Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Folklore Tapes: The First Five Years

An overview originally uploaded for a Bleep.com 'advent calendar' release of a special 5 year mix in 2016.





FTV. Five years of Folklore Tapes. It feels odd writing it down, both because it feels like this motley collective has been around for a far greater span of time – they have certainly amassed an impressive body of work for a mere half decade; and because their art seeks to transcend the notion of time. Only Timelessness, as David Chatton Barker and Ian Humberstone’s flickering 8mm eyeflash trip through Dartmoor landscapes (and inscapes) expresses it. The Folklore Tapes folks are essentially British visionary romantics in the spiritual lineage of William Blake and Samuel Palmer, Paul Nash and Michael Powell, Arthur Machen and Derek Jarman. All explorers of the genius loci, the spirit of place inhabiting landscapes in which geology, history and myth (personal or universal) have become compressed into intermingling strata. These antecedents are monumental presences in an alternative underground current, often rendered invisible or given scant, disdainful regard within a cultural climate overwhelmingly favourable to realism, whether social or psychological. It’s significant that several are visual artists. The visual element of the Folklore Tapes world is hugely important. This incorporates the exquisite graphic design of David Chatton Barker, which has graced most of the releases; the idiosyncratic packaging (from bespoke boxes and brightly coloured cassette casings to envelopes imprinted with unique ink-stamps and hollowed out and rebound books); the handmade, decorated and reconfigured instruments which are art objects in themselves (rather like Harry Partch’s ensemble of cloud-chamber bowls, gourd trees and chromelodeons); and the performances in which film and projections play such an important part.


The temporal may be transcended, or its linearity looped and warped, but Folklore Tapes was initially more spatially specific. It all began down in Devon, in the somnolent cathedral city of Exeter. These were the days of Devon Folklore Tapes, and the first release, Two Witches, set the template. A study and aural invocation of two local conjuring women from the nineteenth century, Hannah Hemley from Hembury and Mariann Voaden, who had inhabited a rough, tumbledown cottage near Bratton Clovelly, north-west of the Moor. Bratton Clovelly (whose church boasts a magnifent Norman font set about with fire-tongued dragons, impassively chthonic giants’ heads and solar wheels) is not too far from the Lewtrenchard parish of the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, who recalled Mariann in his 1908 book Devon Characters and Strange Events. Both locales may prove fertile ground for future exploration by folklore tapes researchers. Two Witches was a collaboration between David Chatton Barker and Ian Humberstone, who continue to be the central HQ of Folklore Tapes operations to this day, the binary system around which various bodies have since orbited. The guiding ethos and essential aesthetic approach was in place from the very start; the exploration and poetic evocation of folklore and the folkloric spirit through research, notes, quotations, field explorations and recordings, visual artwork and music.


David and Ian called themselves researchers rather than musicians or artists, an appellation which somehow incorporated all of the above into one coherent and all-embracing practice. The placing of a cassette inside a hollowed out book was also significant. The contents were a way of ‘reading’ the stories of the two witches through an act of identification, an imaginative inhabitation of the witches’ world which translated research into the direct emotional affect of music. The Rev. Baring-Gould may have offered one conduit into this world (just as he had lent imaginative fuel to Bram Stoker, researching Dracula in the British Library, through his Book of Werewolves), but it is Theo Brown who has proved the tutelary spirit guiding the Folklore Tapes seekers, from the beginning and for always. Brown was an unorthodox folklorist, working outside the clubbish confines of academia and therefore scorned by many of its pompous proponents. She engaged directly with her subjects, travelling about Dartmoor in her caravan and getting to know the inhabitants of its villages personally. Her accounts are written in a poetic style, retaining the element of storytelling bewitchment and colourful detail essential to bringing folk tales and legends to vivid, compelling life.


When Ian and David eventually came to pay tribute to Theo in 2014 with their Theo Brown and the Folklore of Dartmoor collection, they did so with the care and reverence due to such a formative and continuing influence. In their notes, they liken her to Delia Derbyshire, Lotte Reiniger and Vera Chytilova, the Czech director of Daisies and Fruit of Paradise – all women touched by inspiration, passionate individualists who struggled to make their highly distinctive voices heard. The box housing the varied artefacts of this multi-media release was a treasure chest, tapes making way for 7 x 7” inch records (a magically symmetrical calculus presenting the vinyl medium itself as an occult artefact), each carrying a sound picture of a Dartmoor village or locale and its attendant legends or spirits etched into its grooves, otherworldly presences ready to be released into the room as sinister resonances through the trembling vibrations of the speaker cones (or directly into your head through your phones). A DVD of the film Only Timelessness was included, its celluloid record of expeditions onto the moor digitised but losing none of the elemental texture of fracture and frost cracking and the corroded earth colours of biological decay nurtured by burying the reels in the organic matter of the moor for a month (the influence of Stan Brakhage evident and openly acknowledged). Damage and erosion is re-imagined as alchemical transformation, geological time running like a fissure through the images of the present to create a dual vision, an abstracted landscape where the processes of millennia are inscribed upon the experience of the moment, resulting in a sense of numinous immanence inherent in every rock, tree and stream (the kind of feeling which Arthur Machen attempted to convey in his story Hill of Dreams).


This is the territory from which myth and legend, folklore and superstition is born, making wraithlike and evanescent contact with the human imagination, emerging from the protean moods of the local weather and the unfiltered white noise of the rushing river as much as from the chthonic bones of granite underlying the whole humpbacked topography, occasionally emerging as the gnarled, arthritic knuckles of the tors. And it’s the abstracted landscape and its inherent spirit, ancient and intensely of the everpresent now, which preoccupied romantic moderns like Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious. And Theo Brown too. Also contained within the treasure chest was a series of postcards reproducing the woodcuts which she created as illustrations for her books and publications. For she was an artist too, having trained at the Westminster School of Art in the 1930s – even more reason for her to be the guiding anima presiding over the ongoing Folklore Tapes quest. Of course, every treasure box needs a map, and one was duly presented here – a guide to finding the geographical locales over which the records layer uncanny atmospheres. Although once there, such inner soundscaping may prove unnecessary. The Genius Loci works its own magic. The green box lid is illustrated with a silhouette profile portrait of a youthful Theo Brown contained within a circle, as if it were intended for a lover’s locket. Her face is lined with the fine cracquelure of leaf-lined veins, fragile and fissile but in its verdure holding the promise of renewed life. It’s a superb illustration which amounts to a declaration of love, and a determination to keep Theo’s spirit and vitality alive. It is this continuity of spirit, I feel, which lies at the heart of the whole Folklore Tapes adventure.


After a year or so, the Devon diaspora began. Folklore folks lit out to triangulate the hidden topographies lying between Exeter and Manchester, Bristol and Edinburgh, London and the Shetlands, travelling and mapping new roads whilst continuing to unearth the old ways and the legends and lore which inhere within the amalgam of their centuried strata. And David and Ian picked up a ragtag band of fellow travellers along the way, some journeying for a prolonged period, others for a short stretch of the path. Here’s David Jaycock, weaving enchanted arabesques out of arcane guitar tunings as he would go on to do in his feted collaboration with Marry Waterson, the latest scion of the regal folk clan; and here’s Rob St John, visionary crooner of transported states and dream-infused landscapes, paying his respects to the Pendle witches on the 400th anniversary of their infamous trial; and spiritual father Andy Votel, fooling nobody behind his Wicker Man-citing Anworth Kirk nom de stylus, hymning and finding compassionate communion with lost Dartmoor soul Kitty Jay in a manner very different to Seth Lakeman on the second Devon Folklore Tapes release Graves; Magpahi (aka Alison Cooper) and Paper Dollhouse (Astrud Steehouder & Nina Bosnic) investigating rituals and practices in Devon folklore; Carl Turney and Brian Campbell taking off their surgical masks and emerging from the sinister psych Clinic to recreate a succession of calendrical customs; Sam McLoughlin (of Sam and the Plants renown) coaxing electronic sounds from unlikely places and embracing his dark persona as N. Racker; Mary Stark observing the turning wheel of the year and tuning in to the subtle shifts in its moods; The Blue Funz (Alex Borland and Daniel Potter) making merry hell and proving obligingly chameleonic to fit in with the atmosphere or requirements of the occasion, morphing at will into White, Yellow, Black, Gun Metal Grey and even, presumably for a particularly swanky do, Platinum Funz; and, of particular significance, the first post-Broadcast music created by James Cargill, in cahoots with old bandmate Roj Stevens and long-time friend, Ghost Box co-founder, graphic designer and Focus Group collagist Julian House. Their musique concrète narratives continue the direction started on the Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age LP. The name they have chosen for themselves, Children of Alice, pays homage to Trish Keenan, who loved Lewis Carroll’s book of nonsensical wisdom and in particularly the 1966 Jonathan Miller film, shot in gloriously psychedelic black and white. She is part of the Alice trio, her spirit inhabiting everything they do, and by extension she is also a member of the Folklore Tapes collective. There is no fixed present, only timelessness. She is there, always there.


The house Folklore Tapes musical style could be described as programmatic folk improv concrete psych soundscaping, although even such an unwieldy handle fails to cover all bases. Some concentrate on a few of these elements, others just one (there is an a capella folk tune on one of the Calendar Customs releases), whist the occasional brave soul attempts the whole shebang. Often the approach is more granular and pointillist, attention paid to the particles of sound, the suggestive noises which conjure up half-heard echoes, voices and animate scrabblings with no readily identifiable point of origin. Small sounds require concentrated listening on the part of performer and auditor, bringing artist and listener closer together. MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva) and Gruppo Nuova Consonanza (the Italian improv group which numbered Ennio Morricone amongst its ensemble members), with their real time improvisations, AMM with their favouring of small sounds and a tendency towards hushed quietude, and Hugh Davies with his homemade pocket ‘Shozyg’ musical devices all provide useful musical comparisons. But that’s only one aspect of the Folklore Tapes sound. Whilst they generally eschew rock moves, an occasional riff may break out and startle because of its very singularity. Ian Humberstone can certainly crank out the psyched-up guitar when the need arises, and make it sound surprisingly funky at the same time. And whilst this might not be the time and place to rock, there are plenty of sacred stones, and sounds ground and clacked from carefully selected pebbles and flints.


