ouattara more than four months earlier, I received an email message from Sen. Inhofe’s office with the subject line “French Colonialism Must End”. The email included a link to a YouTube video of Sen. Inhofe railing against Ouattara, the United Nations, the US State Department, and France from the senate floor.

In the twenty-five minutes speech Sen. Inhofe condemned the violence unleashed by French and UN peacekeepers as they liberated the West African nation from President Gbagbo.

“I hope every president of sub-Saharan Africa is watching right now,” Sen. Inhofe says to his colleagues in the senate, “because what happened [in Ivory Coast] can happen to any country in sub-Saharan Africa.”

And if it did, Sen. Inhofe, Africa and Africans would be much better off.

During his speech the conservative senator makes a gallant attempt at using a well-worn liberal line of thinking: instead of allowing the UN and Europe to engage in neo-colonialism in Africa we should be listening to Africans and allowing them to solve their own problems. The French and the UN were choosing sides in Ivory Coast, Sen. Inhofe asserts, and Ivoirians were left voicelessly at the mercy of the imperialists.

Nice try Sen. Inhofe.

During his speech the senator points to a statement made by African Union Chairman Theodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasobo. The chairman, who is also president of Equatorial Guinea, condemns France’s role in Gbagbo’s ouster. (The AU chairman has since pledged the organization’s “full support” to President Ouattara in a press release issued on April 15). The irony of using such a statement by a ruthless dictator like President Mbasobo to illustrate a point about the free will of the people seems lost on Sen. Inhofe, or at least he doesn’t hint that he’s aware of any irony.

President Mbasobo is one of Africa’s worst dictators – which is saying a lot. Having come to power in a bloody coup in 1979, President Mbasobo has remained at the helm in Equatorial Guinea for nearly thirty-two years, where he has stifled all political opposition (all but one member of parliament is from his own ruling party). President Mbasobo is the prototypical African “Big Man”, a megalomaniac, who has built a cult of personality in his tiny nation that rivals anything seen in history. It is so large, in fact, that he has even referred to himself, without any apparent blowback, as a god.

But Sen. Inhofe doesn’t stop there. He goes on to mention a conversation that he recently had with his “good friend” Yoweri Museveni. President Museveni has ruled Uganda for the last quarter century and shows no sign of leaving – even recently having his nation’s constitution changed so that he could continue to rule. Sen. Inhofe assures us that President Museveni too is angered by the “colonialist” behavior of the French and the United Nations in Ivory Coast; another great African “liberator” who wasn’t consulted by the West before they moved in on Gbagbo. What a shame.

The reality, of course, is that Presidents Mbasobo and Museveni, along with so many other African politicians, are shockingly worried at the precedent that was set by French and UN action in Ivory Coast. In fact Sen. Inhofe could have also included Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe in his speech who, after over thirty years of misrule and tyranny, has successfully driven his once-promising nation into the ground. Predictably President Mugabe also decried the West’s involvement in Ivory Coast, and some reports suggest that he even (illegally) supplied troops and weapons to Gbagbo in the process.

The two organizations designed to give a voice to Africans and provide an “African solution” to this African problem in Ivory Coast, the AU and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), failed to do so. In fact it was the very impotence of these organizations that prompted the UN and France to step in and prevent a further slide toward civil war in Ivory Coast and to uphold the internationally recognized election results in the nation.

What Sen. Inhofe doesn’t understand, or refuses to admit, is that the AU and ECOWAS don’t necessarily, or even likely, represent the will of the African people at all. Instead they are mouthpieces for a largely corrupt and all-powerful ruling class in Africa that has for decades all but neglected the overwhelming majority of Africans who they claim to represent and in doing so have helped their nations and much of the continent slide even more deeply into extreme poverty and despair.

Real African voices have been shut out of the African political process in similar ways that Arab popular opinion, until recently, was largely silenced by those in power in the Middle East and North Africa. One of the more remarkable aspects of the popular uprisings sweeping across the Arab world right now is how, perhaps for the first time in generations, Arabs are listening to each other and not to the propaganda of their own corrupt governments. The same tired old bogymen – the United States, Europe, Israel, Al-Qaeda, religious sectarianism – dragged out once again by the regimes in Tripoli and Damascus and Sana’a aren’t having the same results on the people of Libya, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere that they used to have. The citizens of these nations are courageously starting to crack the destructive apparatus placed on them by political leaders whose only goal has been to stay in power at all costs.

While French motives in Ivory Coast may not have been entirely altruistic, by helping to remove Gbagbo, France and the United Nations supported the democratic process in Ivory Coast. And on a continent where you can count the number of democratic transitions of power on one hand, supporting democracy and upholding the democratic process – something that so many African rulers have failed to do for their people for so long – is not only vitally important but necessary for the future of the African people.

Greg Houle is a freelance writer who has written for numerous publications, including the National Review, Philadelphia Inquirer, Charlotte Observer, Washington Times and others. Follow him on Twitter @greghoule

Peter Watkins, The Universal Clock and the Monoform

Writer and director Peter Watkins has dedicated his career to exploring the limits of docudrama filmmaking. After the BBC suppressed transmission of The War Game in 1965, most of Watkins work has been produced in Scandinavia and British interest in subsequent films has been curiously absent. Declan Tan investigates why

Peter Watkins’ directorial work, since his first experiments with the form in the 1950s, has gone a long way in defining ‘essential cinema’ by consistently setting itself apart from the mediocre; the movie as dung, the movie as formulaic product, all of which are most perfectly epitomised by, though not exclusive of, the Hollywood studio system*.

Today Watkins finds himself on the outskirts of modern filmmaking, his bold ideas shot into the black hole of film theory and his striking, often prophetic work sorely neglected though more relevant than ever with the industry’s relentless shift toward its centralised system of funding, where risks are a diminishing occurrence and only the safe bet is laid out on the boardroom table. Consider the situation in Britain and the demise of the UK Film Council, merging with the British Film Institute at the end of March 2011, and we begin to note the significance of Watkins’ campaign to enliven what he so long ago identified as false, stale and “authoritarian” filmmaking.

Having started out as an actor studying at the Royal Academy of the Arts, his early amateur films appeared during a period when the long-lasting effects of Edward Bernays’ influence were truly taking hold in the their push for total mind-wash capitalism, with its tenets still pervasive in the continuing monetisation of the Internet today. But to achieve this complete culture of consumerism, a certain attitude to the audience and its emotions, desires, attention and thoughts had to be adopted, one which can only ensure further stultification of any worthwhile relationship between media and viewer. Watkins was the natural reaction to what he saw as the then-mounting media onslaught.

After compulsory military service stationed in Canterbury, Kent, where he became acquainted with an amateur theatre group by the name of Playcraft, he got and quit a job in advertising before going on to create his initial dalliances in the director’s chair (in which he never really sits), employing the theatre group’s services in his award-winning WW II drama The Web (1956), as well as the American Civil War-set, The Field of Red (1958), both of which have unfortunately disappeared. Watkins then made the first notable and acknowledged work of his formidable filmography, The Diary of an Unknown Soldier (1959), a film which even at such an early stage of his career, began to explore the ideas in form and content that would make his name revered, respected but ultimately censored.

The Diary of an Unknown Soldier was the precursor to the Watkins style that followed; it showed events often coldly brutalised and simplified by the mainstream-media’s need to fit set limits of programming (the Universal Clock; programming constructed without meaning, context or feeling but fitting within time constraints determined by commercials). Watkins transformed them into something tangible and real, and almost always affecting, whilst experimenting with the ‘newsreel’ style, simultaneously developing his work’s relationship to reality, readjusting third-hand perceptions of heroism, disassembling the fourth wall and up-rooting the traditional media’s complacency. This film is, without doubt, a significant film not only in its invention but also in the fresh aspect that it gave to the muddied human face of war, particularly its depiction of the “ordinary, so harmless” enemy; an overt anti-war sentiment voiced by the narrator that would perhaps be too obvious in its message, an approach used in his early films that would become heavily criticised.

Narrated by Watkins himself, and toward its conclusion, the near-weeping Unknown Soldier meditates upon the absurdity of war: men trained to hate, without question, other men who just happen to be wearing a different uniform. Watkins would eventually balance these subtleties of meaning and intent in later masterpieces such as Punishment Park (1971), Edvard Munch (1974) and Evening Land (1977), correcting the blatant didacticism of his first efforts. Though he used the ubiquitous narrator in many of his films, he avoided such blunt statements as seen in Soldier, as he advanced his philosophy on the role of the media.

Watkins followed up with Forgotten Faces (1960), an unbiased faux-documentary about the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and the first of many ‘collective experiences’ brought about by his films. Performed by ordinary people, Watkins again took the Bressonian route of using non-professional actors in a film that functions as an antidote to what he calls the “soap-opera historical reconstructions and TV news broadcasts, by sharing with the public an alternative exploration and presentation of history – especially their own history – be it past or present.”

Forgotten Faces again employed the familiarity of the ‘news broadcast’ technique and mixed in expressive tight-framing, close-ups of hands and faces, where work is required by the viewer not to meet some predestined end or feeling but to further broaden the possibilities of the medium of television, and the chance for an organic relationship between the filmmaker and the audience. He challenged the easy acceptance with which television neglected suffering and struggle by leaving the viewer passive and smothered. Instead, Watkins opens the floor to strongly opposing views, where the political message is ambivalent and, by using non-professionals, furthers his cause of involving the public in a democratic media, a method he would use throughout his career.

In Forgotten Faces, an early experiment with what became his style, events play out as if they are happening ‘now’. Shot in the back streets of Canterbury with a few Hungarian citizens and many of the Playcraft group, the players act out history and ‘become’, in many ways, a part of it. With this technique the inherent distance of history is contracted. The actors are aware of the camera, confronting the artificiality of stage-settings and trickery, with the camera suddenly focussing and readjusting to add a further element of realism played out naturally, instead of in predetermined set-ups that ring hollow and false. We are presented with brutality and quiet, feeling and reflection, crammed into every frame. This method, he hoped, “might help the public to break away from this repressive system, to distance themselves from the media-cultivated myths of ‘objectivity’, ‘reality’, and ‘truth’, and to seek alternative information and audiovisual processes for themselves.”

Along with the releases of his early films came the attention of the BBC, where he would eventually go for a time and create the next two of his revolutionary films; Culloden (1964), which drew connections between the “rape” of the Highlands in 1746 and the war in Vietnam; and The War Game (1965), a dramatisation of a nuclear strike in the UK, and its effects (the film was banned and the BBC moved to marginalise Watkins as a filmmaker, before hypocritically picking up his Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature).

Both of these BBC-funded films saw him continue to implement his philosophy for public/audience-engaged, democratic film, thereby removing “the comfortable avoidance of reality” inherent in conventional programming on television, to make it so that form and substance move in tandem and instigate genuine discussion into an otherwise one-way stream of mass audiovisual media, later termed the MAVM by Watkins.**

Exiled by the BBC for The War Game (1965) and pounced on by the critics for his now-accepted cinema outing, Privilege (1967), Watkins has never been willing, or permitted, to return to corporate television production, instead choosing to work from a distance in communal epics all over the world. At times, his work has met with extreme disapproval, to say the least, with many strange events transpiring either at showings of his films (the BFI refused to introduce him to the audience at a screening of The Freethinker) or in the producer’s office (many becoming highly vindictive and personal in their attacks). By challenging the mainstream media’s handle on the way we ‘view’ the world through television and film, Watkins has laid out new possibilities for meaningful audience interaction with media, not just for viewers and those involved in production, but on a personal level, as demonstrated in the genius of Edvard Munch, in which he faces many of his own demons through the guise of the once heavily censured Norwegian painter. Like Munch, who mixed past and present on his canvas and had subjects stare out at the viewer, Watkins must also wait to be accepted by the over-seers.

From the highly controversial to the startlingly personal, Watkins has simply wrought more truth from the faux docudrama genre than the directors of recent Iraq and Afghanistan documentaries have from the typical vérité school. That one-sided films like Restrepo are seen as objective is a trick played on audiences and a further example of the unaccountable actions of an irresponsible, lazy media. We are to believe footage has not been edited or structured to form a narrative, even of the loosest kind (despite the intercut talking-head interviews), a narrative that forces a feeling in the audience intended from the beginning and followed through to the end, no matter how manipulative that feeling is. It is a turning of the tables on work such as Watkins’ that struggles to battle the banalisation of torture and violence, seen in his Gladiatorerna (1969).

Watkins taking on the establishment media has been one of the constants of his sustained assault on conventional notions of television and film. A 14-and-a-half-hour exploration of news, civil defence and nuclear warfare that can only be found by special order or screening through a Canadian distributor, called Rësan (The Journey) (1986), is an update on his earlier work concerning the nuclear arms race issue. The filming saw him travel all over the world to see and hear the people’s perception of the problem, which often implicated the role of the mass media in misinformation. As signified by its lack of distribution the film, though important, was not warmly received by television station commissioners.

The question remains: are the effects of the MAVM and its Monoform-language irreversible? Are we only intended to be mere receivers, consumers, passive spectators when faced with news, television and film? The problem lies in education. Young people are trained, according to Watkins, “to accept the mass media in a non-critical light – as neutral, useful, informative elements in the social process, and ultimately, as the means to advance their own career.” Schools, colleges, universities and other institutions offering media and journalism courses all teach blind acceptance of the current form through vocational training; students become “economically rational units” in a system where the framework must be respected and advanced. Watkins writes: “In this process of teaching, students are also made to think that the public is inherently stupid – that it needs authoritarian, simplistic, rapidly-moving language forms in order to absorb (consumer) ideas from TV.”

The intended result, which precludes any critical analysis of technique, structure, or effect, merely slots trainees and audiences into pre-formed moulds, from which there is no real freedom or unique perspective.

But can a film change the world, anyway? Perhaps the BBC’s reaction to The War Game (1965) and their continuing repudiation of Watkins demonstrates the fear behind such a film being made public. Watkins adds: “That audiences have reacted with enthusiasm to work bending and breaking the Monoform, gives a glimmer of hope for the future. Yet as public funding is cut further (under the guise of saving money for the citizen in regards to the BBC) the Monoform and its school of thought will only strengthen through the lack of risk taking that will result from cuts in funding.” Which makes it all the more bleak that the government is enacting further cuts to the arts.

But perhaps now, with distribution opened by the potential of the Internet turned kinetic, filmmakers can move out from under the shade of studio funding to again re-define ‘essential cinema’.


* Recent war documentaries Restrepo (2010) and Armadillo (2010), though notable for their dangerous shooting styles, are examples of the ‘new form’ of false objectivity and reality where the enemy is faceless, the “good guys” are heroes, and despite the “them vs. us” narrative, the films are supposedly apolitical; perhaps a tag used to market films about the invasions to a wider buying audience and one, incidentally, also deployed for the Oscar-winning Hurt Locker (2010).

The falsehood that a film about an illegal war can be apolitical or objective is an especially irresponsible one, particularly considering Restrepo, made by reporters for Vanity Fair and ABC News, a fact which seems to signal another victory for the public relations machine. That a supposedly non-political film about a hyper-political situation has been made is also testament to the backward notions the filmmakers seem to have about documentary film-making. In these films the audience is an outsider looking in, no questions are asked, reasons for the soldiers’ or their superiors’ actions never taken to task; we are merely meant to sit, take heed of the heroism and be shocked by their struggle.

** The MAVM, he says, adheres to a strict framework which communicates, through the entire process, a conclusion preset before the programme even begins. It uses a repetitive audiovisual language with a rhythm that induces a non-stop hammering of the senses where silence and contemplation is wholly ignored, even despised. The constant use of rapid editing in an endless barrage of visual and audio information in a mono-linear push, arbitrarily constructed, prevents any inclusion of the audience into the material and works in keeping viewers from sharing or engaging in the process. This tendency is what Watkins calls the Monoform. These ideas and their existence though undeniable, with proof waiting in your television set, on any channel, at any time of day, give rise to further questions as to the function of media in the modern age.

Further Resources:

The French Connection: Grosso Point Blank

Real-life drug-busting narc Sonny Grosso was the inspiration for The French Connection, advised Coppola on The Godfather and cruised gay bars with Pacino. Story by Tina Bexson

A dozen or so shiny, black suits and their flashy women were enjoying the exotic floor show of Manhattan’s Copacabana nightclub, whilst the slick-haired man at the head of the table splashed the cash around. It was a sight that would change the lives of the two off-duty NYPD narcotics agents quietly sipping their drinks and surveying the scene from the terrace above.

The man with the dough was Pasquele “Patsy” Fuega, a major player in a Mafia-linked New York drugs ring. “I recognised a lot of the others as being dope pushers up in Harlem,” Detective Sonny Grosso recalls. “I told Egan and he wanted to put a tail of the Patsy at the end of the night.”

So Grosoo and partner Eddie Egan tailed Patsy and his bouffant blonde as they drove off on a stop-start tour of the Lower East Side, before heading across the East River and drawing up in front of a Brooklyn diner at 5am. Suspicion was aroused and they set up round-the-clock surveillance and wiretaps. That was just the beginning. During the next four months they uncovered an operation that had 50kg of heroin being smuggled from France to New York every six weeks for a quarter of a century.

The investigation culminated in one of the biggest drug hauls in American history, worth a mega ¢32m, all thanks to a chance encounter in a nightclub in 1961.

Shoot forward ten years, and chance changes Sonny Grosso’s life again. Up-and-coming filmmaker Phil D’Antoni and maverick director William Friedkin decide to turn the case into a film, The French Connection, based on Robin Moore’s factual book of the same name, and starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider as Egan and Grosso (renamed Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo). Once released it became a worldwide box-office hit, winning five Oscars and beating A Clockwork Orange and The Last Picture Show for best film. It had it all: realistic locations, spontaneous camerawork, an unromantic portrayal of policing, and unbeatably pacey action. All of which proved ot be a major catalyst in the revival of the cop genre in the ‘70s, evident in movies such as Serpico and Dirty Harry.

The French Connection’s authenticity was down to advice from the experts. Friedkin immediately hired Egan (who died of cancer in 1995) and Grosso. Not only were they the film’s inspiration – both played small roles – but proved unbeatable technical advisors and location scouts. In fact, they were cinema’s first cop consultants, earning $150 each for working every day of the 60-day shoot as well as continuing 12-hour nightly shifts with the NYPD.

It wa the weeks in pre-production that helped dictate the raw undertones of Friedkin’s feature. Not only did Grosso and Egan grow up in East Harlem, it was also their beat, they knew the score. And in the weeks leading up to the shoot, Hackman, Scheider and Friedkin were taken on a journey they would never forget.

Grosso: “We let them run through the whole gambit with us: the investigations, arrests, even the paperwork and court appearances so they could see us testify. In the beginning they were all shocked by what they saw.

“The first time we hit a shooting gallery it was on 110th Street and 5th Avenue, that’s Harlem. There were about 20 people shooting p. One was a massive woman, about 260 pounds, with a tube around her arm and the needle still jabbed in a vein.

“They came with us when we hit the bars and interrogated people. No one knew they were actors and we let them question the dealers and addicts so they got to feel comfortable dealing with them as though they were policemen. That’s why the movie stands up so well, they’d done it for real.”

In one of two Harlem bar scenes, the extras were all cops posing as drug addicts and pushers. In the other, they were all off the street. “They were people Eddie and I had busted at one time or another. We went to see them at some centre where they were trying to re-habilitate themselves and when we asked if they wanted to be in the movie, they all jumped at the chance. It was that which gave it a real wild smell.”

There were a couple of gun-running scenes, so Grosso and Egan taught them exactly how to hold and fire the weapons during sessions at the police firing range. “They both used our guns in the film, too. Scheider also wore my watch and ring so he felt really comfortable. He wanted my shorts, but I wouldn’t let him have those.”

Scheider was, of course, an excellent choice to play Grosso – same build and colouration; and he hit the right note as the careful detective known for seeing the dark side to situations, hence the nickname “Cloudy” (given to him by Egan). Grosso was the perfect antidote to the flamboyant, risk-taking Egan who mastered disguises such as a hot dog vendor, a deaf mute and a priest. He was nicknamed “Popeye” for his constant “popeying” around Manhattan’s drinking holes. As Grosso says: “He was a real character, way out there, and a great cop.”

Egan’s idiosyncrasies are marked out early in the film. His bizarre method of confusing suspects during interrogation by asking them whether they “picked their feet in Poughkeepsie” is used in the scene when Hackman, dressed as Father Christmas, questions a young guy he and Scheider had chased through the streets. Grosso, having witnessed this so often during the ten years they worked together, hoped Friedkin wouldn’t use it. But he did. “Friedkin loved it. So did Hollywood. They lapped it up, so did the public,” he groans.

Hackman didn’t lap it up, however. Grosso: “Hackman got all disturbed the first time he saw us arrest and lock up a guy. He kept saying, ‘I’m not a copy, I shouldn’t be involved in this.’ Then, when we took the guy to court, he couldn’t wait to get him a hot dog when he was hungry, but Eddie was having none of it. I tried to explain that we had to arrest and bring to court 30 people a month, and bring in another 130 for questioning. If we bought everyone a hot dog, we’d be broke. About three weeks later, he saw the same guy in another shooting gallery. Then he started to get the idea.”

Hackman was far from ecstatic about portraying such an unconventional and sometimes prejudiced cop, and became increasingly irritated by Egan’s Irish “charm”, recalls Grosso: “Eddie was always teasing and chastising Gene. I think Gene had a bit of a problem with the character at the beginning. But as time went on I think he found that there were many similarities between them. When I saw the final cut I was amazed how much Hackman had become Eddie. It gives you the respect you have to have for actors who, with the proper research and direction, actually become the people they play, such as De Niro in Raging Bull.”

It was a great true-life story for the big screen, but the mechanics of filmmaking meant artistic licence was employed to ensure optimum visual effect. The famous scene where Hackman chases an L train was based on an actual chase in which Egan and Grosso tried ot keep ahead of a subway train between Penn Station and Grand Central so they could catch the drug-dealing Frenchman as he got off. To make it more visual, D’Antoni and Friedkin got Hackman to chase an L train which ran above ground along an elevated railway line. A kamikaze stuntman drove the car, driving flat out whilst weaving through the traffic to keep up with the train. The inspired filmic version of this event makes a great action sequence and culminates with Hackman shooting the unarmed Frenchman in the back. Then there’s the ominous and frenzied climactic shoot-out, giving a suitably ambiguous ending to the complicated tale.

