Saturday, 23 October 2010
There was a good piece on Alasdair Gray in this week’s Culture Show. This coincides with the publication of A Life in Pictures (illustrations from which you can see accompanying this weekend's Guardian article on the book), an overdue overview of his art, and with two exhibitions of his work in Edinburgh. The Talbot Rice Gallery has a display of his designs for books and posters, and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art a selection of portraits as well as the beautiful symbol strewn panorama of Eden and After. Gray was an instantly engaging presence, amusing and amused (and occasionally acting charmingly bemused). He amuses himself a lot of the time, and lets loose a high-pitched, Michael Bentine-esque chuckle which is very infectious. His voice is the voice of his books, wryly sardonic and speaking in precisely wrought and articulated sentences, with an underlying foundation of moral seriousness and attempted self-honesty. He exhibits a genuinely funny sense of self-deprecation which never descends into self-negation. His preference for the public display of art is at first described as an expression of his socialism, before he catches the note of pomposity which this assertion might imply and quickly revises his motives as being those of a typical egotistical artist (although the first self-censored statement is undoubtedly equally true). This kind of self-mockery is his guard against falling into the kind of self-importance often found in the literary world. It’s the sense which can be found in his back cover blurbs and inside jacket biographical sketches for his own books. I like the blurb on the back of Unlikely Stories, Mostly in which a Col. Sebastian Moran of the Simla Times declares the book to be ‘too clever for its own good in parts, but otherwise a damn good read’. He enjoys inventing extremely negative comments with which he anticpates critical approbation, such as the one on the back cover of the hardback of 1982: Janine, in which he notes that ‘every stylistic excess and moral defect which critics conspired to ignore in the author’s first books, Lanark and Unlikely Stories, Mostly, is to be found here in concentrated form’. His review of his own biography, which he authorised Rodge Glass to write, is a model of modest correction, as he points out several details whose accuracy he disputes. He goes on to generously recommend the book anyway.
Gray’s portraits of his fellow Glaswegian friends, poets and artists are relaxed and informal, and often include glimpses of the city in the background. One of his subjects, the poet and dramatist Liz Lochhead, is on hand to share her affectionate impressions. Iain Banks and Alex Kapranos also share their enthusiasm for his work. Kapranos sits in Oran Mor, a deconsecrated church in the West End of Glasgow which has been converted into a cultural centre. This affords us glimpses of Gray’s ceiling mural, a beautiful celestial expanse of deep blue which you feel float off into, full of neck-craning detail. It’s a work which is ongoing, according to Gray. The implication is that it could take up a lifetime. It almost makes me want to get on the train and go to see it right now, if it weren’t for the certain knowledge that the 10 hour journey would leave me a gibbering wreck. Gray is now also designing a mural for the subway station at Hillhead, which will join many other murals to be found in Glasgow, such as those he painted for the Ubiquitous Chip Shop in Ashton Lane. One of the pictures in the book looks particularly striking. The Beast in the Pit is an early work from 1952, when he was an 18 year old student at the Glasgow School of Art. It is a bit of Glasgow gothic in which the deep brick walled pit containing the tentacled roots which reach up to the surface is simply part of the everyday setting, echoed in the winding drainpipes which crawl up the surrounding houses. People go about their daily business, hanging out the washing and going off to work, not giving a second glance to this Lovecraftian abyss in their midst. The Gray segment can be found about 40 minutes into the Culture Show, just before Alain de Botton’s rather annoying attempt to present knowledge in commodifiable, utilitarian terms, of worth only insofar as it can be put to work to enrich the life of the individual, financially and emotionally. So much for the great and eternal collective human endeavour of building up an understanding of the universe and our place within it, with each generation adding its own cumulative layers to the existing edifice (and sometimes knocking others down). It’s philosophy for the age of self-obsession. The School of Life to which he refers can be found in Marchmont Street in London, a road which faces Russell Square tube station. It's just north of the Brunswick Centre in an interestingly diverse row of modest shopfronts. The idea of a shop offering everyday learning which you can just walk into off the street is an attractive one. Such places have been around for quite a while, mind you. They’re known as bookshops. A little further up Marchmont Street there’s a particularly good one called Judd Books. It has a good stock of reduced price books, with a particular emphasis on literature, cinema and the arts. I’ve found some lesser known titles by Samuel Delany and Philip K Dick on previous occasions. And if it’s still there, you can pick up the copy of the Critical Appreciation and Bibliography of Alasdair Gray which they had on their shelves. Gray naturally has the last word in his Culture Show profile. Remarking on his sometimes precarious financial state, he switches to tones of mock rhetorical bombast to declare his assurance that his supporters ‘will make sure that Scotland is not disgraced by bringing me to a miserable, penurious end’.
Friday, 22 October 2010
If - the history masterI remember Graham Crowden best for his roles in Lindsay Andersen’s loose trilogy of state of the nation films If…, O Lucky Man!, and Britannia Hospital. In If…, he is the only school master who makes an attempt to engage the boys’ minds and encourage a flicker of individual thought. He makes a memorable entrance on his old-fashioned wicker-basketted bicycle, sailing through the corridor and straight into the classroom, where he glides to a halt, one leg balletically raised for touchdown, lustily singing To Be A Pilgrim all the while. It is a scene which perfectly embodies the kind of eccentrics which Crowden invariably portrayed. He was the kind of distinctive character actor who Anderson loved to use. You find them throughout his films. Arthur Lowe is in every one (Whales of August excepted), from This Sporting Life, through the short The White Bus to the Travis trilogy. Peter Jeffrey is also in all the trilogy films, and the likes of Leonard Rossiter and Dandy Nichols also turn up. Crowden tosses essays to with no great accuracy to his pupils, with curt summations of the merits of each, before coming to Malcolm McDowell’s rebellious Travis. His essay, Crowden is forced to admit, was lost ‘somewhere in the Mont Blanc tunnel’, although he adds ‘I’m sure it was good’. Travis evidently has some feel for history.
Mad scientist - O Lucky Man!From this relatively benign beginning, Crowden’s characters in the trilogy get ever more sinister and ideologically obsessive. His Professor Millar in O Lucky Man is a scientist who takes the vagrant Travis in to use as a volunteer guinea pig for his experiments. Travis soon flees when he discovers that these involve creating grotesque hybrids of man and pig. Human beings treated as farm animals. Professor Millar returns in the scabrous finale to the trilogy (no-one was about to let Anderson make another film in the series after this one) Britannia Hospital. Here he begins as a Frankenstein figure, creating a messy creature fashioned from body parts procured from the hospital, including the head of Travis’ snooping journalist. When this inevitably goes bloodily awry, he switches to full mad scientist mode, unveiling his ‘Genesis’ computer before a captive audience which he addresses as ‘fellow members of the human race’. Genesis is the project with which Millar fully takes on the megalomaniacal mantle of a technocratic god, and with which he intends to usher in a post-human age. He It lifelessly intones Mark Anthony’s ‘what a piece of work is man’ speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar before breaking down and repeating the line ‘how like a god’ over and over.
Madder scientist - Britannia HospitalCrowden also appeared in a number of films within the fantastic genre, where his effortless eccentricity and distinctive Scottish diction fitted in well with some of the more stylised fantasies. He played a mad doctor once more in The Final Programme, a highly stylised and rather loose adaptation of Michael Moorcock’s first Jerry Cornelius novel. He also appeared in a Doctor Who from the rather ignoble latter years of the Tom Baker era. He’s probably one of the few compensatory pleasures in The Horns of Nimon, generally considered to be the nadir of the series from that time. He could in fact have played the Doctor, but turned down the offer, making way for Jon Pertwee to take up the role. I imagine he would have been marvellous in the part.
Pruning in the garden of GodHe is excellent in The Company of Wolves as the rather distracted vicar. He is not as daft as he seems, however. He delights in lopping off branches of the evergreen tree in the churchyard, which he deliberately aims to fall on the head of Angela Landsbury’s grandmother, who is making relating mildly malicious gossip about him to her granddaughter Rosaleen beneath its boughs, firm in her belief that he is deaf. He loudly declares the ‘someone’s got to cut away the old wood’ as he gives another vigorous clack of the shears. He climbs up to the pulpit to read from Isaiah chapter 11, verses 6-8 (‘the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb’) and takes particular relish in cheerfully intoning the lines ‘the wee child shall put his hand on the cockatryx’s den’. Crowden’s reading of the words of the funeral service, ‘man that is born of woman hat but a short time to live and is full of misery’, is delivered with his wonderful way of bending the latter clause of a sentence upwards and leaving it hanging in the air in a quizzical fashion. You can also hear this in his postulated theory of the origins of the first world war in If… ‘In studying the nineteenth century, one thing will be clear, that the growth of technology, telegraph, cheap newspapers, railways, transport is matched by a failure of imagination, a fatal inability to understand the meaning and consequences of all these levers and wires and railways. Climaxing in 1914 when the German Kaiser is told by his generals that he cannot stop the war he has started because it would spoil the railway timetables upon which victory depended’. The last is given that Crowden upward rise, leaving the sentence hanging, making it seem to hover half way between question and statement, and also expressing a slightly distanced astonishment at what he is saying. It’s a rhetorical device that can be both affecting and also naturally amusing. And it’s that voice more than anything which comes to mind when you think of Graham Crowden.
Reading from Isaiah
A Belgian film
Malpertuis is very much a Belgian film. It was made by a Belgian director, Harry Kumel; it was based on a book published in 1943 by Belgian writer Jean Ray; it was partly filmed on the harboursides and in the streets of Bruges and Ghent; and it displays the visual influence of Belgian surrealists Rene Magritte and Paul Delvaux. Jean Ray was the nom de plume (one of many) of Raymundus Joannes de Kremer. He had been a prolific writer of popular fiction in the first half of the century, taking the pre-existing detective character Harry Dickson, a thinly disguised version of Sherlock Holmes, and making him his own, introducing elements of the fantastic and macabre. He adopted the Ray alias in the 40s to write a series of stories in the mode known by the French as the fantastique. It seems a rather a nebulous term, and attempts to define it, such as those by academic Tzvetan Todorov, tend towards a literary snobbishness which excludes much which would immediately cause such critical constructs to tumble. It can be said, however, to have had its antecedents in the Decadent movement of the 19th century, with writers such as Theophile Gautier, Prosper Merimee, JK Huysmans, Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Octave Mirbeau (what wonderful names) and, indeed, Oscar Wilde, who themselves drew on the baleful influence of Edgar Allan Poe. Both decadence and the wider stream of the fantastique which both continues and contains it can be seen re-emerging in the modern literature which has come to be known as the ‘new weird’, which is embodied in the work of writers such as Jeff Vandermeer, Jeffrey Ford, China Mieville, Tim Powers and M.John Harrison. Decadent literature tended to favour artificial worlds and experiences over the real, as demonstrated by the tastes of des Esseintes, the protagonist of JK Huysmans’ A Rebours. This is a novel which is effectively a DIY handbook of decadence aesthetics. For an excellent and highly readable (and at times very funny) guide to the literature, Brian Stableford’s lengthy introduction to the Dedalus Book of Decadence is recommended. Malpertuis, with its titular house and its surrounds comprising a self-contained universe unto itself, certainly fits in with his definition of the form. It has a highly stylised feel, both visually and in terms of its performances. A fevered dream of the world.