Writing is also an integral part of the FT project. Ian Humberstone’s treatise on Black Dog legends has been a long-treasured and extensively worked-upon endeavour, and gave birth to another treasure box of a release: Folklore Tapes Occultural Creatures Vol.1 – Black Dog Traditions of England. Its Rorschach hound splattered upon a gold embossed disc is an inspired bit of design, and the contents live up to its promise. Ian’s book is at the heart of it, and there are also spoken word interludes in the accompanying recording. The attention to detail in this work of art extends to the traditional inkpad print impressed upon the inside of the box lid, this time a pattern of clawed pawprints arrayed around a central, spiral-inscribed pad. The Black Dog Traditions box (or reliquary, as it is referred to within) is another central release in the Folklore Tapes canon, the realisation of a personal project (obsession?). Ian’s writing is wonderfully poetic and you can feel the presence of Theo Brown standing approvingly at his shoulder. The writing really comes to life when read out in performance. The black dog tales (and particularly the tale of the Barguest of Troller’s Gill) have been adapted into electrifying performance pieces, narration and in the moment musical soundscaping blending with intuitively congruent improvisational nous. The soft Scottish burr of Ian’s lulling reading voice works wonderfully to cast a spell over the entranced audience. Other writers have also been drawn into the fold, including your humble scribe, who has provided the notes to the four extant Calendar Customs releases (celebrating the ritual moments of the old year) and Bristol hauntologist and cultural polymath Richard Locksley-Hobson, who wrote about the eccentric folklorist and local ‘character’ Tatersall Wilkinson for the Lancashire Folklore Tapes release Memories of Hurstwood. And then there is the mysterious Barum Ware, a name which sounds like an old Dorset village centred on an ancient parish church and adjacent inn-house with beech-lined hillfort just beyond its bounds, but which in fact derives from the vases crafted in Barnstaple (once known as Barum) from Devon’s distinctive red clay. And M.Ware is indeed a vessel for jewelled, decadent prose weaving images redolent of Poe and Lovecraft, Beardsley and Harry Clarke. He has produced some illuminated and intoxicating sleeve notes and it is rumoured that his work can also be found in a fabled journal, whose possible provenance is whispered abroad by a favoured few.


The inspired amateurism of Theo Brown makes itself felt in the instrumentation with which the Folklore Tapes musical researchers draw their sound pictures. These are charity shop orchestras and boot fair chamber groups. Amplified thumb pianos are constructed from hacksaw blades, player pianos reconditioned with bellchimes bolted on, home-strung wire zithers mic’d up for radiophonic ‘terror zings’, battery operated fans used as whirring propellor-plectra, paint pots and other household hardware pattered upon and bicycle wheels set into perpetual motion by attaching them to turntables and run with a lightly held stick for bespoke plinking thruuungs. Harmoniums, warmly humming portable analogue synths, bells, accordions, fiddles and even guitars are even employed. It makes for a fascinating performative spectacle, audiences craning forward to try and work out exactly how these sounds are being produced by these folk intently crouched over their floor-scattered devices as if they were cooking a pan of beans over a campfire. No ELP sized fleet of articulated lorries is required for this nonetheless rich and varied orchestra. It all fits quite comfortably in a hired transit van.


The budget ingenuity and of necessity-birthed invention (of necessity and, I suspect, also of moral choice) extends to the garage and garden shed multimedia contraptions which are employed for performances in art galleries, witchcraft museums and riverside festival tents. All have a whiff of Heath-Robinsonesque absurdity, but it’s a wonderful absurdity, a discovery of utility in the throwaway (without any Womble preciousness). Feathers, leaves and branches are scattered about and decked around pillars and posts. The husk of a fan becomes a mandala upon which a sheep’s skull is reverently placed (decorated with curved twigs and soon fleshed with candle wax). An antediluvian smoke machine wheezes thickenting seafogs out of its battered frame, filling tent spaces until radiant shafts of coloured light seem to take on an almost physical form. Sheets are hung up and become screens for the outline projection of ferns, dried flowers and seedheads. And centrally, an old overhead projector is switched into heat-producing action (the heat an occasional boon in some chilly environs). A functional device once associated with lectures and lessons, the rigorous and formalised decanting of fixed knowledge, becomes an anarchic and defiantly hands-on artistic tool (and one in which the prestidigitating hand of the artist is made transparently apparent). Transparencies are picked up and thrust under the light before being whipped away and replaced with another lying close to hand; a rapid transference performed with semi-improvised urgency. It’s a reincarnation of the magic lantern shows of the pre-cinematic age using 70s technology. Bill Douglas would have approved. Coloured inks are occasionally flicked and smeared across the transparencies with violent action art gestures. Inky fingers are then wiped across light-dazzled brows, leaving blue eye shadows and scarlet scars. This shamanic face-painting lends the illuminated operators a look of wild intensity, smudged with coloured axle grease from the mechanical toil of fixing immortal engines and sparking soft machines. These are the labours of the Folklore Tapes collective. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. And these boys and girls now have a good many years of experience underneath their belts. Long may the merry parade continue. Here’s to the next five years of research into the timeless.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

A Canterbury Tale

Notes for an introduction to a film club screening.


Powell and Pressburger – an alliterative pairing whose enunciation immediately summons up an aura of magic and enchantment for me. I first came across their films in the 1980s when they were being rediscovered after several decades of neglect and critical disdain. I remember going to see them in the NFT and the repertory cinemas of London (the Scala and the Everyman were particular favourites). I fell in love with them and experienced an indefinable thrill every time I saw them. They were a part of my self-education, my teenage cultural awakening and they have remained a vital part of my life ever since, re-awakening those feelings every time I see them. I feel such an affinity for them that it probably wouldn’t be going too far to say that they are an inherent part of my soul. My English soul.


Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were, for 17 years between 1939-1956, an inseparable creative partnership, their intuitive understanding of one another leading to a series of films which were collaborations in the most intimate and complete sense. Emeric expressed the close conjunction of their artistic temperaments, saying ‘ he knows what I am going to say even before I say it – maybe even before I have thought it – and that is very rare’. Powell, with typical impishness, described their relationship as being like ‘a marriage without sex’, the qualification an addendum which perhaps didn’t need spelling out. All the films they made for the independent production company they set up in 1942 and called The Archers were credited as being written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Their logo saw a golden arrow joining 8 others on the Technicolor target (or monochrome if it was a black and white film), although it thunked in just outside the bullseye. Powell sent Emeric a copy of a rhyme written by James Agee: ‘The arrow was pure gold/But somehow missed the target./But as all Golden Arrow trippers know/’Tis better to miss Naples than hit Margate’.


There was no creative hierarchy or division, this was a collective act of creation. Michael Powell explained the idea behind this amalgamated credit some years later; ‘We wanted the titles to express the order of importance as we thought it’ he said, ‘so we decided on Written, Produced and Directed. In other words you’ve got to have a bloody good story to start with and it’s got to be well developed and then it’s got to be well produced, you’ve got to find the money and dress it properly, and that sort of thing…and then directing is purely one of the other things, like photography’. Of course they each had their particular role, but wouldn’t exclude the other from influencing their work. Powell would further elaborate in an interview for Variety in 1980: ‘in theory we made the films together; in practice, of course, I’m a director, just as Emeric had a long struggle to establish himself as a writer. So basically our ideas were usually Emeric’s conception as a story and Emeric’s working out in script form, from then we worked together and I would take over the direction, but every decision that was of any importance, including, of course, the editing particularly…was all made by the two of us together’.


Emeric was Hungarian, born in Miskolc in the northeastern part of the country. His father was an estate manager (the Pressburgers came from Pressburg, once the regional capital of Hungary but by this time, as Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia). He had a rural childhood growing up on farms, a pastoral upbringing which would strongly influence his worldview and his writing. This is made manifest in A Canterbury Tale above all else. He was educated in the city of Temesvar. When the maps were redrawn by the Allies in the aftermath of the first world war Temesvar was swallowed up by Romania and became Timisoara. It was the start of Emeric’s stateless roamings through the 20th century, his Hungarian nationality and his Jewish identity making him a target for the unwanted attentions of a succession of oppressive powers. He escaped to Prague before making his way to Germany (always his preferred destination) and eventually to the UFA studios in Berlin. His time there as a screenwriter and editor gave him an education in film-making and production which was to stand him in excellent stead for his later work. The Nazis came to power, however, and it wasn’t long before Jews in the film industry were targeted. 31st March 1933 was Jewish Boycott Day, a purge of the studios which saw a mass exodus of talented artists and engineers. Emeric stayed on in Berlin, reluctant to leave. But a phone call tipping him and impressing upon him the urgency of his immediate departure led him to flee to France with swiftly procured passports. He lived and worked in Paris for a couple of years before sailing over to England in 1935.


Three years later, in 1938, he travelled to Denham studios to start working on a picture for his fellow Hungarian Alexander Korda (soundtrack to be composed by Miklos Rosza, another Hungarian!) called The Spy in Black and was introduced to its brash and sometimes abrasive director, Michael Powell. The quiet Hungarian and the romantically extravagant Englishman almost immediately formed a bond which would last until their deaths. Perhaps even beyond. Powell’s second volume of memoirs, Million-Dollar Movie, describes a meeting with Emeric in his modest country dwelling, Shoemaker’s Cottage (‘a little number that looks as if it had been run up by the Brothers Grimm’), 50 years since their first encounter. They talk companionably about the old times, and about their artistic relationship. Emeric expounds on their philosophy, concluding that they remained always amateurs, dedicated to their vision. It’s only as the conversation reaches its conclusion that Powell reveals that Emeric was, at this point, already dead. It’s typical of the mutual generosity inherent in their partnership that, at the end of his lengthy 2 volume autobiography, he should let his dear friend have the final word.