Grosso’s new vocation as technical advisor didn’t end here. While Friedkin was completing the final shoot of The French Connection on Wards Island, Francis Ford Coppola was preparing to shoot the interior scenes for The Godfather nearby. Friedkin took Grosso over to meet Coppola. “Friedkin told Coppola that he couldn’t make a movie in New York without ‘Grosso and his gorillas’, so I was hired on the spot. I found locations, showed them how to search, hammered the crowds, drove cars and provided 75 cops as extras as well as members of my family for the wedding scene.”

Grosso made two small appearances in The Godfather as Phil, one of Captain McClusky’s (Sterling Hayden) cops. The first was outside the hospital when McCluskey orders him to lock up Michael (Pacino) and he says: “Give him a break Captain, he’s a war hero. He’s not mixed up with the mob.” They had to do about 18 takes. “I wanted to kill myself,” laughs Grosso. “Because I was acting with Pacino and Hayden, my voice went up in the air like a woman being chased in a dark alley. I learned how difficult it is to be an actor.”

“Phil” was also one of the four guys who shot Sonny Corleone (James Caan) in his car by the tollbooth out on Long Island. “I said to Coppola, ‘If four buys are shooting at him with machine guns each holding 45 slugs, not only would you not find Jimmy Caan, you wouldn’t find the car. They’d all be completely blown away.’

“The next day Coppola called me over, he was such a gentleman, and said: ‘I thought about what you said Sonny, but Jimmy Caan is bigger than life in this movie and we’ve got to kill him bigger than life.’ I still thought he was making a tremendous mistake, but I was dealing with reality and he was dealing with movies. Not only did I learn that he was right, but I also learned that that scene ended up being one of the most memorable in movie history.”

It was on Cruising (1980) that Grosso really came into his own as a technical expert. Reunited with Friedkin, he worked with Al Pacino tracing an undercover cop’s troubled journey into Manhattan’s S&M gay underworld to fish out a crazed killer. Grosso had spent over five years working undercover on all kinds of cases, including a community of deaf mutes (for which he had to learn sign language) and homosexual rings. “We took Pacino out to the gay clubs in Greenwich Village to show him how to operate in that world, so he could observe and get a feeling for how people act.”

But just as Hackman and Scheider would never know what it was really like to work as a narcotics agent, to live immersed in the overlapping worlds of the cop and the mobster, Pacino would never experience the reality of undercover work. He would never know what it took to actually get results, nor would he ever have to master the psychological tactics, or experience the fear.

“Apart from mastering your cover story, the biggest thing is to know how to get information without anyone realising; also, to know how to remember faces, times, locations so you can go back and complete a report. You’ve got to remember to adopt all the characteristics, too. It’s stupid, but I was once trying to buy marijuana in East Harlem. I wasn’t smoking because I don’t smoke, and a guy came over and asked if I wanted a cigarette… I almost said ‘no’.”

Then there’s the decision on whether to take protection. “You’re often afraid to wear a wire or carry a gun into the bars because women will pat you down or touch you in all different places when they hug you – they’re told to do that to check if you’re carrying. So you need to be really creative about where you’re gonna carry a pistol.

“I was once searched when I was carrying a gun in my crotch, they never pulled my pants down, but it got pretty hairy. I don’t konw what they would have done if they’d found it. Same goes with a wire. I’d wear it in a real strategic spot running down the lining in the back of my jacket. They won’t always pursue a search if you have a good line of crap, but you’ve got to have the bravado to call their bluff. I don’t want to make out this is 007, but it’s a dangerous job.”

Grosso went on to advise on many other movies as well as being story consultant on numerous television projects, including Kojak, The Rockford Files and Baretta. He formed his own production company, Grosso-Jacobson Communications Corp, in 1980. They’ve produced some of the most successful TV movies and action series sold worldwide, starring big names such as Martin Sheen and Paul Sorvino.

Still, doesn’t he miss the danger of being a cop and the thrill of the chase? At least that dry sense of humour is still evident in his reply: “What I do is I go once a month to a precinct and the cops let me slam the cell door a few times. Every cop says you get an orgasm when you hear it close.”

This article originally appeared in Hotdog magazine. Many thanks to Tina Bexson for permission to republish.

Media and Tech: Data Exhaust and Consumption Tracking

Vanessa Zainzinger follows the breadcrumbs to tomorrow’s tracking trends

Chances are high that you have already used Google today. As you typed in what you were looking for, scanned through the results and clicked on the link you needed, you provided Google with plenty of valuable information. To an extent, you have influenced which links are to show up further up or down on the page the next time someone has a similar query as you. This is a big part of how one of the biggest web companies of its time works: through learning from you.

It is true that your data is everywhere. With every website you visit, every article you read, every Twitter update you write, every click you do on the web, you leave behind a trace of information. Remember the Grimm tale of Hansel and Gretel? Well, you are like Hansel, laying a trail of pebbles as you walk, able to track every step you took. Just that we don’t call it pebbles, we call it exhaust data. This is the sheer unfathomable amount of data left behind as a matter of course by on- and offline activities. The value of this information is yet to be understood, but we know that it is one of the great concepts that will influence our future in unimaginable ways. What can it tell us? If we use it the right way, most anything. As Google’s chief economist Hal Varian told The Economist recently, “Data are widely available, what is scarce is the ability to extract wisdom from them.”.

Data big enough that one has to think about how to store it, let alone how to make use of it, lends enormous advantages to those who can make sense of it. Just as Google has understood how to turn what they’re learning from users into a system which became the key component of their success, a sophisticated usage of exhaust data will help other industries evolve beyond their current capacities.

As digital devices soar and prices plummet, sharing information is becoming more accessible, improvements in algorithms are driving apps forward and the processing power and capacity of storage devices is constantly improving, it is safe to say that the business of data exhaust is about to explode.

Quick to pick it up was, as usual, the advertising industry, which has been bombarding users with targeted ads chosen through passively collected information for years. Whether you approve of this system or not, the industry is growing. Radium One, an organisation that uses social analytics and data to create targeted ad campaigns, has raised $21million in Series B financing only a few weeks ago. They have become immensely popular through their trademark ShareGraph technology, which analyses how users communicate with their closest connections. The business of information management, the collecting and processing of data for commercial purposes, is in fact growing twice as fast as the software business as a whole: at an impressive 10% per year. The industry is estimated to be worth over $100 billion. If you are looking for a change of careers: data scientists are highly needed.

This is the monetizing side of the coin, the one that creates a we-know-your-secrets mood. It tends to make us uncomfortable, the idea that we are being followed by a system and having databases created about us. Who are they to stalk me with an ad for lingerie just because I looked at underwear on Amazon? For marketers, this is like a massive all-you-can-eat buffet with gourmet food. For us, it’s a bit irritating. Wanting to protect their privacy is natural for people, as is worrying about it being intruded. But before going into the controversy about the dangers of handling data overload, it is worth focusing on something that’s much more interesting than the business aspect. That is, the individual. What’s in it for us?

We leave behind little bits and pieces of ourselves and let it go to waste, while there are plenty of ways to turn them into something valuable. We are facing the possibility of learning more about ourselves than we can imagine. The immense proliferation of the information age is turning social sciences upside down by making the analysis of human behaviour on a population level a task involving completely new and more complex methods of communication. In the thousands of possibilities of interpreting the data available to us, there lies a path to deeper self-understanding. Let’s step away from the digital for a moment to emphasise this. There are many mysteries about ourselves that we could solve with the help of a map of our behaviour we create through… everyday living. Given that we document it. Max Winter Osterhaus has been doing exactly this, since he started creating charts and tables about his consumption behaviour (see below). Max, a product developer based in Wisconsin, USA, has been documenting literally every purchase he has made over the past five years down to the different kinds of fruit or bread. By tracking this with a meticulous attention to detail, he has recorded an incredible amount of data about himself – manually. Max spoke to Spike about the value he feels to be gaining from this, and described his goals as “visualising disparate components of a complex existence” and as “coming to terms with the realities of our needs, desires and propensities”.

This is an exceptional example of consumption tracking and the knowledge that can be built upon it. How much does each of us effectively know about their consumption behaviour? More importantly, about what it means? This doesn’t have to be about finding out that 5% of your savings last year went into buying cheddar cheese. It could be about where your high cholesterol level is coming from. Health care is a big part of the data exhaust concept, seeing as this (uncollected) information about ourselves has the invaluable potential to help predict the onset of diseases before the symptoms emerge, of identifying the most effective treatments for you and your individual needs and to spot unwanted drug interactions. Creating software to help us develop an accessible and interpretable dataset of our everyday behaviour might just be the next big step in health care. We are already close to reasonable ways of collecting this information. Think about online and mobile phone payments, a principle which could soon lead to scanning our purchases automatically and sending the information to a third base. This is indeed a very realistic concept and on the doorstep to entering our lives.

Much anticipated health instrumentation service Green Goose takes a slightly different approach in connecting health issues and the ‘Internet of Things’ (what we call the networked interconnection of everyday objects). The company has developed a game-like system to stimulate healthier behaviour. The product is a set of tiny sensors and accelerometers on stickers and credit cards, designed to track certain behavioural patterns. The stickers would be placed on, for example, your toothbrush and recognise the movement of the object when you brush your teeth. This information is sent to the Green Goose base station, which you will have placed somewhere in your home, and added to your online record of activities. The same stickers could be put onto your running shoes, bike, water bottle, pill box and literally hundreds of other objects related to the part of your life style you would like to improve. The system basically documents your everyday behaviour automatically, with the goal to encourage a healthier lifestyle and to help you keep track of it. It makes sense – chances are you will find yourself surprised at how little water you drink or how rarely you ride your bike to work, as these things aren’t something we tend to notice. It is left up to you how to interpret this information, which is still the most difficult task. More sophisticated programs could do exactly that for you and potentially connect to your doctor’s database.

And there is much more we can do with exhaust data. How about a resumé made from passively collected data, as a less manipulable insight into our lives than the little narratives we create ourselves today? Way ahead of you. Technical forum StackOverflow is doing exactly this for its users since the launch of its Careers 2.0 service in February. Users’ contribution to the site through technical answers and questions they have submitted can be turned into valuable information for potential employers, giving a genuine insight into the users’ expertise. Undoubtedly, this system is perfectly applicable to all kinds of business areas. In the near future, we may expect a platform for employers and applicants where part of the application consists of data collected from the potential employee’s online activities, be it social media, blog posts or even the online articles he/she reads. With ever more information available after all, why should employers keep relying merely on what the CV – consequently the applicant – tells them?

These are just few examples of ways to create value from exhaust data. It comes down to an often made point: devices to gather and contain the information are available; how to make sense of it is the true art. It is worth keeping an eye on the hardware, which doesn’t yet offer enough storage space to capture and process the full quantity of information available. The quantity of data grows much faster than the ability of the network to carry it, although the processing power and storage capacity of computer chips is doubling every 18 months, according to Moore’s law. And yet, music website knows what we listen to, Kindle technology Whispersync knows what we read, and brilliant iPad app Zite collects our information to give us individualised magazines with articles we like. Our data is everywhere and it is being stored.

It raises questions of privacy and security, like all upcoming concepts involving personal information do. As deep an insight as it gives us into human behaviour, the desire to protect the captured data is a priority that has to be considered when handling it. The so-called Locker Project, brainchild of open-source guru Jeremie Miller, is an exciting idea that focusses on storing data while protecting it from third parties. Any user is encouraged to download a data capture and storage code to run it on their own server, or alternatively to sign up for a hosted service. After this, the Locker Project will pull in and start to archive all data accessible on- and offline: pictures, videos, click-stream, check-ins, twitter updates, data from real-world sensors like heart monitors, health records and transaction histories. The data extracted will be stored in your personal, private ‘locker’. Everything seems to be done right here: permissions, privacy, storage. Having access to such an extensive dataset about yourself is interesting as it is, but the room for contexts to view it in is even more immense. The team behind the Locker Project is aiming at cross-references with other sets of data, in order to make patterns in it visible which would otherwise be missed. This could reach from food recommendations back to the pre-diagnosis of medical conditions.

Until the Locker Project is launched, you can always do what Max Winter Osterhaus did and have a closer look at your life without the help of digital means. “The record keeping is less important than the analysis and I definitely believe that everyone should do this.”, he tells me about his life-map. “Not everyone wants to come face to face with the truths of their life, but I see it as an essential stepping stone to deeper understanding.”

In the age of information explosion, we are just teaching ourselves how to make action from what we are learning. And everyday we are finding out more.


A presentation by Max Winter Osterhaus on his personal consumption tracking maps and methods:

Creative Industries: Bookbinding: Saviours of The Lost Art

Jeanette Hewitt learns about a different kind of book technology from Judith Wiesner

In a time where digital technology appears to be taking over the world, I deemed it necessary to pay closer attention to a more hands on, artistic approach to our crafts, to find out if our paper bound books are a dying art or even if they still exist at all, and I went back to where it all began: bookbinding.

Scrolls and clay tablets go back in history as far as time, the Ten Commandments were written on two stones tablets in the Old Testament, Exodus 20:3. And as the centuries rolled on words, sayings and scrolls became more intricate with wooden covers and leather spines. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, books became more elegant with rounded spines and covers made of paper rather than wood. Different colour leather started to become more popular rather than what had been brown calf or pigskin. In the twentieth century adhesive replaced the sewn bookbindings and mass production is now fully mechanical.

As we can see, even going back thousands of years, the world was moving forward at a fast pace just as it does today, for only one century later bound books are being replaced by a small, hand held computer, upon which hundreds of books can be stored and read at will. Not a bad thing by any means; saving luggage space when one goes on holiday is certainly an ideal, and books available on the Kindle device are usually less than the cost of a paperback. Is the technology pushing out old ways of creating books though? My question led me to the small village of Rendlesham in East Anglia, and a meeting with Judith Wiesner, bookbinder and book and paper conservator.

As I entered Judith’s studio, all my notes and research flew out of my head as I looked around in awe. For a book lover such as myself this building was my idea of personal heaven. Books line most of the walls, beautiful, old books that must have seen so much history. I spied cases of tools that look suspiciously like the ones that my dentist uses, vice-like machines and a separate room that houses a huge bath for ‘washing’ the paper in the restorative work. Judith’s passion for her work was clear from the start, the day we met was a Sunday, the day of rest, yet she had been at the studio meeting with a client before my appointment.

As we settled down with tea and biscuits, Judith told me her story. From 1992 Judith was based in Prague, just after the collapse of communism, working with many cultural institutions such as Prague Castle, the Decorative Arts Museum, the Fine Arts Gallery and the Jewish Museum to name a few, all the while gaining invaluable experience into preservation and conservation. Although Judith would be far too modest to say, I could tell that she was rightfully proud of her work in helping these people raise and run their own companies, after being under communist control for so long. During the devastating floods in 2002, Judith told me how she watched the basements fill with water and ultimately destroy so many historical items. After doing what she could to help, Judith moved onto Florence in 2004. Ironically, Florence was another site that had been severely damaged by the catastrophic floods of November 1966. After my visit I looked at some photographs on the Internet of this time, and one would be forgiven for thinking they were looking at a photo of Venice. After Florence and the Institute of Art and Restoration, Judith returned to England and graduated from the Camberwell College of Art with a Distinction in Paper Conservation. Here she has remained in Rendlesham and her studio for the last five years.

Judith told me that when she first opened her studio it was quite hard to locally source the equipment that she needed, and how she actually found almost everything on the Internet. An interesting parallel here, I thought, the use of modern technology to enable one to save the historical items. Items such as the architect’s drawers would cost hundreds of pounds, but on the internet and the wonderful world of eBay, here was one in antique oak that was on the verge of being thrown out by the owner. The light table was another difficulty, as apparently everyone is now using Macs as a replacement, but again, one was eventually found. As they say about one man’s trash, it certainly can be another man’s treasure.

We broke off from Judith’s story and I asked about a particularly large book that lay on the side. It was slightly smaller than A3 paper with hundreds of pages and looked very old and fragile. It was, Judith told me, a Monastery Prayer Book, dated from the year 1489, only around 40 years older than the famed Guttenberg Bible. Judith showed me the painstaking task she faced, of cleaning up the spine, which had a chunk out of it, which she would restore using calfskin and Japanese paper, cleaning the pages, which were stained, and filling any holes in the pages. I asked her how long she anticipated this particular job would take to which she replied “two years”. At this point I had to sit down again!

Having a guided tour around the studio it quickly became apparent that this is not so much a lost or dying art at all. Judith showed me piece after piece of work, including numerous book restorations, and a picture from a church. It became apparent to me that here technology has not taken over, working by hand and eye, with passion in the heart, the art of bookbinding and restoration is very much alive. In fact, as I spied the up to date computer in the corner and the Blackberry that beeped with no doubt more requests for restorative help, technology and crafts are working very nicely side by side. However, Judith did admit that unlike when she started, there are no apprenticeships that are up and coming. In the world of ‘blame claim’ culture, the issue of insurance whilst using the different machinery and tools prevents the younger generation from pursuing what could be a wonderfully rewarding career. There is a student at the studio however, a young lady who has studied Greek and Latin, a helpful tool in identifying the books that they are working on. Judith’s workshop classes have also really taken off (I left the interview with full intentions to sign up for one myself.) Perhaps the reason that the studio is so busy is because years ago there were around twenty specialists in Cambridge alone, but today there are just three.

The large picture that had been left for restoration intrigued me. Bought to the studio from a church, it appeared to be very old and I asked Judith what work needed doing. She pointed out to me the paint spatters where somebody had decorated the church and had not covered the picture, bat poo adorned it in places and apparently spiders lived within the painting as well as damage through general wear and tear. She mentioned taking it apart and I was keen to know how one would go about this, as I had presumed that one would work simply on the surface. With a gentle but firm hand and the ‘dentist’ tools, Judith showed me that the painting, although only half an inch thick, is actually made up of several layers which will all need to be taken apart, restored and preserved before being put back together. Restoration is not just putting a pretty face back on the object; it takes it back to the heart and bones of the piece, working from within and not just a cover up.

We moved on to the materials room, where I was shown the Japanese Paper that features so heavily in restoration work. Fine rolls, wafer thin cotton wool-like paper that must demand a steady hand to work with that is delivered straight from the mountain regions of Japan. Marble Papers, decorative material that is used for detailed book covering is all made in England. Here again, we see an art that is being whittled down. Judith told me that there are only three ladies left in England who produce the Marble Paper, in Somerset, Norwich and Cambridge.

As well as restoring books, Judith also makes books from scratch of which I was privileged to see all of the stages that the book goes through. The pages, which are all sewn together at the spine (everything is sewn by hand, there is no mass producing here), the paper used as the pages is an art form in itself, from thin pages to the highest quality paper, thicker sheaves suitable for watercolour painting and paper ordered directly from Italy. Quality is of the utmost importance, as Judith explained whilst showing me the Italian paper. She used to get it from Devon but was never quite happy enough with the quality. The covers are then bound with the marble paper, or one of the many rolls of different leather that are stacked up in the material room and one can witness the precision that is involved; how the book should be entirely straight to the human eye and should be able to stand up on its own. The finished products are flawless, and are for sale at Browsers Bookshop in the neighbouring town of Woodbridge, and also direct from the studio. These items are also what the workshop students get out of the session, mastering everything that they learn throughout the course of the days training and each goes home with a beautiful notebook that they have made with their own hands.

The recession doesn’t really seem to have hit here. Looking around at all the work in process I can see why the studio needs a student in house to help. Book collectors, museums and church patrons all bring their restorative work here. I asked Judith if it is mainly recommendations and she assured me that all of the work she receives is through word of mouth. In this industry, which is more work of art than fix and repair, books, culture and handmade crafts are very much alive.

As we went back into the main studio I asked about the bookcase that held some beautiful books, not the sort you would find in Waterstones, but hardback leather covers in greens and red, original first editions of A.A Milne and the like. These are books that Judith has collected over the years or rescued from being thrown out during a house clearance, or that have been passed down through generations. One that caught my eye was a gorgeous Hebrew bible encased in a metal jacket. The thought that the Kindle might take over such an object of beauty sprung to mind, and although it may turn out to be a space saver for my holidays, it can’t replace such a work of art like the ones I saw today.

As I prepared to return to my technological world of the internet and 50-inch televisions, I was somewhat comforted in the knowledge that here, in a small corner of England, our history is all wrapped up in materials that come here from across the globe in the form of Japanese and Italian paper, the finest leather, the greatest books and religious icons. And it was nice to know that if I needed to return back to a more aesthetically pleasing place, I could, as Judith urged me to keep in touch and I left with three invitations, one to the Woodbridge Book Fair, where she assured me there would be books aplenty, old and new, second hand and collectors items, and also the Woodbridge Metro Fair which houses anything from vintage clothes, antique furniture, books and retro items, and the workshop day where I will experience a small part of the wonderful world of bookbinding.

And as I thought back over the day and all of the beauty that I had seen, I realised that sometimes, it is absolutely okay to judge a book by its cover.


Judith Wiesner can be contacted via her website:

Jeanette Hewitt is author of Freedom First Peace Later, available from BlueWood Publishing.

Free Jazz: Fat Kid Wednesdays: Three Guys Having Fun

Drawing on an improvisational heritage that includes Ornette Coleman, Fat Kid Wednesdays have been playing together for almost 20 years. Robert O’Connor listens in

Fat Kid Wednesdays: ‘Skylark':

For 12 years, until its management dramatically changed hands earlier this year, Fat Kid Wednesdays held a jazz night every Monday at the Clown Lounge, underneath the Turf Club. The Turf Club has been at the corner of University and Snelling in St. Paul, Minnesota for almost 70 years and has always been a hangout for local and independent musicians.

The Clown Lounge, in the club’s basement, hasn’t been around as long, but Fat Kid Wednesdays helped it grow into a popular hangout for free jazz, putting it alongside the Artist Quarter in St. Paul and the Dakota in Minneapolis as a place to find great jazz in the Twin Cities (The trio plays regularly at both of these places).

Fat Kid Wednesdays has three main players: Adam Linz on bass, Michael Lewis on Sax and JT Bates drums. They’ve been playing together since their days at Park Center High School in Brooklyn Park. Being friends, and being friends for that long helps in improvising, says Linz, who is also the jazz director at the MacPhail School of Music. “I try to be a little more melodic in what I do, and try to not just be a bass player.” Linz told Pamela Espeland, who writes about jazz for MinnPost, that they would regularly visit Cheapo in Uptown, Minneapolis and a guy named John Morgan would show them improv records by the likes of Evan Parker.