Attending the master - Orson Welles as CassaviusI feel sure that I came across the film on TV many years ago. I certainly remember Orson Welles in an old house. It may just be recollected fragments of a dream – it’s that sort of film. I may have been confusing it with Welles’ own film The Immortal Story (1968) based on one of Isaak Dinesen’s short stories of the fantastic. Orson Welles does lie, in an almost literal sense, at the centre of Malpertuis. It’s one of many roles which he undertook at this time, either as an actor or narrator, and with greater or lesser enthusiasm. For this one, he didn’t even have to get out of bed. Here he plays Cassavius, an ageing old salt who has run aground in his ramshackle old mansion, the Malpertuis of the title. Beached in the capacious vessel of his bed, he roars out commands which echo down stairwells and through hallways, asserting his patriarchal authority from his recumbent throne. Malpertuis itself is like an organism, a living, breathing thing. It is filled with the sibilant hissing of gas lamps, the creaking of floors and doors, the whistling of the wind up in the attic, and the echo of approaching or receding footsteps. A house of many mansions, its corridors are lined with rows and rows of closed doors, which conceal mysteries untold. Dormant memories, discarded notions or forgotten dreams perhaps. As Cassavius approaches death (or as death approaches him) the lights in the passageway beyond the red-curtained womb of his bedroom begin to flicker out, as if the house really is an extension of his living being.
Surrealist shoppingMost of the film takes place within the self-contained world of the house. But it opens in the harbours and streets of Ghent and Bruges. We follow Jan, a sailor, as he returns to visit his home town whilst his ship is in port. He in turn is spied upon by two men, one in bohemian peaked cap, one in a bureaucratic bowler. The latter is clearly in charge, and identifies Jan as their target, whom they follow in the sinister and furtive manner of those plotting evil deeds. The city is a strange and foreboding place. Jan asks for directions to Beacon Quay, where he was born in, but is met with confusion. When he does find it, his old house seems to have disappeared, replaced by a shop draped with fishing nets and weights, a deep sea diving suit standing outside. Perhaps this is a nod to Dali, who wore this cumbersome apparel for one of his attention seeking publicity stunts when he turned up for the London International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936. Jan is given short shrift by the surly shopkeeper, with his wooden shoes against which he loudly taps his tarry pipe.
The eye of EisengottHe thinks he spots his sister Nancy, her purposefully striding figure painting an electric flash of blue velvet dress against the drab monotone backdrop of this down at heel part of the city. He runs through a bewildering maze of narrow, cobbled streets. They are grey, dark and rank with a miasma of age and decay. A small, emaciated boy dressed in rags, hobbling out of an alleyway on his wooden crutches, may be the spectral spirit of this place. He echoes Jan’s earlier query as to the whereabouts of Beacon Quay, but with an air of desperation which suggests that he may have been wandering this maze for a very long time. The bowler-hatted man, following on in this chain of pursuit, kicks away his crutches with reflexive malice, leaving him in a pitiful heap on the cobbles. The boy is the only human presence (if he is indeed human) which Jan encounters. He passes a watchmakers shop whose grubby, timeworn clockface sign looks like it has never made any pretence at telling the time. It’s similar to the timeless clock which appears in Isak Borg’s haunted dream at the beginning of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. Inside, a sombrely dressed man with the bearded gravitas of an old testament prophet watches him pass through age-begrimed windows. The streets are empty and echoing. They seem to be a stage on which some impending drama is waiting to be played out. There is an atmosphere of anticipatory, foreboding stillness which is reminiscent of the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico.
Sylvie VartanJan’s pursuit of the phantom of his sister leads him to an alleyway which seems to be contained within a covered building. It’s a red-lit street of sin, strikingly reminiscent of the one into which Franz Biberkopf stumbles in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. Indeed, the atmosphere of this opening section has much in common with his final film, the similarly dreamlike adaptation of Jean Genet’s Querelle. Having run through empty streets, Jan is suddenly surrounded by a noisy, milling crowd, which includes a good number of his fellow sailors. When he finally reaches the woman in blue whom he has been pursuing she turns out not to be Nancy after all, but a chanteuse floozy named Bets. She is played by French pop singer Sylvie Vartan (who was actually born in Bulgaria), who gets to sing a cabaret song with many a nod and wink, Marlene-style. With a touch of knowing self-reflexivity, the bowler-hatted man gives his critical appraisal, commenting that ‘that little songstress isn’t bad’. The rumbustious club in which she performs, with its red walls and gaudy brothel stage props, is like a Pierre et Gilles photograph come to life (indeed, the duo did produce several portrait of Vartan in later years). At the end of her song, she accepts a kiss from one of the sailors into whose waiting arms she has fallen. He happens to be her then husband Johnny Hallyday, in an uncredited blink and you miss it cameo. Vartan dances with Jan, an unwitting siren seducing him into a trap engineered by the bowler-hatted stalker, who manufactures a melee during which he knocks him senseless with practiced efficiency and malicious glee. Jan falls into a blood red haze of unconsciousness and wakes up in Malpertuis, where his sister, in her blue dress, waits by his side.
Surreal juxtapositions - a boat beached in an abbeyIn addition to being influenced by Decadent literary tradition, the film is also suffused with the spirit of surrealism. Dali and De Chirico have already been mentioned, but Belgian surrealists Rene Magritte and Paul Delvaux also make their presence felt in this Belgian film. It shares the aura of still, twilit mystery found in some of their paintings, along with their juxtaposition of the ordinary and the fantastic; or the relocation of the ordinary into a context which makes it seem extraordinary. There’s also something of the bizarre adjustments to the familiar material made in Max Ernst’s collage novels of the early 30s, La Femme 100 Tetes, Reve D’Une Petite Fille Qui Voulut Entrer au Carmel and Une Semaine de Bonte. The Decadent poet Comte de Lautreamont was taken up by the surrealists in the 20s as a kind of patron saint of their movement. They were particularly influenced by his lengthy narrative poem Les Chants de Maldoror, whose violent and vividly evoked world of the uncensored imagination demonstrated the affinity between the decadents and the surrealists. The much quoted lines from the poem, which Man Ray used as the context for his wrapped ‘sculpture’ L’enigme d’Isidore Ducasse, and which act as a manifesto of surrealist intent, refer to something being as ‘beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissection table of a sewing machine and an umbrella’. This collision of disparate objects is evident throughout Malpertuis, and is embedded in the very nature of its plot (the secret of which I’ll reveal later – I’ll give fair warning).
Attic menagerieThe mad taxidermist Philaris’ attic, filled with the mouldering products of his life’s obsession, could be an installation, the motionless menagerie of monkeys and bats, owls, armadillos and rats being a select choice of the strange creatures which the surrealists favoured. Another attic contains Cassavius’ lab, in which specimen jars of varied sizes contain diverse grotesqueries worthy of a cabinet of curiosities. These include creatures spliced from the arms and heads of blank-faced dolls – the kind of models which surrealist animators Jan Svankmajer or the Brothers Quay might bring to life. There is also a strange shop on the ground floor, in which a wall of wooden drawers of the kind found in old apothecaries stretch up to the ceiling, each filled with a different colour in powdered form. The house also conforms to a dislocated spatial geometry which can be found in the jump-cuts of dreams or in the supra-logical juxtapositions of surrealism. The interior of the house is a multi-faceted labyrinth, with many moods and atmospheres. When he goes exploring, large iron ring of keys rattling in his hand, he discovers whole hidden wings opening up beneath attic spaces. He spirals in a giddy dance down a vertiginous spiral staircase of stone which looks like it belongs in a medieval castle and ends up in a windowless vault which feels like it is deep underground. One door opens onto a world of antiquarian ruin, affording a glimpse of the disembodied foot of a classical statue and the stumps of Doric columns. Some of the house’s porthole windows look out on to the rooftops and backstreets of the city. When Jan attempts to find it again near the end of the film, he discovers the faded storefront of the colour shop, through which he regains entrance. But the house also abuts the jagged Romantic ruins of an extensive abbey, at one end of which Cassavius’ old boat is incongruously beached. A night-time procession carrying Cassavius’ coffin outside to its resting place descends by torchlight down a grand cascade of stone steps, down which the fumbled casket clatters until it disappears into an obscurity which suggests great distances and hilly elevations. There is also a wood surrounding the house, underneath which there is one last subterraenean corridor, which provides a seemingly pre-prepared means of escape from Malpertuis’ dangerously heady enchantments.
Surrealist roomsThe mood of the film is autumnal. The trees in the woods are wound in rags of mist and the leaves have turned colour. Some of the corridors in the house have drifts of dead leaves, as if the house too has its seasons. As Cassavius lies dying in his bed, the other inhabitants of the house wearily go through their empty routines, motivated by nothing other than routine itself, its purpose long since forgotten. The death of the tyrannical master of the house fails to bring the hoped for release. His will binds them to the house, if they wish to see any of its benefits (as they surely do), Malpertuis becoming the boundary of their world, and their tomb. Jan, his nephew is his intended successor, the bed awaiting his occupancy. It’s a fate with which he has been forcibly confronted at the blunt end of a cosh. Subtler enticements or invitations were evidently considered likely to have been met with rejection. The household of Malpertuis is stratified into its own layers of social order. At the bottom is Lampernist, the pitiful wretch who cowers in his small cave beneath the stairs, nurturing the flame which he keeps permanently burning in a rocky nook. Then there are the toilers, who tend to congregate in the kitchen below, the one place which doesn’t seem to be affected by the lassitude which infects the rest of the house. Elodin, the faithful old housemaid and cook who Jan remembers from childhood, is still there. There are the Kriekepoots, the ancient couple who scrub, polish and clean and generally try to hold back the accelerating progress of entropic decay within the house. Also to be found in the kitchen are the priest, who helps himself to whatever food is going; and the twitching, giggling taxidermist Philaris, a demented Max Wall character who resembles the newly stuffed rat he is proudly contemplating when we first encounter him. Charles Janssens’ performance in this role is the most pronounced of a generally exaggerated set of characterisations. Most of the inhabitants of the house have the air of actors playing out their parts, roles in which they are trapped and which have become hatefully overfamiliar to them. On some subconscious level they still yearn to burst free from these limited personae, and the strain shows in a constant undercurrent of suppressed hysteria and madness which threatens to erupt at any moment. As we shall see, there is more than an element of truth behind this appearance of role-playing. It’s therefore appropriate for the actors playing them to perform in a self-conscious and stylised manner. Janssens plays Philaris at the same comically bug-eyed pitch of Roland Topor’s Renfield in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. He has a similar nervous laugh, and has to resort to stuffing his filthy handkerchief in his mouth from time to time to stop himself from howling uncontrollably, and perhaps never stopping. Like Renfield, he is a henchman gone to seed in the absence of his master, veering off on his own wayward course and losing himself in the full flourishing of his obsessions.