Michael Powell himself was a Man of Kent (as distinct from a Kentish Man). He grew up in the Kentish Weald and Downland, a landscape of oast houses, hop fields, chestnut woods, meandering rivers, ridgeways and downland meadows. His family was based at Howletts farm near Canterbury then Hoath, even nearer to the city in which he received his early education. Like Emeric, his was a rural upbringing. A Canterbury Tale finds him returning to the landscape of his childhood. During the filming, he stayed at an inn in Fordwich, just a few miles from the old farms he remembered so vividly (as the first volume of his autobiography, A Life In Movies, attests). But despite this, A Canterbury Tale is Emeric’s film. Powell admits as much, and Emeric, always a modest man, said ‘this is the only one of them that is entirely mine’. It’s good to emphasise Emeric’s contribution because it is often eclipsed by the focus on Powell as the ‘auteur’ director (the fault of Martin Scorsese and the Cahiers du Cinema mob). Emeric’s stamp can be seen in the outsider perspective which predominates in this portrait of the Kentish landscape and spirit. In particular, the perspective of John Sweet’s Sgt Bob Johnson from Oregon. He’s perpetually mystified and amused by English ways; by their phones, their obsession with tea, their stoicism, their uncooperative mirrrors, their habit of shaking hands.


Eventually, Emeric became more English than anyone. Anton Walbrook’s extraordinarily moving refugee speech in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is essentially his expression of his own feelings. He found a home in these isles after years of enforced wandering and exile. And he ended up in Shoemaker’s Cottage in Suffolk, a true English country home. But he always remained Hungarian at heart. Many of his closest friends were Hungarian. And he never lost his taste for Hungarian cooking, spiced with plenty of paprika; a taste he shared with his English friend. As Kevin Macdonald writes in his biography of his grandfather Emeric, ‘Michael was enthusiastic about another of Emeric’s great loves. On cold winter evenings in London he was introduced to Hungarian cooking. Pots of goulash, bowls of cucumber salad and flocks of chicken paprika were set before him. But most of all Michael remembered the turkey’. Theo’s (Anton Walbrook’s) speech in Colonel Blimp, talking of his close friendship with Roger Livesey’s Clive Candy, echoed Emeric’s feelings and friendship with Michael Powell. They referred to each other with loving familiarity as ‘old horse’ or ‘Holmes and ‘Watson’ (Emeric, surprisingly, Holmes). Emeric was both supremely English and the eternal outsider. A condition which lent him his unique insight into the national character.


A Canterbury Tale was filmed in 1943, as preparations for D-Day were in full swing. Signs of the war are evident. There is extensive bomb damage evident in the centre of Canterbury. Denham studio sets were substituted for parts of cathedral. The stained glass in the Nave had been removed for the duration to preserve it from potential destruction. These scenes were a triumph for German designer Alfred Junge (who had spent a period of internment on the Isle of Man as an enemy alien), who would later go on to create the Himalayas on Pinewood stagesets for Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. The cathedral bells had also been cossetted away for their own protection. Those are not the real ones used for dissolve shots at beginning and end. They are miniatures, but with real bell ringers ‘miming’ them to assure realistic changes.


Emeric was not allowed into Kent during the shooting even as daily visitor to set. This was the decision of Percy Sillitoe, the chief constable of Kent, who deemed him a risk as a technical ‘illegal alien’ (Hungary was a Nazi ally). He stayed in Powell’s cottage in Bratton Fleming in Devon. The troops seen in Canterbury at end were on their manoeuvres in preparing for D-Day, a piece of historical verisimilitude which gives the film an added frisson in the modern day. Who knows how many of those individuals marching through the pilgrim’s gates made it back. Of course, the landings were over by the time film was released in 1944. This was already history (unthinkable otherwise that such manoeuvres would be revealed).


Emeric said that A Canterbury Tale was the first stage in the Archer’s ‘Crusade against materialism’. In the context of the war and the vision of the world which would be built after its end, he asked ‘who is going to think about the human values, the values that we are fighting for’. Looking back at Canterbury Tales created a sense of continuity, linking the ancestral past with the present, conjoined by the mystical connection with landscape and memory. They were moral tales, blending chilvalry and noble sentiment with bawdy humour. Exactly the sort of thing which would court the approval of J. Arthur Rank, that arch Methodist. Having initially contemplated a period adaption, Micheal and Emeric decided to do a modern version. Emeric posited ‘a tale of 4 modern pilgrims, of the old road that runs to Canterbury, and of the English countryside which is eternal’. This sense of the eternal is central to the mystical quality of the film, the sense that time is insubstantial; that the landscape makes the past and the stories and lives which have become a part of and helped to shape its contours, its woodlands, streams and meadows immanent, particularly along the old ways trod by so many feet and carved by so many cartwheels over the centuries. Colpepper’s speech before his evening lecture makes this explicit. "Well there are more ways than one of getting close to your ancestors. Follow the old road and as you walk, think of them, and the old England. They climbed Chillingbourne Hill, just as you did, they sweated and paused for breath, just as you did today. And when you see the bluebells in the spring and the wild thyme, the broom and the heather, you're only seeing what their eyes saw. Ford the same rivers, the same birds are singing. When you lie flat on your back, and rest, and watch the clouds sailing as I often do, you're so close to those other people, that you can hear the thrumming of the hoofs of their horses, the sound of the wheels on the road, and their laughter, and talk, and the music of the instruments they carried. And when I turn the bend in the road, where they too, saw the towers of Canterbury, I feel I've only to turn my head, to see them on the road behind me."


The opening quote from Chaucer, with pilgrims riding on horseback, also creates a palpable sense of connection. 'Whanne that Aprille with his shoures sote/The droghte of Marche hat perced to the rote.../And small fowles maken melodye,/That slepen al the night with open ye/(So Priketh hem nature in hir corages):/Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages'. The hawk transmogrifying into a spitfire is a bravura piece of visual poetry eliding past and present (and many have noted the parallel with 2001:A Space Odyssey). This is the anti-materialism that Emeric speaks of. But there are also links with the British documentary movement, the poetic realism of Humphrey Jennings in particular (Listen to Britain, Heart of Britain, Words for Battle, A Diary for Timothy, Spare Time). The blend of location shooting with the heightened effects of studio shoots creates this heady blend of the poetic and the real. There is also and interest in observing, in going off and exploring; hence the non-sequential and meandering narrative, like the serpentine Stour we see running across the Kentish plain. This deviation form sequential narrative was, in its own traditional way, very modern. This might go some way towards explaining the lack of understanding by contemporary reviewers, such as the unsympathetic Dilys Powell.


Powell and Pressburger had always fostered a fine repertory company of actors. Powell had wanted to draw upon his stars from Colonel Blimp, Roger Livesey and Deborah Kerr, to take the central roles in A Canterbury Tale. But Livesey simply didn’t understand the part of Colpepper. Like a number of critics, contemporary and otherwise, he found the glueman aspect distasteful. Deborah Kerr had just signed to MGM and was also at the tempestuous (always tempestuous with Micky) end of a relationship with Powell. Thomas Culpepper was played by Eric Portman, who had previously been in the Powell and Pressburger pictures One of Aircraft is Missing and its converse companion, 49th Parallel, in which he was monstrously memorable as the vessel for Nazi doctrine Leiutentant Hirth. The three leads were all giving their first film performances. Michael Powell met Sheila Sim at a party with her new fiancé, Richard Attenborough (who would have a small part in Powell and Pressburger’s timeless masterpiece, A Matter of Life and Death). They were later to marry, and she would eventually become Lady Attenborough. Dennis Price had been found in a theatre production some months before and Powell had kept him in mind ever since. Sgt John Sweet, the gloriously innocent heart of the film, was an American GI whom Powell had spotted in a touring US army production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. He made a big impression on him as the narrator. His simple and unaffected performance feels true and enormously affecting due to its lack of artifice. Also featured is Esmond Knight in a triple role. He intones the opening Chaucerian narration, plays the ‘village idiot’ with his strangely arch, 18th century aspect (a wise fool), and the waxed-moustached, pipe-clenching soldier at Colpepper’s lecture. Michael Powell had wanted him for Portman’s role as Hirth in 49th Parallel. But he had been persuaded by Vernon Sewell to join the navy. His ship The Prince of Wales was hit by the Bismarck, an encounter in which he lost one eye and was blinded in the other. Powell cast him in the film Silver Fleet (an Archers production directed by Sewell) anyway and always included him in later pictures where possible , as here. Knight eventually regained some sight in his remaining eye. But his hugely enjoyable comic turn here is all the more admirable knowing the circumstances under which it was delivered. Also look out for station guard at the start, an immediately recognisable presence even here in his youth. He never really changed. I won’t tell you who it is, but you can always greet him with a saucy ‘oh, hello’.


The film is also blessed by Erwin Hillier’s luminous cinematography. He had a background in the German UFA studio. He started work as camera assistant on Fritz Lang’s M, and may indeed have bumped into Emeric Pressbuger, who also worked at UFA, at some time. They had a shared apprenticeship. The black and white contrasts, shadows and light blending in the mysterious night, have all the hallmarks of German expressionism. A style which would also be transposed, via another German cinematographer, Karl Freund, into the Universal horror style of Frankenstein (and there are definite echoes of horror in A Canterbury Tale – it would have been interesting to see what a Powell and Pressburger/Hammer collaboration would have produced). Michael Powell also noted Hillier’s obsession with cloudscapes, another significant feature of A Canterbury Tale. ‘The only thing he was a bit loony about was clouds in the sky’, he notes in A Life In Movies. ‘He detested a clear sky, and it sometimes seemed to me that he forgot about the story and the actors in order to gratify this passion. “Meekee, Meekee, please wait another few minutes”, he would plead. “There is a little cloud over there and it is coming our way, I’m sure it is”.


Allan Gray’s music perfectly blends in with the sound of bells at the beginning and end. And his angelic choir perfectly expresses the mystery of the landscape, the spirit of place. There is also a social dimension here. The contrast of the city with the countryside. A nascent ecological consciousness is evident, embodied in Colpepper’s favoured reading, Soil and Soul. Colpepper is religious figure with a decidedly ancient aspect. Michael Powell noted of Eric Portman’s Culpepper that he ‘had the face of a medieval ascetic’, which ‘could quite easily have been torn out of a medieval manuscript’. This medieval aspect also plays into the misogyny of the glueman, his historical refusal to acknowledge the place of women in society (although the glue also acts as a metaphor for social cohesion, and for the pouring in of knowledge and learning), This is seen in his refusal to allow women to work on his farm. The film acts as a rebalancing of this divisive vision of the past. Through his observation of women at work, and their lack of fear (none of the ‘victims’ of the glueman whom Alison interviews, all engaged in active and responsible working roles, express anything more than irritation at his activities) he learns as well; as he does through his relationship with Alison.