The trio’s songs are inspired by the music they listen to – which can range from traditional jazz to folk to rock to classical. Linz told me he goes to the movies a lot, so a lot of his songs are inspired by that. Some times they’re inspired by moments on the road – feelings they have that they don’t want to forget, or a good experience somewhere that they remember. When they play they try and recapture moments. At the same time, they want to share this with the audience – they want the audience to have a good time and to feel it with them.

Free jazz has a lineage like most art movements. Adam takes inspiration from free jazz players like Evan Parker and Ornette Coleman who let loose, but also had some sense of structure. Both of them fly, yes, but they’re still anchored on to something.

Coleman’s biggest influence on him was Charlie Parker, who would take the chord changes of standards, put his own melodies over them and make the song his own, even create a new standard with it. ‘Ornithology’ is really ‘How High the Moon’ with a new melody. Evan Parker’s biggest influence was John Coltrane whose improvisations were driven by his experiments in chord stacking and modes.

“Improvisation is kinda like riding a bike for the first time,” Linz told Espeland. “Someone is there holding your hand. You’re nervous and you don’t know what is going to happen. As you let go of those feelings, you enjoy it… it defines you, and you shape it to fit your life. It changes with time and, pretty soon, it’s just like breathing.”

Fat Kids Wednesdays have their own songs, which Linz says are inspired by anything. “I listen to all kinds of stuff, not just jazz.” They’ll bring in new pieces that are usually complete, though sometimes they’re not. And they go from there – changes are usually made to the final piece.

Linz says its important for the audience to have a good time and not walk away confused. If a player improvises, they shouldn’t be incomprehensible. “I’ve seen that attitude among some people, ‘I know what I’m doing and it’s too bad that they don’t,’ and that’s something we try not to do.”

Research at John Hopkins has shown that the old saying “music is the universal language” might have some scientific basis. Dr. Charles Limb described the experiment and the findings at a recent TED talk. He would have a piece of music that musicians would memorize and play and then he would have them improvise over it, with their brains being monitored by an MRI.

What he found was that when the musicians were playing the prepared piece, the motor areas of the brain were active, but when they improvised, the language areas were active.

The arrogance of players who play without that grounding is analogous to someone speaking in a language only they understand.

But with Fat Kid Wednesdays, they try to speak in a language everyone likes. As Linz put it: “We’re just friends having a good time, and we hope the audience has a good time.”

TED Talk, Dr. Charles Limb, ‘Your Brain on Improv’:

Further Reading:
Fat Kid Wednesdays on Myspace
Pamela Espeland’s interview with Adam Linz
Turf Club official site

Sweeping Narratives: Joan Didion

Kevin Fitzgerald gathers together the narrative fragments of Didion’s novels and finds that identity is a collaborative process

In her essay ‘Facing Reality’, Marilynne Robinson likens our present model of the world to so much ‘floorsweep’ – the meagre skimmings from a hundred years’ worth of economics, history, technology merged into a seamless narrative. It is a “collective fiction”, she thinks, and underwritten by its authority we vote, send our children to school and earn our living – but it is a “poor” contrivance which no one would believe in “if we did not want to”.

That narrative is the nightmare from which the novels of Joan Didion are trying to awake. Existing somewhere in the flotsam of Robinson’s sweepings – “the hot white empty core of the world” – they experience a kind of high anxiety over cause and effect. Dread-filled protagonists uncertainly, endlessly, encircle the “might, could, would, did, did not” against backdrops of deserts and equatorial islands – vanishing points where story lines never meet. Taco Bell and abortionists, film directors and arms dealers, newspapermen and CIA expats ally in some sinister, materialist continuum.

“What makes Iago evil, some people ask? I never ask”, thinks frazzled actress Maria Wyeth in Play It As It Lays. Languishing in rehab, she refuses to interpret Rorschachs – to see something in nothing. “They will misread the facts, invent connections, will extrapolate reasons where none exists”, she says of her evaluators. ‘NOTHING APPLIES’, she writes with electronic pencil.

Maria’s passive attitude in the novel has been criticised, but it is the modus operandi of her defiance. When we see her driving, conceiving “audacious lane changes, strategic shifts of gear”, on the spiralling multi-lane freeways of outer Los Angeles, she shares something with J.G. Ballard’s Vaughn in Crash – the lure of careering off a pre-constructed path, of escaping the science fictional, mass-produced narrative she no longer believes in.

But it is in the radical scenarios of Didion’s novel Democracy that this recalcitrance becomes most urgent. Characters in the novel often read as if they were not much more than an paper trail. They might be an entry in Who’s Who. They might be a label on a prescription bottle, a customer account at a bookstore. They might be a Vogue interview, a conversation heard in a Washington hotel lobby. They feel like a series of representations, ledger entries. And just like in any respectable totalitarian bureaucracy, those entries are frequently revised, downgraded, subject to imperfect recall (accidental or otherwise). CIA man Jack Lovett likes to sand his tracks with meticulous detail, never leaving the same name on bar tabs. He’s a man who leases one-bed rentals under the name ‘Mid-Pacific Development’. Obviously someone who stage manages world events can only leave the vaguest traces of his presence.

Meanwhile Inez Victor, who continues a long and doomed love affair with Lovett, struggles to maintain control over her biography. We see the novel slowly accrete into specifics, like a memory cautiously set down, as if it might at any moment be forgotten: “He said to her. Jack Lovett said to Inez Victor… Jack Lovett said to Inez Victor (who was born Inez Christian) in the spring of 1975”. The backdrop is the Vietnam endgame and the febrile Presidential campaign of husband Harry Victor. This is a world where nothing happens unless you read it in The New York Times. Watching a CBS broadcast about her life as a young girl, she hears about a childhood governess from Neuilly and how Inez was called Nezzie and how Nezzie spoke pidgin. She is silent: “There was no Mademoiselle. She had never been called Nezzie. She had never spoken pidgin. The governess from Neuilly had not been a governess at all but the French wife of a transport pilot who rented the studio over Cissy Christian’s garage”. Memory, Inez knows, is one of the first casualties of political and ideological posturing.

Covert stage-managing of events without leaving evidence and staying in control of the story… these seem like a writer’s concerns. And just as we are making this connection, Joan Didion herself enters the proceedings.

“Consider the role of the writer in the post-industrial society”, she turns to us and suddenly asks. “Consider the political implications of both the reliance on and distrust of abstract words.” Then the character Joan Didion reads The Los Angeles Times and The San Francisco Examiner and finds the same kind of Orwellian revisionism that we noticed earlier: “Tank battalions vanished between editions. Three hundred fixed wing aircraft disappeared in the new lead on a story about the President playing golf”. Environments are reorganised, individuals transposed, history restaged at a moment’s notice. The world is Authored. So is that the role of the writer in the post-industrial society? Or is it – paradoxically – the reverse: to challenge the authority of Narrative, to show us that history is a hoax, a bride stripped bare?

What started as political exposé is now something more complicated. Democracy is its own problem. The novel becomes conscious: it knows that to narrate is to corrupt. She asks us to “consider her own involvement in the setting”, and what ‘atmosphere’ results. There are puzzling questions about the implications of using the autobiographical third person. “Call me the author” she writes (recalling Melville), as if that were only a stand-in, a label to be discarded later for something more conclusive. Perhaps negotiator might be a better word? Through this narrated self, direct experience becomes mediated experience. Her ‘I’, just like Inez’s ‘I’, is destined to be a commentated ‘She’: a sometimes suffocating, disruptive imposition of one identity over another, but also possibly a sometimes open and reflective collaboration. Thus Democracy.

 What remnants, fragments are left over from this obliteration? If Democracy is about resisting narrative, it is at other times fascinated with the incantatory power of nouns, details. As if ineluctable matter is all that there were. Forget verbs, context. Nouns are immobile, context free. There are lists: “iridescence observed on the night sea off the Canaries, guano rocks sighted southeast of the Falklands, the billiards room at the old Hotel Estrella del Mar, a particular boiled beef lunch eaten on Tristan da Cunha”. Elsewhere there are “Brown-and-white spectator shoes, very smart. High heeled sandals made of white silk twine, very beautiful. White gardenias in her hair on the beach at Lanikai. A white silk blouse with silver sequins shaped like stars”. There is the list of cruise ships’ names Inez compiles. The Pacific functions as a tabula rasa – a vast stage upon which the fiction of US post war ideology was imposed. And then there is the final note she writes to explain her decampment to Kuala Lumpur: “Colors, moisture, heat, enough blue in the sky”. Those things alone, she explains, are “four fucking reasons” to stay.

Didion seems to have reached the same impasse as the ‘detonation theorists’ working out at the atolls in the Pacific, one of whom, Lovett tells Inez, was “a pretty fair Sunday painter”. But he could never quite paint the “nuclear pink of the dawn sky” after a shot. “Just never captured it,” Lovett tells Inez, “Never came close”. Didion might advise this artistically inclined physicist that he will never succeed in composing an accurate picture, and that it isn’t the point. The real trick is simply to note the debris patterns, particle trajectories, ignition sequences, fallout clouds – the dust that rises when a floor is swept.

United You Stand: National Anthem in Indian Movie Theatres

Sourav Roy from Mumbai argues whether standing up to the national anthem in Indian movie theatres stands to reason

The old man stood in attention. But instead of looking straight ahead, he kept stealing glances at the girl seated next to him. The stolen glances soon became stares and the stare turned into glare. Soon he broke his attention and called the authorities to either make the girl stand up or leave. He would, under no circumstances, see the national anthem of his country insulted. All the while he shouted and gesticulated, the national anthem played on the screen. The girl stood her ground, being seated.

The latest practice of playing the Indian national anthem before every movie screening was mandated in the state of Maharashtra on Republic Day 2003 (January 26) and was slowly adopted by movie theatres nationwide. It was expected to be more successful than its previous 1980’s avatar. The national anthem played with the closing credits then. Though the Indian moviegoers didn’t make a sport out of running out of the theatre like Ray Bradbury’s fictitious Irish Anthem Sprinters, they were not very enthusiastic about standing up after a sit-down meal of Bollywood multi-cuisine.

Interestingly, this patriotic mandate coincided with the frequent power cuts across Maharashtra, the Enron backed Dabhol Power Company controversy and the increasing dissatisfaction of the public with the ruling power. 

The fading out of similar practices across movie theatres worldwide, coincided with other major events. In the UK and New Zealand it died down in the 1960s. Playing ‘God Save the King’ before angst-ridden kitchen sink dramas increasingly made no sense. In the US, it faded out in the 1970s, lengthening of opening credits being one of the many reasons. It still continues at the movie screenings of US army bases though. There’s invariably someone shouting of “Play Ball!” and nervous tittering at the end of it. But no disciplinary measures are known to be followed.

However, the country where the ‘un-patriotic’ moviegoers are routinely subjected to abuse, violence and imprisonment is the monarchy of Thailand. The democracy of India, thankfully stops at shouting, lecturing and occasional mild shoving of clueless foreigners and ‘seditious’ desis.

And then there are lawsuits; against none other than the most (in)famous couple in Indian Politics: Laloo Prasad Yadav and Rabri Devi.They somehow forgot to stand up during the national anthem during the Republic Day celebration, 2002. A petition was quickly filed by an opposition party leader. After three years, a lower court ruled that, being seated during a national anthem, however seemingly repugnant, is not a crime against the law. Because the Prevention of Insults to the National Honour Act of 1971 says, “Whoever intentionally prevents the singing of the Indian National Anthem or causes disturbances to any assembly engaged in such singing shall be punished with imprisonment for a term, which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both”. By simply sitting, one is not intentionally preventing the singing or the assembly from singing, the court says. It doesn’t say anything about causing moral outrage via indecent body posture, aka sitting.

The legality of sitting through the Indian national anthem in movie theatres might be in the grey, but when it comes to national anthem being played as the part of a movie, the Government of India wants the moviegoers to be firmly seated. “When the Anthem is played as a part of the film, it is not expected of the audience to stand as standing is bound to interrupt the exhibition of the film and would create disorder and confusion rather than add to the dignity of the Anthem.” A point entirely lost on the the moviegoers who routinely stand up to the national anthem which have frequently been part of blockbuster Bollywood movies made by popular directors like Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Karan Johar.

This knee-jerk patriotism gave rise to a hilarious scene when The Loins of Punjab Presents (2007) was being screened in Indian theatres. A laugh-out-loud socio-cultural commentary on the pseudo-patriotism and Bollywood-obsession of Indians, it’s about a New Jersey Desi Idol contest. The contest is finally won by an Indophile American by singing the Indian national anthem. The audience both onscreen and off-screen routinely stood to attention, a delicious double irony.

If this mandatory standing before the film is a minor annoyance for some (they come in knowingly late), an anachronism for a few (they grumble and slouch) and a pleasant reminder of school and nationality for the rest (who sing along lustily), it must mean something altogether different for Indian movie critics who have to show up at the movie theatres every Friday to face the music (pun intended).

Most of them unanimously agree that pre-movie patriotism is a particularly silly way of showing love for your country and comes in the same bracket as armchair nationalism and internet slacktivism, only done standing. Meenakshi Shedde (India Consultant to Film Festivals worldwide) calls it “Mehrauli farmhouse show-offy version of patriotism” after the crass nouveau riche north Indians, but ironically it was minted in Western India.

A standing ovation accompanied by a giant soda-popcorn combo, followed by the latest brainlessness (in 3D) completely trivialises the anthem itself, they say. But buying peace with a few minutes of standing, rather than arguing and spoiling the mood is a favoured and practical solution, though they believe it should be a purely personal choice, “like homosexuality”. That is why in a hypothetical situation when they are alone in the theatre, most of them most definitely will not stand up. “That would definitely be less criminal than playing the national anthem before soft-porn movies,” Mayank Shekhar (veteran critic, Hindustan Times) says.

Unlike sporting events when every spectator is first an Indian then an individual, in theatres people come not to be reminded what they can do for the country but what the movie can do for them.

Being the only democracy in the world with this public display of patriotism makes you think whether it is patriotism or are we just being Pavlovian, conditioned by our school days? Are Indians the most patriotic people around? Two World Values Survey, (1990-1992, 1995-1997) put India at No.3 and No.4 ‘Most Patriotic Country’ worldwide but the survey consisted of the average answers of high income Indian residents to a single question: “Are you proud to be an Indian?” The answers ranged from 1 (not proud) to 4 (very proud). But an extensive 2007 BBC survey, done in the wake of Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s 2020 Vision for India, was surprised to find that 58% of Indians think that Indians themselves are the biggest obstacle in the nation’s progress, the most unpatriotic act of all.

As the TV channels open up, internet spreads out and the meanings of words change faster than Moore’s Law, perhaps the time has come to redefine this word which was coined in the early 16th century via a 6th-century word ‘patriota’ (fellow countrymen)?

But if we can’t call this patriotism, should we call this entertainment? That would surely be not out of place in a movie theatre? The myriad versions of Indian national anthem playing in movie theatres (a lot of them flouting the prescribed tempo and the 52 second rule with a lot of artistic flourish) might help to prove the point. There are government versions, lavish versions (helicopter shots of Indian soldiers on Siachen), minimal versions (animated national flag fluttering out of sync with the song), A.R. Rahman version (“with all the charming seriousness of a girl in a school play”), Indian Idol contestant versions (licensed Indian version of American Idol), latest political thriller version, instrumental versions and, the latest toast of the town, a sign language version performed by deaf and dumb school children created by Mudra Group, one of the leading marketing communication organisations of the country.

While this version brought joy to the hearts and tears to the eyes of many a viewer, it almost didn’t get made because the government officials thought it inappropriate of the deaf and dumb children to wave their hands and heads freely, while the decorum commands standing in strict attention without moving a muscle. Hopefully the children didn’t get to learn any of this.

Structure and subatomics: Don DeLillo, Underworld and the new historical novel

Jason Weaver revisits Don DeLillo’s premillennial opus of paranoia and baseball.

The title of Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld alludes both to living under the canopy of the bomb and to a world beneath us, more specifically a hell. DeLillo has publicly stated that he wanted to write about the ‘secret’ history of the Cold War: ‘… people have developed a sense that history has been secretly manipulated. Documents lost and destroyed. … I think we’ve developed a much more deeply unsettled feeling about our grip on reality’. As Peter Knight states (in Everything is Connected: Underworld’s Secret History of Paranoia): ‘Underworld creates a sense that there are larger forces in our lives over which we have no control, but which refuse to coalesce for more than a moment’. In one sense, this is the underworld of the title, a subterranean history, which is of hellish consequence; a narrative that shapes us but remains out of reach. Yet, the name also punningly compacts numerous meanings, which are ready to flare up and collide like fissile atoms. Whilst we might immediately pull out references to the book’s content – black market gangsterism as underbelly of capitalism, Eisestein’s ‘lost’ masterpiece as symbol of Cold War dialectics, the god Pluto’s connection to plutonium and the bomb, to name just a few – it is primarily in the connection of these themes that the name functions. That the title can be so loaded with references, which interact within the novel, is itself maddeningly complex. A clear sense of what the title refers to begins to break down. As Underworld obsessively demonstrates, everything connects in the end, and this absurd extension of Forster’s dictum is also hellish, in that the book is rhizomatically structured to the point of overdetermination. The meaning of the novel seems to be that meaning breaks down under the weight of infinite connection. This sense of a secret history and the overdetermination of meaning collide in the title to further complicate the equation. The underworld, then, is a place of impossibly complex interrelations over which we can have no clear grasp.

However, Underworld is a very long novel, particularly for an economical writer like DeLillo, whose previous work Mao II checked in at a quarter of this length. The premise that meaning has lost its meaning would be an indulgent one for the 800-odd pages of the work. It is the contention of this essay that DeLillo has started with the widespread sense of this premise (according to the quote above) and that the novel is an attempt to work through this idea. It is ironic that the sheer size of the book, amongst other things, promises a meaning, or a statement, which DeLillo intends to problematise. In fact, notions of the spatial are thematised within the novel, as we shall see, and it is typical of Underworld that the structure should interact with content in this way. Again, it is significant that the title also refers to location.

In a Rolling Stone interview of 1988, DeLillo outlined the controlling paradigm of his fiction:

It is … my sense that we live in a kind of circular or near-circular system and that there are an increasing number of rings which keep intersecting at some point, whether you’re using a plastic card to draw money out of your account at an automatic teller machine or thinking about the movement of planetary bodies. I mean, these systems all seem to interact to me. … The secrets within systems, I suppose, are things that have informed my work.

But they’re almost secrets of consciousness, or the ways in which consciousness is replicated in the natural world.

Although this statement is two decades old, it is a pretty clear description of a principle which organises Underworld. There is, however, a very important proviso. The quote promotes a reading of the work in terms of historical linearity. That the rings of intersection are increasing indicates an evolution that might tempt us to equate this change with the waning of the Cold War. Peter Knight differentiates between secure and our contemporary insecure paranoia. To some extent, this is borne out by the text, but it does not take into account the particular treatment of time and history in the book. By Underworld, history itself is caught in the circularity; looping, spinning backwards, connecting at dislocated points. It begins in a present tense 1952, switches to a past tense 1992, and rewinds through the decades to finish in an unspecified cyberspace. What, we might ask, is the present location in time? Furthermore, the novel itself loops, echoing jokes, images, and figures of speech in its epilogue and introduction. The text works to undermine any clear sense of historical linearity or progression.

On the other hand, we might see this as evidence of an ontological rupture between ‘our’ world and the Cold one, the lack of resemblance between the teenage Nick Shay and his middle-aged characterisation seen as further proof of this. Yet we come back to the over-abundance of connections between the two eras: the passage of the baseball through the years, for example, or the fact that the novel is bound together by the 1950’s ‘Manx Martin’ interludes.

For Brian McHale (in Postmodernist Fiction), the postmodernist novel is characterised by the foregrounding of ontological dilemmas. For example, inconsistencies between the ‘real’ world of the reader (or the material status of the book) and the ‘text continuum’ (or ‘imagined geography’) of the work are exploited to produce a kind of restless ‘flickering’, which calls into question issues of ontology around the fictional process. McHale uses the metaphor of ‘worlds’, which might impinge on one another, but cannot ultimately make sense when they come into contact. Clearly, McHale’s metaphorical war of the ‘worlds’ begs a comparison with the locational nature of DeLillo’s underworld, particularly when considering the two ideological ‘locations’ of the Cold War. Here, surely, are worlds that fail to ‘add up’? Yet, DeLillo chooses not only to emphasise the connections between East and West, but also to complicate them entirely. The dialectic, for example, a defining model for the Soviet system is played through the very construction of the Cold War binary, reaching a synthesis whereby East and West collaborate on a waste disposal method using underground nuclear blasts. The bomb that symbolised Cold War disjunction survives its historical context and alters its meaning. Furthermore, Eisenstein’s aesthetic use of dialectics is turned against the Soviet state in Eisenstein’s Unterwelt, the 1970s screening of which twists its Cold War iconography into a bizarre spectacle of American pop culture that actually manages to reinforce the politics of the film. Interpretation becomes rapidly hazardous as connections multiply and the core strand of argument is compromised by possible, competing routes.

In this way, the dialectic is raised to the level of the novel’s structure, appearing to offer clear paths of argument that cannot be sustained. Thus, the competing paradigms of the Cold War states become organising elements of the book, literalising these ideological themes. However, not only are these models locked in an incompatible competition, they also merge into one another, and even swap places. The very construction of the Cold War is shown to be connected in secret, minute ways. The novel is punning on an atomic level of connection. Not only are the Cold War nations linked, but the Cold War itself is hard to disentangle from the post-Cold War era.

The ontological dilemma that McHale illustrates is an ‘impossible’ one. Two necessarily discreet worlds exist in the same space. DeLillo’s Cold War worlds are doubly impossible. They are both independent and identical, defined and so merged that they cannot be prised apart. This certainly does not contradict McHale’s model, but his is founded on the idea of disjunction as the contemporary paradigm, whereas, according to DeLillo, the defining modern phenomena all demonstrate connectivity, whether they be the ecology, the internet or globalised capitalism. The epilogue, ‘Das Kapital,’ works with each of these examples and Underworld, as a whole, takes this connective paradigm at its word and fashions the new novel from it.