The FuriesUpstairs and intent on keeping more respectable company are Dideloo, the bowler-hatted stalker who had brought Jan back home with the help of his trusty cosh, handily stashed beneath his titfer. There’s his wife, Sylvia, a woman with lips permanently pursed who finds something to disapprove of in everyone she meets. We have already gathered from the polite enquiry after her health from the madam at the club and brothel that she had once been a performer there. Mathias Crook, with his long hair, peaked cap and short jacket, is the bohemian in this society, happy to accompany Dideloo on his trip into the underworld. He also the proprietor of the colour shop, an establishment with no customers, in which nothing is ever sold. Slightly above them are the three black clad ladies who keep their own close company. We get to know the younger one, Alice, who breaks away from the other two for a short time. They are first seen in the Catholic church, giggling at the pious disapproval of the housekeeper Elodia at their presence and making eyes at the altar boy. Above them is the woman whose arrival is anticipated with a mixture of excitement and dread, the aloof aristocrat amongst their company, who never directly meets the gaze of anyone – Euryale.
EuryaleClassical scholars in the audience may at this point divine what the secret of Malpertuis is (and stop reading NOW if you want to keep it a secret until you’ve watched the film). On his voyages to the Greek islands, Cassavius had captured the ghosts of the old gods, who had faded as belief in them had dwindled. He returned to his house and had his faithful servant Philaris indulge his passion and sew them into the skins of ordinary men and women. Thus they are condemned to live out their eternal existences in much diminished form, wearily repeating the routines of domestic drudgery and bourgeois propriety until they have all but forgotten who they once were. The lyre of Apollo and Orpheus has devolved to a scratchy victrola record of a lifeless waltz, making its pitiful attempt at gaiety in the stultifying atmosphere of an airless parlour. No-one even notices when it gets stuck. The whole scenario could be seen as an elaborate metaphor for the way in which we can become disconnected from the full potential richness of our imaginative lives. Cassavius seems to mocking the old gods by making them dance to his own tune. He becomes the bullying monotheistic deity of his own circumscribed world, a Gnostic demi-god revelling in his controlling power. By binding them to the house through his will, which promises an inheritance of vast wealth to the last to outlive the others, he further diminishes them by sowing the seeds of greed, envy and suspicion. The executor of the will is Eisengott (the eyes of God?), the same man with the look of an old testament prophet who had observed Jan passing by from the murky interior of his watchmaker’s shop.
Spinning the jaundiced web of fateThe cast of gods is unveiled along with the secret at the end of the film, the masks of skin ripped aside to reveal the features of marble statuary beneath. Lampernist is Prometheus, guarding the flickering remnant of fire which he stole from the gods. The senescent Kriekepoots are Venus and Vulcan, who struggle to recall their former passion for one another as they scour the corridors on hands and knees with bucket and soapy cloth. Dideloo, whom Cassavius had sent off into the fleshpots and crime dens of the city to do his dirty work for him, and who writhed so obsequiously in his presence, is Hermes, the messenger of the gods. His wife, Sylvia, who’d worked in those self-same places before turning into a joylessly calculating and covetous harridan, is Hecate, the goddess of dark places. Mathias, the bohemian hoarder of colours and lover of Nancy, is Apollo, the sun god. The three ladies in black, with their connected strands of yarn looped around their steadily ravelling knitting needles, are the Furies, awaiting to hound any who transgress against the gods. There are also unseen but much feared creatures who giggle in high pitched helium voices, one of whom leaves a bloodied doll’s arm in a mouse trap which Jan sets out in the attic. What are these creatures who inspire such horror. Has Cassavius also brought back the remains of the Titans, whom he and Philaris have managed to shrink into the even smaller forms of a child’s dolls. Or are these the reduced concentrates of nymphs and satyrs, the echoes of capricious spirits still delighting in incubating chaos and terror.
Gorgon hairstyleFinally, there is Euryale, the only one amongst them who has retained her true name. Jean Ray had previously used the name for one of Harry Dickson’s foes, Euryale Ellis. She is one of the three gorgons. She is immortal and unchanging because she was never forgotten. She is Love and Death, both of which are radiate from her gaze.
Euryale is played by Susan Hampshire, who also plays Nancy and the younger of the Furies, Alecto (or Alice). These three characters are explicitly linked in two sequences in which they are shown in rapidly intercut succession. They can be seen partly to embody three aspects of Jan’s desire, the force which keeps him from leaving Malpertuis. Fair haired Nancy in her blue dress represents a ‘pure’ sisterly love, the companionship which he has enjoyed since childhood. Dark haired Alice, the renegade Fury dressed in black, offers the dark side of this love, a purely carnal relationship through which she also hopes to become fully human. They make love in a room to which only she has the key (it’s not on Jan’s big iron keyring) and which is decorated in a rich, engulfing blue. It is the blue of Nancy’s dress, and hints at an incestuous desire also suggested by the identical dress worn by Sylvie Vartan’s good time girl whom Jan had pursued to the club in which she worked. The symbolic and transgressive idea of incest, of the divided self re-united, is employed in much decadent and surrealist literature and film. It’s a unifying theme in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, more manifestly so in Vitezslav Nezval’s 1935 novel than in Jaromil Jires film adaptation of it. It is also a central element in Jean Cocteau’s novel Les Enfants Terribles and Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1950 film adaptation, in which characters once more retreat into a large house which becomes their self-enclosed world. Red-haired Euryale represents an idealised love which verges on worship. It is the love of the medieval troubador, with his ideal of courtly love, a devotion to a noble lady who might scarcely acknowledge their existence in return. Jan’s divided desires are held up for mockery by another trio of women. He encounters three prostitutes in the city’s night of masked revelries who beckon to him and offer enticements from the shadows, promising to reveal all. The first takes off her death’s skull mask to reveal a young woman beneath; The second removes the mask of a crone to reveal a middle aged woman; The third removes a mask of baby-faced adolescence to reveal the face of a cackling old woman, whose heavily shadowed eyes and blackened lips anticipate the inevitable progress of all towards the skull which the first woman had removed. Youth contains the shadow of mortality, and age the shadow of youth.
Bringing colour to Romantic ruinsJan’s desire leads to him becoming incorporated into the household order of Malpertuis. After his night in the blue room, he exchanges his sailor’s uniform for a bright, blousy orange shirt. It marks a domestication, a decision not to go on any further voyages. His transition to such bright tones, which match the orange of Alice’s bodice, previously hidden beneath her dutiful black, suggest that he has been blessed by Apollo in his Mathias guise after a visit to his colour shop. The adoption of colour comes with an acceptance into their number, the company of the gods. Elodia, the housemaid, claims that she no longer knows him when she sees him thus attired, and takes her leave soon after. He has made his choice and crossed over. Such gaudy splendour is singularly denied to Lampernist/Prometheus, who complains that he is not allowed colour from the shop, and must remain wretched in his washed out grey rags. It is the price for defying the gods.
Ghoul godsAlice/Alecto’s attempts to discover her humanity (also indicated by an unveiling of colour) and to act according to her individual will causes a crisis amongst the Furies. They exist to carry out their terrible duty, and her wavering from this unified purpose deals them a shock which creates cracks in their assumed personae. Their mythological core is reawakened, and this rediscovery of their essential selves spreads to the others who are gathered in the parlour with them. It’s like an idea which becomes viral and instantly infectious once it has been expressed. From this point onwards, the film takes a strange turn towards generic horror. As a group anamnesis (a recovery of recollection or a forgetting to forget) takes hold, the gods arise and gather themselves into a shuffling zombie pack. Euryale remains unaffected, because she never did forget. Her nature never changed. She kisses Jan, and there is a brief moment of frozen time (an attenuated fraction of the gorgon’s full petrifying power) before he finds himself magically transported to the dark night-time woods outside. This is one of several moments of simple camera trickery scattered throughout the film which are essentially little different, an improved level of technical accomplishment aside, from the prestidigitations of early cinema fantasists such as Georges Melies. They create a sense of a temporary suspension of the otherwise stringently applied laws of the universe. A gap opened for a subatomic instant in the interstices of reality.
Jan flees through the night with the priest, who shows him the tunnel beneath the wood through which he blindly races to escape the vengeance of the gods of Malpertuis. The priest remains, and in a moment which could almost be a parody of Hammer gothic, holds his crucifix up (and it’s a nice big wooden one) to ward off the relentless, groaning approach of the god ghouls, only for it to be engulfed in the flames belched out by Vulcan. The old magic is still there. Jan wakes up in Sylvie Vartan’s (or Bets’, if we can remind ourselves that she is playing a character rather than herself) changing room, his vivid experiences having apparently been nothing but a fevered dream stirred up by the blow to his head. But it is a dream which he refuses to relinquish. It is more vivid than life and has excavated buried depths of desire and longing. He goes off in search of Malpertuis, with Vartan accompanying him in blue velvet. They eventually discover the faded frontage of the colour shop, opposite the clock sign of the watchmaker’s shop which marks this timeless quarter. It looks like it has been long abandoned, but it affords him re-entry into the house. Inside he comes across Lampernist/Prometheus chained to a slab. Jan clumsily puts his hand in Lampernist’s extruded liver, which an eagle swoops down the stairwell to take a peck at. We are still firmly in horror film territory here, with a red dash of classical gore from mythology (respectable horror, then).