In the end, all receive their blessings. The entry into Canterbury is transcendent and really quite profoundly moving. Emeric succeeded completely in his crusade against materialism. Even Colpepper, his sins revealed before him, his confession made, receives some sort of exclulpation, although he stands penitently apart from the crowd. We end with the chiming of the bells and a return to Chaucer. Time transcended. The pilgrim’s way remains open. Enter through the gates and find the truth that lies within your heart.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Paradoxical Undressing by Kristin Hersh

Asked to come up with a book from the library shelves I would recommend, I decided upon Kristin Hersh's wonderful novelistic memoir of the early days of Throwing Muses, her struggles with strange mental states, her passion for music and her friendship with Betty Hutton. I wrote a little too much for a 90 second youtube spot, but here's the whole lot:


Kristin Hersh is a singer who first revealed her extraordinary songwriting talents in the group Throwing Muses, whose angular, splintered pop and glinting shards of lyrical poetry cut an artfully beguiling swathe across the late 80s and 90s. She also recorded a series of solo albums which spanned the dynamic range from hushed acoustic whisper to snarling guitar noise, gathering force for the full, fierce banshee howl of her hardcore trio 50 Foot Wave. Paradoxical Undressing was published in the US as Rat Girl with a cover by Gilbert Hernandez which seemed to bring Kristin into the universe of the Love and Rockets comics he created with his brother Jaime; She’d certainly fit in there. The book looks at the early days of her musical career. It’s no conventional rock autobiography, however. Drawing on a diary she began writing at the age of 18, this is the story of one year in the life of a character called Kristin Hersh. The title suggests a revealingly naked honesty, but also a portrayal from a distance. This was a traumatic time for Kristin, a period encompassing the ecstatic highs of musical transport and the lows of mental breakdown and hospitalisation. When she was a child she had a serious accident; she was knocked off her bicycle by a car and suffered significant head injuries. It was from this date that her mental health problems started. Rather than voices in her head, she heard songs; Urgent, wild and sometimes savage songs which needed to be released. She was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, later adjusted, as with so many, to bipolar disorder. The self she writes about here is a person viewed from afar, a shadow skin shed along the way. It’s a recreation of a character, damaged but full of artistic fire and curiosity, finding her way in the world, possessed by the raging, chaotic music in her head and trying to find the right vessel with which to set it loose upon an unsuspecting public. ‘For what it’s worth’, she writes in the introduction, ‘this my old diary’s story, riddled with enormous holes and true’.


The book is also a story of an unlikely friendship; that between Kristin, attending college at a precocious age thanks to a hippie professor father known as The Dude, and Betty Hutton, a film star of the 40s and 50s, going back to study after the fading of her career; Krissy and Betty. Betty is a defiantly individual old lady with a penchant for blue cowboy boots and hats, and a love of life which defies the depredations of time. She shares her wayward wisdom with Kristin, and the dialogues between them are some of the highlights of the book. ‘Everything that wacky old Betty Hutton told me was true’ Kristin writes in the introduction and the book is dedicated to her, although sadly she died before its publication. Betty comes along to some of Kristin’s early Throwing Muses gigs, sometimes with a priest in tow and offers a wryly amusing outsider’s perspective on the sweaty, unglamorous and intense indie scene. She is like a wise grandmother in a modern folktale, helping Kristin grow into herself, to find a sense of purpose and remain true to it; to take some control over the chaos inside. She tells her, in the manner of a blessing, ‘it’s okay to be scared sweetheart. How’re you gonna give ‘em your heart if you don’t have one’. In the song Elizabeth June which she wrote about Betty, Kristin remotely replies, with the wisdom of experience, ‘and you were right it was okay to be scared’.

Kristin at the Phoenix
The two quotes which preface the book come from Dostoyevsky and Micky Dolenz, the joker of The Monkees. In tandem, they hint at the range of the book, its combination of seriousness and play. And Mickey’s quote, ‘the universe is godding’, is as gnomically profound as the words of the great Russian novelist. The pairing also points to the fact that this is as much novel as it is musical memoir. It is impressionistic, elliptical, funny, honest and poetic. The narrative is nonlinear, moving in and out of moments and encounters with a fluidity which expresses the intensity of these formative youthful days. Fragments of song lyrics are interpolated throughout, taken from the full expanse of Kristin’s songwriting career, offering parenthetical comment on the passages they footnote. ‘Songs don’t commit to linear time’, she explains. ‘songs’re weird: they tell the future and they tell the past, but they can’t seem to tell the difference’. This lyrical trail also points to the way in which the raw material of life is forged and honed into the transformed, universal matter of art. Music is seen as pure expression throughout, something which transcends the grubby, deceitful disappointment of everyday life. It is a holy calling and Kristin is on a mission, no matter the damage she might sustain as a result of its pursuit. But with this book she finds another means of expression. Her prose is beautifully balanced, its style even and carefully judged, her language poetic without ever becoming precious. There is a cool and humorous feel to her writing, and she maintains a wide-eyed distance from what at times are catastrophic personal breakdowns. She writes about mental illness with direct immediacy; there’s no attempt at analysis or clinical insight. This is an attempt to convey how it feels, a close-up and intimate mapping of the inner landscape of a mind in terrible turmoil. It is at times astonishingly powerful and brings with it a huge empathic charge. I can only think of Virginia Woolf as a comparative writer who brings her own suffering to bear on the portrayal of chaotic mental states with such searing insight.


Kristin is a great observer too. She writes perceptively about the details of everyday life and her evocations of the world around her are acute, vivid and full of an open and enquiring wonder at the beauty of life. Ultimately, what I get from this book is a sense of optimism and an enduring commitment to both art and life, which are seen as inextricably linked. Kristin takes her protagonist, herself, through some dark experiences, but she never loses her love of life, her wonder at its crazy, wild beauty. At the end, she is expecting her first child. Her latest album, Wyatt at the Coyote Palace makes reference to another of her children. Like all of her recent albums, the music on the CD is contained within a book. Kristin continues to combine the arts of songwriting and prose to hugely rewarding effect. I saw her at the Phoenix last year, her songs interspersed with readings. It was a stunning gig, bewitching, entrancing and communicating with typical intensity and directness. ‘I absolutely did not invent this’ she writes at the end of the book, before leaving us with a lyrical fragment from the song Cartoons: ‘I wasn’t staring. I was just looking far away, dazzled by something I forgot’. So, this is an act of remembrance and invention. Which doesn’t mean it’s not all true. Paradoxical Undressing.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Children Of Alice

Originally published as a Warp Records press release for the debut LP by Children of Alice.



Children of Alice have been quietly producing amorphous and intoxicating soundscapes as part of the Folklore Tapes collective for a number of years now, beginning in 2013 with Harbinger of Spring on the shared Ornithology release. This poetic conjuration of rebirth and new growth was the first unfurling of post-Broadcast creation from James Cargill, one half of the personal and artistic relationship at the heart of that epochal and increasingly feted band. The name Children of Alice was chosen as an act of tribute to the late Trish Keenan, for whom Alice in Wonderland and in particular Jonathan Miller’s summerhazy 60s idyll of an adaptation, was a presiding inspiration. The name invokes her abiding spirit and also creates a sense of continuity with the evolving Broadcast soundworld, which became more concentrated and individual as it refined itself and adapted to new configurations. The group (or perhaps we should call them a collaborative triad, since they occupy island territory far removed from the familiar shores of rock, though still keeping it in vision on the far horizon) consists of Cargill along with his former bandmate Roj Stevens (who played keyboards in Broadcast) and Julian House, co-founder of Ghost Box records, whose distinctive graphic design work also gives the label its signature look, and hidden prestidigitator behind The Focus Group.


Both Stevens and Cargill lent their incubating musical presence to the 2013 Focus Group album Elektrik Carousel, and a fully-fledged collaboration was hatched with the Ornithology record a few months later. Stevens had released a solo record on Ghost Box in 2009, The Transactional Dharma of Roj Stevens, whose clicking and ratcheting clockwork rhythms suggested the cogs and teeth of complex interlocking machineries and automata set into keywound or water-powered motion. He brings a similar sensibility to the recordings here, creating an impression of irregular, juddering forward motion, a Heath-Robinsonesque progression. House is a concrète collagiste, his assemblages torn by abrupt a deliberately rough-edged jump-cuts, audio analogues of his visual work. Cargill’s warm synth colours infuse the whole with sustaining solar radiance, and bass lines redolent of the Broadcast duo LP Tender Buttons occasionally rise to the surface before drifting off on the mercurial flux of transformative sound. Julian House had previously collaborated with James Cargill on the album Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate the Witch Cults of the Radio Age, and Children of Alice further explore and expand upon these researches (and those carried out on the Mother is the Milky Way tour CD). These are sound pictures whose discrete movements, organically morphing musical matter and sudden transitions produce a sense of passage through a kaleidoscopically refracted panorama and form a narrative of journeys into inner landscapes. The sound world is gently psychedelic, full of backmasked tapes, phased flutes and analogue hum. Clocks and birds chime and twitter, processed autoharps and glockenspiels glint and shimmer, woodblocks and hand-drums plock and patter.


The music the Children of Alice triad make is impossible to narrowly define. It dissolves the limiting boundaries between field recordings, musique concrète, electronica, programmatic classical music, psych folk, experimental rock, radiophonic sound, library cues, hip-hop sampling and imaginary soundtracks. These four pieces (songs or tracks seem inadequate handles to define them) are pastoral concrète, a romantic English modernism (for, to answer Paul Nash’s rhetorical question, it IS possible to go modern and be British) which replaces brutalism and the clashing bruitage of the city with birdsong, folk chatter and the sundappled buzz and hum of a summer’s afternoon (shades of XTC’s Summer’s Cauldron, with its ‘insect bomber Buddhist droning’) and hedgerow bricolage. There is an inherent lightness to these sound pictures, a feeling of expansiveness and joyful exploration. Inner and outer worlds meet, and the divide between them becomes indistinct and, in the end, irrelevant.