Critical reactions to Underworld have been contradictory. What each account shares is a common sense of anxiety, a tentativeness or general haziness about what it is that DeLillo has written. Philip Nel asks: ‘… is DeLillo’s work modern? Is it postmodern? Or would a term like “twentieth-century literature” suffice? For Timothy L Parrish, ‘DeLillo has surrendered to film the power once attributed to the novel’, despite the fact that the novel can rescue history from its confusions. Whilst we can confidently state that the novel is ‘about’ Cold War paranoia, what exactly does that mean? DeLillo’s language seems to offer a reading of society, his characters are very articulate theorists. When Nick and Donna discuss sex, for example, both present abstract ‘meanings’ which take in religion and fiction. DeLillo’s style is constructed around a series of apparently clear statements. Yet, critics seem to have a difficulty in constructing a satisfying account of the book.

Furthermore, interpretations seem to proceed with the assumption that Underworld is DeLillo’s stab at a ‘big statement’, thereby encouraging the search for a coherent reading. Even critics who have branded the novel a failure, have done so under the tacit agreement that Underworld attempts to embark on such a mission, even to the extent of reintroducing the unfashionable idea of the grand narrative. In keeping with the Cold War theme of secrecy, the ‘meaning’ of Underworld has been treated as a puzzle to be pieced together from scraps of information.

The publication of the book, on the cusp of 1997/98, has its fictional counterpart in the novel itself. A lost Eisenstein film, Unterwelt, has surfaced and is re-premiered at Radio City Music Hall:

It became the movie people had to see. A nice tight hysteria began to build and there were tickets going for shocking sums and people rushing back from the Vineyard and the Pines and the Cape to engineer a seat.

Just a movie for godsake and a silent movie at that and a movie you probably never heard of until the Times did a Sunday piece. But this is how the behavioural aberration, once begun, grows to lavish panic.

“But will we actually be able to sit through it?” Esther said. “Or is it one of those things where we have to be reverent because we’re in the presence of greatness but we’re really all sitting there determined to be the first ones out the door so we can get a taxi.”

With an irony typical of DeLillo’s writing, Underworld became a similar media event, a ‘must-see’ zone of something resembling desperation. ‘Lavish panic’ was certainly on display at the author’s London reading in January ’98, where a large celebrity headcount packed into the TUC Headquarters and the evening became vertiginous due to the confusing sensation of being present within one of the author’s own fictional scenarios. The tone of the audience replicated the reverence of Radio City Music Hall and the whole affair was charged with a palpable yet indefinable ‘importance’.

The novel’s publishers hitched Underworld to the millennial Zeitgeist, such as it was, simultaneously pitching the book as contender for the Great Novel of the American Century, as a summation of the Cold War, and as a sneak preview of the New World Order. Advertising, as DeLillo’s books tirelessly iterate, fuels ‘panic’ with a highly- charged vocabulary such as this. The Times did a Sunday piece, of course. Underworld‘s timing, on the threshold of two world orders, its dense structure, its overarching subject matter, its sheer size, all conspire to give the novel an aura of gravitas. It came packaged as a big statement and has consequently been read as such. Such disquiet is indicated by the ironic subtitle of John N. Duvall’s 1999 essay: ‘DeLillo and the moment of canonization.’

For some critics, the ‘reverse’ mimesis of DeLillo’s novel, the fact that life imitated the work, is seen as evidence that the book has no critical distance from that which it critiques. Yet, DeLillo has already fully documented such processes in Mao II, in which the novelist Bill Gray is lost behind a public reproduction of himself. As a ‘sequel’ to Mao II, Underworld is unlikely to replicate the problematics already discussed in the former novel, particularly as DeLillo has often spoken out in defence of the novel, such as when he told DeCurtis (in the Rolling Stone interview) that history needs fiction as an organising influence. Instead, the question becomes one of what DeLillo is offering in the act of writing, what is the novel there for, if not a necessarily absorbed social critique?

It is worth noting how DeLillo’s narrative style is almost entirely imitative of the characters’ speech patterns. Third person accounts describe in interior monologue. Thus, as the narrative voice roams around the ballgame, it shifts from character to character. The descriptions of J Edgar Hoover, for example, employ the FBI Director’s anxieties about himself. Even the affirmative statement that ‘capital burns off the nuance of a culture’ can be attributed to Nick Shay (although where the voice is located once the narrative moves into cyberspace is more difficult to ascertain). However, what we can draw from this, is that each statement is filtered, once removed from any ‘pure’ statement DeLillo might make. Consequently, we should be wary of even the clearest statement in the book. Most critics, however, have pulled their interpretation from what the character’s say, assuming that we are left with little else. Each has then tried to differentiate between ‘true’ and ‘false’ statements with regards to what DeLillo himself has said or the structure of the book. When Parrish, for example, aligns DeLillo with J Edgar Hoover or Nel argues that ‘Klara’s longing for a Cold World Order seems requited by the book’s intricate structure’, each foregrounds the words and actions of the characters, as if each were a moral personification in a didactic theatre, all at the expense of the novel’s more intricate framework.

We have already noted, however, that Underworld is overdetermined, connected to a circular infinity. Each statement is somewhere countered by its opposite, destabilising any argument we might wish to make from the content of the book. Again, the Eisenstein episode is archetypal, in that it seems increasingly to dissemble, the more it is studied. In addition to Unterwelt being twinned with DeLillo’s novel, we are also offered a 1930s Hollywood film called Underworld, a typical noir thriller about the Mob. Thus, we have the product of communist aesthetics turned against the Soviet state (Unterwelt), twinned with a capitalist movie dramatising the underworld of the free-market economy. These filmic contradictions are later dramatised within the novel. Nick Shay and Brian Glassic are flown to a Khazakhstan (where Eisenstein has possibly shot Unterwelt). The date is unspecified, but the narrative implies that this is the near future. The bomb is now being employed in a capitalist venture to dispose of the waste generated by capitalism. Elements in the novel collapse: a joke from the 1950s of the prologue is retold here; Shay, who has an affair with the married Klara, confronts Glassic over his affair with Marian. In fact, the novel dramatises the complications inherent in an apparently straightforward model of A versus B. Charles Wainwright, an advertising executive on Madison Avenue retells a story about one of their campaigns:

The agency was still in shock over the Equinox Oil campaign. … Fill up two cars with premium gasoline. One with Equinox, the other with a leading competitive brand. … White car versus black car. Clear implication. U.S. versus USSR. … We thought the Soviet embassy might lodge a complaint. We looked forward to it. Free publicity. What happens? We get complaints all right. But not from foreign governments. We hear from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. We hear from the Urban League. We hear from the Congress of Racial Equality. Because the white car beat the black car.

DeLillo takes this theme of black and white and literalises it. It appears everywhere, from the texture of the Eisenstein film to demarcation of ethnic zones in New York. In the prologue, Cotter is aware of his blackness in streets around the ballpark, it influences his behaviour; he is followed by Bill Waterson, who suddenly becomes aware of his whiteness in Cotter’s black neighbourhood. The black and white theme is played through the image of the chessboard, which Matt Shay is learning to play and is, of course, a major battlefield for Cold War supremacy. Furthermore, the black and white theme is taken to the structural level of the book itself. Whilst critics have noted the importance of the images which punctuate Mao II, the design of Underworld has so far gone unremarked. The front cover, in black and white, is shown in negative on the back. The six main parts of the book are broken up with a succession of full and half-black pages. Each of the three ‘intermezzo’ sections, concerning the black Manx family, are bracketed by black pages.

Underworld is a novel that complicates ideas of causality, built from the detritus of culture, where no element is too minute or too unconnected to be included. Critics who try to construct a causal argument from the text, fall prey to this web of connectivity, and can only advance by employing a massive repression of such minutae. In short, critics of Underworld interpret the book by denying the very secret history the novel seeks to reveal. Critics are left with the kind of faux choices invoked by the characters in response to Unterwelt: ‘Was Eisenstein being prescient about nuclear menace or about Japanese cinema?” It is the preconception, based on a received trope, that Eisenstein must be prescient about something that conditions the response to the film. At one point, Esther, whose critical faculties are thoroughly mediated in this way, claims: ‘”I don’t need to see the movie. I already love it'” Similarly, the aura of significance around DeLillo’s novel conditions the expectation of a statement about the times we live in.

So, is Underworld a postmodern statement about the impossibility of interpretation, the massive structure merely an ironic comment on novels which would promise a social critique of narrative certainty? Furthermore, is Underworld a failure? A novel made up from the detritus of culture and destined to become part of that same build up of garbage. For Parrish, ‘the very success of his narrative mimicry leads readers to worry that he is an impersonator co-opted by the narrative forms that he replays’ and ‘suggests how difficult it is for DeLillo to succeed in being both innovative and in control of his fiction’. Parrish’s DeLillo uses postmodernism to deconstruct itself in order to restore the status of the artist and seek transcendence in technology. According to Philip Nel, ‘In its richly layered language and careful structure, Underworld is DeLillo’s most “high modernist” novel to date; however, it also draws on avant-garde techniques in a more subtly effective way than his previous work’. For Paul Malty (in ‘The Romantic Metaphysics of Don DeLillo’) ‘to postmodernize DeLillo is to risk losing sight of the (conspicuously unpostmodern) metaphysical impulse that animates his work’.

The confusion of responses towards Underworld is a faultline in comprehension that DeLillo mirrors in the Unterwelt passage. That we are intended to draw a parallel between the fictional film and the fiction itself is clear, not only in their shared nomenclature. Both novel and movie share certain stylistic techniques, although DeLillo uses the comparison ironically to deflate his own ‘masterpiece':

Overcomposed close-ups, momentous gesturing, actors trailing their immense bended shadows and there was something to study in every frame, the camera placement, the shapes and planes and then the juxtaposed shots, the sense of rhythmic contradiction, it was all spaces and volumes, it was tempo, mass and stress.

In Eisenstein you note that the camera angle is a kind of dialectic. Arguments are raised and made, theories drift across the screen and instantly shatter – there’s a lot of opposition and conflict.

It is in this ‘opposition and conflict’ perhaps that the critical difficulty lies. DeLillo has said of an earlier novel: ‘It seems to me that Ratner’s Star is a book that is almost all structure. The structure of the book is the book’. Similarly, Unterwelt is to be interpreted formally, its subject matter is incomprehensible otherwise – ‘… the film was embedded so completely in the viewpoint of the prisoners that Klara was beginning to squirm’ and ‘The plot was hard to follow. There was no plot’. We have already encountered both problems with regards to Underworld. Although very different in treatment and effect, both novel and film employ some kind of dialectical form rather than the straightforward ‘statement’ which appears to be on offer. In fact, as with Ratner’s Star, the subject matter and the form co-exist more or less equally. The montage described on the screen is not only worked into the very language that DeLillo uses to describe this event, but throughout the very structure of the book itself, which employs a broad collage of voices, modes of discourse, locations, ideas, forms of address, narrative styles.

Such a conflation of both narrative content and technique is the overriding organisational principle of Underworld. At the simplest level, the novel tells us that ‘everything connects in the end’ and this becomes part of its organisational system. In this sense, we cannot divorce the novel’s contents from its formal context. Everything in Underworld co-exists on two interconnected axes. It is as if the content of the book is a dramatisation of its formal principles, rather than the structure of the novel supporting the content as we might otherwise expect. Underworld obsessively refers to its own structure. Its collage style is echoed not only in the Eisenstein film, but also in the rain of torn paper that showers J Edgar Hoover at the baseball stadium. This in turn suggests the bric-a-brac nature of Hoover’s secret files and the invisible history they contain. The complex interplay of themes derived from black and white point to the design of the book itself, which uses an arrangement of black and white pages to organise the material. Reading as a postmodernist, we might expect such techniques to foreground the books own fictionality, its status as a material text and not a window to the world, but Underworld‘s narrative tone does not support this. The book displays none of the textual tricks and slippage that would accompany such a self-undermining work. In fact, DeLillo works at a kind of sharpened mimesis and is known for the way in which his works seem to actually ‘frame’ reality, how public events can come to seem like a ‘Don DeLillo moment.’ Ryan Simmons, for example, has noted the uncanny appearance of the Unabomber several years after DeLillo drew parallels between terrorism and authorship.

The content of Underworld relinquishes its primacy to structure. This is where the ‘meaning’ of the novel might be located. That there can be structure in this field of overdetermination, undermines the sense that we began with, the sense of a hellish underworld which offers us nothing stable. We might even go so far as to say that as content is an echo of the structural elements in the novel, which the characters are shaped by such structures. Analogously, the secret forces that shape the inhabitants of a Cold War culture are both structured and recoverable. In this sense, Underworld is indeed engaged, as Knight states, in the process of cognitive mapping offered by Fredric Jameson as a means to work through postmodern paralysis. We have already noted a spatial and historical dimension to DeLillo’s work. These are the two fields that Jameson claims are in need of ‘recovery’.

However, the notion that DeLillo’s writing offers a template for existence, in the manner of Baudelaire’s aesthetic argument that art justifies the world, supports the claim that Underworld is a work of modernism. The use of montage in Underworld, for example, has been interpreted as evidence of this. Philip Nel effectively differentiates between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ modernism:

DeLillo’s recent work, and especially Underworld, should be considered part of that “revolt” against “domesticated” modernism. But because his artistic development has roots in both “avantgarde movements” and “high modernism,” we can see in a work like Underworld a bridge between “modern” and “postmodern.” I would go as far as to say that, by relying on a modernist avant-garde (such as Surrealism and Dada) to engage the politics of postmodernity, DeLillo’s recent fiction in general challenges the validity of the modern-postmodern binarism.

The problem is that the opposition to binarism, whether it be represented by black and white or as a challenge to modernism versus postmodernism, itself functions within a dialectic framework. To oppose binarism reinscribes the dialectic under opposition.

As we have seen, however, by playing Unterwelt against Underworld, the novel does employs modernist techniques ironically only to foreground its own structural architecture. Part of this organisation is ‘the sense of rhythmic contradiction.’ Here, DeLillo does not simply tell us that ‘theories drift across the screen and instantly shatter,’ he also demonstrates it in the very act of comparison. Underworld both engages in dialectics and problematises the dialectical procedure. The equation is not one of simple opposition to binarism. In fact the novel places binarism and anti-binarism in dialectical opposition. Furthermore, each dialectic offered in the book is connected to every other, so that something resembling a rhizome of dialectics is constantly at work. Underworld is an unusually active text.

Despite the range of narrative voices, DeLillo’s style often employs the indirect internal voicing familiar from early modernist experiments in fictional consciousness. All the same, it is highly questionable as to whether any of DeLillo’s novels are interested in the dramatisation of psychological motivation. Characterisation, in the traditional sense, seems barely to be an issue at all. The population of Underworld is made up of theoretical speculative discourses, each with a worldview, a tone of voice and a proper name. Amongst the polyvocality of Underworld, however, there is a modernist voice. Indeed, the structure of the book also, at times, appears particularly to imitate Joyce. The book has something of a circularity with images of children playing in the street both opening and closing it. Sentences are echoed (‘He speaks in your voice’). The final aerial narrative echoes the final passage of The Dubliners in ‘The Dead,’ whilst this novel begins with ‘The Triumph of Death.’ Nel has noted how the final word ‘Peace’ may imitate The Wasteland – never mind the preoccupation with garbage and waste in Underworld.

We have noted Jameson’s concept of cognitive mapping. Underworld is literally an attempt to map a shifting geography. The novel abounds with maps of white spaces, of territories that are neither one thing or the other, that have changed name, changed nationality, changed ideology. Nostalgia for the apparently monolithic stability of the Cold War is demonstrated as the result of a mythic memory. We cannot hope to fix the boundaries on the map because borders melt under capitalism. But, we can map the movement of capitalism and, in doing so, diminish the hellish sense that history is out of control. Thus, the mapping process is not so much one of space, but of movement in space. Underworld begins with a boy running into a baseball ground, a restless narration that shifts from person to person, a ball that travels from the pitcher, to the bat, into the bleachers and out into the world over time and space. Movement in space. Thus, one of the novel’s organisational paradigms is the theory of relativity, Einstein’s connection to the bomb. DeLillo foregrounds structure, to undermine the notion that structure is now impossible but, like the internet, this structure is not static. DeLillo’s cognitive map is in motion.

In More Brilliant Than The Sun, Kodwo Eshun, employs the analogy of Motion Capture:

… in films like Jurassic Park and all the big animatronic films, Motion Capture is the device by which they synthesize and virtualize the human body. They have a guy that’s dancing slowly, and each of his joints are fixed to lights and they map that onto an interface, and then you’ve got it. You’ve literally captured the motion of a human; now you can proceed to virtualize it.

Underworld makes a similar move to capture the subatomics of history in motion. It is an attempt to sweep up the detritus of the (post)modern era with a literary technology that can begin to frame it. DeLillo has commented on the relation of fiction to history. Underworld is a historical novel, in the lineage of War and Peace. But, rather than employing the realist methods of this novel, it employs the emerging paradigms of the contemporary, documenting history not only in content but in the very application of these techniques.

In short, Underworld is a work of contemporary ‘history’ which does not offer ‘meaning’ in the ‘traditional’ sense of the word. It is not so much an ‘argument’ or a dialectic that demands synthesis. Talking to DeCurtis about the Kennedy assassination, DeLillo has stated: ‘I think we’ve come to feel that what’s been missing over these past twenty-five years is a sense of manageable reality. Much of that feeling can be traced to that one moment in Dallas. We seem much more aware of elements like randomness and ambiguity and chaos since then’. DeLillo cannot offer a manageable reality, but he can offer a sense of it, in structure.

Sources can be found at Literary Criticism of Don DeLillo and at the Don DeLillo Society.
Gary Marshall’s review of ‘Underworld‘.
Chris Mitchell’s review of Kodwo Eshun’s ‘More Brilliant Than The Sun‘.

Philosophy in Rags: The Individual: Houellebecq and Gnosticism

Hugh Graham concludes his exploration of Houellebecq’s dessicated terrain with the Stoic imperative to “bear up and do without”.


Every revival of philosophy begins with the individual. Today the individual, lulled by pop wisdom and popular culture, has little awareness of what it means to be one’s self outside of cultural identity and politics; even less of what it means to be a single individual faced with a deteriorating planet. Stoicism, precisely a code of individual conduct in the world, and as part of the world, grew in the wreckage of the city state. Self understanding, then as now, begins in solitude. The Hermetic cult that brought Platonism to Egypt emphasized the individual over society. Hermeticism in turn influenced the solitary, Gnostic followers of the Gospel of Thomas, those who could support neither the nationalist message of the Jewish Christians or the international ideology of Paul. Indeed, their lonely insight of the presence of Heaven inside man gave them invisible strength.

In Gnostic terms, every person is odd, eccentric. People are reluctant to be themselves, says Nietzsche, because they are cowardly or lazy. “Liken yourselves to foreigners,” urges the Gospel of Thomas. Identity and difference are not to be found in race, culture or religion, but in the single personality with its traumas, extravagances, defects and obsessions, the very things the right-thinking, therapeutic modern world would purge. Meanwhile, it is the injunction to freedom that is paramount: Dostoevsky’s underground man asks, “Advantage, what is advantage?” and reserves the right to desire what is bad for himself while the Gospel of Philip stresses the urgency: “Those who say they will die first and then rise are in error; they must receive the resurrection while they live”.

In the Gnostic tradition, there are two ways of being free, of defying the Demiurge. One is the internal, ascetic way, through renunciation, the utopia lamented by Houellebecq in The Possibility of an Island: “The disappearance of social life was the way forward, teaches the Supreme Sister. It is no less the case that the disappearance of all physical contact between neo-humans has been able to have […] the character of an asceticism”. The other way is external, that of the libertine, a conscious indulgence of evil, the honest “evil aware of itself” celebrated by Baudelaire in The Irremediable. This is the very principle upon which Nietzsche turns against Wagner:  “being honest in evil is still better than losing oneself to the morality of tradition, that a free human being can be good as well as evil, but that the unfree human being is still a blemish upon nature”. At almost the same historical moment, Dostoevsky’s underground man declares a desire “not only to do but to feel ugly things, such that […] Well, in short, actions that all, perhaps, commit; but which, as though purposely, occurred to me at the very time I was most conscious that they ought not to be committed. The more conscious I was of goodness and of all that was ‘good and beautiful’, the more deeply I sank into my mire and the more readily I was to sink in it altogether”.

Gnostic thought holds that the real danger is not so much evil as unconsciousness, indifference to good and evil themselves, in short, nihilism – what Baudelaire calls Ennui. Nihilism and ennui are the condition of the morally unconscious world in which the pneuma is extinguished, the deity lost and gone forever. For Baudelaire, Nietzsche and Houellebecq the indifference is technological, positivist and materialist, the Demiurge triumphant. Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles discloses the dead world contemplated by a psychopath: “David quickly realized that the most advanced Satanists didn’t believe in Satan at all. Like him, they were pure materialists”.  In Platform, a practicing sadist blandly professes, “I don’t believe we have a ‘dark side’ because I don’t believe in any form of damnation, or in benediction for that matter”. The transhumanist paradise of The Possibility of an Island is similarly devoid of emotion. As Baudelaire knows, it’s through entropy that the Demiurge conquers: “Thus does he lead me, far from the sight of God / Broken and gasping, out into the broad / And wasted plains of Ennui, deep and still”. For Houellebecq, however, both the radical ascetic and radical libertine ways lead, in the end, to insensibility, while man, a creature of love and emotion, is bereft and abandoned.

Demanding acute, deliberate consciousness and bearing the message of divinity trapped in an animal nature, the underground stream of Gnosticism winds through history surfacing briefly in Pascal’s realization that science has given this half-divine being a godless universe: “Cast into the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which knew me not, I am frightened”,  Baudelaire later observing that “Pascal had his gulf, moving where he moved. / Alas! All is abyss – all action, dream / Desire, speech! And many a time I feel / My hair stand up, brushed by the wind of Fear”. The stream emerges finally, during the century after Baudelaire, in secular form – with Existentialism, the modern philosophy of individual existence. It is the same world in which, for Beckett’s Malone, “Words and images run riot in my head, pursuing, flying, clashing, merging endlessly. But beyond this tumult there is a great calm, and a great indifference”. As Hans Jonas states in The Gnostic Religion, meaning and value, no longer innate, are voluntarily imposed: “Will replaces vision”. This is the blind, heedless will which, for Schopenhauer, informs the universe, the dangerous moral wilderness which Nietzsche declared to be Nihilism. In Gnostic Philosophy, Tobias Churton describes the contemporary world, in Gnostic terms, very much a fallen world: “The widespread grasping for sources of immediate gratification; the despair of daily satisfaction; and rush toward either personal oblivion or fundamentalist redemptive figures”. It’s the very no-man’s land at the extremes of which Houellebecq’s heroes search for happiness. There is, essentially, no consensus, no authority.