Return to Malpertuis - finding the colour shopThe house now seems to be empty, a haunted mansion waiting for its ghosts to move in. The conventions of the genre are respected but in inverted form, as it is Jan who becomes the imperilled blond, still dazed from his head wound and overwhelmed by the manic energy of Philaris, who leaps out from the shadows of his attic. He is manacled to the taxidermist’s blood-stained dissection table, and told that he will be made immortal. Philaris sharpens his rusty scalpel and giggles gleefully as he contemplates where to make the first cut to start on his latest masterpiece. Fortunately for Jan, Euryale is on hand to save him once more, reducing the poor taxidermist to shattered rubble. She tells him of the true nature of the house’s inhabitants, the gods who have lived within their hides, flayed and sewn with real skill and love. She has acted as their judge, putting a halt to their terrible resurgence, which has seen Prometheus once more consigned to his punishment of eternally recurring torment. She has frozen them in a petrified last supper line-up, an artfully arranged stone tableau. She offers him the bitter fruit of knowledge which, as in the garden of Eden, is the knowledge both of love and death. They reach out to each other as if to take up the positions for the start of a danse macabre. They embrace and Jan looks into Euryale’s face as she looks up, raises her eyes and opens them wide.
The burning gaze of the gorgonThere follows a strange and rather unsatisfying coda, in which we find Jan in the present day. We know it’s the present day, 1971 style, because there is a sudden cut from the gorgon’s gaze to a shot of Concorde’s sharp-beaked profile cutting across the sky. Jan is being discharged from a mental hospital, where he is congratulated by the doctor (who is Eisengott) for having written such a vividly imagined therapeutic diary. Now dressed in a grey suit, he walks out through the white, clinical corridors of the hospital, which seem as labyrinthine as those of Malpertuis. He is accompanied by his wife, Catherine, who is Susan Hampshire in red-haired gorgon guise (but without the snake-stranded coiffure). As with Dorothy’s awakening from her colourful dream in The Wizard Of Oz, the characters who have peopled the story are seen here as their real selves; Doctors, nurses (three of them in a conspiratorial huddle, and Sylvie Vartan, smiling to see him recovered), visitors (including a nun – the housekeeper) and patients. It is another kind of hierarchical order within an encosed world – that of the institution. Jan’s wife leads him to the exit doors, but stays on the inside as they close behind him. He turns to find himself in the corridors of Malpertuis once more, the doors fading to brick walls. His sailor self appears at the opposite end and walks briskly towards the grey suited Jan with the confident air of one who feels at home here. Is this his more authentic self? Is Malpertuis the mansion of his mind? Who is the dreamer and who the dreamed? Or is this in fact simply a thoughtlessly appended double-shock ending of the kind which would become tiresomely familiar in horror films post-Carrie? The closing quote from Lewis Carroll, bracketing the opening credits Tenniel illustration of the Jabberwocky, doesn’t really help much in answering these questions, with its gnomic question as statement ‘life, what is it but a dream?’ It’s an inconclusive shrug with which to finish an otherwise remarkable film. I prefer to shift the end back a minute or so to the willingly fatal embrace of human and immortal, the unshuttered gaze of the gorgon capturing the audience in a final mesmeric freeze frame.
Tuesday, 12 October 2010
The new Oxfam record, film and art shop opened on South Street in Exeter yesterday. It joins the bookshop and the general Oxfam shop into which it was previously incorporated, along with the Hospicecare book and record shop a little further down South Street. What with Rooster Records and the Read and Return bookshop just around the corner in Fore Street, this will hopefully become a little cultural shopping quarter, a place apart from the privatised canyons of the Land Security ‘Princesshay Centre’ (now part-owned by the Crown Estates, ye peasants take note - your city is no longer your own) and the soulless clone town prop facades of the high street. There’s some good stuff in store at the moment. In the folk section there are LP re-issues of Sandy Denny’s The North Star Grassmen and the Ravens (one of my longstanding favourites) and Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief plus Alan Stivell’s classic Renaissance of the Celtic Harp. Someone immediately snapped up the gatefold second pressing of Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left, I’m afraid. There are some good jazz LPs awaiting the return of our resident expert, including a batch of ECM records. These include John Surman’s lovely Withholding Pattern, on which he weaves multi-tracked, folk-inflected themes, which reflect his West Country background, on soprano and baritone sax, bass clarinet and recorder floating over looping electronica patterns. There’s also a CD set of John Coltrane’s complete Village Vanguard sessions from 1961 (at 5 cds, even more complete than the previous complete Village Vanguard release), recorded in the company of Eric Dophy, who plays a fantastic bass clarinet solo on the sublime India (which is also included in a version with added oud credited – although it always sounds more like a tambura drone to me). This also includes a couple of takes of Coltrane’s version of Greensleeves, which had been recorded in the studio earlier in the year, with orchestrations by Dolphy, for the Africa/Brass album. It’s interesting to hear it here without the additional brass. It’s very much a minor key modal stream of soprano sax weaving and dancing its way round McCoy Tyner’s ebbing and flowing cycles of chords in the manner of his versions of My Favourite Things. There's a double LP compilation of Tyner's 70s recordings for Milestone too. They vary between moods of reflective calm and outbursts of pounding, tempestuous energy.
There’s an LP boxset of Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux, the fruits of his expeditions to the mountains, fields and forests of France to record the songs of birds and absorb the atmosphere of their habitats, which he subsequently translated into a pianistic language. There’s also a CD of Ligeti’s piano etudes, one of the Sony Ligeti Edition series. Brian Eno’s face stares out from one of the record bays on the cover of his Before and After Science. There was a copy of the original Rough Trade Young Marble Giants LP, but I suspect someone’s nabbed that already. When I was in, someone was enthusiastically purchasing the bfi Brothers Quay dvd set, too (thus affording me the chance to mention the excellent exhibition of the worlds of their animation sets contained in a peep-show arcade of wooden boxes. There's a CD of Godspeed You Black Emperor's Slow Riot For Zero Kanada EP (actually well over 30 minutes long) with its black cover handsomely embossed with gold Hebraic lettering. Godspeed are revivifying themselves to curate an All Tomorrow's Parties 'Nightmare Before Christmas' festival at Butlins in Minehead this year. They've chosen a wonderfully varied line-up, which includes Romantic (in the artistic sense of the word) singer Josephine Foster, black-clad Japanese improviser and sometime hurdy-gurdy mangler Keiji Haino, psychedelic adventurers Bardo Pond, dedicated amateurists Maher Shalal Hash Baz (again from Japan), turntable experimentalist Philip Jeck, free improv sax player John Butcher, Krautrock legends Cluster and heroic minimalist piano pounder Charlemagne Palestine. Before you get too excited, I should point out that it is now sold out. A Throwing Muses maxi-EP of their track Dizzy is propped up on a display stand, as it has a rather nice 4AD style cover which looks like it might have been done by Russell Mills. It features a couple of live tracks along with a track called Santa Claus, so it's perfect for Christmas, which seems to be the current consumer season now. All this and monkey mobiles too. A splendid browsing experience is guaranteed for all.
With the death of Roy Ward Baker last week we have lost another link with the world of Hammer films. He was a relative latecomer to the studios and never really considered himself part of the ‘family’ – the close-knit group of directors, actors, writers and technicians who gathered around whichever generation of the founding Carreras and Hinds dynasties was currently installed (Michael and Anthony at the time of his arrival in 1966). Such an intimate atmosphere was, in any case, more difficult to maintain once the company had left the cosy confines of the Bray Studios. Harsh times beckoned as American backers pulled out, budgets dwindled and relaxed censorship and a concomitant change in public tastes led to a demand for harder-edged material. But whilst Baker may not have been a part of Hammer’s golden age, his pictures do nevertheless display a striking range, covering a variety of genres. These run the gamut from the blend of science fiction and the supernatural in his first Hammer outing, Quatermass and the Pit (1967), through the black comedy of The Anniversary (1968), the company’s second film with Bette Davis, to the brightly coloured plastic space opera of Moon Zero Two (1969), which is so redolent of its era. With Bernard Bresslaw and Warren Mitchell donning the spacesuits, and a central character who is essentially a junkman, it’s a peculiarly deglamourised British take on the genre. Moving into the 70s, he larded one of the studio’s staples with a rather half-hearted splatter of explicit gore and violence in The Scars of Dracula (1970), introduced nudity, lesbian lust and Ingrid Pitt (usually in the same scene) in The Vampire Lovers (1970), and toyed with a cheekily camp transsexual recasting of the Jekyll and Hyde story in Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), in which Ralph Bates can’t disguise his delight at turning into Martine Beswick. It’s noticeable, in fact, that for a man of self-confessed ordinariness, an honest quality which comes across in the interviews and commentaries on the dvds of his films, he made a number of films centring on unconventional sexuality. This had more to do with the tenor of the times and the exploitation areas he was working in, but the disparity between the films’ content and the restrained English reserve of his character provides an interesting contrast. It’s emblematic of Hammer’s own slightly diffident attempts to adapt to a new era.
Shepperton Babylon - Dirk Bogarde in The Singer Not the SongHis distance from such material comes through in his personal distaste for his film The Singer Not the Song (1960), starring Sir Dirk of Bogarde, made during his years with the Rank Studios. This has slowly accumulated a reputation as a coveted camp classic, but Baker regarded it as something of an albatross hanging heavy around his neck. He exudes weariness when Matthew Sweet brings the subject up in an interview for his book Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema (currently on display in the window of the Read and Return Bookshop, citizens of Exeter). It’s an offbeat Western featuring a central love/hate relationship between a Mexican bandit (Bogarde, if you can credit it) and a Catholic priest (John Mills), with a girl in between as the token and largely ignored object of their affections. The film was completely hijacked by a petulant Bogarde, who was longing to break free from his matinee idol image at this time. He viewed the material with utter contempt, as did Baker, who never wanted the director’s job but approached it with professionalism nevertheless. Bogarde made the film’s latent homosexuality overt, costuming himself in slouch hat, black shirt and leather trousers. As he says in Brian McFarlane’s An Autobiography of British Cinema, ‘I did the whole thing for camp and nobody had any idea what was happening’. Au contraire, Sir Dirk, it was all too apparent for everyone involved. Baker, who normally adopted his British ‘if you’ve nothing good to say of somebody, then say nothing’ attitude, is blunt about Bogarde’s diva antics. In the Shepperton Babylon interview he recalls ‘Dirk Bogarde’s behaviour was absolutely disgraceful…he was very nasty. Very nasty’. This from a man who managed to get on with notoriously difficult figures such as Bette Davis and John Davis, the head of Rank during the 50s, of whom Baker philosophically observes (again in Shepperton Babylon) ‘it’s very rare that you’ll come across somebody who is universally despised, but he was one’. It’s clearly an experience, and a film, which he would rather have forgotten.