Harbinger of Spring is the lengthiest pieces here, a sonic suite which guides us through a varied terrain, its successive sections like rooms in a spatially transcendent mental mansion, interiors and landscapes interpenetrating like one of Paul Nash’s surreal rooms, lapped by oceanic edges and lit by pendant moons. Beginning with cuckoo sounds which spring from carved, concertinaed clock automata to transform into woodland heralds of the turning season, this playful pastoral tone poem evokes both post-war electronic and electroacoustic composers such as Jonathan Harvey, Trevor Wishart (the morphing of human agonies into bird choruses in the immensely powerful Red Bird), Bernard Parmegiani and Pierre Henry, and British composers such as Benjamin Britten with his Spring Symphony (Broadcast had already drawn on Britten’s music for their song Echo’s Answer) and the Delius drift of reveries like The Walk to the Paradise Garden and In A Summer Garden. Messiaen’s Catalogue D’Oiseaux piano pieces are also a point of comparison, their field-notated birdsong imitations set within musical evocations of landscape, weather and seasonal climate. The fact that comparisons from the classical and avant-garde worlds are easier to draw than examples from the realms of rock and pop indicates the sui generis nature of Children of Alice’s music. There really is nothing else like this being produced at the moment.


Harbinger of Spring set the pattern for subsequent releases in the Folklore Tapes Calendar Customs series – a harbinger of the seasonal tone-poems to come. The Liminal Space from FTCCI Fore Halloween, Rite of the Maypole – An Unruly Procession from FTCCII: Merry May and Invocation of a Midsummer Reverie from FTCCIV: Crown of Light summon up the spirit of seasonal rites and traditions, whether as remembrance, reproduction or ongoing observances. Landscape, time and ritual are inseparable, and these pieces are full of the spirit of an age in which the seasons of man and the cycles of the pastoral year were in close synchrony. The nature of the music makes the substance of time malleable, folding it in and stretching it out, moulding it until it becomes immaterial, eternal. Only timelessness remains, a process of perpetual becoming, recession and renewal; but never an ending or a beginning.


Elements of these pieces trigger associative responses, particularly from those Broadcast fans attuned to the influences Trish and James have promulgated over the years through mixes and interview effusiveness. A revving motorcycle engine brings The Owl Service to mind; cracking flagellations and ‘orgy vocals’ Delia Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson and David Vorhaus’ White Noise track My Game of Loving; swooping sirens and agitated voices the public information films which portrayed a world in which fatal danger was everpresent in the seemingly ordinary and everyday; singing, glassy sonorities the unearthly calls of Les Sculptures Sonores; the ratcheting clogs of a large clock, with its imprisoning linear temporality, the mechanism which features in the Angela Carterish Czech fairytale fantasy Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (a firm favourite of Trish’s); and are those stridulating creaks and boings the sound of Froglets, making a surprise visitation from the soup-rich asteroid of The Clangers? These associations (and many more particular to the individual auditor) all add to the richness of the experience. For these are condensed and multi-layered soundworlds which bear repeated listening. They are unique works of singular imagination, and this first LP by Children of Alice is an extraordinarily inventive work. May it be a harbinger of many further explorations and investigations of cults and rituals, inscapes and landscapes, the temporal and the transcendental to come. Meanwhile, lay back and immerse yourself in these transformative sonic poems, take the hands of the Children of Alice and let your mind drift and come into sudden sharp focus as they lead you into undreamed of yet instantly familiar worlds. Like Alice herself on that hazy summer’s day, dream and wake UP!

Friday, 24 March 2017

The Little Gift by Stephen Volk

I’ve attempted to avoid mentioning one of the central incidents in the story, but surrounding allusions will inevitably give a good deal of the game away. So to avoid disappointment and irritation I will hereby issue a SEMI-SPOILER alert.



Stephen Volk’s novella The Little Gift may be a relatively short work, but it contains volumes within its carefully constructed narrative. It comments upon the aridity of corporate clone culture, the subtle but everpresent divisions of class, the vital import of art and spiritual nourishment in an aggressively materialistic world, the coarsening effect of tabloid journalism and the philosophical distinction between instinctive and morally conscious action. As a story written by an author generally working within the horror genre (and I think that, with its exploration of the dark corners of the human psyche, this qualifies as a horror story) it is also strident in its rejection of the prurient allure of one of the modern avatars of the monstrous, the serial killer. A brutally realist monster for materialist times, stripped of all supernatural mystery and ripped from the lurid headlines of the real world. They are driven only by debased appetites, playing on fears of physical pain and torturous death rather than any threat to the soul, inviting the lurch of nausea in place of the vertigo felt in the presence of the uncanny.

Above all, however, The Little Gift is a terribly human story filled with an empathetic awareness of the frangibility of the emotional self, the fragility of bodies – bodies and souls. Its cruel ironies and correspondences (and I shall endeavour not to reveal the central irony, which is embodied in the title) act as harsh lessons, stunning blows leading to damaged self-awareness. It begins with our first person narrator in the midst of night terrors, the existential dread given form by sleeplessness. They obviously have a subconscious source beyond their ostensible cause, the little gifts of dead mice and birds left by the cat. Something fundamental is exposed in the vulnerable hours before dawn.

The little gift left by the pitiless pet at the start of the novella seems like some physical manifestation of these night fears. The mauled, near-dead bird is a token of feline fellow-feeling, a sharing of the kill with the pride, allowing the privilege of the final death-blow to lie with the chief provider. The link between human and animal is established at the outset and is reiterated throughout the story. The narrator sees the cat’s actions as instinctive, engineered by ‘millions of years of evolution’. His own actions, the impulsive affair he falls into, are seen in similarly materialistic terms, animalistic drives followed at a time when his sense of self has been reduced to a dulled nullity. He fantasises about sex in the toilet, the ultimate reduction of passion to basic physical need and fears that some pheremonal musk might betray him to his wife, as if she could sniff him out. The first kiss, the peremptory prelude, takes place in the gardens of the grand house in which the corporate away day is taking place, the failed competitors for the prize mate aimlessly shuffling around the topiary like statuesque figures in a demystified version of Last Year in Marienbad. Later, on a trip with his family, the narrator pulls in at a location called Heaven’s Gate which offers a prospect over Longleat Park and the animals living in the safari park there. It’s a different view of the animal kingdom akin to the anodyne paintings of lions settling down with the lambs in the summery fields of the Lord found on the covers of the Jehovah’s Witness circular Watchtower. If this offers a converse metaphor for family life, then it is a fantasy, a forcefully willed ideal which bears no relation to true nature. Even emotions and psychological problems are spoken of in materialistic terms, with talk of Neuro Linguistic Programming and the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. All along, the narrator is aware of ‘the little man inside me, my soul’.

The scattered detritus of torn-out feathers are described discovered by the narrator’s wife at the beginning of the story are described as ‘dark commas’ spread across the room, their radius indicative of a fluttering struggle, agonies prolonged by the playful predator. It’s a powerfully poetic image, the comma marking a pause before an ensuing clause, the crux upon which a sentence turns; an interlude in the continuity of a life. But their provenance as the dismembered remains of a dying creature is also suggestive of a full stop, an ending in a parallel sentence. The image of a dark, feathered comma is used as a demarcation of significant moments of change in the narrative. Laid horizontally between certain paragraphs, it underlines temporal shifts or decisive alterations of intention or perception; the drift of time and mind. These symbolic punctuation marks are part of the visual schema for the book created by Pedro Marques which add a significant element to the overall impact. The exquisite surrealist corpse of the cover illustration, the dismembered doll angel with its bird head and plucked wings, is a disturbing yet strangely beautiful image.

The comma in the life of the protagonist is the banal disruption of a mid-life crisis. Volk depicts this with all the confused immediacy and panicked lack of perspective a first-person narrative affords. The very specificity of the details with which the narrator sums up his life – the Range Rover Evoque, the ‘gorgeous’ Kawasaki and the half-timbered cottage in All Cannings in Devizes – along with the contemptuously mocking self-awareness accompanying their listing, point to the falsity of such materialist aspirations as indicators of success and happiness. Tellingly, his ‘beautiful’ wife and ‘two gorgeous, healthy children’ (gorgeous like a Kawasaki) are tagged onto the end of the list as an afterthought, unnamed additions to the tokens of boastful achievement. You can almost hear David Byrne’s semi-hysterical vocal asking ‘well, how did I get here?’

What’s in a name? Naming or the withholding of names is important in The Little Gift. The narrator remains unnamed throughout and thus maintains the anonymity of the nameless. Although we are privy to the intimacies of his inner life at a time of personal crisis we see little beyond the borders of his brief and vividly real liaison. He remains essentially ill-defined, the primacy of family to his sense of self asserted rather than depicted. He also denies the serial killer his name, refusing to add to his mythologisation, his transformation into a folk demon. I’m reminded here of the ending of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth in which the brutal fascist captain is told in the moments before his execution that his name as a father will be denied him, never mentioned to the son that the woman who is about to take his life is cradling. He will be erased from his family tree. The shared namelessness adds to the sense that killer and narrator are connected however, both remotely touching one another on the spectrum of blank disconnection. ‘He always seemed part of me, attached by some dark umbilical’, our protagonist admits at the end. ‘The little man inside me’, perhaps, his dark soul. Or the ineradicable infection passed on by debased acts (again, don’t mythologise them by using the word evil, as if there were some inverted transcendence or any kind of active anti-morality at play), the tainting of the soul through contact, propagated through the grubbily ink-stained vector of the tabloids.

Part of Volk’s purpose here is to regain the humanity of the victims, to force us to empathise with them in their darkest moment, to be with them in the terror of their final loneliness without for one moment using their experience for the most despicable kind of prurient onlooking. It is something which has to be done with the utmost sensitivity, because we are approaching real and enduring suffering here. Volk is no stranger to addressing the darkest areas of human experience however, notably in the series After Life, which was fearless in its confrontation of the most distressing of scenarios (and which featured an episode which once more demythologised the serial killer archetype, exposing the blankness at the core of such characters). He always retains a humanist outlook which makes us feel for his characters, never revelling in or unnecessarily dwelling upon physical pain. And it is the humanity of the killer’s victims which is of the essence here, the acts themselves revealed only indirectly through the flashgun snapshots of tabloid reports. It’s a similar approach to that taken by Phil Rickman in his Merrily Watkins novel The Lamp of the Wicked, which also deals with the poisonous legacy of the Gloucester murders. Merrily has the ultimate nightmare in which she dreams that of daughter Jane (a character with whom we have become intimate over previous novels) being bundled into the back of the builders van. It’s a humanisation of the victim at the most intimate level, and allows her to empathise all the more with those who lost the people they loved in such a terrible way and who have to endure such dark imaginings over and over again. Such a shared humanist perspective suggests an affinity between the work of Rickman and Volk; an affinity which was obviously picked up by whoever commissioned Volk to adapt Rickman’s second Merrily Watkins novel Midwinter of the Spirit.