In the age of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, the rudderless liberal rationalism of the Enlightenment resembles a dead shell; everything must start again with man’s isolation in the universe. Nature is no longer  Descartes’ res extensa, an extension of man’s own body for his own use. Rather, by dominating it, he has separated himself from it, and today it is in his separation from the natural world that he finds his capacity to destroy it or save it. Faced with a deteriorating planet, the individual recognizes that she is incomplete, not yet made for the new situation. It is this very open-endedness that is celebrated by Nietzsche and Baudelaire. By contrast, Houellbecq quotes the Elohim on their closed, transhumanist utopia: “Closing the brackets on becoming, we are from now on in unlimited, indefinite stasis”.

As long as one is defined, there is no gnosis. The gnosis that lies at the heart of Existentialism and its predecessor, Gnosticism is freedom in knowledge, more specifically realization. The realization is always an image of man: in Gnosticism the appearance of the Anthropos in the pneuma, the sharp and urgent sense that the individual, as a manifestation of the Anthropos, wields a solitary freedom not-of-this-world.  For Nietzsche it is the awaited ”new man”,  the Übermensch, a “half saint, half genius” whose misrepresentation as a tyrannical Nordic superman he himself predicted. For Baudelaire it is the individual living in a residual divinity, poised between heaven and hell. In the works of Beckett it is, especially in his climactic novel, The Unnameable, the introverted realization that the individual is the cosmos that oppresses him. Here is responsibility, utter and final.

Houellebecq’s particular gnosis, described in Platform, is the fleeting existence of “one of those radiant creatures who are capable of devoting their lives to someone else’s happiness, or making that alone, their goal”. Mortal as she is exceptional, it is the protagonist’s partner, Valerie, later murdered by religious fanatics. The ideal of present society, however, is not as heavenly; in The Possibility of an Island the elimination of suffering entails the elimination of sex; hence, the logical conclusion of man in a technological, materialist civilization is the immortal, denatured being that knows neither joy nor suffering.

The gnosis of man on a dying planet lies in the Gnostic insight that man is exceptional, divine, a creature of love. The world into which he has been thrown from another realm, is a world with which he must find a way to live. His very half-divine alienness to the natural world means, more than ever, that he must live in symbiosis with it. In other words, the paradox of freedom in submission. This is what was so well understood by the old ideals of Epicureanism and Stoicism. Since both were philosophies of pleasure and pain, both were about universal laws of limit and that is why Stoicism especially, as a direct ancestor of Gnosticism and Existentialism, may be the only philosophy for today: precisely because it is the concept of a free being in an unfree world.

The central concept of Stoicism is Virtue, the knowledge of how to live. Stoicism begins with the fact that the world is one, that it is living and that it is intelligent. It maintains its intelligence through Reason, a system of limits. The limits are enforced by a universal principle or law, the logos. The pneuma, or divine breath, that runs throughout nature, is concentrated logos. For the Stoic it’s a share of divinity, for the Gnostic, fire from the absent God. In Stoicism, the end of every living thing is its own survival. Since that also means the survival of the world in which it lives, it must limit exploitation of that world and strive for self-sufficiency or autarchia. Autarchia as self-sufficiency, is life lived in harmony with nature. Here is the core of Stoicism’s message for the present world: sustine et absine: “bear up and do without”.

The freedom and clarity gained by dependence on less was lived as a talent among the ancients. But it is lost to us, as Nietzsche knew all too well:

Are you accomplices in the present madness of nations which desire above all to produce as much as possible, and to be as rich as possible? […] But where is your internal value when you no longer know what it is to breathe freely; when you have scarcely any command over your own selves […] when you look enviously at your wealthy neighbour, made covetous by the rapid rise and fall of power, money and opinions; when you no longer believe in philosophy in rags, or in the freedom of spirit of a man who as few needs; when a voluntary and idyllic poverty without profession or marriage, such as should suit the more intellectual one among you, had become for you, an object of derision?

The truest philosophies remain the oldest; as Nietzsche says, “For the courageous and the creative, pleasure and pain are never ultimate values – they are epiphenomena”. Health, wealth and the communal good are natural pursuits, say the Stoics, but not ends in themselves. The ultimate value is the existence of the entire entity. This is the symbiosis of pleasure with a modicum of pain, the realistic sort of human happiness that Houellebecq seems to imply.

In the face of a wasting planet, stoic freedom is contingent: like fate, “it draws the willing, drags the reluctant”. A universe from which god has receded leaves man, in the words of Jonas, “characterized solely by will and power – the will for power, the will to will”. Will is the way, not only to Stoic virtue but also to a planetary equilibrium in which each individual, acting as the whole, accepts a degree of self-imposed sacrifice, without coercion. As Nietzsche warns: “if our honesty should grow weary one day and sigh and stretch its limbs and find us too hard, and would like to have things better, easier, tenderer, like an agreeable vice – let us remain hard we last Stoics! And let us dispatch to her assistance whatever we have in us of devilry: our disgust with what is clumsy and approximate […] our adventurous courage”.

If the words have an aristocratic ring, it’s because they invoke a code of ethics and honour maintained among free individuals without coercion; there is no other way to a world of reduced consumption. In all societies, aristocrats were the first who could afford to develop and toughen their individuality, their stamina, their resistance; for Nietzsche “their predominance did not lie mainly in physical strength but in strength of the soul – they were more whole human beings”, as were the aristocratic Greek philosophers and Stoics and the aristocratic Buddha. The model, of course, is not the familiar decadent aristocrat of the modern age (which happens also to be the model for the bourgeoisie); it is rather, ancient aristocracy at the height of its integrity. This aristocrat is the prototype of what George Woodcock calls  the “anarchist’s cult of the natural, the spontaneous, the individual (set) against the whole highly organized structure of modern industrial and statist society”. As Woodcock argues, “In reality, the idea of anarchism, far from being democracy carried to its logical end, is much nearer to aristocracy universalized and purified. The spiral of history here has turned full circle, and where aristocracy […] called for the freedom of noble men, anarchism has always called for the nobility of free men”. In the valuable formulation of Ortega y Gasset, nobility is not a class but the capacity for struggle; precisely what distinguishes the noble man from mass man.

This, then, is the Gnostic injunction: that every individual be an aristocrat. “Ye higher men, away from the marketplace”, counsels Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. The ultimate expression of the aristocratic ethic, faced with a wasting natural world, is stoic renunciation, not in obedience, but in freedom. For the individual aware of her pneuma, her divinity – money, conformity, and the crowd form the cosmos of the Demiurge, the bane of Baudelaire, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche; the inauthentic world reviled by the existentialists. An heir to all of them is Houellebecq and it‘s no coincidence that his last novel reaches its conclusion on the surface of a desiccated planet. That there are people who still think in the Gnostic line of descent, there at least is a possible beginning.

Parts One and Two of Philosophy in Rags
Hugh Graham’s History in the News blog
Michel Houellebecq’s official site

Philosophy in Rags: The Present Augustan Age: Houellebecq and Gnosticism

In the second of three parts, Hugh Graham examines the theme of atomization in Houellebecq’s novels, finding bad conscience in good intentions and fatal contradictions in the biometrics of happiness.


A desert landscape flattened by positivism, by the belief that everything begins and ends in mechanics, forces and particles, can acquire meaning only with questions about eternity, the fall, entrapment and the individual’s perverse capacity to conceive of something better. But this is not the spirit of the age. The utilitarianism of the internet and of the market runs in everyone’s blood like a virus. “The reach of liberal capitalism has extended over minds,” writes Houellebecq; “in step and in hand with it are mercantilism, publicity, the absurd and sneering cult of economic efficiency, the exclusive and immoderate appetite for material riches… The value of a human being today is measured in terms of economic efficiency and erotic potential.”

Here, surely, is the kingdom of the Demiurge, a twilight world in which the sleep of bland acceptance discourages protest? That is why Houellebecq hates literary realism the way Baudelaire despised the 19th century idealization of nature; literary realism, like love of creation, takes our condition for granted, describing everything and questioning nothing as if it were all somehow good and suffering a consequence of occasional error. This is the triumph of Western culture, what passes today for ‘world culture’. As Houellebecq suggests in Platform: “For the west, I do not feel hatred. At most I feel a great created system in which it has simply become impossible to live, and what’s more, we continue to export it”.

A discourse of hard science along with the media’s tidy packaging of ideas comprise what the esoteric tradition would recognize as cosmic entrapment; a dead end where, in Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles, “the world is equal to the sum of the information we have about it” or, in Beckett’s Molloy, “a place devoid of mystery, deserted by magic”. Mundane Reason strengthens its grip as number, epitomized in the vogue for metrics in health, in dating profiles and indices for happiness and customer satisfaction. The immeasurable becomes quantifiable. Rating replaces discrimination. Technology and wealth, increasing hand in hand, outstrip ideas, causing a spectacular flowering of mediocrity as museums and art galleries are directed by CEOs and marketed like movies. The atomization of taste and discernment in the multiplicity of product choice provides a fake democracy in which anything can wear the mask of distinction simply by posing as an alternative. Here we have the idolatry not of knowledge but of information, facts rather than understanding, a carnival midway where everything from medical diagnostic manuals to best seller lists is dispensed with the breathlessness of the Learning Channel, even as many of those nodding off at their computers and plasma screens hope, vaguely, to find The Answer.

The desperate search for some sort of revelation in the last reaches of matter has stopped, perhaps in exhaustion, at the fad for biology, the handmaiden of metrics. If Houellebecq himself speaks the language of biology it is because he is attacking the very positivist materialism it supports. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, with its biotechnological solutions to happiness, is, according to Houellebecq, being taken to heart, with or without its irony. Here, happiness is merely arithmetic: the stark remainder after suffering has been subtracted. Houellebecq quotes Lovecraft: “All rationalism tends to minimalize the allure and importance of life, and to decrease the sum total of human happiness.” This is the heir to Christian rationalism, in the words of Hannah Arendt: “the calculus of pleasure of the puritan moral bookkeeping of merits and transgressions to arrive at some illusory mathematical certainty of happiness or salvation”. The same rationalism that supports hard science leads Houellebecq’s characters to a dead end, while Nietzsche warns that it will ignore man’s need for the irregular and the perverse: “It is only all-too-naive people who can believe that the nature of man can be changed into a purely logical one; but if there were degrees of proximity to this goal, how many things would not have to be lost on this course!” In the inimitable words of Dostoevsky’s underground man: “All human actions, of course, will have to be worked out by those laws (of nature) mathematically, like a table of logarithms, and entered in the almanac; or better still, there will appear orthodox publications, something like our encyclopaedic dictionaries, in which everything will be so accurately calculated and plotted that there will no longer be any individual deeds or adventures left in the world”.

The rationalizing thrall of the Demiurge has penetrated the body itself: the fitness craze that began in the 1970s and measures life in kilos shows no sign of ending. Even holistic sciences become ends in themselves, serving success or survival in an unquestioned world. Having occupied the body, the alien power of the Demiurge has breached the last bastion as it rationalizes the personality. Quirks, eccentricities, charm, individuality, vulnerability are medicalized as curable deficiencies. The relentless detection of pathology, the rage to nurture perfect babies and high-scoring children, the empty concept of the psychologically ‘whole’ person not to mention the ‘healthy, loving relationship’ run directly counter to what Gnostic ideas valued in the individual, in the rebel: her very distinction from the world in which she lived, that cosmic defiance which Baudelaire understood as character.

It’s not just by means of reason but through illusion pure and simple, the Gnostics suggest, that the Demiurge hides from us the knowledge of the divine fire that makes us unique and our situation dramatic. Illusion renders the fallen world tolerable and dull. Indeed, it is has almost won the day: “Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition?” Nietzsche writes, “Gods too decompose”. In proliferating best sellers and documentaries, the corpse of God reeks in the words ‘secret’, ‘mystery’, ‘lost’ and ‘unlocking’ – in which pop archaeology provides a counterfeit spirituality with easy answers. Postmodern and post colonial studies along with the lingering mania for deconstruction are almost as comforting. Much as the age of the city state and its divine mysteries decayed into the splintering nominalism of a hundred philosophies, the problem of existence is anaesthetized by a thousand national, cultural and gendered identities. Today, the Augustan wasteland remains occupied by Postmodernism which itself is a wilderness of solipsisms.

A consummate illusionist, the Demiurge masks the emptiness with euphemisms and buzz-words. The term ‘community,’ in the sense of residential proximity and close acquaintance, is nearly obsolete. Now it’s any agglomeration of people, whatever the purpose – the ‘policing community’, the ‘dot com community’. The colder and more impersonal the world, the greater the illusion of intimacy. The same forced sense of closeness has arrived with the death of rhetoric and speech and their replacement by the casual ‘living room’ friendliness of all forms of public address, a tone that assumes, somehow, that we are all neighbours, as reasonable and nice as the news anchor. Yet another palliative is the masochistic self-consciousness that soothes moral inadequacy. Self-satire and knowing references litter the art world, not to mention television. Innocent spontaneity, awe and grandeur are killed by irony. This is the groping, navel-gazing civilization that is supposed to give backbone to human rights. Here, surely, is the feeble residue of Christianity, what Nietzsche called bad conscience. It is Nietzsche who tells us, in Beyond Good and Evil that in a nobler time, actions were judged by their consequences and it was a sign of inward-looking decadence when they came to be judged by their intentions. Here we have Afghanistan, indeed the penultimate graveyard of those same good intentions.

Awareness of the pneuma, the shock of Gnosis, is best avoided through narcissism; that is, to look the other way and see one’s ego as an embodiment of the social ideal and conversely, the social ideal as an embodiment of one’s ego, whose watchwords remain autonomy, transience, convenience. In contrast, Houellebecq’s conception of sexual love suggests pneuma as union with the divine fire: abandon, dependency, selflessness. But tragically, “we have become cold, rational, acutely conscious of our individual existence and our rights; more than anything we want to avoid alienation and dependence.” The narcotic of self-absorption has many faces. Therapy as an end in itself is one. Work as careerism, where salary and position trump conviction or genuine interest is another, blinding one to the pneuma not so much as ego but as uniqueness. As Nietzsche puts it: “Behind the glorification of ‘work’ and the tireless talk of the ‘blessings of work’ I find the same thought behind the praise of impersonal activity for the public benefit: the fear of everything individual”.

One of the Demiurge’s most effective weapons against a proper sense of self is the false collectivity of ideology. Houellebecq, though vulgarly called “right wing” has infuriated both the right and the left precisely because he recognizes that the political cosmos is itself left and right; his repudiation of multiculturalism along with movements of personal liberation, indeed his political incorrectness, are deemed ‘right’ while his compassion for women, children and the elderly, like his anti-capitalism, are deemed ‘left’. Left and right, of course are dying ideologies and they leave in their wake a no man’s land, where the last piety is lukewarm belief in a democracy still run by elites. And yet this narcotic may itself be the biggest obstacle not just to the taming and rebuilding of failed states but to a coordinated attempt to deal with the deterioration of the planet. In the end, the exiled individual looks up and asks, who is responsible? It might appear to be the United States or perhaps the West. And yet, with the creep of a global culture, it becomes impossible to attribute authority or responsibility. This is the Demiurge’s finest trick of all. It’s what is meant by the term ‘Alien Power’.

This essay is concluded here

Parts One and Three of Philosophy in Rags
Hugh Graham’s History in the News blog
Michel Houellebecq’s official site

Philosophy in Rags: Rigour for a Dying World: Houellebecq and Gnosticism

In the first of three parts, Hugh Graham looks through the prism of Houellebecq’s novels and finds a Gnostic theme for our times.

Deserts creep and sea-levels rise. Populations expand and resources are depleted amid poverty, wealth, and intractable war. Under these lowering skies it seems astonishing that we live in a world void of profound ideas. Religion is weak or on the defensive; Marxism is dead and capitalism is a stubborn, standing ruin. Toward the end of Michel Houellbecq’s novel, The Possibility of an Island, one of the last humans wanders a planet where nothing remains but a technological limbo and its alternative, death. Human mortality and the destruction of the natural world, in short, human nature, seem without a prominent place in philosophy; instead they seem to find their strongest expression in art.

Meanwhile, at the heart of humanity’s most spectacular farce, its degradation of the planet, there endures philosophy’s oldest paradox, that of the whole and the parts. Never has the conundrum of the individual’s responsibility for the whole been so overwhelming; for the whole, now, is the planet itself. The re-making of man as one who is both whole and part has become the elephant in the room – our  greatest and least acknowledged task. As philosophy splits hairs about things like democracy, identity and language meanwhile, the individual is reduced to a carbon footprint, a shareholder, a stakeholder, a gender, an abstract holder of rights. The mechanics of the brain and the reduction of existence to biology are the new shibboleths, idols in an intellectual desert. Metrics replace contemplation. Statistics pass for argument. Individual culpability is measured in metric tons of carbon per capita. In the novel, Platform, Houellebecq’s narrator remarks of his father: “I was convinced that he had managed to go through his whole life without ever questioning the human condition”. So too, the postmodern world. Philosophy, conceived as reflection on life, has been professionalized out of existence or diluted and popularized as self-help. The world religions have amounted to little but desperation to stay relevant, hysterical reactions against modernity, platforms for chauvinistic revenge or ludicrous entanglements in identity politics. Where, in the end, can we find reflection on man’s most fundamental dilemma: an animal body endowed with the power to conceive an ideal?

Once, very long ago, yet not far from our own moral circumstances, a kind of thinking loosely called Gnosticism dealt with the lone individual possessed of a spirit in a world of suffering, evil, and an absent god. Gnostic thought had its roots everywhere in pagan antiquity. It re-emerged in philosophies of individual existence in the 19th century and flourished in our own time as existential thought before being effaced by the triumph of the free market. The latter’s masquerade as a philosophy of life has indeed helped to discourage philosophy itself. But the old philosophy of man and his existence in the world is not dead; it is only asleep.


Our times recall the twilight mood of the late Augustan epoch. The age of the city state was crumbling and with it the Olympian religion and the great philosophies the city state had supported. In its wake grew an intellectual no man’s land. The new wastes turned out to be the seedbed of Roman Stoicism, a philosophy which might, at the time, have seemed provisional for it dealt primarily with suffering. Stoicism held that the body was a prison for the soul, which was a way of saying that the soul was nevertheless, in its essence, free. Around the time of Christ, Stoicism helped to explain suffering as entrapment in a world falling away, indeed alienated from god. God was, literally lost. It was a subversive idea that thrived throughout the Greek diaspora of the Levant in secret, or underground offshoots of Judaism, Christianity and the pagan mystery cults. These heterodox forms of  Neoplatonic, Jewish, or Christian belief tended to link up below the surface rather like twitch grass having, in the end, more in common with one another than they did with their counterparts above. Sometimes they even produced syncretistic varieties such as the pagan-Christian cult of the Naassenes. This new form of religion was later named Gnosticism. Gnostic cults drew influence from Plato’s doctrine of a world of ideal forms and the inferior, shadow world of man along with pagan myths in which wisdom, the image of a lost ideal, was acquired through birth, death and rebirth; the result was an essential, radical myth in which the world was the work of a defective or evil god. Here, in antiquity, was an account of a flawed, destructible environment at the mercy of malign powers. Here also was a representation of the individual not as a member of a tribe, religion or caste, but standing alone between world and god.

Condemned by the Catholic Church as heresy, Gnosticism died out; but a powerful underground current of Gnostic ideas survived to work its way into western civilization in art, poetry and philosophy. The idea of man, once pure, falling from a forgotten ideal world into a hostile cosmos has re-emerged in Pascal, Blake, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Beckett, Camus and Sartre. It also re-emerges in the work of Michel Houellebecq. And now, it finds a natural subject in the empty materialism of modernity and the waste of the planet. It is always experienced as a fall from something better and memory of the former ideal. In short, the Gnostic scheme is psychology pure and simple, the structure of the human mind expressed in myth.

The myth has many variations, but the essential markers are clear:

  • The Ideal: Primordial, perfect unity in divine fire of the original god which contains a prototype of man, the Anthropos (our ideal, better Self).
  • The Fall: A defect develops in the creation and part of it falls away to form the corrupt material world (think: modernity). During the Fall, fire from the divinity showers the into the substance of the fallen cosmos.
  • Spirit or Pneuma: The fallen sparks (spirit, whatever drives us) of the lost god.
  • Alienation: The sparks of god are imprisoned in matter, clothed in successive shells of a soul, a body, gender, family, society and so on. The imprisoned spark of divinity or pneuma (‘breath’) from the original fire of heaven still bears the imprint of the ideal Self, the Anthropos.
  • The Demiurge: The Fall has spawned a lower god as well: the Demiurge, the architect and tyrant of the fallen world (in a modern sense: capitalism, socialism, the system, status quo, world order) maintains the state of alienation. The planets are his ‘guardsmen’ or Archons, who act as fate, restricting human freedom.
  • Forgetting, longing: Under the spell of the Demiurge, man has forgotten (in blind material progress) his origins. The original god of divine fire is lost and alien but still, man feels a vague sadness and longing for ‘home’.
  • Gnosis: The key to his liberation is consciousness that his divine spark or pneuma is part of the original divinity. By means of strict asceticism or the descent of the Anthropos as saviour, the revelation arrives as gnosis, Greek for knowledge. Aware of his divinity man becomes free, defying the Demiurge by withdrawing from society or breaking the law as a rebel. The motif is simple: fall from the ideal, entrapment, alienation and liberation.