As opposed to A Night to Remember. When asked what was his personal favourite amongst his films during a lull in the commentary for his Amicus horror anthology Asylum (more of which later) he unhesitatingly chooses this one. It’s arguably the best of the several films made about the Titanic, with careful attention paid to documented events and a refusal to opt for easy melodrama or extraneous plot devices. Its realism is a quality which Baker thought of as his forte, which perhaps explains the uneven quality of some of his horror films, and the greater ease which he seemed to display in the Amicus films, whose intrusions of the fantastic occurred in contemporary settings. Baker’s latterday work in the horror genre was a rebirth which involved a symbolic rechristening. The Ward was added to the middle (borrowed from his mother’s maiden name) to avoid confusion with another Roy Baker working for Hammer. He subsequently claimed that this slight alteration in his credited name had proved something of a burden, since it meant that people failed to make the connection with the Roy Baker who had already enjoyed such a distinguished career. This spanned the English and American studios (Rank and Fox, principally) and included acting as Hitchcock’s assistant on The Lady Vanishes, directing Marilyn Monroe in an early co-starring role in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), and making what is generally considered to be one of the most innovative and technically accomplished of the era’s 3-D films, Inferno (1953). This eschewed the alien invasion and monster attack associated with 50s 3-D for a tale of melodramatic betrayal and desert endurance, and used the additional sense of depth to create a sense of space which drew the audience in. Roy (not yet Ward) Baker also directed a lot of television drama. He made a lot of the episodes for Diana Riggs’ first Avengers season, and thus played a significant role in creating the pop art world of exaggerated English stereotypes for which it is remembered today.
Quatermass and the Pit - Barbara goes bansheeQuatermass and the Pit is definitely the high point of Baker’s Hammer output. It edits some of the verbosity of Nigel Kneale’s TV script, bringing the greater resources of the cinema to bear in telling the story in a more visual style. Kneale’s rationalisation of the supernatural (albeit via ‘science’ which itself verges on the magical, as with the thought recorder) remains intact, and the final scenes of chaos on the studio city sets are well achieved (given the usual provisos about budgetary restraints). Andrew Keir makes a splendid Quatermass (gaining Kneale’s approval as Brian Donlevy emphatically had not) and Barbara Shelley is brilliantly cool throughout, until her long-buried alien hive mind is re-activated and she releases her inner banshee. These final scenes, in which those who are ‘pure bred’ from the original Martian stock turn on those who are different, acts as a powerful parable about the fascistic or totalitarian mindset, and is all the more powerful for its location amongst the everyday backdrops of London life at the time (the tube station, the pub, the terraced houses). Tristram Cary’s surges of throbbing electronic sound add immeasurably to the sense of an irresistibly compulsive force acting on the shared subconscious of the ‘chosen’. Presumably it was to this aspect of the film that Drew Mulholland was attracted when producing his Mount Vernon Arts Lab record The Seance at Hobs Lane, which manages to evoke some of the same atmospheres. Chillingly, even the ultra-rationalist Quatermass falls prey to his atavistic urges, a disavowal of the ideal of heroic characterisation. It’s left to one of those condemned for their ‘difference’ to save the day, James Donald’s archaeologist Dr Roney. Devising a means to destroy the demonic focus of the compulsive Martian force drawn from old folk wisdom, which turns out to have a rational basis, he comments ‘it’s what they’d never allow for. That even a little scrap of knowledge like that should be in the possession of minds free to use it’. It’s a line which could have been taken from Kneale’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984.
If Quatermass and the Pit is Baker’s Hammer highpoint, then The Scars of Dracula marks a tawdry nadir. Oddly, it is this one film, contained together with Quatermass and the Pit in the compendious Hammer Collection boxset, for which he provides a commentary, alongside Christopher Lee. They seem to be only half-watching the wretched thing, setting off on conversational tangents as swiftly as possible. Lee compares the taste and restraint displayed by Hammer films as compared with the excess of modern horror movies as the camera goes through a series of crass crash zooms on the gore makeup raked across the faces of the victims of a risibly lame bat attack. As the sizeable bat makes yet another of its surprisingly frequent stiff and jerky entrances later in the film, spitting little squirts of blood, Baker and Lee are compelled to admit that it’s not all that it might have been (although Baker optimistically suggests that the dvd release might edit out some of the strings – he will have been disappointed).
Digging the graveThe other Hammer pictures all have something to recommend them, and Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (scripted by Avengers writer Brian Clemens) is particularly enjoyable, cheerfully shoehorning a disparate cast of characters from gaslit tales of mystery and horror into the movie’s iconoclastic melange. Baker did his best on The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), an attempt to blend traditional gothic elements with the current vogue for kung fu in which he essentially ushered Hammer towards its grave. The whole enterprise has a whiff of desperation about it, and seen today at least has a ‘what were they thinking’ bizarreness to recommend it. In the right mood it’s and enjoyable load of nonsense, with Peter Cushing displaying his customary commitment, even when presented with such evidently preposterous material. Had it been better made and written (and had the kung fu action been more excitingly worked out) it could have served as a precursor to such outré oriental oddities as A Chinese Ghost Story, The Bride With White Hair or Mr Vampire.
Baker also made several films for Amicus, Hammer’s rivals who produced a steady output of horror films from the mid sixties through to the mid seventies. He seemed more at home at Amicus, and got on particularly well with Milton Subotsky who, along Max J Rosenberg (a man for whom a middle initial should always be included), founded and ran the studio. In his commentaries for the dvds of his Amicus films, Baker claims that he hardly ever met Rosenberg, and speaks of him with barely disguised distaste. He expresses particular disgruntlement over the producer’s tampering with the title of the film which he had made as The Bride of Fengriffin, but which Rosenberg felt would sound better as …And Now The Screaming Starts. Rosenberg comes across as a cheerfully crass would-be mogul in the Inside the Fear Factory documentary included in the extras of the Asylum disc, his sole interest in the films he produced arising from the personal profits which they generated. At least he’s honest about his naked greed. His self-aggrandising claims that it was he who carried the weight of the company are clearly nonsense, however. Subotsky seems to have been rather more engaged with the stories he was producing, and also with the directors, writers (a task which he sometimes took on), actors and technicians who made them. It was he, according to Baker, who had the knack of assembling the very impressive casts who were prepared to work for a day or two on a story in one of the portmanteau films which were Amicus’ specialty.
Asylum - armed attackThese portmanteau, or anthology films gathered several stories together, usually from some external source, and framed them with some generally pretty flimsy bridging narrative. Baker made three of these, Asylum (1972), The Vault of Horror (1973), and a late hurrah (although more of an apologetic shrug, in fact) for the company, The Monster Club (1980). In Asylum, whose script was based on stories by Robert Bloch, Robert Powell is the doctor arriving at the titular psychiatric institution, where he is greeted by Patrick Magee, wheelchair bound as he had been in A Clockwork Orange. Powell is told he can have the job he is going for if he can identify which of several inmates is in fact Dr Starr, who has gone mad and been confined to one of the rooms he used to supervise. The patients to whom he is taken unfold their stories, and these make up the various episodes of the film. In Frozen Fear, Richard Todd bumps off his wife (Sylvia Syms) so that he can go off with his young mistress (who relates the story to Powell). He neatly wraps her dismembered remains in brown paper and stores them in the newer freezer he’d had installed for her in the basement. Then, one night, he hears dry rustling sound coming from down below. In Weird Tailor, Barry Morse’s cash-strapped clothier receives a commission from Peter Cushing for a very special suit, to be made at night under strictly outlined conditions, which will raise his dead son. In Lucy Comes to Stay, Barbara (Charlotte Rampling) conjures an ‘imaginary’ friend, Lucy (Britt Ekland), who acts as her devilish alter ego and leads her to plot an escape from the cosseting care in which she is imprisoned due to her nervous condition. But Lucy is prepared to go to murderous lengths to secure Barbara’s freedom. Finally, in Mannikins of Horror, Herbert Lom shows off his family of small dolls, which he has fashioned in various likenesses and which he claims (in his ‘madness’) can be mentally controlled by those upon whom they are modelled. As Powell and Magee converse downstairs, the fire flickering to ward off the chill of the night which has fallen outside, Lom sets his own manikin to shuffle relentlessly through the corridors, seeking out the doctor who had him locked away. In the end, Powell decides he doesn’t really fancy the job anyway (and who can blame him), but makes the fatal discovery (fatal to him, that is) that Dr Starr was in fact none of the above, but the orderly who had guided him around throughout. This was a role originally earmarked for Spike Milligan, incredibly enough. That such casting might be considered gives an indication of the blackly humorous tone to which the Amicus anthologies aspired. The orderly/Dr Starr role went to Geoffrey Bayldon in the end, and he provides some of the antic spirit which he brought to Catweazle for the film’s closing scenes.
Baker’s second Amicus portmanteau film was Vault of Horror. Often regarded as one of the weaker of the anthology films, it does in fact have some rather good episodes. The dark humour is even more apparent then usual, given that these stories are taken from Will Gaines’ notorious horror comics of the 50s, such as Vault of Horror itself, and Tales from the Crypt, which lent its title to a previous Amicus adaptation of his gruesomely ghoulish vignettes. A group of people gather in a rather clinically furnished vault, which has the air of a waiting room. None of them quite know how they got there, but they all have a tale to tell of a terrible recurring dream. In the first story, Midnight Mess, cold-hearted bastard Harold (Daniel Massey) murders his sister Donna (Anna Massey – who really is his sister) for her share of an inheritance, before retiring to a restaurant around the corner. Baker shows his talent for evoking eerie, quiet urban spaces here. There’s something a bit odd about this hushed street of large Victorian houses, hidden away from major roads, with the restaurant on the corner seeming out of place in an otherwise entirely residential area. With dusk falling and the lights beginning to go on, the atmosphere is like one of Magritte’s Empire of Lights paintings of ordinary buildings which are imbued with a sense of contained mystery, shadowed in night although a daylit sky prevails above. Baker creates similar pockets of strange and slightly disconcerting urban quietude in Quatermass and the Pit, where we first see Hobs End in the early morning, its drab facades brightened only by the shocking orange effulgence of a belisha beacon; in the Weird Tailor episode of Asylum, in which the tailor’s shop is located in a dark and narrow alleyway which seems to be a remnant of Dickensian London, its heritage squalor fully intact. Areas which exist at a slight remove from the common experience of the world, and which are the perfect loci for the intrusions of the uncanny. Harold is initially alone in the restaurant, but it begins to fill as night falls. He realises that it may be an establishment catering for a rather select clientele when he is served a soup which is just a little too red, and is asked how he would like his ‘clots’. Suspicions are aroused by his evident confusion, and his outsider status is revealed when a curtain is pulled aside to reveal a wall-length mirror in which he is the only diner to be reflected. His sister emerges from the wings to watch with unconcealed relish as he is hung upside down and put ‘on tap’ for the vampiric customers to enjoy a glass of the fresh vintage. Revenge, in this case, is best served at room temperature. It has to be said, this denouement is slightly marred by the truly pathetic display of vampire fangs on offer.