His wife and children are initially unnamed too, merely referred to in terms of their family connection. It is only after he meets his lover that they take on names and become more clearly defined as individuals, just as he feels himself waking up into a sense of an authentic self once more. His rehumanisation humanises them. Their names feel like they have an allegorical ring to them: Trudy, the true one and his daughters Verity (more truth) and Amber (the precious, the catcher of warm, hearthglow light). His lover’s name blends hints of the exotic with counterbalancing mundanity, the romantic with the drab everyday. Ghislaine is a French name which could have come from an old troubadour romance, whilst the surname Hammond is rooted in the English heartland in which this anti-romance takes place. The element of Frenchness may also be a nod to the British films of the grey 50s in which any element of illicit love (a fairly broad definition back then) tended to involve French actresses such as Simone Signoret (see Room At the Top) or other continentals who were more prone to that sort of thing. She has a hidden middle name too, of Italian provenance this time. Lenzi, which temporarily transports her out of the landscapes of motorway service stations and conference centres into the genuinely romantic dream of villages in the Tuscan hills.

Volk is brilliant at building up anti-romantic detail, with the precise location of a rendezvous at a services on the M5 between junctions 11a and 12 exposing its crushingly dispiriting nature whilst enabling us to locate it on our maps and explore its ambience for ourselves should we so wish. But he also finds beauty in imperfection, in the vulnerability and tenderness of those struggling to find happiness or fulfilment in a disconnected, corporate world but refusing to give up on themselves or others. We are defined by our imperfections as much as anything, he suggests. And it is those imperfections, the departures from an airbrushed presentation of the self to the world which make Ghislaine so plausibly real, and which makes her so attractive to our narrator. They catch onto one another as they drift aimlessly by, spinning closely around in a temporary dance of mutual recognition.

There is also a subtly portrayed class barrier between them. Not a gulf, but the kind of fine gradation which still creates instinctive divisions in the stratified society of Britain. Ghislaine is from Birmingham, we are initially led to believe. This misapprehension (she is actually from Wolverhampton, we later discover) is indicative of the generalised stereotype into which people are instantly assigned at first encounter, the reduction of the individual to a set of crude assumptions. Birmingham is a place synonymous with dour, brutalist pragmatism and an absence of romance, of any spark of the visionary. For me, as the home of the bands Broadcast, Pram and their various associates, it’s a major locus of magic and strange enchantment, an indication that rich interior landscapes and constellations of the imagination can be discovered and flourish in any environment. It contrasts markedly with the Wiltshire idyll in which the narrator lives, however. Ghislaine’s relatives may have come from the Tuscan countryside, Lenzis filling the graveyards there, but it is a place that her family have long since left behind for the built-up, motorway-bound terrain of the midlands. Our narrator, meanwhile, is able to take advantage of a ‘gite with a swimming pool near Brignoles, a former olive press’ which belongs to a company director. It may very well say something about my position within the British class spectrum that I had to look up what a gite was. Ghislaine has the contrasting prospect of a hen night in Barcelona, travelling by Easyjet and staying at a place called the Hotel Derby. Again, Volk is spot on when it comes to providing the telling anti-romantic detail. He could no doubt write a fine romantic comedy full of such wry observation if he had the mind to. I strongly suspect he doesn’t. Ghislaine’s one taste of upper crust living comes during the away day weekend, which takes place at a stately home converted into a conference centre. It hardly counts.

In a way, the class divide makes the passionate interlude all the more urgent and affecting. They both see each other for who they really are, with all trappings of status stripped away. As is always the case, however, it is far easier for our narrator to retreat back into the protective compound of his wealth, the stability of family. He is required to make the decisive move, but his default setting is drift. He simply doesn’t have the killer instinct. That has to be provided by someone else. An actual killer, perhaps. There is something peculiarly, poignantly English about his struggle to express his desires, to even articulate his feelings to himself. A verbal dance of self-deprecation skips lightly away from direct statement and it is down to Ghislaine to direct the affair, to read the all-too obvious signs. This disconnection from desire and clogged up communication is embodied in the fact that he finds it easier to make contact via the remote, truncated means of text messages. Printed out in bold type, these are disturbingly echoed in the lurid tabloid headlines and flashes of pruriently detailed reportage which are also printed in bold. Both condense, coarsen and elide truth, weakening the empathy which comes from true human connection.

These equivalences and correspondences create a sense of interconnected patterns spanning all manner of divides. Ultimately, they link a ‘respectable’, hard-working family man with an indolent, despicable killer, an unreadable void whose humanity has, at some point, been wholly erased. Or was he merely, like the housecat whose impulses are indulged, merely doing what he was programmed to do by nature. Are we more than a collective mess of amalgamated instincts? What makes us different from animals? Are we moral beings or are we just kidding ourselves? Mention of ISIS headlines on the news taking over once the killer’s tale is done raise the stakes and places such questions on a global scale. We have been offered the possibility of a religious work of art by Matisse, inspired by the kindness of a Catholic nurse who subsequently became a nun, as some kind of redemptive embodiment of the spiritual nobility inherent in the human soul. The description of the glass, its vivid colours and living light (‘the intense blue of the Mediterranean and the Madonna’ – beautiful writing here) gives an almost catechistic pagan sense of the immediacy of being. The equivalences which are so much a part of this intricately structured novella once more provide ironic counterparts however. And it would take a particularly intense moment of Blakean visionary transport to experience a similar flooding of divine light in the Gloucester services off the M5. The final image could have taken place in those services (thus echoing filmic images of dissolving or bubbling liquids stared at by James Mason in Odd Man Out and Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver, both characters suffering crises of identity and hovering on the edge of death and violence). I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which sugar cubes absorb and draw up the tea or coffee into which they’re dipped until they’re entirely consumed by it and I’m clearly not alone. Here, such an effect acts as a complex and ambiguous piece of symbolism. The sugarcube soul, absorbing that to which it is exposed? A metaphor for the transient nature of all things, the vital importance of making the most of our short span? Of not allowing ourselves to drift into the dissipation of the unexamined life, slowly reduced to the sludge of base, instinctual existence? Or of the way in which the lonely, monadic self can find indivisible commonality with another if it is prepared to open itself up and communicate with complete honesty? Our narrator used to take two sugars. He ends up taking one, which he watches darkening with the stain of his black coffee. Perhaps he still has some distance to go.

These are profound issues, questions which address the fundamentals of who we are as individuals, as political and social beings; as humans in fact. No easy resolution is arrived at, no closure comfortably attained. In the insidious, dangerous manner in which expert storytellers operate, we are invited to think for ourselves, to think about ourselves. It is Stephen Volk’s Little Gift to us. I for one am thankful for it.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Midsummer Traditions and Folklore

A longer version of an essay included with the Folklore Tapes box Calendar Customs IV: Crown of Light


Midsummer is the most natural time of the year for a celebration marked by simple pleasure and unaffected joy. The midwinter rites of Christmastide, the diametric opposite of midsummer on the face of the annular calendar, have an air of fortification and remembrance – illumination kindled to hold back the dark and nurture a hope for solar renaissance. If midwinter is the time when the seeds of light are sown, midsummer is the moment when they flower to their fullest extent. The sun is at its apogee, its long arc across the sky vaulting to its utmost height. The earth, spinning through its axially tilting orbital dance, presents its northern hemisphere to bask in solar warmth, bringing out its summer colours – bright grassy greens and buttercup yellows, speedwell blues and poppy reds. Darkness has been cast aside, compressed into a few brief hours (or dispelled altogether if you travel far enough north into the Scottish isles or Scandinavian wilds). The triumph of light, of the spirit of life, is to be rejoiced in unreservedly, no matter how brief its moment of ascendance.


As with midwinter rites, including Christmas day itself, there is a slight misalignment with the precise moment of solstice division into maximal periods of light and dark. The summer solstice falls on the 21st June. The first rays of the rising sun shafting through the megaliths of Stonehenge onto its central ‘altar’ stone are greeted by Druid revivalists, rooted in 18th century reinventions. Thousands of bystanders respond to the morning solar radiance with the glinting digital scintillations of their mobile cameras and phones – a very modern form of worship, attracting a mass congregation, if only for this one day. The antiquarian dream of Stonehenge as a solar temple of the Druids is one which enchanted William Blake amongst others, as the image of a megalithic trilithon gateway for the giants of old Albion in his illuminated book Jerusalem attests. Mere fancy it may be, but it’s one which still exerts considerable influence on the contemporary imagination, mired in a materialistic present and yearning for a sense of connection with a magical past.


Traditional midsummer celebrations have not taken place at the time of the solstice, however, but three days later on the 24th, St John’s Day, and even more so on its preceding eve. This is the date which has come to be officially designated midsummer’s day. Further festivities were held on the joint saint day of Peter and Paul, the 28th. Many must have simply bridged the two festival days with continuous merriment. And remember, this is the time of Glastonbury weather (the Glastonbury festival being a modern manifestation of midsummer revels), so suggesting alternative dates for a festival which was of its essence an outdoors celebration was an eminently pragmatic hedging of bets.

There’s really only one way to celebrate the supremacy of the sun and whatever divinities are associated with it: build up huge fires on the high places of the landscape to reflect some of its flaring, mesmerically roiling photosphere back at it; to emulate some of its warmth, that radiance which makes the heart lighter, the spirit more buoyant. Poets have recognised the spiritual refreshment afforded by this time of light, its countermanding of wintry melancholy. Matthew Arnold, in Thyrsis, his elegy to his friend Arthur Hugh Clough, asks of those who suggest their spirit departs with the falling blossom ‘too quick despairer, wherefore wilt thou go?/Soon will the high Midsummer pomps come on,/Soon will the musk carnations break and swell,/Soon shall we have gold-dusted snapdragon,/Sweet-William with his homely cottage smell,/And stocks in fragrant blow;/Roses that down the alleys shine afar,/And open, jasmine-muffled lattices,/And groups under the dreaming garden-trees,/And the full moon, and the white evening-star.’