In the novels of Michel Houellebecq, the longed-for ideal is a unity of earthly pleasures in love and the absence of loneliness, an ideal impossible in the contemporary world since pleasure, epitomized as sexual pleasure, is inextricably linked to its absence in loneliness, an ultimate paradox that science will never resolve. Houellebecq was first inspired by the science fiction horror of H.P. Lovecraft. In Lovecraft, the morality of higher unity and worldly separation is inverted but the scheme is the same. The primordial unity is Evil itself and it is better that its original coherence not be discovered; in The Call of Cthulhu, Lovecraft remarks, “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents”. For Baudelaire, another strong influence on Houellebecq, the faint shadow of primordial divine unity is positive: the flâneur’s pleasure in rubbing shoulders with the crowd.

In what he called his system of ‘correspondences’, Baudelaire suggested that the five senses have a hidden, higher, poetic unity, for example a colour with a sound. As his biographer, Alex De Jong describes it: “beyond perceived reality lies true reality and its nature may be divined by detecting the analogous patterns which inform the world and tell us of the world beyond”. In the world below, reality is shattered and the artist recovers the shards and restores them, providing a glimpse of the ideal in a work of art. This is not far from the Gnostic idea in which shattered traces of the original divine unity are found in creation itself: the Gnostic Gospel of Philip declares that “truth did not come into the world naked, but it came in types and images”. Even good and evil are merely facets of God before they fall and are refracted into virtue and vice: “O Beauty!” asks Baudelaire, “Do you visit from the sky / Or the abyss? Infernal and divine, / What difference then, from heaven or from hell”.

The divine unity is man’s real home; its essential humanity is expressed in the figure of the ‘Perfect Man’ or  the Anthropos. In Gnostic Jewish and Christian ideas the ideal is ‘the Son of Man’, often described as bisexual or asexual: gender unified. Christ is seen as an emanation of the Anthropos. He/she is represented on earth as one’s higher, unified Self, secretly stamped in their spirit or pneuma, an invisible twin or double not unlike the hooded figure on the white road in Eliot’s The Waste Land (“I cannot tell whether it is a man or a woman.”) In his dark novel, Whatever, Houellbecq’s narrator has “for years […] been walking alongside a phantom who looks like me, and who lives in a theoretical paradise strictly related to the world. I’ve long believed that it was up to me to become one with this phantom”. When Houellebecq refers to the “possibility of an island” in the eponymous novel, he means the hope that a specifically human sort of happiness which we have tasted as humans – rather than oblivion or nirvana – exists in the afterlife, much like the Anthropos, in the divine unity beyond death.

The central event in the Gnostic drama is the Fall. In the Naassene rite, the Anthropos himself falls into bondage and is imprinted in matter. In the Egyptian Heremetic cult, the Anthropos, like Narcissus, falls from vanity, in love with his reflection in the material world below. The Anthropos of Ophite Gnosticism falls and is multiplied into the human race. The fall from Platonic divinity to disintegration in blind darkness is well summarized by Baudelaire in The Irremediable:

A Being, a Form, an Idea
Having fallen from out of the blue
Into the Stygian slough
Where no eye of the sky ever sees.

The experience of the Fall is described in the Gnostic tradition as being “thrown” and then of “wakening” abandoned. Wakening to a shock is a leitmotif of the present age: 1945 awakened to  a world of nuclear war; in 1989, with the sudden collapse of Communism, the world awakened to a political wilderness; in September 11, 2001 it awakened to rage against the West;  wakening to one’s own degradation of the environment. Wakening  entails not knowing how one got there. In Beckett’s Molloy,  the eponymous hero lives in a room that was once his mother’s: “it is not the kind of place where you go but where you find yourself”. In Malone Dies, the protagonist’s room feels coterminous with a life which seems not to have had any beginning.

Wakening involves lonely disillusionment. In Parisian Dreams, Baudelaire experiences a paradise and wakens to find that ”from the misty sky a gloom / Poured through the torpid universe.” Beckett’s tramps wander a plain with nothing above but a grey firmament, “a frozen world under a faint, untroubled sky, enough to see by, yes, and frozen too”; in the words of his biographer, James Knowlson, it’s an “uncompromising vision of human separateness and loneliness”. Our essential condition is that of the fallen ‘spark’ or pneuma, stripped, like Beckett’s people, of status and possessions save for the attachments, compulsive and symbolic, of hats, overcoats, etc. The divine spark is suffocated in a material world, like Winnie in Happy Days, buried to her neck in sand. Separation and loneliness return at the heart of Houellebecq’s work where women and children especially, are abandoned. Houellebecq’s compassion for women, children and the elderly, marooned in a world of male egotism, stands out in an otherwise harsh, often malevolent view of the world.

But who or what is responsible for this confusion, loss, separation? The Demiurge, the lower god often depicted as Jehovah, ensnares man in the laws of nature and of society, meaning bondage and death. Beneath its occasional pleasures, life is a burden, a sentence. This lower, defective god makes occasional appearances in Houellebecq; in Platform, he writes: “Our genitals exist as a source of permanent, accessible pleasure. The god who created all our unhappinesses, who made us short-lived, vain and cruel, has also provided this form of meagre compensation”. In Whatever, a protest against synthetic sex is conveyed in the pathos of a cow forced to endure artificial insemination: “The breeder of course symbolized God […] The pathetic mooing of the ruminant would prove incapable of swaying the judgement of the Great Architect.” Even in Lovecraft, the outer absolute of death and horror appears to have a perverse designer. A classic document of modern esoteric rebellion is Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground in which the narrator curses the Demiuge as a ‘jester’ for causing a toothache: “a law of nature for which, of course, you feel the utmost contempt, but from which you nevertheless suffer while she doesn’t […] Well it is from these […] practical jokes of an unidentifiable jester”. Since man would rebel if he had knowledge of his divine origin, the Demiurge makes him forget, imprisons him under the authority of the orthodox churches and clothes him in a defective human nature, a reflection of the Demiurge himself. In Beckett’s Molloy, the narrator muses, “What I liked in anthropology was its inexhaustible faculty of negation, its relentless definition of man, as though he were no better than God”. In his Malone Dies random emanations of light recall the Archons – the planets and cosmic forces that keep us in thrall to the Demiurge: “absurd lights, the stars, the beacons, the buoys, the lights of earth”. A world in which reason terminates in dead ends of chaos and illusion.

Indeed, the next shock, after fall and abandonment to the cosmos of the Demiurge, is the absence of meaning: Beckett’s Molloy speaks of “my ruins”, “a place with neither plan nor bounds”, “whether it is not a question of ruins than the indestructible chaos of timeless things”, “a place devoid of mystery, deserted by magic”. In Houellebecq’s Whatever, the narrator remarks, “Maupassant went mad […] because he had an acute awareness of matter, of nothingness and death – he had no awareness of anything else”. In H.P. Lovecraft – Against the World, Against Life, Houellebecq paraphrases Lovecraft: “The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition toward chaos”. Humanity’s compulsive, minute dissection of matter furthers the process, as Houellbecq suggests in The Elementary Particles: “materialism had a historic importance: to break down the first barrier, which was God. Man, having done this, found himself plunged into doubt and distress. But now a second barrier had been broken down – this time at Copenahgen. Man no longer needed God, nor even the idea of an underlying reality”. As in Eliot’s Waste Land, Beckett’s unspoken concern is religious. It is, as the critic Helene Baldwin remarks, “the territory of the lost, fragmented modern world, uneasily conscious of a missing dimension”. The missing dimension is the higher, unknown god, the divine fire. Nietzsche speaks of that very absence when he says, “God is dead.” It is not just the fallen cosmos but our own machinations that have hidden the divine fire which is why he adds, “and we have killed him”.

The Gnostic traditions express the loss of God as a generalized, amnesiac nostalgia. It appears in the modern world as longing for the past. In The Swan, Baudelaire speaks of “Exiles fallen from memory paradise / And likewise in the forest of my exiled soul”. It is no accident that Houellbecq’s Bruno, in The Elementary Particles finds himself “increasingly drawn to Baudelaire. Here were real themes: death, anguish, shame, dissipation, lost childhood and nostalgia – transcendent subjects”. Elsewhere, he quotes Lovecatft: “There is too much wistful memory […] for the fleeting joy of  childhood […] Adulthood is hell” and Houellebecq adds: “given the values of the adult world, how can one argue with him? The reality principle, the pleasure principle, competitiveness, permanent challenges, sex and status – hardly reasons to rejoice”. It is union in intimacy that we somehow remember: “Tenderness is a deeper instinct than seduction, which is why it is difficult to give up hope”.

Tenderness seems to be somewhere in the past or far away: “What was outside the world?” Houellebecq asks in The Possibility of an Island. One’s home in the ideal has left a longing, diffuse and nagging; his narrator quotes Aristophanes on love, from Plato’s
Symposium: “It is obvious that the soul of each desires something else,  what it cannot say, but it guesses, and lets you guess”. In Beckett, an inaccessible omnipresence subsists in a grey, sourceless light. For Baudelaire, in Benediction, it is distorted further
by the senses:

Since it is perfect luminosity,
Drawn from the holy hearth of primal rays,
Of which men’s eyes, for all their majesty,
Are only mournful mirrors, dark and crazed!

The same faint distortion of the ideal appears in Beckett’s Watt: the protagonist works as a servant for the elusive deity, personified in Mr. Knott: “the few glimpses caught of Mr. Knott, by Watt, were not clearly caught, but as it were in a glass, not a looking-glass, a plain glass, an eastern window at morning, a western window at evening”.

The impression is vague and fleeting, for existence is a death-like sleep or illness; in the Gnostic Nassene rite the Self falls from Primal Mind to chaos and into the soul in deep waters, briefly sees the light and becomes emotional before falling into forgetfulness. For Beckett, life itself is less than consciousness: Malone remarks, “Coma is for the living”. Hope in the midst of forgetfulness is the essence of existence, a fact mostly hidden from the well-off. In the desiccated landscapes of Darfur, the eastern Congo and Somalia it is all too present: life at its default like the parched world of Waiting for Godot. There is nowhere to go.

The successive entrapments by soul, body, society, nature, world and cosmos, like so many concentric walls imprisoning the pneuma, form the geography of Gnosticism. The grey firmament of Beckett also imprisons Baudelaire. In The Pot Lid he writes: “The sky above! This wall that stifles him / A ceiling lit by dramatic farce […] / The Sky! Black lid of the enormous pot / Where vast, amorphous Mankind boils and seethes”. The great vaulted prisons engraved by Piranesi are brought to mind, an image that Houellebecq links to the vision of Lovecraft: “The demented cyclopean structures […] shock the spirit […] more so even than […] the magnificent architectural drawings of Piranesi”. In Beckett, Malone’s room is a separate cosmos, cut off from the sun and moon which he suspects to be the property of the outside world. Then there is the confining shell of the body itself. In Whatever, Houellebecq’s narrator confides: “I feel my skin again as a frontier, and the external world as a crushing weight. The impression of separation is total; from now on I am imprisoned within myself” like Baudelaire’s Wretched Monk:

– My soul’s a tomb that wretched coenobite […]
I travel in throughout eternity;
Nothing  adorns the walls of this sad shrine.

For Baudelaire, the imprisoned self is faced with nature where forests “howl like organs” and have “damned hearts” and the ocean has “mad laughter, full of insults and of sobs”. The laws of the Demiurge, of nature, are brutal. As Houellebecq remarks in Whatever: “Of all economic and social systems, capitalism is unquestionably the most natural. This already suffices to show that it is bound to be the worst”.

Gnostic beliefs held that reason itself further manacled the prisoner. Dostoevsky’s underground man declares: “reason is only reason and satisfies only man’s intellectual faculties, while volition is a manifestation of the whole of life, I mean the whole of human life, including both reason and speculation”.  Faced with the stone wall of reason, the individual is truly free only in his will: “The point is […] not to reconcile yourself to a single one of the impossibilities and stone walls if the thought of reconciliation sickens you”. Freedom in perversity will release you even from the shackles of your own best interests. In the same way, Baudelaire reserves “the right to contradict myself”.

Worldly reason, the dimensions of time and space, the poet and novelist would hold, are an illusion. The adepts of the underground Gnostic tradition would concur: it is from the truth of divinity, not from reason, that we have fallen. Reason and the world are drunkenness or dream. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus “found all of them intoxicated”. In the Apocryphon of James, “Your heart is drunken, do you not desire to be sober?” In the sobering revelation of modern physics, multiplicity, time, space and ordinary reason are themselves illusions masking some underlying unity preceding creation. Dostoevsky’s underground man detects the penetration of his very personality by illusion: “My anger, in consequence of the damned laws of consciousness, is subject to chemical decomposition. As you look, its object vanishes into thin air, its reasons evaporate”.

The kernel of being, at last, is the pneuma, the divine spark, identical with the lost divine unity beyond. In Baudelaire’s profane metapahor, Hymn, an adored woman is a “Grain of musk ineluctably hidden / In the holiest centre of me!” Sex, in Houellebecq, is the heart of the life force and the pneuma’s liberation takes place through the extremes of sexuality. Like its associated cults, however, liberation produces the very loneliness it was meant to end. Love, if separated from sexuality, is blocked and becomes painful. “If you bring forth what is within you,” counsels the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, “it will save you. If not, it will destroy you”.

Rebellion against the Demiurge takes the very modern form of blasphemous perversity in which the serpent becomes the messenger of the lost god. In a Jewish Gnostic inversion of the Book of Genesis, man has a right to the tree of knowledge which is, literally, Gnosis. The Garden of Eden is not on earth but is part of the primordial unity; the tree stands for knowledge of man’s original divinity (not moral knowledge of good and evil, as in the orthodox tradition). In a further inversion, the serpent is a hero for tempting man to eat of the fruit and attain knowledge of his  divine origin. As punishment for eating of the tree, for attempting to unlock the secret of his true identity, man falls to the Demiurge, Jehovah and is forced to submit to the Law. Sometimes the good serpent of knowledge is even named Satan. As Baudelaire has it in Prayer: “Glory and praise to Satan, where you reigned / […] may my soul take rest beneath the Tree Of Knowledge with you”. It is the Serpent who rebels against the Demiurge, the familiar God of the Bible; and so Cain too, is a hero for breaking the Law, a moral inversion which will return frequently in  modern radicalism.

The pneuma is the internal presence of the eternal. In Baudelaire’s poem The Beacons, the works of the great masters are distant echoes of God, “respoken by a thousand labyrinths, / An opium divine for hungry mortals’ hearts!” Knowledge of its presence is freedom. This is not faith, doctrine, or ritual. It is a knowing beyond certainty. Again, Baudelaire knows it, intuitively, in Parisian Dreams:

No star from anywhere, no sign
Of moon or sunshine, bright or dim,
Illuminate this scene of mine
Glowing with fire from within!

Here we have an intimation of man exalting the ‘god’ inside himself, the modern anthropomorphization of the divine spark. Only a couple of decades later, Nietzsche asks, “Is not the greatness of this deed (killing god) too great for us? Must not we ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it?” In the following calamitous, tragic century Beckett writes in Watt of something like the pneuma, but languishing: “of the dim mind wayfaring / through barren lands / of a flame with dark winds / hedged about / going out / gone out”.

In modern life, the concern is new: not only the weakening presence of the divine spark but its utter solitude and possible death.  With knowledge of one’s own trapped divinity comes alienation. As Houellebecq asserts in Whatever: “Maupassant went mad […] because he had an acute awareness […] of nothingness […] Alike in this to our contemporaries, he established an absolute separation between his individual existence and the rest of the world. It’s the only way we can conceive of the world today”. Later, in the same novel, “I get the impression everybody must be unhappy […] There’s a system based on money, domination and fear – a somewhat masculine system, let’s call it Mars; there’s a feminine system based on seduction and sex, Venus let’s say. And that is it. Is it really possible to live and to believe that there’s nothing else?”

Here we have a picture of entrapment. In the Gnostic tradition, release is obtained by breaking upward through the laws of the Demiurge, or by Jesus breaking downward to save fallen man with knowledge. The crucified saviour in The Elementary Particles is a scientist who believed that “love, in some way, through some still unknown process, was possible” and who, at the time of his discovery, disappears and is presumed dead.

Some varieties of Gnosticism held that reunion with the higher god guaranteed the immortality of an individual self. Conceptually, however, reunion implies dispersal. Vague sensations of divine union recur in the work of Samuel Beckett:  scarecrow figures, reduced to the most decrepit, elemental existence feel themselves, at moments, indistinguishable from the totality of creation. Houellebecq says as much in The Possibility of an Island: “There is no love in individual freedom, in independence, that’s quite simply a lie, and one of the crudest lies you can imagine; love is only the desire for annihilation, fusion, the disappearance of the individual”. And indeed, his protagonist’s transition to a new life through a technological process of immortalization involves complete disintegration. Here we have one version of reunion with the divine.

This essay is continued here

Parts Two and Three of Philosophy in Rags
Hugh Graham’s History in the News blog
Michel Houellebecq’s official site

Cutting The Drugs: UK Drug and Rehab Services Under Threat From Government Cutbacks

What impact will recent UK government cutbacks have on drug and alcohol counselling? Carl Stanley asked the opinion of a variety of rehab professionals, including a magistrate, drugs counseller, and pharmacist, plus several musicians who have been through the process

The UK’s drink/drug counseling and rehabilitation services are facing cuts in spending and rapid changes due to proposed government plans. It’s common knowledge cuts are expected in most government spending, but how will our drink/drug services react and cope to, some say controversial, future Government plans. I myself used a local government funded service to deal with my own substance misuse problems. I feel it was essential in me getting myself together and I’m fearing these changes and cuts could prevent other people receiving the same level of help and support that I received.

Therefore I asked several professionals, including a magistrate, drugs counseller, and pharmacist who are all involved in the process of running UK drink/drug counseling services, what they think the results could be regarding the proposed changes and cuts. Several spoke only under condition of anonymity. I also sought out some of the local music artists of whom I’ve long been a fan, like c, Paul Heaton from The Beautiful South and Black Grape’s Kermit, who agreed to talk honestly about their own experiences of drink and drug misuse and how government services helped them recover.

Carl and Mani
Carl and Mani

Part 1: The Drink / Drug Rehabilitation Professionals

The questions are:

1) Spending
Proposed spending cuts of £6.25 billion in Government spending, with out doubt drink/drug services will face cuts. What effects do you feel the cuts will have on the services, service users and society as a whole?

2) Recovery
what do you think to the new Government policy of “recovery”, the harder line policy that will focus on drink/drug service users, service users who have not shown much in the way of improvements and rehabilitation, maybe given some sort of time line as to when they have show improvement in their rehabilitation, maybe in order to keep getting the help from their respective service, what are your thoughts and views on this, would it work, is it right….?

3) Improvement
In the time of you working, or using a service, or when you started out with your respective band, how have the UK’s drink/drug services changed/improved, what have our services now what they didn’t before…?

4) Stigma
Two different reports, one by the UKDPC say their research shows a high level of stigma attached to our drink/drug services and the people who use them, at the same time Drug scope say their on line survey shows 2/3 of their respondents say spending on our services is right and they feel fine with it, whats your view on stigma regarding you and what you have to do with the service…?

5) Methadone
Our Governments policy a few years back was to get as many heroin users on a Methadone prescriptions so to maintain them, keep them steady and from breaking the law to support them substance wise, though NICE say while “methadone has a part to play in the rehabilitation of a heroin user, it does not directly address the causes and context of drug dependency”, though other work is done with service users, do our drug services rely on the use of methadone too much, and is there a down side to so many on methadone prescriptions….?

The Answers:

A Chemist/Pharmacist who provides a methadone service and needle exchange

1) Spending..?
” Well, we can only be as effective as the budgets we receive from the Government, it’s that simple, less of a budget could mean being less effective as our service goes”

2) Recovery…?
” Reducing Methadone users is the next positive step, though to take or stop some ones treatment would with out doubt be the wrong move, and would raise criminal justice issues, as if somebody is taken off their prescription I would think it would effect crime in general, I’m in favor of the right approach to moving meth users off their prescriptions and to the next positive step, reducing them if of course its done accordingly and correct.”

3) Improvement…?
“I have been involved in the methadone/needle exchange for ten years, and the progression of the service has improved so much, I feel our standards are high and we provide a quality service.”

4) Methadone…?
“The correct use of methadone is some thing between the user and the doctor; I feel it has made stable many people with Heroin problems. in a ideal world some one would come off street drugs and go on to the right amount of methadone they would need to keep them stable, then when there life is maybe less chaotic they would start to enter society again as substance free, by reducing their prescription according to there individual needs.”

A Magistrate dealing with drink/drug offenses in court

1) Spending…?
“I would say we need our services and the standards they give to carry on, as I would say 90% of theft crimes like shoplifting are drug related, I can only use the options I have at my disposal, and drink/drug services are 1 of them which I do access for many, I work on recommendations put before me, so though I do have certain power, I can only work with the services and establishments at my disposal, and I steer people towards them. All I can say is we need correct funding to enable these services to carry on with the work they do. Until I was a magistrate I really didn’t realize the scale of the UK’s drug problem, our drug problem, the amounts of people who make the wrong decisions, and also the numbers of teenagers with substance issues. Sometimes when I’m driving near the local shops for example, and see teenagers vandalizing, smoking drinking and fighting I have this urge to get out my car and talk to them, try and make them realize they can do better things than hanging about, up to no good, give them some encouragement. But I’m all so very aware that my approach wouldn’t work, which is a shame. So we need all our services, Drink/Drug and those services that support teenagers in all aspects.”

2) Recovery….?
“For me to comment on whether a more disciplined approach towards some of the users of drug/drink services would be the right decision or not would not be an answer I would’nt be able to give, as I said I can use the services if its right in that case to do so and if its recommended some one is appropriate for a drink/drug service I will work on these recommendations, I see people going through court and accessing a drink/drug service, but as a magistrate I don’t get much feed back at all on those that I have steered towards a drink/drug service, which in a way is some thing which should happen, some feed back and info on the cases we have delt with would be good.”

3) Improvements….?
” So many improvements over the years I have been a magistrate, I feel things like programmes, talks and training are great, education is so important, to us all, in all aspects. Though we can plainly see a rise in drug related crime over the years, the drink/drug services are always improving, gaining knowledge, more effective, better education, I think our services are very effective, do a great job and we need them in society more than ever.”

Drug counsellor who provides help and counselling for those with drug-related problems.