New vintage - bin end fangsIn the next story, The Neat Job, Terry-Thomas’ expects his new wife to observe every aspect of his obsessively ordered life, in which everything is in its place, and there is a place, indexed, charted and labelled, for everything. Being an untidy person by nature, she is soon driven to distraction by his fussing and criticism, and he finds himself included in his filing system, neatly stored away in jars marked eyes, nose, fingers and so on. This Trick’ll Kill You is a dull story of travelling illusionists who murder a local magician to steal the secrets of his Indian rope trick, and suffer the consequences when they learn that there was something more than mere trickery involved. Bargain in Death is similarly uninspired in its plotting of an ill-conceived insurance scam which involves a man faking his death and being buried in a grave from which he trusts that his obviously untrustworthy accomplice will dig him up. As if that was ever going to go to plan. Drawn and Quartered is far more enjoyable, with a pre-Who Tom Baker as an embittered artist who, as a side effect of some voodoo dabbling, learns that alterations he makes to his finished paintings or sketches are indirectly visited upon the objects they were taken from. When he returns home, he proceeds to paint portraits of critics and gallery owners against whom he holds grudges, and exacts remote revenge through art. Foolishly, however, he leaves his own self-portrait beneath his studio window, above which some decorators set up their scaffolding, paint and white spirit precariously balanced above all that fragile glass. Well, accidents will happen, and a nasty mess is made of the face on his portrait. Naturally, it turns out in the end that they are all in fact dead, and stuck in some Sartre-like existential hell in which they are compelled to relay their sins in an endlessly re-iterated loop. Despite the panic over the corruption of the nation’s youth which they engendered in the 50s, Will Gaines’ horror comics were nothing if not moral.
These Amicus anthology movies are great to watch for the incidental details of the time. The clothes, the cars, the wallpaper are all now mesmerising in and of themselves. As Baker generously points out in his commentary to Asylum, Tony Curtis’ (no, not that one) set designs were always immaculately detailed, and show off all manner of 60s and 70s design. But, as with Hammer, this kind of horror simply went out of fashion as the 70s progressed. Baker made one more stab at the anthology format with The Monster Club in 1980, based on short stories by R.Chetwynd-Hayes. This was aimed at a younger audience (I was one of them), and brought Vincent Price and John Carradine into the Amicus fold for the first time. As he had done for Hammer with Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, Baker essentially ushered Amicus towards its overdue terminus with this picture, which looked like a relic from a past era when it came out. I still have a sneaking affection for it, having gone to see it at the cinema when I was 12 or so. Having already seen the likes of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors and From Beyond the Grave on BBC2 late night horror double bills, I couldn’t quite believe I was going to get to see an actual Amicus anthology film at the cinema. And I loved it – except for the music which played in the club. I saw it a while back and still found it enjoyable (although the music was still awful), and felt a pang of nostalgia for a time when this was enough. You’d go to your local Odeon or ABC and come away satisfied with this sort of thing, no explosions or splatter, just a rainforest’s worth of dry ice, a few ropey monster masks and a bit of spooky music. The episode set in the village of ghouls was quite atmospheric (and I remember having seen the end of it at the cinema, having wandered in a little early – I watched some of the first story a second time round as well). Movie producer Stuart Whitmore, scouting for locations, took a wrong turning off a busy A road and found himself in a decaying village called Loughville (cleverly disguised, no?) which seemed to be stuck in some vague medieval past. John Bolton provided some great illustrations for the flashback story, with gleefully animalistic ghouls leaping towards the graveyard with ravenous energy. He traced out the monster family tree examined by Vincent Price and John Carradine on the wall of the monster club, with an illustrative head for each branch. There was also a comic strip version of the stories which he did for Halls of Horror magazine, which I remember quite vividly. He revealed the full horror of what happens if you hear a Shadmock whistle.
Oakley Court pastoralBaker did make one feature length story for Amicus, which I watched the other night by way of a tribute. This was …And Now The Screaming Starts (not to be confused with Scream and Scream Again – which is another thing entirely), included in The Amicus Collection, tastefully housed in a black coffin-shaped box. It’s a period gothic tale in the Hammer mould. Baker provides a commentary for the film alongside its star, Stephanie Beacham. He takes satisfaction in describing the long sweeping takes which describe the space of the two level interior set of the house in which much of the action takes place. He clearly paid a lot of attention to such technical details, and the film is beautifully realised visually. It has some splendid shots of Oakley Hall, a setting familiar from numerous Hammer movies, with some atmospheric ‘night’ shots of the moon (really the sun) behind the gables. The sets are lavishly dressed, as are the stars. Beacham is elaborately coiffured and wears a gorgeous series of dresses, and Ian Ogilvy sports some dashing 18th century high-collared jackets with brocade dressing gowns for evening activities. Baker is generous in his praise for Beacham’s performance, remarking on how well she acts with her eyes, and is gallant in his remarks about her beauty, past and present. She certainly plays her role with a great deal of commitment, which is probably more than the material really deserves. The story is a tediously repetitive rehash of numerous sources. There is more than a touch of Witchfinder General (from whose romantic theme composer Douglas Gamley shamelessly filches), with Ian Ogilvy once more going bonkers with an axe at the end – although this time he’s only setting about his evil ancestor’s tomb (a sledgehammer would probably have been a better tool for the job); a wholesale dollop of Terence Fisher’s Hound of the Baskervilles, including a flashback in which a wicked squire has his way with the local peasantry and brings a curse down upon his descendants; and a denouement which is a minor variant on the ending of Rosemary’s Baby, as both Baker and Beacham remark. There’s also something of the atmosphere of Rebecca about it, with its focus on the new bride discovering the secrets of the family she’s married into. Baker comments that he doesn’t like the term horror, preferring to think of his films as melodramas. This is certainly one picture which would fit that description. The crawling hand from Dr Terror’s House of Horrors is dragged out for another outing (Stephanie Beacham refers to it as ‘that wretched hand’). It’s certainly no classic, but any film featuring the combined talents of Patrick Magee, Peter Cushing and Herbert Lom (and not forgetting Stephanie Beacham) must be worth investigation. And Baker seems proud of his work on it. At the end of the film, Baker comments ‘the public got good service, believe you me’. It’s a statement of a man who believed in a hard work ethic. He may not have been an auteur, and would no doubt have made no claims to have been one. He didn’t seem to have great artistic pretensions. But he did bring a professional attitude to everything he did, even when he felt no personal engagement with the material. Such a workmanlike approach can often be a great deal more effective than a heavily imposed directorial style or (God help us) ‘vision’. So here’s to an unpretentious craftsman who could always be relied upon to get the job done.
Friday, 8 October 2010
Broadcast play Come On Let’s Go on Later in May 2000, rather disingenuously introduced by Jools Holland as a new band. Well, five years new by this stage. They also played Unchanging Window, which hopefully might turn up some time. This performance is from the Noise Made By People era, when they were still five. The gradual dwindling of the band is wryly chronicled on a series of instrumentals across their albums and Eps, which countdown the fateful progression towards the current duo of Trish Keenan and James Cargill (here on vocals and bass), beginning with Minus One on The Noise Made by People, followed by Minus Two on the Pendulum EP from 2003 and reaching the ne plus ultra of Minus Three on the Tender Buttons LP from 2005. You can trace something of the Broadcast family tree here. Tim Felton is playing guitar. He went on to form the group Seeland (the name a nod to Neu, I would guess) with Billy Bainbridge, formerly of fellow Birmingham radiophonicists Plone. Bainbridge himself joined Broadcast for some of their live shows around the release of Ha Ha Sound in 2003. On keyboards at this time was Roj Stevens, who has now released an excellent album on the Ghost Box label called The Transactional Dharma of Roj. It has a typically striking cover designed by Julian House, who under his Ghost Box nom de plume of The Focus Group collaborated with Broadcast on the much feted Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age LP as well as the recent Study Series 04 single on Ghost Box, Familiar Shapes and Noises. The Transactional Dharma develops the kind of sounds Roj made for Broadcast, and conjures pictures of a hall full of bright automata, their cogs winding and ratcheting as the machines are woken into creaky life after a lengthy slumber. And if that brings the hall of bright carvings from Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books to mind, then perhaps its no coincidence, since he is also a member of http://www.myspace.com/hallofowls(confusingly also the name of the record label) which seems to make reference to Peake (although strictly speaking, the owls with the Earl of Groan is so obsessed and which eventually devour him live in a tower – there is a Hall of Spiders, mind) and whose acronym is the rather charmingly owl like cry HOO. One to play alongside a song by the Alan Garner referencing folk-rock revivalists The Owl Service for a perfect music and literary themed segue.
Wednesday, 6 October 2010
Erno Goldfinger in front of the Balfron Tower
The annual London Open House weekend provides a great opportunity to have a look around buildings not normally accessible to the public, or to see the hidden parts of those which are. Plotting a trail between the places featured in the distinctive light green booklet, you can gain a sense of the accreted archaeological layers of history which go to make up the character of the city. Heading East on a Pope avoiding schedule, we concentrated mainly on the uppermost of those layers, although a few days earlier we had followed Dan Cruickshank’s trail through the City from the Time Out Book of London Walks, which had taken us down hidden alleyways past old chophouses (Simpsons' in Ball Court, off Cornhill) and Georgian town houses (1&2 Laurence Pountney Hill) existing alongside the monumental architecture of financial institutions old and new. To arrive at the first Open House building we made our way through the early morning quiet of the freshly cleaned and immaculately fashionable streets of Shoreditch, taking a turn down an unpromising side street where we came quite suddenly upon 22/23 Bateman’s Row. This is a building which was up for this year’s RIBA Stirling Prize for architecture (it lost out to the grander and more showy MAXXI Museum in Rome, designed by Zaha Hadid) and is itself partly the offices for its architects Theis and Khan. It manages to pack quite a lot into a small space, with a gallery space on the ground floor and in the basement and flats above the office level. Architectural partners (in both senses) Soraya Khan and Patrick Theis live in the top floor apartment, which looks South towards the aggressively encroaching edge of the City. For those unfamiliar with local parlance, the predominantly financial district built upon the foundations of the London’s original limits (there’s still a stretch of the old Roman wall hidden away in the Barbican’s maze) is confusingly referred to as The City, identifiable only through its ostentatious capitalization, which is obviously of no use in conversation. If you’re already in the city you can talk of going to The City and people will generally understand what you’re on about. If you’re outside, things just get confusing. Like the Vatican City in Rome, it’s a condensed city within a city, with its own abstruse and deliberately opaque rules which give its inhabitants the feel of being insiders possessed of a secret knowledge which sets them apart from the common crowd.