John Clare, the farm labourer poet, who suffered desperately from the depredations of depression, nevertheless revelled in the ecstatic moods of summer: ‘Now swathy summer by rude health embrowned/Precedence takes of rosy fingered spring/And laughing joy with wild flowers prankt and crowned/A wild and giddy thing/With health robust from every care unbound/Comes on zephers wing/And cheers the toiling clown.
Happy as holiday enjoying face/Loud tongued and ‘merry as a marriage bell’/They lightsome step sheds joy in every place/And where the troubled dwell/Thy witching smiles weans them of half their cares/And from thy sunny spell/They greet joy unawares’.

Accounts from as far back as the 4th century in the old French province of Acquitaine record midsummer fire festivals in which blazing wheels were set rolling down steep hillsides – the solar disc turning on its tumbling course. In mid 19th century Buckfastleigh in Devon a wheel with rim and spokes wrapped in straw was set ablaze and rolled from the heights on midsummer eve, accompanied on its fiery descent by villagers pelting alongside, attempting to steer it with sticks to a steamy dousing in the river Dart. If they succeeded in their endeavour, good fortune would prevail over the coming months, and a good harvest guaranteed. If not, they’d had a wild time and could repair breathlessly to the nearest alehouse to drown their thirst.

Font in Bratton Clovelly church, Devon
The representation of the sun as a wheel was common in medieval times. It symbolised both its daily progress across the sky and the procession of the solar year with its seasonal transformations. Solar wheels can be traced on many Norman fonts, often the oldest objects in rural parish churches. Like many other pagan symbols or allegorical beasts, they have been translated into a Christian idiom. This marked a process of continuity and fusion as much as an imposition of alien values. It was the cataclysmic historical and cultural rift of the Reformation which brought this continuum of belief and practice to a violent iconoclastic end.

John Aubrey
The fires of medieval belief and ritual were increasingly stamped out, both literally and figuratively. The antiquarian John Aubrey wrote, in his 1688 volume Remains of Gentilisme and Judaisme (a pioneering folkloric work), ‘still in many places on St John’s night they make Fires on the Hills: but the Civill Warres comeing on have putt all these Rites or customes quite out of fashion’. Nevertheless, the tradition lived on the further reaches of the isles.

Hilltop fires were lit on St John’s Eve across England and Eastern and Northern Scotland and in the Northern Isles (less so in the Celtic lands of Wales, Ireland and the Western Isles). In Scotland, the sun’s progress would be ritually re-enacted by processing around the fields three times sunwise (ie clockwise) with blazing torches held aloft, the crops and herds thereby blessed. Bonfires were started as the sun slowly sank below the horizon, staining the sky with its tangerine and vermillion afterglow. In the Northern Isles, Johnsmas fires were built from varied materials including heather, fish bones, peat, flowers, seaweed and feathers.

In Westernmost Cornwall, chains of fires were lit tracing the rugged, curving concave coastline of Mount’s Bay from Penzance to the Lizard. Cornish midsummer fire traditions were revived by the Old Cornwall Society in 1929, colouring them with druidic romance whose nationalist elements lent the proceedings a curiously formal, civic air. Beginning atop the tor of Carn Brea, the site of a Neolithic settlement, the fires are blessed in the old Cornish language and flowers arranged in the shape of a sickle thrown into the flames by a local girl designated the Lady of the Flowers. The sickle anticipates the harvest whilst the ceremony is a decorous and fragrant reminder of a more elementally superstitious past when a bountiful harvest required the offering of human life. Antiquarians in previous centuries dreamed of detecting remnants of the wicker giant sacrifices which Julius Caesar claimed to have witnessed in the Gaul of the 1st century BC in midsummer fire rituals, but there was really no evidence to support the fabric of their fancies.

Sir Benjamin Stone's picture of the Whalton Baal Fire rites in 1903
The Baal Fire at Whalton in Northumberland is lit on the village green on the 4th July, harking back to the old midsummer’s eve date before the rift between the Julian calendar and its Gregorian replacement opened up in September 1752, a faultline which swallowed up 11 days (precious moments guarded by the Paladin of the Lost Hour in Harlan Ellison’s short story). It’s a celebration which can lay claim to real continuity, perhaps even with a pre-Reformation tradition. The word baal could derive from the Celtic bel, meaning the sun, or light, or from the Anglo-Saxon bael, meaning fire (which is also the root of Beltane). Fuel for the fire is carried by hand to the place of burning, and children dance around the stacked tinder before it is set alight as the evening shadows gather. Couples take over from the children, dancing around the flames and later leaping over the crackling embers, as was the way with midsummer fires across the land. Leaping the fire and darting through its smoke, breathing in and wreathing the body with its heady woodscent aroma was an act of purification and invited good fortune.

A Shropshire monk writing in the 14th century described the ‘three manner of fires’ which were made on St John’s eve. ‘One is of clean bones and no wood, and is called a bonfire; another is of clean wood and no bones, and is called a wakefire, for men sitteth and wake by it; the third is made of bones and wood, and is called St John’s Fire’. The bonefire was a purifying conflagration, its evil stench and acrid smoke driving away malevolent forces and keeping pestilence at bay. The wake fire was the sociable circle of warmth around which people would gather for the night. St John’s Fire was a ritual blaze with a rather more solemn ambience.


It wasn’t just in rural areas that fires were started. The estimable John Stow, Elizabethan tailor and self-educated antiquarian (who we’ve encountered in previous Calendar Customs explorations) recorded his good-humoured observations of London midsummer celebrations in his invaluable and highly readable 1598 masterpiece Survey of London. ‘In the month of June and July, on the vigils of festival days, and on the same festival days in the evening after the sun setting, there were usually made bonfires in the streets, every man bestowing wood or labour towards them: the wealthier sort also, before their doors near to the said bonfires, would set out tables on the vigils, furnished with sweet bread and good drink, and on the festival days with meats and drinks plentifully, whereunto they would invite their neighbours and passengers also to sit and be merry with them in great familiarity, praising God for His benefits bestowed on them. These were called bonfires as well of good amity amongst neighbours before at controversy, were there, by the labour of others, reconciled, and made of bitter enemies loving friends; and also for the virtue that a great fire hath to purge the infection of the air’. As well as re-iterating the idea of fire and its smoke as a purgative and purifying force before the potentially arid and pestilential days of the long summer, Stow gets to the heart of the matter here; a communal fire acts as a focal point for gathering around and generates good spirits and an amiable atmosphere. It’s this as much as any symbolic, spiritual or magical purpose which explains the widespread popularity of midsummer fire ceremonies over so many centuries. Even an 18th century protestant cleric such as Henry Bourne, writing in his 1725 volume Antiquitates Vulgares, recognised the fundamental innocence of such impulses (unless taken too far, of course, he felt compelled to add): ‘when they (the fires) are only kindled as tokens of joy, to excite innocent mirth and diversion, and promote peace and good neighbourhood, they are lawful and innocent, and deserve no censure. And therefore when on Midsummer-Eve, St Peter’s Eve, and some other times, we make bonfires before shops and houses there would be no harm in doing so, was it not that some continue their diversion to too late hours, and others are guilty of excessive drinking’.

Fires burning in the streets of London naturally cast the looming shadow of King Mob, summoning the potential spirit of its mutinously grinning collective visage. It’s perhaps no surprise that the city watch played an increasingly prominent role in the medieval and Tudor periods. From the 14th century onwards, they were required to parade through the streets in their gayest finery, carrying flaming ‘cresset’ buckets on poles slung over their shoulders. No such finery for the black-clad, baton-wielding riot police who set about the latterday travellers intent on holding a free Solstice festival in the fields around Stonehenge in 1985, a one-sided altercation which became known as the Battle of the Beanfield (although ‘rout’ would be a more accurate description).

The Salisbury Giant and sidekick Hob-Nob
Midsummer parades grew in size and theatricality throughout the Tudor period, with passing pageants featuring creatures and characters from biblical and national mythologies. Giants were prominent (as they would be) along with saints, dragons, hobby horses, Moorish kings, Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld, unicorns and Jesus Christ himself, all accompanied by minstrels and morris dancers and brought to moving picture life in the pixillating flicker of a hundred smoking torches. Such pageantry was another victim of Reformation and Civil War. As early as 1533, Henry VIII’s Royal Council was looking to curtail these potentially rebellious gatherings, and in 1539 he succeeded in suppressing the annual London march for the remaining 8 years of his reign. It was never the same again and soon faded away completely, a fate which befell similar parades across the country. A mouldering remnant of an effigy was discovered in 1844 in the backrooms of a Tailor’s Guildhall in Salisbury; a giant which once bestrode the midsummer parades, now a tattered, dimineshed shade of its former self. It now lies quiescent in the city museum.


Midsummer parades have been reinvented in some areas, though, notably so in Penzance. The Mazey Day festival has been fashioned around the old Golowan (St John’s Eve) celebrations. At midnight on St John’s Eve, a Penglaz ‘obby ‘oss is brought out, a flower-garlanded and gaily beribboned horse’s skull held aloft on a pole, its empty sockets filled with the night’s shadows, chomping incisors flashing an enamelled grin in the torchlight. A female ‘teaser’ leads it in a snaking serpent dance down to the quayside, the townspeople twisting and turning in its mesmerically swaying wake.

Midsummer is not one of the festival periods during which the worlds of faerie are at a perigee point of proximity to the waking world. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its fairy court and mischievous sprites making sport with human destiny is, despite its title, set on May Day eve. Midsummer’s eve is still a time steeped in powerful magic, however. Although Midsummer is a solar festival, a daylit affair, this is also the point at which the astrological calendar moves into the house of Cancer, a sign associated with water and the moon.