1) Spending cuts….?
“I think new Government policy is looking to use more community orders rather than use prison sentences when dealing with people with drink/drug issues, it costs ?35,000 a year to look after a inmate so they could feel it would better, cheaper using more community based orders. I’m hoping there will be sufficient funding to take on the extra numbers coming into the drink/drug services, I’m not sure if the current drink/drug services could cope with more service users with out the right funding, also, would this policy encourage crime, would users think they will probably get a community order instead of a prison sentence if they commit drug related crime…?”

2) Recovery……?
“The new policy of recovery, looking to start moving service users off their medication and council-ling is something that I can see being done with the newer service users, but for those that have been on there medication, for example, Methadone, for some time, large doses over a long period of time, say 5 yrs, and longer in some cases, will be harder to work with, for these people to work to deadlines I don’t think would work.”

3) Methadone…..?
“Yes, a few years ago the Governments plans was to maintain every one with a Heroin problem on to methadone, which I feel has been successful, but I also feel there is an issue with amounts that are taken ,some times. Some of the amounts that some people have to take I feel is quite high, and another thing that bothers me is the amount of methadone on the streets, it gives some the people the choice to administrate them selves with the methadone they buy off the black market, together with no council ling this is a problem that has arisen.”

4) Changes/improvements….?
” Of course our services have improved over the years, in lots of ways, but I can say I feel we have more people on Methadone prescriptions then in the past, but less people coming through door, a decline in people needing these prescriptions.”

Comments from Tim Young, chief executive Alcohol and Drug Services (ADS)

1) Improvements….?
“More places and more accessible places, clinical governance has improved, also type of drugs prescribed have changed tremendously from Methadone Grains to ready made Methadone mixture.”

2) Stigma……?
“Its still a problem, but one that is improving, I would say though there is more stigma aimed towards drug service users than alcohol service users.”

3) Methadone…?
” The driving issue in the use of methadone within the drug services has been political not clinical, the way funding is worked out for users gives the services the problem of delivering what they can, but also getting the results. Giving some one a prescription and reviewing them every few weeks is much cheaper than seeing them weekly and working with them through psychological therapies, yet there is loads of evidence to suggest the second provides better out comes.”

4) Spending cuts….?
” I believe some changes are needed, but it’s the speed of these changes that concern me, although we are measured by our results, the funding will be linked to theses changes and we are half way through this year and we have not yet been told how this will happen.”

5) Recovery…..?
“I don’t think this is “harder line”, I think it is a value laden word poorly chosen. The recovery agenda for clinicians is about what it means, in terms of treatment, introducing an element that should have been there all along and for which there is substantial evidence. Also if you were to ask some one after some months of treatment they might look for different options with in their treatment, but will make do with what’s there, so the harder line could be seen as offering an option previously denied to service users.”


“At the core of recovery’s the aim of reducing users service dependence on specialist and increase their ability to access/use support from mainstream services, at a time when main stream services are being cut too I fear it will be more difficult at best for some users and impossible for at worst for some of our service users. The holy grail of getting people back into work becomes even more difficult, if stigma and the out of date rehabilitation of offenders act are taken into account it is very difficult indeed for our service users to aspire to anything but the most basic paid employment, if they can get a job at all.”

Methadone user of a local drug provision service

1) Spending…?
“Well for me I’m asking “what about my methadone script” when I think of cut backs, or the support I get, will it not be what we get now, if I didn’t have this service and prescription I would be left with nothing, if right now my council ling and other help was reduced I would be looking at using Heroin, or prison, I’m still going through rehabilitation and the help I get now I need.”

2) Recovery…?
“If I had to sign up to some recovery agreement I would want guarantees about back up’s, meaning what if I cant stick to some new rehab plan, a harder one, the thought of this “recovery” thing just makes me ask questions about knowing I will be alright, what if it doesn’t work, if it didn’t work, could/would I get another methadone script and the council ling that goes with it…, it makes me feel uncertain about it.”

3) Improvements…?
“I’ve been using heroin for about 13yrs, in the time I have been using drug services I have seen loads of changes, more options, the services allow you to get involved in activities, and the education is good as I didn’t know half the things I do know, about getting clean, trying to stay healthy and also the chance to talk to many different people who can help you, in different ways, yeah I seen a lot of changes.”

Part 2: Artists Talk About Their Experience Of Government Drink / Drug Services

Paul Ryder
Happy Mondays Bassist and founder member

1) What were services like when you started with the Mondays, improvements…?
“Well to be honest there wasn’t anything that I can remember; people were left to it really. Going into the 80’s the first wave of Heroin hit the streets of Liverpool, close to me and my mates in Manchester, so it didn’t take long for it to make it to our City. Round this time I do remember a little about the 1st anti-Heroin campaign by the Government. So I remember the warning, but I couldn’t see where the help was coming from.”

2) Spending…?
“It’s needed more than ever, to cut back on these services would only mean less help, but to take any part of the drink/drug services away, and not replace it would be a blow. Its the counseling as much as the medication that’s important, and I feel it would be false economics as it would mean a rise in crime if there’s less help out there.”

3) Recovery…?
“Being more disciplined towards drink/drug service users is one thing, but any thought of time lines for users to rehabilitate too, would just not work, its about the individual and their problems, its complicated because there are normally many issues why some one would have a drink/drug problem, its complex stuff some times. To what extent the new more disciplined Recovery policy will include I don’t know, but no one can work to a dead line as far as rehabilitation is concerned, that’s daft.”

4) Methadone…?
“Well I have used several methadone prescriptions, and even though I went through it a number of times, at the time they did work as far as bringing me off street drugs, like now with the methadone, its staple use is to maintain some one, to keep them from using Heroin, which it did for me, but there was no follow up work, no councilling, you saw a doctor and went through the process of getting on a methadone prescription. But each time I got to that stage of maintaining myself on methadone, being stable, I would also feel totally lost, like an empty shell, not much in the way of feelings or thoughts, that’s where I could have used some follow up councilling, but as I said it wasn’t there. Methadone can keep you stable, but there is so much more work to be done when you get to the point of maintaining your self on your medication. The councilling is essential.”

Paul’s Story
“Personally I would like to see more beds provided for detox patients, one time when I went to Salford hospital for detox, there were 25 beds but only 2 beds for people from Manchester, and it was made up of people from towns and places outside MCR. I also had to wait some time before getting the help, I waited 8 weeks for a bed, and when I was finished detoxing in the Hospital I was signed over to the doctor, I would just turn up every so often ,and go through the motions, but again, no follow up work, and again I’m left feeling empty, once you get stable a whole load of other issues start, ….making the right decisions, using your time right with the right people, depression, changing your life style, all these things have to be dealt with, and most of these things require help and council ling.””I live in LA now, and I have been clean 3years, though its great living here, like Manchester you see the drug problems all the time, its a place where plenty run away too hoping for a good life in what ever they do, yet loads of em end up on the street, I see it when I go down town, these are the people I can relate to, the people I feel I could help. The council ling I get out here is one reason why I’m here, along with all the other great things about LA, but I’m happy and the council ling works for me.””At the moment the kids are on holiday, I’m currently working with Tina Waymouth (Talking Heads, Tom Tom club) who I have known and worked with since the early 90’s, always been a big fan of her work, so yeah.things are great.”

Stone Roses/ Primal Scream

1) Improvements…?
“Comparing today’s drink/drug services to when I started out with the Stone Roses, well there was nothing, people were basically left on the streets, that or prison, and there were a lot of people left to it back then, it was scary, way things are going we could be looking at a similar situation to the old Tory Government, because that’s when it all happened, Heroin and the crime that went with it, and there was no help at all.”

2) Recovery…?
“As far as recovery goes, I think people need to wake up and realize it’s a disease, I can’t imagine the Government saying to a cancer patient “you have 2 yrs to get better” you know what I mean, it’s the same for addiction, it’s a disease and should be treated as one. Feel strongly about this, and whether people like it or not, it needs to be treated the same as any thing else that makes you feel as ill, it’s a disease.”

3) Spending…?
“In the industry I’m in we pay 40% tax, I contribute my fair share so from that point of view I would rather see my Government spend money on drink/drug services than war. People today rely on these services so much, what a negative impact it would be to cut back on them, what’s that saying. Under this Government it could be like going back to the old Tory Government, in the way of these services, so if you think you need the help the drink/drug services can offer, getting in there, no one is going to help you if you don’t make that first move to help your self.”

Mani’s story
“Me personally, I had an issue with alcohol, so I booked my self into a rehab, I’m lucky to have the means to do so but obviously not everyone can. to sum up what it was like for me going through rehab is…; like I have been walking around most of my life with a ruck sack full of bricks, weighing me down physically and mentally and going through the councilling in rehab allowed me to one by one take out the bricks, baggage from not talking about things I had stored up over the years.So I talked to the councilors and detoxed, the councilling was effective for me and now I can say my life is so much better, my relationship, my home life, I get much more work done musically and everything is much clearer, a good living.”

Paul Heaton
The Beautiful South / The Housemartins

1) Improvements…?
“I have no idea but i see a increase in people pubically trying to fend for themselves.”

2) Recovery…?
“Deadlines are no good for people with addictions; I can’t imagine it works like that.”

3) Spending…?
“I’m fine paying 40% tax if it’s going to the right cause, the cut backs in spending are to pay for the next banking crisis, that’s all.”

Paul’s story
“I had no dealings with drink/drug services during my Housemartin days, though I did consult a group called DART while I lived in Hull, they were great but have now closed (under the last Government). I can’t tell someone when is a good time to consult professional people but that’s what they are and there trained for moments and people like you and they wont come searching for you.”

Paul Leveridge
aka Kermit, Black Grape.

1) Improvements…?
“Back in the day help was scarce, hardly any services, GP’s only dealt with a select number of people with drink/drug problems, and methadone prescriptions were no where as near as wide spread and used as they are today.”

2) Spending…?
“Were living in a society where new drugs hit the streets every month, never mind hard drugs, with all the legal highs about our drug services will be over ran with new problems, not just the old ones, and as far as spending goes, its not just funding for drink/drug services but all the other issues like housing and such that people need help with when they have a drug problem, we need more than just drink/drug services.”

3) Recovery…?
“I think it’s ignorant to use 1 size fits all, drink/drug issues come down to the individual, cant see the recovery policy working.”

Paul’s story
“In the early days I used recreational, and no hard drugs, the music industry has always been involved in drink/drug use, my story is pretty much the same as every one else, I’ve been there with substances, but I’m older now and having a good time does not mean messing your self up, At the moment I’m in the studio and my thing will always be music.”

The Literary and Political Catholicism of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh

Ben Granger

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Whenever there was a chance to have a shot at Catholicism in his writing, George Orwell could always be relied on to take aim and discharge both barrels. With the grim vision of Vatican support for Franco fresh in his mind, he was hardly without justification. Polemical righteousness brimming over, he rashly wrote in the 30s that the English novel was “practically a Protestant art form”, and that Catholic practitioners were thin on the ground both numerically and qualitatively. Practically as he put pen to paper however, two of the greatest English authors of the mid century – Henry Graham Greene and Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh – were surfacing to take the literary world by ferocious storm. And it’s fair to say the pair weren’t exactly short on Catholic sensitivities. A bad call from Mr Orwell on this one at least.

In many respects the authors could scarcely be more different. Greene’s milieu was the forgotten corners and back alleys of life. The jittery street gang, the persecuted runaway, the jaded official in a fading Imperial outpost. Boozy landladies, failed accountants. Greene’s every fibre was tuned with sympathy for the underdog, siding with the rebellious and the forgotten, his narrative home the sleazy underbelly of life. Not so Waugh. His territory was the landed estates of the southern counties and their intersection with the cold elites of London high society. While his misanthropic satire found endless and endlessly amusing reasons for his narrative contempt towards the dramatis personae of lower gentry and upper bourgeois who populated his books, there was no denying that, at heart, he identified with them. Indeed, his lampooning of the upper and upper middle classes hinged largely round the fact that they failed to live up to his reactionary ideal. Moving outside this caste, his attitude shifts from mere contempt to outright hatred.

While both transcended both, Greene’s style skirted round the genre of the thriller, Waugh around that of the comedic farce. Greene’s narratives are littered with gangland intrigue, colonial corruption, the grimy and sweaty fear of pursuit. Action, in the purest sense, is central, as is plot. The characters are conveyed via a direct mental inner voice toward the reader, their dialogue, and interaction with each other being secondary to this. Again, the contrast with Waugh could hardly be greater. His narratives are comedies of manners, black comedy but comedy nonetheless. His genius stems from the ironic nuance of the reciprocal voices on display, the interaction of their dialogue being vital. Unlike Greene, the plots of his novels are essentially secondary, framing devices against which the characters can “flourish”, were that not so inappropriate a word for the languishing on display. These are characters whose inner lives are implied rather than explored, conveyed in shadow.

What they did have in common was an intense sense of inner desolation, an acidic looking within, and it was their Catholicism that both mirrored and embodied this. Read any novel by either author, and whichever of the myriad delights you my obtain from the experience, the lasting impression, the “aftertaste”, is a subtle yet distinct despair, an existential dislocation obtained via osmosis from the central characters. “Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either egotism, selfishness, evil – or else an absolute ignorance,” declares Greene, with Waugh in full agreement.

In the past a Catholic in Britain was, by definition, an outsider. Even today, Britain is officially a Protestant nation with a Protestant monarch, an identity forged in the fire of adversity to the Romanist other. These atavistic rivalries may have dwindled and mean little to the majority of people in the UK today, but in the 30s the rifts were still raw. It wasn’t too long before then that suspicion toward Catholics was much like that shown towards Muslims today. Worse in fact, with official sanctions barring the “other” from office, and from voting. Most Catholics in the country are there by the apparent virtue of the Faith being handed down. In the main they come from immigrant backgrounds, chiefly from the Irish diaspora of the past two centuries. A disenfranchised, working class tribe, greatly over-represented in the industrial north of England, and in Scotland (this before we even begin to touch on Northern Ireland.) None of this, however, applied to either Greene and Waugh, bourgeois, upper middle purebred English southerners both. They were Catholics by choice, by their own conversion. Outsiders by choice too.

Both seemed to want a Faith which underlined and justified the constant sense of separation they had always felt towards their peers. They also seemed to want to find as stark and unforgiving a theology to identify themselves with as possible. Greene converted to the Faith in 1926 at the age of 22, following a lonely and troubled youth savagely punctuated by suicide attempts. Suffering what is now termed bipolar disorder, Greene spent his whole life engaged in extremes of behaviour, not least in his prodigious sexual incontinence and proclivities. Greene stated he became a Catholic as something to “measure his evil against”. In later years he adulterously fucked behind Italian altars for the thrill. There must be a suspicion Greene was playing with the Faith for his own sense of internal drama, much like Dali, whose use of the religion was a prop to adorn his art with ever more outlandishly theological accoutrements. Catholicism is after all, a religion of the picturesquely ornate, of the dramatic. The stained glass and incense filled churches, the arcane blood and flesh fuelled doctrines of transubstantiation, the unflinchingly Manichean morality, the sheer ancient grim majesty of it all. This is truly the religion of the drama queen. You don’t get that with Methodism. For all this though, Greene was not merely playing with some theological dressing up box. There can be no doubting the sincerity of his conversion. His private letters show his Faith was central to his life.

In both life and literature however, Greene was a poor advertisement for the familiar argument of religion being a solace in life, the “heart in a heartless world”. Two of his most celebrated central characters, the colonial administrator Scobie inThe Heart of the Matter, and the nameless whiskey priest of The Power and the Glory, are hopeless, tired and desperate shadows of men, whose Faith only serves to make them spiritual as well as emotional wrecks. Both live daily with the knowledge their actions, be they treacherous or adulterous, are condemning them, with absolute certainty, to eternal damnation. These are not truly bad men, but by the standards of their own Faith they are beyond redemption, sealing their own personal tragedies. Then on the other hand, we have Pinkie, the psychopathic young gangster of Brighton Rock. Here is a truly bad man, and one whose certainty of his own damnation only serves to spur him on to ever greater evil. “He was damned already and there was nothing more to fear ever again.” In each case, the religion makes for a wonderfully powerful and evocative component of the novels, a character in itself, more than that even. Wonderful for the reader. But wonderful for Greene himself? Noel Coward met Greene when they both prowled in the same Hollywood circles, touting their works for adaptation on the silver screen. He came to remark on Greene’s “strange, tortured mind”. Whether his Faith served to salve or further inflame the wounds of this torture is open to conjecture.

Waugh’s conversion was more clearly that of a man desperate to retreat into a mythical past. This was after all the man who proclaimed “the trouble with the Conservative Party is it has not turned back the clock one second.” There was a spate of conversions to the Faith in the 30s of men from the upper-middle-class, men trying to find a mooring, a sense of backward-looking solidity in a traumatic age. Once more however, there is something far deeper, and steeped in an ambivalence.

Waugh came to prominence as a novelist in 1928 with Decline and Fall, two years before his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Famous and feted at the age of 25, Waugh continued with the drunken hedonism he had begun in his Oxford years. He was indeed one of the feckless “bright young things” he wrote about. His growing horror at the spiritual emptiness he saw in this gadddabout life was what spurred him into the arms of the Church, which he saw as the most Eternal of institutions, a haven amongst the creeping chaos.

In the views of Waugh, we see in sharp relief the antagonism between the heart of Conservatism, and the capitalism that it defends. Margaret Thatcher herself for instance, would have been personally shocked and repulsed if she spent any great time in the company of her shock troops, the coked up young yuppies of the 80s, as they lined it up on the toilet tops. Waugh’s contempt for the fly by night shallowness of the young rich sat ill at ease with his support for of the Tory Party without which their lives of philistine luxury would be unsustainable. Hence his impotent railing against clocks going forward. The real establishment of England was once Catholic of course, back in the 15th century, an age so long ago as to have lost all contemporary meaning. His Catholicism therefore was a very real sense of clinging to a past so elusive as to be non-existent, grasping at a phantasm.

In his novels, the Faith emerges as the still at the centre, the calm amongst the inferno. This can be seen most clearly in Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder’s agnostism is set against the Faith of the Marchmain family, or in The Sword of Honour triliogy, wherein the aristocratic Crouchback’s represent even more clearly the valiant rearguard action of the Church, and indeed old England itself, against all the forces of modernity. In other novels the Faith’s talismanic status is subtler. Tony Last, the cuckolded husband in A Handful of Dust, is presented as belonging to the past, underlined by his church attendance, however vague minded that may be. His humiliation by non churchgoing wife Brenda and the vulgar ( key word ) social climber John Beaver shows once more the clash between the (virtuous) old and the (degenerate) new. It is a mythological battle between Old England, the rural, certainty, tradition and social cohesion, against the New World, the urban, capitalism, dynamism, change, hedonism, class conflict and progress. In Sword of Honour, Waugh sees Guy Crouchback, when he still thinks he is fighting against Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany both, claims “The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms.”

It’s an internal battle the Right will never resolve. That Catholicism is no longer the religion of the “establishment” serves Waugh well. As he sees the massed ranks of modernity triumph, as he surely knows they will, he can psychologically cast himself in the role of the king over the water, exiled valiant victim and patrician overseer simultaneously. Such was the source of both his art, and the bilious, bitter anger that never left him.

In Britain we have the paradox that Catholicism – in the wider world so very often the creed of the oppressor over the centuries – is the religion of the persecuted underdog. This has led to the most bizarre and schizophrenic political allegiances and alliances. In 30s Lancashire, unemployed Communist marchers would doff their caps when passing Catholic churches, at the same time as senior clerics were backing Franco. Orwell wrote of visiting workers’ houses with “the crucifix on the wall, and the Daily Worker on the table”. There has never been a shortage of left-wing British writers of Catholic background, but seems fair to say this has usually stemmed from their “outsider” nature, their working class and/or Irish background, rather than the religion itself. With Anthony Burgess – in later life a bitter rival of Greene’s – we have a descendant of the Irish diaspora, his childhood in Manchester’s Moss Side influenced the Left perspective of his early writing, his Catholicism informing his later conservative slant.

The upper and middle-class converts to the Faith of the 30s however, were far more often doing so for reasons which became reactionary by default, even if that was not the initial intention. In this sense Waugh was the more typical figure. In 1937, when Nancy Cunard sent a survey to leading novelists of the UK asking which side they took in the Spanish Civil war, Waugh was one of the tiny minority who declared their support for the Falange. A minority view among authors, but not among the kind of dyspeptic saloon bar Tory he came more and more to exemplify and signify as both his age and drinking increased. The Blimpish caricature he succumbed to by the end was probably an extreme rather than a typical example however, and by a sublime irony was mirrored in the similar decline into self-parody of Kingsley Amis a generation later, a writer Waugh lambasted as “lower-middle-class scum” at the beginning of the latter’s career.

Amongst the 30s converts, the Left-radicalism of Greene therefore must be seen as a great exception. Once again though, the tale is more complicated. Greene started out on the Right. Along with many youths of his class, he acted as a strike-breaker during the 1926 General Strike. After his conversion, he wrote for the right-wing Spectator magazine and took the side of the put-upon Mexican clergy following the revolution in that country. His earlier novels contained numerous mildly anti-Semitic asides (excised on republishing at his behest.) In many ways therefore, he seemed destined to trudge down a classic Conservative path.

But Greene was one of those converts, a minority amongst the Blimps of his class, who heard the message of social justice ring louder than that of defence of hierarchical tradition in the call of the Faith. Greene’s vision of Catholicism stirred him to side with the downtrodden in the world, and for him that meant the Left. He became an intractable and articulate foe of US imperialism, especially of its machinations in Southern and Central America. In 1955 he wrote The Quiet American, a novel which was to become a classic anti-imperialist parable. In later years he was to meet and correspond with Fidel Castro, and while still critical of the curtailing of religious and intellectual freedom in the country, strongly supported Cuba’s struggle against US hegemony.

In Latin America of course, the populace shared his Faith, yet he was conscious that the dominant reactionary elements within Catholicism had no interest at all in his anti-imperialist vision. When therefore, in the 80s a new strain of Faith within the region came to prominence which shared his vision, he could scarcely contain his intellectual glee. Liberation Theology combined the apparently antagonistic Catholicism and socialism which had both so inspired Greene, uniting against the US backed juntas of the subcontinent. Oscar Romero in Salvador and Evaristo Arns in Brazil were just two of many to speak out the US sponsored repression and poverty which racked their nations. Greene came to personally befriend another such Liberation priest, Leopoldo Duran.