Bateman's RowBateman’s Row looks very solid inside, with exposed concrete surfaces prevalent throughout, giving the feel that you are directly in touch with the mass of the building. This may or may not be a good thing, depending on your taste. I find these concrete interiors very cold and oppressively weighty. Fine for a functional space such as an office, but not for somewhere you’re going to live in. We only had access to the office and the gallery, so I can’t judge what the apartments are like. They look airy and light, although the photos show them in an uninhabited state, without the clutter of day to day living. Modernist flats often seem to assume (or seek to create) a very ascetic, austerely minimalist way of life, at odds with the consumer whirl of the outside world. The glass walls of the fourth floor living room level reminded me of the flats in Jacques Tati’s Playtime, box-like vivariums in which lives are exposed to the scrutiny of the passing public. In this case, the large open room is on a level with an elevated stretch of the new Overground (which is like the Underground only not underground) which regularly rumbles past on the other side of the road. This is not a house for those who crave privacy, who want their home to be a retreat from the outside world once the front door has been shut. As such, it is perhaps ideal for the exhibitionist nature of its location. The notes refer to its ‘contextual’ nature, which, in architect-speak, means it fits in with its surroundings. It’s ideal for the type of person for whom lifestyle is an exhibition. The Shoreditch area has been much mocked and caricatured, often by its own highly self-aware inhabitants, for its overbearing style uber alles ethos, so there seems little point in adding more of such comments to an already over-chronicled quarter. The art conversation in the ground floor gallery, which was in fact used as a fancy furniture shop (or ‘interiors space’ as they put it), centring around a chair which was referred to as a ‘piece’, did little to dispel such preconceptions, however. The building is externally walled with brick, another aspect of its contextuality, a surface conservatism. Once inside, though, it conspicuously uses large amounts of concrete (you couldn’t slide down the banister, but you probably ride a go-kart down its foundation), which is left exposed and makes for a firm re-assertion of modernist principles. There’s never much doubt that this is a place built by and for architects, with a fetishization of materials which seems stubbornly intent on making a point. Concrete in an office is appropriate, I suppose; It’s a functional work space. But in a home, it just seems to be inviting cracked heads, and feels like a crushing mass pressing down and hemming you in. It’s a cliché to say of a work of art that it’s interesting, but you wouldn’t want it hanging on your wall (a common comment which reveals a notional and historical division between art encountered in a gallery and art which is lived with in the home). This is a functional and well designed, if rather indistinctive building; interesting, but I wouldn’t want to live there.
Blake's grave - Bunhill FieldsDoubling back through the side streets of Shoreditch, we headed West, the monumental Gormenghast towers of the Barbican casting their shadows over the rooftops, emerging from time to time like giant gnomons to mark time and distance. We made a small detour into the Bunhill Fields graveyard to see William Blake’s burial place. It’s marked by a humble gravestone, the inscription ambiguously stating that he and his wife Catherine lie nearby. Such offhandedness seems to point to the unimportance of the whereabouts of their earthly remains. The immortal (and immaterial) spirit was always the vital flame, the font of imaginative vision. Someone had set a small potted plant before the headstone. Not a wildflower, but maybe heaven can be seen in a bunch of begonias too.
Marx Memorial Library - Clerkenwell Green
Our next port of call was the Marx Memorial Library on Clerkenwell Green, where we were given a tour by a friendly and well-informed gentleman who was presumably part of The Movement to which he made recurrent reference. The use of this term ‘the Movement’ lends a feeling of unity to the various left-wing groups whose history the contents of the building preserve, but who were actually often bitterly opposed to one another. The small garden which contains a memorial plaque and statue to the local printworkers who fought and died in the Spanish Civil War stands as testimony to this, the Republicans having been riven with internal disputes. The house in which the library is contained has metamorphosed over time from its original use as a charity school for the poor children of local Welsh artisans when it was built in 1738. It was divided into workshops (this was always, from the 18th century onwards, an area of small artisanal businesses, notable in particular for its concentration of watchmakers), turned into a pub and coffee rooms (the kind of places were radical ideas and plans could be hatched) and housed the radical London Patriotic Society from 1872, which numbered Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor amongst its active members. From now on it would be a centre of London radicalism. The socialist Twentieth Century Press moved in there in the early twentieth century (Clerkenwell also being a centre of the printing trade), their future assured by a donation from William Morris, and it became a library in 1933, an anti-Nazi gesture in the year that Hitler came to power, their aim being to preserve the written word rather than burn it. The director of the Twentieth Century Press, Harry Quelch, also paid host to a visiting radical from Russia by the name of Lenin from 1902 to 1903, allowing him to share his office and use the press to print his radical paper Iskra (The Spark), copies of which were smuggled back into his native country. This room is now carefully preserved and has something of the air of a shrine, its surfaces covered in busts of those iconic features, many probably chucked out in the post Communist house clearances in Russia and Eastern Europe. A book contains the signatures of the many visitors who have come to pay their respects over the years. Gorbachev was mentioned as one, the acceptable face of Communist leadership. There are probably many others who had carved their positions in the Party hierarchies of Russia and Eastern Europe and had done their bit to add to the misery and despair of people’s lives.
We got to see the tunnels, which rumour has it extend to the 11th century Knights Templar church across the way (you can always rely on the Templars to add a bit of urban mythology to an area). These are now stuffed with history, warrens of books, pamplets and papers. A copy of the Morning Star (whose headquarters also used to be in this area) lay face up atop a pile, its headline announcing the death of Stalin. Despite the flimsiness of this paper, now over half a century old, it acted as a heavy historical bookend, marking a point whose aftermath would cause ‘the Movement’ to retreat into reflection and a redirection of its perspective and priorities. Certainly the mural upstairs, painted by Viscount Hastings in 1934 and heavily influenced by Diego Rivera, now seems like an almost comical reflection of a long lost era, with Lenin, Marx and others looking approvingly on as a brawny and bare chested chap (Communist iconography always did tend towards the homoerotic) tears down the apparatus of church and state in an apocalyptic tumble of John Martin proportions. Its unwieldy and rather redundantly self-explanatory title is ‘The Worker of the Future Clearing Away the Chaos of Capitalism’. Good luck, mate. Even if such political sentiments are difficult to take seriously today, lefties tend to be a friendly lot, and tea was on offer for the weary traveller. Served in Lenin mugs, of course. Perhaps such revolutionary crockery might have been one bit of commodification of which he would have approved.
NOT the Balfron - Carradale HouseWith Farringdon and Barbican stations closed we made our way to Bank and took a front seat for the fairground ride on the DLR (the Docklands Light Railway), heading back East to Blackwall to go and see the baby brother of brutalist architect Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower. Actually, the Balfron Tower is the baby in size only, since it was actually built first, being completed in 1967, when high rise optimism was still in the air. It looms like a beacon above the traffic-choked environs of the Blackwall Tunnel approach. I may indeed have mistaken the distinctive column of its service shaft for some kind of watchtower on the many childhood occasions when my mum drove through the tunnel and emerged on the north side of the river. It’s actually the second of Goldfinger’s towers on the Brownfield Estate, the Carradale (both it and the Balfron being named after Scottish towns south of Glasgow, Poplar apparently having some connections with the area) which you notice first when approaching from the DLR station. The Balfron is initially seen end on, in profile, and hides its true face until you are in the middle of the estate. Both have that distinctive form familiar from Trellick, with the separate tower joined to the main body of the building by enclosed walkways, which extend their tendrils every three floors. The towers form the entrance points and also contain the service elements of the building, which are thus kept at a distance from the living areas. The bulge at the top is where the boiler room is located. But it also serves as a sculptural feature, looking like a small head at the top of a long neck and giving the impression of some antediluvian fossilized Godzilla.
The Balfron TowerAs Nigel Warburton points out in his book on Goldfinger, the boiler house protuberance also looks like the kind of machicolations which used to adorn castle gatehouses and through which boiling oil would be poured onto unwelcome visitors. When combined with the irregularly spaced window slits, which look designed for archers to shoot through, Balfron has something of the feel of a Medieval keep. After the building was completed, Goldfinger and his wife Ursula spent two months living in a top floor flat. This was by way of testing it and the building as a whole out, learning at first hand what problems might arise once it was actually inhabited. In true champagne socialist style (he was a lifelong Marxist despite his well-heeled origins in pre-First World War Hungary) he invited the whole building up, floor by floor, for lavish parties in their flat. He seemed to take a proprietory interest in the residents, and wanted them to get to know each other from the beginning. Many had been housed from the local Poplar area, which had suffered heavy bombing during the war, and he tried to ensure that old neighbours weren’t separated (unless they wanted to be, of course) and were located on the same level as each other. One of the main problems which soon became apparent and was frequently mentioned by the residents was the inadequacy of the lifts. With only two in the service shaft, it could take an age to get up to your flat. Goldfinger addressed this when designing Trellick Tower, adding an extra lift and thus learning from his mistakes (not that he would ever admit to them as being such).
This problem was exacerbated on the day we were there, since one of the lifts was out of order. The inside of the lift compartment was deep and narrow, so that you could really only stand one abreast if facing the door. For anyone with even a hint of claustrophobia this must be a nightmare, particularly if someone comes in after you, effectively trapping you inside. We were ascending to a flat on the top floor (the 24th, one under Patti Smith’s 25th floor – but the Americans are way ahead of us with high-rises). This was one of several flats in the Balfron which have been rented out at low cost to local artists with the support of the Bow Arts Trust while the whole building and the surrounding estate is undergoing extensive refurbishment under the aegis of its new landlord, the social housing group Poplar HARCA (Housing and Regeneration Community Association). The views from the balcony, framed by the straggly stems of the sunflowers sprouting tall from the built in plant boxes were stunning, a god’s eye sweep of the London cityscape with the blank facades of the docklands high-rises looming large in the peripheral foreground to the south (where JG Ballard had presciently located his residential tower block in his 70s novel High Rise). The sunsets must be astonishing from up here, and when night falls and the city lights up, I imagine the effect is just magical.