It was thought to be a time when witches were active, going abroad to gather flowers and herbs whose potency was at its height on this night. As John Aubrey noted, ‘Midsummer Eve is counted or called the Witches’ Night’. Cornish Penwith witches were said to gather on Burns Down above Zennor on midsummer’s eve, the nomenclature denoting the many fires which were lit amongst the natural cauldrons of the granite landscape basins and on the tables of dolmen stones. The Witches’ Rock which was the ultimate site for their midnight assembly is no longer there, having been broken up and possibly used for stone wall construction in the nineteenth century. It used to be said that touching the rock nine times at midnight would afford protection against ill-fortune – a species of associative counter-magic. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the farm which lies beneath Burns Down is called Tregerthen, or Rowan Tree Farm. Rowan wood afforded powerful protection against the depredations of witchcraft, and twigs tied together with red ribbons and hung above stable and farmhouse doors would keep harmful magic at bay.

St John's Wort
Effigies of witches were burned in some fires, a tradition revived by the Cornish at St Cleer. A witch’s broom and hat are perched on the peak of the bonfire mountain. When it is lit, a variety of herbs and flowers are thrown onto the pyre to nullify their efficacy in any witchery attempted in the vicinity. The very flowers used for the purposes of witchcraft (or, as was more likely the case, herbal medicine) could be employed as magical protection. Garlands of vervain, yarrow, mugwort, plaintain, dwarf elder, corn marigold (the ‘summer’s bride’), orpins and, most powerfully of all, St John’s wort (or chase-devil) could be hung on doors to repel malevolent spells, or burned in midsummer fires to create a purifying incense. Yarrow hung up on St John’s Eve would ward of sickness for the coming year. Those seeking St John’s Wort on the evening when its magic was at its most potent might have a bit of hunt on their hands, however. It was said to be able to move to evade those intent on picking it.

Of course, midsummer flowers were beautiful decorations, magical powers notwithstanding. John Stow noted ‘on the vigil of St. John the Baptist, and on St. Peter and Paul the Apostles, every man’s door being shadowed with green birch, long fennel, St. John’s wort, orpine, white lilies, and such like, garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers’, their colours brought out in the evening by the illumination of hundreds of lamps to ‘make a goodly show’. Another tradition involved the creation of midsummer cushions; either an actual cushion upon which flowers were arrayed, or a stool covered in a layer of thick, clayish soil into which flowers were embedded. The poet John Clare loved such presentations and wanted to title one of his later collections The Midsummer Cushion.

Orpine
Midsummer was a time considered particularly propitious for divination, especially when foretelling romantic fortunes. Flowers play their part here too. The prominent floral aspect of midsummer rites and celebrations is hardly surprising given that this is the time of fullest flowering. Two orpine flowers were hung together, sometimes resting against a plate, on midsummer’s eve. If, on the following morning, they had inclined towards one another, love would blossom and fidelity was assured. If they turned away from each other, love would fade and loyalties stray. In the disastrous event of the orpines withering, a death in the household was foretold. Fortunately, this was highly unlikely. Orpine flowers were renowned for remaining fresh long after having been cut, hence one of their common names, life-long. Another such name was ‘midsummer men’, indicating how closely and widely they were associated with these divinations.

The magical potency of flowers reached its peak on St John’s eve, and in some cases this was the only time at which their power became manifest. A piece of mugwort ‘coal’ dug up beneath its roots (in actuality a rotted part of those roots) on St John’s Eve would afford protection from plague, ague, lightning, carbuncle and burning, and was thus a highly sought after natural treasure on this one enchanted night. Fernseed (the tiny spores on the underside of fern leaves) was particularly elusive, supposedly appearing on this one evening of the year and no other. If you were somehow able to gather it (and you would likely face opposition from witches jealously guarding their special patch) it would confer upon you the power of invisibility. Sacred springs or wells could also be used for divination, with the bubbles or ripples produced by offerings of coins, bent pins or flowers thrown upon the waters providing answers to questions of love and matrimony. These offerings, or coloured ribbons tied to adjacent trees, would activate the healing powers of the waters.

A sunwise circumnavigation of the well was often part of the ritual, as at the Pin Well in Alnwick Park in Northumberland. Processing or dancing in a circling, sunwise direction was a feature of many midsummer celebrations, modelling the ecliptic solar passage across the sky and thereby invoking its power and blessing. Never anti-sunwise (or widdershins), however; that would summon dark otherworldly forces into your life and invite ill fortune. The North Eastern antiquarian Moses Aaron Richardson, writing in the 6th volume of his mid-19th century collection titled, with exhaustively thorough accuracy, ‘The Local Historian's Table Book of Remarkable Occurrences, Historical Facts, Legendary and Descriptive Ballads, &c., connected with the Counties of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland, and Durham’, remarks upon the three holy wells near Longwitton-hall in Northumberland. ‘Great concourses of people from all parts, also used to assemble here in the memory of old people on “Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following” and amuse themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the wells’. He also notes the myth of the guardian dragon associated with the wells, a creature capable of making itself invisible and renewing itself by dipping its tail in the healing waters. It was defeated by one Sir Guy of Warwick, who noticed its secret and cunningly interposed himself between the beast and its source of power, hacking it about until it could take no more, curled up and died. The wells were thenceforth free for all to use. Three cheers for Sir Guy!


To retain the magical properties of plants and flowers gathered St John’s Eve, or the divinatory secrets of sacred waters, it was a general requirement that complete and solemn silence was maintained. The Moomins understood this, as Tove Jansson related in Moominsummer Madness. After sitting by their midsummer fire for a spell, Moomintroll, the Snork Maiden and the Fillyjonk venture out into the night meadows to gather nine kinds of flower (as we have seen with the Witches’ Rock, nine is something of a magic number). The Snork Maiden recalls previous midsummer evenings when ‘we went off to pick nine kinds of flowers and put them under our pillow and then our dreams came true. But you weren’t allowed to say a word while you picked them, not afterwards until morning’. This most magically-wise of creatures also knew some midsummer romantic divinatory rites: ‘First you must turn seven times around yourself, mumbling a little and stamping your feet. Then you go backwards to a well, and turn around, and look down in it. And then, down in the water, you’ll see the person you’re going to marry’.

Midsummer’s eve in the Moomin’s world was also the only time to sow the seeds which almost instantaneously germinate into the small, ghostworm creatures known as the Hattifatteners. More midsummer’s eve sowing magic could be achieved by a girl who walked 12 times (sunwise, of course) around a church, scattering hempseed in her wake whilst intoning the rhyme ‘hempseed I sow/Hempseed I hoe/Let him tht is my true love/Come after me and mow’. The phantom of her future love would then appear, trailing after her, completely under her spell.

A more unsavoury form of love divination is practised in the kitchen, with the midsummer’s eve baking of dumb cakes by a small gathering of women. Once more, the preparation and cooking must be carried out in complete silence. The ingredients are simple and few: half flour and half flour mixed into a dough with the piss of each participant. Each in turn makes a mark or scratches an initial on the cake (or cakes). After the rigorous observation of various scrupulously specified instructions (for this is a highly ritualised recipe) the baked cakes are taken out of the oven and the spectres of future husbands appear to break the piece of cake (or take the smaller bunlike variants) bearing the mark of their bride-to-be and present it to her. As with all supernatural procedures, there were attendant dangers. The anonymous author of the 1685 volume Mother Bunch’s Closet Newly Broke Open (Mother Bunch herself, perhaps) concluded his or her instruction with the saucily valedictory line ‘if there be any so unfortunate to hear a bell, I wish I had them to my bedfellows this night to prevent leading apes to hell’. Leading apes in hell, a phrase which turns up in a number of Shakespearean quotes, was the proverbial fate of old maids in the 16th and 17th centuries, although its precise meaning remains obscure. However, the fact that it is taking place in hell suggests that it’s unlikely to be pleasant. So, a recipe which risks bestial intercourse of whatever variety in the fiery pits. You don’t get that in Delia (as far as I’m aware).

The combination of summer heat and the heightened influence of the moon led to midsummer being considered a time of delirium and madness, particularly for those already affected by such states. Tove Jansson’s Moominsummer Madness plays on such associations, as well as on the theatrical elements which are also central to the novel. The phrase midsummer madness was common in Shakespeare’s time. In Twelfth Night, Olivia responds to Malvolio’s absurdly misguided advances by declaring ‘why, this is very midsummer madness’. Such tendencies lend St John’s eve festivities and edgily antic air, creating a sense of licensed lunacy and abandon. Midsummer sports such as swinging fireballs on the end of chains, running with tar barrels, leaping through flames or rolling burning wheels down hills were ways of toying with chaos, playing with scarcely contained elemental forces that could easily grow rapidly out of control and scorch, char or completely consume; A good analogy for those skirting the borders of mania. Perhaps by allowing the demons of the mind their night of wild freedom, their longer term ravages might be curtailed in the dog days to come.


The ephemeral nature of the sun’s triumph was acknowledged in rites which anticipated harvest time, the fruiting and going to seed of plants now in the full glory of efflorescence. The smoke from fires was partly intended to ritually cleanse the air, protecting crops and herds from pestilence and blight. In Herefordshire and Somerset, fires were lit adjacent to orchards to encourage a good crop in the autumn, as John Aubrey noted: ‘On Midsummer-eve, they make fire in the fields in the waies: sc. to Blesse the Apples’. The ephemerality of human life was also underlined by the south western custom of the midsummer’s eve church porch watch. On the long, hazy evening and short, balmy (hopefully) night of this enchanted evening, it was the phantoms of the living which drifted dreamily abroad, as we’ve seen in the context of a number of the divinatory rituals. The porch watcher could observe the villagers filing dumbly into the parish church, departing once more at midnight. If any remained inside, it was a sure sign that they would die during the following year (in some variations of the tradition, it was only those thus marked who entered the church in the first place). Once more, dangers attended this encounter with the supernatural. If the watcher was overcome with weariness and slipped into sleep during their nightlong vigil, they would join the phantom congregation remaining inside before the next St John’s eve.

For all that it kept one eye on the time to come, and on the dwindling of the light, midsummer’s eve and its ensuing day were all about celebrating the moment. The sun is rising now, climbing to the height of its radiant glory. Light and warmth and joy fill our hearts in this instant, This Instant! So let us gather around the convivial fires, revel in the amber glow bronzing one another’s faces and leap boldly through the flames and fragrant smoke. Surrender to the holy midsummer madness. We are alive. Blessings and thanks to Bright Phoebus, to the lifegiver, to The Sun.