That such movements were to fail, crushed by the Washington backed strong-men, Oscar Romero assassinated – Greene, eternal pessimist as he was, no doubt anticipated. That they failed to receive the backing of the Vatican, that indeed that they were explicitly denounced by them, he may have found harder to reconcile. Perhaps this contributed to the weary irony of his statement to interviewer John Cornwell in 1989, that he was now a “Catholic agnostic”.

Had he lived to see it however, he may well have been heartened to see the success of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia, a new generation of leaders combining socialism with their Catholicism. The latest success of the left-leaning bishop Fernando Lugo becoming president in Paraguay would no doubt of gladdened him most of all. Who could doubt he would have seen some vindication here, and an answer both to the Catholic hierarchy who saw in the Left its great nemesis, and those on the Left who argued that believers could only ever be reactionary. Waugh, meanwhile, would have spun once more in his grave, a tomb already doubtless given to much rapid rotation.

Greene and Waugh may have had diametrically opposed positions in their politics from their own interpretations of the Faith. But, transcending politics, what both seemed to take from the Faith in their writing was a sense of the complete fragility and frailty of the human condition, the essential unworthiness of people gained from Original Sin. In Greene this seemed to inspire a sense of poetic heroism amidst inevitable failure and desperation, in Waugh a very real contempt not just for humanity as a whole in the abstract, but for all human beings individually. That sense of the tragic which under-writes and illuminates the drama in the one, the sharp satire in the other, a sense of the comedic and the sublime in both. It also served to solidify the bond which grew between the two. Melancholic heavy drinkers, red eyes unsatisfied, tilting at the cold Protestant world from different angles. For all their myriad differences, the two became firm friends, and remained so until Waugh’s death in 1966.

Larkin claimed “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth”.

With Greene and Waugh, the inspiration, the framework, the habitat, spark and realm of their work was neither harsh mental state nor delicate flower. Catholicism was the muse for them both. As a very lapsed member of the Faith myself, and distinctly sceptical as to any positive influence it may lend to the modern age, I can at least offer it gratitude for giving the work of both to the world.

Unholy Terrors – The horror writings of Arthur Machen

Tom Wootton

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A sinister experiment in the Welsh hills. A daughter born of an unholy communion. A peasant boy terrified witless by a strange tableau in the glade of a wood. A prosperous Londoner discovered raving and destitute on the city streets. Disturbing sketches found in a dead artist’s notebook. A series of inexplicable suicides.

‘Un succés fou! Un succés fou!’ declared Oscar Wilde – a raving success. In 1893 The Great God Pan stalked and scandalized the prudish British literary scene, which was disgusted and delighted in equal measure.

The Manchester Guardian called it ‘the most acutely and intentionally disagreeable book … yet seen in English':

‘We could say more, but refrain from doing so for fear of giving such a work advertisement. ‘

There could of course have been none better. The Lady’s Pictorial called it ‘unmanly’, clearly the worst of qualities, and the Glasgow Herald recommended ‘a smart turn in the brisk air to cleanse the feelings’.

The author was a 30-year-old Welshman called Arthur Machen. Over the next seven years he would produce a small body of work that, in HP Lovecraft’s words ‘stands alone in its class, and marks a distinct epoch in the history of this literary form’.

Like HP Lovecraft, who was heavily influenced by him, Arthur Machen was in many ways not a very good writer; in fact many would I think say this is understating the case. Yet The Three Impostors, The Inmost Light, The Red Hand, The Shining Pyramid and The White People, along with The Great God Pan and in a different way The Hill of Dreams, represent a unique vision of supernatural evil that was to have a lasting effect in its genre and indeed beyond.

Was his vision unique? The position may want defending. He can on superficial acquaintance seem merely a background figure in fin-de-siecle decadence, a second rate hawker of Sex and Death to the drawing rooms of Britain. Yet Machen was largely indifferent to the public scandal of the Yellow Book; they took him up, not the other way round. The tang of wormwood in his writing was close enough to Parisian absinthe to suit the taste of the 90s aesthete, but it came from a different source.

That is not to say that he did not have literary influences. A second charge against originality is that he was too facile an imitator of those he admired; Stevenson especially, but also Swinburne and de Quincey. Yet although his execution is often derivative, the specifics of his vision are as I say original.

This is because Machen was primarily a poet of place; in fact two places: Gwent where he was born, and London where he moved as a 19 year old to earn a living and relieve the burden of his upkeep from a chronically poor clergyman father.

He explicitly wrote The Great God Pan as ‘an endeavour to pass on the vague, indefinable sense of awe and mystery and terror’he had received from the land of his fathers. Growing up in the village of Caerleon, near Newport he had around him a landscape of rolling hills and winding valleys fringed on either side by mountains and sea, which he called ‘an enchanted land’. It had been the site of the important Roman garrison of Isca, and among its imperfectly buried ruins the young Machen found a temple dedicated, so he writes, to ‘Nodens, God of the Depths’. A large part of Machen’s vision of evil is here at the very beginning of his life; its beauty, its Celtic-Roman trappings, its obsession with the recrudescence of an ancient and subterranean past.

Machen’s writing is gilded all over with attractive descriptions of his native countryside, so that his evil is pervaded and surrounded by a peculiar beauty: Pan finds his beginnings above ‘a long, lovely valley’to ‘the murmuring call of wild doves’, scenting ‘a sweet breath, that came from the great wood on the hillside’. In The Novel of the Black Seal, one of his finest pieces, the main character is taken to Wales and surrenders herself

‘wholly to the charm of the country':

‘Here beneath the deep blue sky and the great clouds rolling, like olden galleons with sails full-bellied, from the sea to the hills, as I listened to the whispered charm of the great and ancient wood, I lived solely for delight, and only remembered strange things when we would return to the house and find Professor Gregg… ‘

This is very different from the typically Romantic coercion of landscape to mood found in Machen’s Gothic forebears. It is not a theatrical backdrop; his pastoral scenery is pregnant with ancient forces; forces too powerful for modern humanity to safely comprehend. Pan is the avatar and conduit of these forces, as is a malignant race of little people, fairies so-called, a prehistoric off-shoot of humankind who populate the shadows of his fiction.

The aura of sinister beauty derived from the countryside is not therefore limited to scenic vistas, but is bound up with the mechanics of his horror. Helen Vaughan’s exquisite features evoke ‘the most vivid presentiment of evil… ever seen’. As with vampire stories, this evil is powerfully seductive. The fertility rites of ancient Rome with the phallic Pan at their centre are relived in acts of psychic sexual communion, resulting in annihilating revelation. This process is explicit in the Great God Pan, strongly hinted at in The Hill of Dreams, and implicit in elsewhere in his works of this period; evil is beautiful, destruction lusted after. Conversely his investigative heroes are chivalrous innocents, living in ascetic solitude, their closest emotional bonds that of friendship; they are hilariously and imperviously earnest in the presence of women.

The revelations produced by these processes are insights into nature, they are not, in any structured sense, religious. It is significant that in his later fiction, the malign pastoral forces were replaced (rather than being defeated by) the Holy Grail and Arthurian legend as vessels of revelation, which this time was supernal rather than infernal, and furnished salvation rather than damnation. Machen’s earlier horrific universe is in all important senses a godless one. Its metaphysical characteristics are described by 17th century fellow Silurian and mystic Thomas Vaughan (twin brother of the poet Henry) in Lumen de Lumine. He writes of a chain of being where ‘beneath all degrees of sense there is a certain horrible, inexpressible darkness. The magicians call it tenebrae activae. ‘This crudely sentient and primal darkness is, once tapped, a canker that infects the flesh. As Jorge Luis Borges has noted in a brief but elegant essay on The Three Impostors, in Machen ‘la corrupción del espíritu se manifesta par la corrupción de la carne’. Helen Vaughan in The Great God Pan, Mrs Black in The Inmost Light, and Francis Leicester in The Novel of the White Powder all end up, to quote from the last, ‘a dark and putrid mass, seething corruption and hideous rottenness, neither liquid nor solid, but melting and changing before our eyes, and bubbling with unctuous oily bubbles like boiling pitch. ‘

So it is that Machen’s manifestations of terror might be better termed infra-natural rather than supernatural. Dr Raymond is making a profound error of judgement when he explains at the beginning of The Great God Pan,

‘There is a real world, but it is beyond this glamour and vision, beyond… them all as beyond a veil. I do not know whether any human being has ever lifted that veil. ‘

His error is that of the progressive – that there is something to be gained from such a discovery. In fact a devastating regression is being risked and there is everything to be lost.

Years later a rather different Machen thought he himself had erred in the portrayal of this error, writing

‘Here then was my real failure; I translated awe, at worst awfulness, into evil.

I think far from being his real failure, this was his real success. It gives his horror the status of cosmic theogony rather than localised derangement or folk tale.

These then are the mechanics of Machen’s horror, his other major achievement was in his description of where this horror operated – the London warp to his Silurian weft, ginned, spun and woven in the Satanic mills of the capital. His early years there, from 1880-1887, were characterised by intense poverty. In the words of Anthony Powell, ‘it is difficult to see how he survived’. His diet consisted of unbuttered bread, green tea, and black pipe smoke, with maybe a currant biscuit at lunch-time. Every two weeks or so he would take meat and beer at an inn. He was very lonely. In a garret in Turnham Green so small he had to store his books out on the landing, he warmed his hands at a gas jet and devoted himself to literary creation. Fired by Cervantes and Rabelais, he loved the rich and strange. ‘I chose mysteries first and I chose them last’he would later write. Even apart from his juvenilia his works are best termed Romances rather than novels, the realist conventions of which he all his life held in great contempt. Language was chiefly important for the quality of its sounds, and he developed a lyrical style, delivered in long, rolling musical clauses, in which some critics have heard the surging, intense Welsh preaching style of ‘hwyl’, inherited from his forefathers. It is worth remembering however the sheer amount of care he took over the music of his language. Having tried and failed early at poetry, poetry never left him; often in the evening he would lay down his pen and embark on vast perambulations of the suburbs and broken countryside of west London, and amid the sulphurous fumes from the brickfields at Acton would search for elusive expressions, lines, single words even, which would transform his prose into a vehicle for magic. All too often he would return to his attic and pick up his pen, only to find that inspiration had deserted him. Time and again he writes ‘one dreams in fire, but works in clay’.

In the strange and melancholy Hill of Dreams Lucian’s rapturous visions of ancient Rome become monstrous nightmares when he moves to London. The capital becomes for him a town

‘great as Babylon, terrible as Rome, marvellous as the Lost Atlantis’. Like the child narrator in The White People he feels trapped in a city of infinite menhirs:

‘… one grey temple of an awful rite, ring within ring of wizard stones circled about some central place, every circle was initiation, every initiation eternal loss… ‘

How much The Hill of Dreams is spiritual autobiography is disputable, there can be no doubt however that Lucian’s experience in some way mirrored Machen’s. His precarious early life in London became the template for his stories; characters are frequently a hair’s breadth from death by starvation, the streets and modern inns, and the monotonous suburbs and labyrinthine rookeries that Machen endlessly patrolled were the settings for his abominations. Industrial smog and petroleum naphtha street lamps light the path to Hell, and the keys to Its gates are held by unwitting drunkards, prostitutes, street artists and tramps.

In other words it is not just the nature of the horror that makes it so effective, but where it takes place:

‘As I glanced up I had looked straight towards the last house in the row before me and in an upper window of that house I had seen for some short fraction of a second a face. It was the face of a woman and yet it was not human…. as I saw that face at the window, with the blue sky above me and the warm air playing in gusts about me, I knew that I had looked into another world – looked through the window of a commonplace, brand new house, and seen hell open before me. ‘

The Inmost Light

Unlike Dickens, London’s greatest poet, Machen specialised in the unexaggerated mundane; Machen’s descriptions do not enliven what is seen, as in Dickens, rather they deaden it, in this lies the fear. The otherwise rather unsuccessful Novel of the Iron Maid perfectly evokes the mood:

‘Before me was the long suburban street, its dreary distance marked by rows of twinkling lamps, and the air was poisoned by the faint, sickly smell of burning bricks; it was not a cheerful prospect by any means, and I had to walk through nine miles of such streets, deserted as those of Pompeii. I knew pretty well what direction to take, so I set out wearily, looking at the stretch of lamps vanishing in perspective: and as I walked street after street branched off to right and left, some far reaching, to distances that seemed endless, communicating with other systems of thoroughfare, and some mere protoplasmic streets, and ending suddenly in waste, and pits, and rubbish heaps, and fields whence the magic had departed. I have spoken of systems of thoroughfare, and I assure you that walking alone through these silent places I felt fantasy growing on me, and some glamour of the infinite. ‘

This is the spiritual location of Machen’s adventure. In infinite streets anything can happen – anything must happen eventually. Those who criticise Machen’s overuse of coincidence proceed from a fundamental error; trying to interpret his writings according to a theory of realism that Machen despised. The events in his works progress as in a nightmare. There is a sense that when his characters wander aimlessly they are part of a hidden process. That whether they choose streets left or right, secluded courtyard or crowded pub, they are progressing down an unalterable path to the heart of the mystery. In an infinite labyrinth everywhere is the centre; Machen’s London as a whole partakes of the mysteries that occur within it.

An appreciation of the potency of Machen’s vision should not blind the reader to his demerits. A proper critical evaluation cannot avoid the fact that his writing is frequently disastrously bad, there is no other word for it. Even allowing for the aesthetic of a nightmare, plot construction is so totally absent, so gimcrack when present, that the reader must totally disregard concerns of narrative. His character drawing is rudimentary in the extreme, so that it is frequently difficult to work out who is narrating anyway. Conversational exchanges become exercises in counting back to work out who is saying what to whom. The way he squanders the build-up of menace in The Red Hand is immensely frustrating and the last line of The Three Impostors is so comically bathetic that it provoked in me a shout of excruciated laughter. The teller of The Novel of the Dark Valley is a monster of slow-witted incuriosity and boredom – even Machen admitted it was ‘to put it mildly, not a very good story’. (This despite the fact it was a blatant copy of Stevenson’s excellent The Story of the Destroying Angel). Names are but imperfectly attached to their owners, so it is not unusual in connected works to find the same name for totally unconnected characters. His lyrical style can have a kind of incantatory power to keep you reading even when the matter seems weak, silly or thin, but it can also be painfully tedious and repetitive, and in these more laconic times, indigestibly gorgeous. Characters, as well as being paper thin, frequently engage in an early version of what would later be known as radio dialogue, gabbling instant information at each other from point-blank range; this from The Three Impostors:

‘We owe a great deal to you, ‘said Mr Davies politely; ‘the doctor said so before he left. But have we not all three some farewells to make? I, for my part, propose to say good-bye here, before this picturesque but mouldy residence, to my friend Mr Burton, dealer in the antique and curious,’ and so forth.

There is also sometimes a serious problem of tone. The rather chilly blend of farce and seriousness, flippancy and deadliness, Stevenson used in his New Arabian Nights mixes awkwardly with the hot feeling of mystical evil so sincerely felt in Machen’s writing. I must admit that I quite like, however, the grave good humour with which his heroes dash about the page. Without this his horror writing would become a mere exercise in the morbid and a deal less entertaining for it.

It is once again worth pointing out that Machen is not the slightest bit derivative apart from in his faults.

To list the faults is not only to perform a necessary duty, but also to redress an imbalance: Machen has been as ill-served by his admirers, who refuse to admit his failings, as by his critics, who refuse to allow his achievements. Those who best appreciate him are those who are prepared to enjoy a vulgarity of literary taste as they would the vulgarity of a pier-end ice cream, letting the snobbish critics, vain of their prejudices, turn their noses up at the vulgarity, and the equally snobbish fanatics, vain of their preferences, deny the very presence of any such vulgarity. All the basic faults of construction and style should perhaps preclude the expression of higher things and yet they do not. An intangible and potent aura of mystery persists despite the grotesquely malfunctioning mechanics.

To look at his artistic heritage may serve to indicate his position in literary history and reaffirm his literary qualities.

American horror story writer HP Lovecraft simply cannot be ignored. To him is the most obvious bequest, the one most frequently cited. There was a huge but brief interest in America, towards the end of Machen’s life, in his horror writing. Literary pilgrims made their way across the Atlantic expecting to find a rather formidable sorcerer along the lines of Aleister Crowley, instead finding a rather Pickwickian and benevolent Machen, fond of punch and skittles. Lovecraft was part of this slightly morbid swell of interest. He expanded Machen’s cosmic implications to create a mythos of alien gods, in the Egyptian and Mesopotamian mould, and his entertainingly gaudy and tentacled monsters are an extension of the vivid tentacle in The Novel of the Black Seal, from whence is also taken the idea and style of his ancient and indecipherable magical language. His often execrable writing owes something to Machen’s purple periods, although the influence of Poe should not be left off the charge sheet. Lovecraft’s highly coloured terrors were perfectly suited to comics and B-movies, and it may be said that through him Machen’s style of horror entered the bloodstream of popular culture.

Mark E Smith of The Fall has done much to revive the language and landscapes of English horror, stripping and fracturing the overworked seam of Victorian nightmares, conveying the essentials of fear in a way completely different to Machen, but with a similar desire for evocative force. The language had become outdated, the intent remains the same; to frighten. Horror by no means forms the entirety of The Fall’s output, and even in that genre there is a good deal that is original; furthermore, separating out the strands of Lovecraft and Machen is not always easy. Nevertheless Leave the Capitol is explicitly set in Machen’s universe, the ‘Roman shell’of the Capitol, the Welsh camp caravan masquerade, and a reference to a comic book depiction of Pan all seem to have as their epigraph Austin’s comment in The Great God Pan;

‘I shall leave London to-morrow, ‘he said, ‘it is a city of nightmares. ‘

Songs such as The Impression of J Temperance, with their decaying urban setting and protean horrors also have the clear stamp of Machen on them and Pan is a frequent visitor to their music, his offspring contemptuous of mankind and their self-regarding achievements.

On TV Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit has considerable elements of Machen, albeit translated into the genre of science-fiction, with a race of gnomish people and investigations into the psychological presence of Satan. Kneale’s TV series Beasts is occasionally reminiscent of Machen’s The Terror, where the natural world rises up against humankind.

M John Hamilton, one of the writers collected under the umbrella term The New Weird, is the most recent popular inheritor of Machen; his short story of dreadful revelation The Great God Pan later became the basis for his novel The Course of the Heart. He successfully updates much of Machen’s machinery but sadly retains little of his charm, his writing to my ears having a rather workmanlike flavour, dull even.

The other legacy is rather more, though not entirely, indebted to Machen’s elegiac and pastoral strain. The composer John Ireland admired him very much, writing to him frequently and meeting him on a couple of occasions, although Machen’s hostility to musical innovation (he would have nothing but plainsong and Ta-Ra-Ra-Boomdeay) meant the warmth was not entirely reciprocal (God alone knows what he would have made of The Fall’s fearsome racket). Nevertheless his admiration gave a disturbing dimension to his pastoral music, withheld contemporaries such as Elgar and Vaughan Williams. The beautiful Legend, with its distant and yearning clarion call, is strongly reminiscent of Machen’s rustic descriptions and was inspired by an experience on the Sussex downs near the site of an old leper colony, where Ireland saw children in white robes performing a silent dance; he looked away briefly and they were gone. ‘Oh, so you’ve seen them too? ‘was Machen’s rather terse response. Mai Dun evokes pagan military rites that haunt the contemporary hills and ruins as the rites of Rome haunted Machen’s Gwent.

Ireland’s friend Jocelyn Brooke, an exceptional and neglected writer, has called Machen’s stories ‘unduly undervalued’, a judgement worth taking seriously from such a fine stylist. His Image of a Drawn Sword evokes a feeling of spiritual dread through vivid rural descriptions, his method rather different and supremely accomplished, but in effect not too dissimilar to Machen’s.

John Betjeman was also in fact a brief acquaintance of Machen and credited his curious novel The Secret Glory, part attack on public schooling, part Grail legend, with him staying in the Church of England at a time when he felt the lure of Rome (no insignificant event considering Betjeman’s writings). He commemorated the event in Summoned by Bells:

I would not care to read that book again.

It so exactly mingled with the mood

Of those impressionable years, that now

I might be disillusioned. There were laughs

At public schools, at chapel services,

At masters who were still ‘big boys at heart’-

While all the time the author’s hero knew

A Secret Glory in the hills of Wales:

Caverns of light revealed the Holy Grail

Exhaling gold upon the mountain-tops;

At " Holy! Holy! Holy! " in the Mass

King Brychan’s sainted children crowded round,

And past and present were enwrapped in one.

Betjeman also said that as a child The Three Impostors ‘frightened me more than any book I read’. But it is Betjeman’s people and places that most remind me of Machen, his hymns to suburbias and provincial hills, his description of the vivid inner lives of city clerks and the unexpected rapture to be found in the mundane.

GK Chesterton feels temperamentally like Machen in many ways. As journalists they can hardly be told apart sometimes, though Machen despised the trade and Chesterton was proud of it. In the fiction Chesterton inherited a portion of Machen’s rolling style, but most significantly his love of London topography and atmospheric effects like the fiery clouds that garland both their works so beautifully. If Chesterton outdid Machen with his remarkable descriptions of the latter, I feel strongly that Machen was the master of the former; he is for me the strongest portrayer of London after Dickens. Interested readers will turn to The Man Who Was Thursday and certain of the Father Brown stories for comparison.

It is in Machen’s strange urban infinities that we find another admirer of his, Jorge Luis Borges, who chose The Three Impostors as one of the books for his personal library, and who has written two excellent, typically brief, sadly untranslated essays on him.

Multiplying the mirrors, that rather formidable spiritual son of Borges, Javier Marias, makes much use of Machen and his friend the poet John Gawsworth, in his books The Dark Back of Time and All Souls.

To list all the names connected with Machen would be mere phatic criticism, but I hope the ones given suggest that Machen’s place in literature is rather stronger than his detractors allow and even his admirers may suspect.

All that is to a certain extent by the bye; to read Machen on a fine day in a quiet sunny glade or the cramped back room of a pub may on occasion be the height of literary pleasure, at other times he will seem just silly. But those who cannot stand his faults debar themselves the rewards he can give. Just the other day, while out for an evening stroll in west London, I looked down a street lined with blossom, and through the windows of a house at the end of it saw a silhouette of a person briefly framed against a sky of blood and orange, and the lyrical and sinister magic of Machen lit the world around me and within.