Robin Hood Gardens from a Balfron balconyLooking to the left of the balcony, southwards but before your line of vision crosses the boundaries of the DLR and the river beyond, you get an overview of the Balfron’s brutalist neighbour, the Robin Hood Gardens estate. Completed in 1972 (the same year as Trellick Tower) it was the last major public project of Peter and Alison Smithson, the British architectural couple who, alongside Goldfinger, are most closely associated with the Brutalist style prevalent in the 60s and 70s. They were, indeed, credited with coining the uncongenial term, always liable to stir up controversy and perhaps intended to do so. No one really has a good thing to say about Robin Hood Gardens, least of all those who live there (although results do tend to differ according to who is conducting the survey). Balfron gained its grade II listing in 1996, despite the predictable hostility and outrage which attended the decision, but the line was drawn at Robin Hood Gardens, and its listing was turned down in 2009. It now faces demolition at some undetermined point in the future, despite a petition signed by a number of prominent contemporary architects organised by Building Design magazine. For the time being, it still stands, but there is a feeling that its days are numbered, with ‘regeneration’ plans up for grabs, and that it may well have been deliberately left to fall into disrepair for some time in order to favour such developments.
From above, it looks like a large vice or clamp, an impression which doesn’t diminish at ground level. There is a hummock of grassy ground in the centre of the two facing blocks, which looks a distended belly rather than the piece of pocket pastoral which was intended. It makes the playing of games impractical and adds to the general air of paranoia engendered by the panopticon plan of the estate, where you are constantly overlooked from all directions. You don’t know who might be lurking on the other side of the hill. There’s a claustrophobic sense that the cliff-like facades of the flats might be slowly moving inwards, pinching the ground up inbetween. When we walked through, someone was exercising a small dog on the green, all muscle and teeth. It looked like it could happily bite your foot off and hardly lent the public space the feel of somewhere you could relax and enjoy. It would have been easy to take a photo which placed the bank buildings of Canary Wharf (magical sigils HSBC and Barclay prominently displayed at their lofty summits) within the brackets of the estate’s walls, like a glacier moving with incremental but unstoppable progress towards its granite canyon. But it seemed like a cheap gesture to use people’s homes for such obvious symbolism. For what its worth, I don’t think it should have been listed, but Jonathan Glancey’s argument for keeping and finding an alternative use for it, such as student accommodation for the East London University, seems a reasonable one. A building which really does represent the ideals of an age, however far from the planned utopia the actuality proved to be, could then be both preserved and put to good use. You can see his well-balanced film, which takes care to avoid the partisanship which has characterised the highly partisan debate over the Gardens' fate, here. Martin Ginastie's short film 'Robin Hood Gardens (Or Every Brutalist Structure For Itself)' also looks very interesting.
Back on the DLR and eastwards to East India Dock station, a short walk from which took us past a flyover mysteriously free of traffic which was suddenly filled with the whoosh of a herd of brightly coloured cyclists rushing past as if fleeing from some fearsome predator, but in fact competing in a branch of the Tour of Britain. Turning away from this major arterial route into the new docklands, we took a smaller capillary into the old which took us to Trinity Buoy Wharf. The regularly stencilled direction signs, fashioned with a graphic designers eye and sprayed with gay abandon onto the concrete pillars of the DLR flyover and the walls surrounding the old warehouses and workshops were an indication that we were entering an arty zone which was only too proud to draw attention to itself and encourage visitors. You can soon see why. The wharf contains a fascinating jumble of buildings which serve a variety of purposes, but the area manages to maintain the unified feel of a pocket community (in the genuine sense, as opposed to the ‘communities’ which are regularly conjured in the language of management, PR and media and which have earned their own regular Private Eye column). The first building you come to is the old post war gatehouse, offices and mess room which have been converted into the small independent Faraday primary school on the first floor and artists’ studios on the ground. The school is colourful and cheery, compact and full of light with a roof garden on top.
Grounded Leamouth sculptureWalking out on to the wharf itself your eye is immediately drawn to the two lightships, with their beacons raised high on iron towers, their fresh coats of paint shining resplendently red in the afternoon sun. These lightships (LV93 and LV95 for any lightship spotters out there) give a clue as to the wharf’s working history. It was the workshop for Trinity House, who had been managing English coastal markers since having been given a charter to do so by Henry VIII. The wharf had been used since 1803 for the manufacture, testing, storage and maintenance of shipping buoys, and later for experimenting with new lighthouse techniques. An open space in front of one of the lightships contained a variety of noisily ratcheting automata, rusting iron driven by primitive chuntering generators which set concatenations of chains and cogs into purposeful motion. A disembodied pair of angels wings flapped slowly up and down against the backdrop of a pylon on the opposite shore of the River Lea, failing to achieve lift off. A house fashioned from a petrol can unfolds like an aquatic bivalve shell to reveal a sleeping form on a bed at its centre. What at first looks like an orrery of oddly shaped planets reveals itself on closer inspection to be the disembodied components of a woman’s body, slowly turning in their orbits until they achieve a momentary conjunction of wholeness. Similarly, a man’s body is exploded into a cloud of fragments which then slowly draw back together, as if through the attraction of some invisible soul, but in fact through the slowly unfolding processes of its predetermined mechanisms. A fish with big feet trudges patiently and painstakingly through a prescribed circle. These kinetic sculptures also make clanking and grinding noises which invoke the aural ghosts of the wharf’s old working life. Concentrate hard enough and the faint echoing voices of old mariners and lighthouse keepers drift up like smoke spectres from the swirling waters of the Thames.
Trinity Buoy Wharf lighthouseTurning away from this enclave of rusty motion you are faced with the old experimental lighthouse. This is the only lighthouse in London now, and was built in 1864 to test out new lighting and to train lighthouse keepers. Michael Farraday worked here and came up with a new design for lighthouse lights which solved the problem of the accumulation of smoke deposits blackening the glass and thus reducing the power and range of the beacon’s beam. The lighthouse is now one of the locations around the world where you can listen to Jem Finer’s Longplayer music, and was indeed the place where it was first housed. This is a piece conceived in the run up to the millennium which is designed to last for 1000 years. It uses a carefully calculated music system based around the combination of six two minute sections of a 20 minute 20 second performance of a piece of music using Tibetan bells. Each section is transposed from the original music and assigned its own particular pitch and duration. The simplicity of the original material allows for endless recombinations without the whole thing descending into a chaotic mess. Finer refers to the Tibetan singing bowls as ‘bronze age sine wave generators’, and the interaction between them, with the resultant creation of new sounds from layers of harmonics, effectively makes them a ‘bronze age synthesiser’. Computers are currently used to calculate the combinations which will play out over the 1000 cycle without any repetition, although a mixture of future technologies and human participation are anticipated to take over at some point, all things going well. With Tibetan bowls and computers, the bronze age connects with the silicon. This in itself creates an awareness of long time, the contemplation of the long future which is part of the music’s philosophical basis balanced with a parallel sense of a long past. The clear, bell-like harmonics of the bowls spread out like ripples on still water (‘where there is no pebble tossed’ as Robert Hunter wrote in the Grateful Dead song Ripple), their expanding circles of sound creating wavering interference patterns when they intersect with those from one of the other sound sources. All of this plays out in the dome of the lighthouse, in which you sit surrounded by discretely placed speakers. It feels as if the diamond panes of the encircling glass are themselves ringing in sympathetic vibration, sending waves of sound rather than light across the waters.
The music is a little reminiscent of Brian Eno’s Neroli recording. Eno had indeed been involved in some of the ‘think tank’ groups which discussed ideas based on the initial idea of a piece of music which would reflect a long expanse of time. Other musicians involved in providing ideas, and also in playing in the live performances of Longplayer, included David Toop and Max Eastley, who had collaborated back in the 70s on an LP released on Eno’s Obscure label, New and Rediscovered Instruments, which you can now listen to at ubuweb. Eno is also involved in related projects such as the Long Now Foundation, which contemplates a future within a 10,000 year framework, and which aims to build a giant clock which will act as an ‘icon to long term thinking’. Eno’s Bell Studies for the Clock of the Long Now imagines the chimes that this clock might produce both now and in the distant future. Both the Longplayer and the Long Now Foundation look to foster the idea of long time, of thinking about the future again. They’re an attempt to counter the short term thinking which has left the future withered and shrunken, as Michael Chabon’s excellent article at the Long Now Foundation’s website observes. An expanded temporal perspective might go some way towards creating a shift in philosophy and behaviour, even some kind of realignment of the human spirit. It would certainly allow us to dream again. Soaking in the sounds of the Longplayer at the top of the lighthouse, you can contemplate the sky and river and all the surrounding activity rendered dreamlike by its silence. The stanchions and smooth eggshell surface of the millennium dome, now the sponsor branded O2 Arena, can be seen on the other side, and its difficult not to believe that the Longplayer was in some way a response to the desperate last minute scrambling to erect a large and self-aggrandising monument to the moment which now stands (or sprawls) as a potent symbol of short term thinking. As we reluctantly left the eternal sounds of the bronze age synthesiser (but you can hear them here) and climbed back down the winding staircase, we emerged to hear a squealing guitar solo wafting across the water from the Arena. As I later discovered, the Ozzfest had just commenced. Lighthouse and Dome faced each other from opposite shores, different in form and different in content.
Around the corner from the lighthouse and the adjoining warehouse which used to be used as the chain and buoy store you come across the colourful pile up of container city. This is a block of small artists studios and workspaces built up from refashioned shipping containers, which are stacked up on top of each other. Connecting walkways and stairwells join everything together Portholes let in light and the old container doors are thrown permanently open to frame balconies, the circles and squares they create giving the block an interesting and varied visual pattern. The circles and squares It’s modular housing using cheap and readily available components, and is one of those ideas which is brilliant in its simplicity. The whole area has adopted the scheme and there are containers which are used for music rehearsal, for offices and for cafes and diners. It’s a variant on the old Nissan huts, but these look more sturdy and potentially permanent. There’s something a bit Scandinavian about them. They look like they might even serve for some scientific survey team encamped up at the North Pole. The idea has apparently caught on in Amsterdam, and California and Massuchusetts in the USA, as you can read in this Guardian article, but faces planning wrangles over here which have thus far prevented its widespread use.
Thames zigguratHaving had a refreshing cuppa in the Driftwood Café and sampled some of the cakes on offer at the school’s stand (good God, they were gorgeous) we climbed back up to the DLR and trundled along to Limehouse, where a walk alongside the teeming roads leading on from the impassable Limehouse Link (which does now have a cycle bridge crossing) took us to Freetrade Wharf. This is a block of apartments which faces the river and was built at the height of the dockland development frenzy in the mid 80s to late 80s. We were greeted at the door by the concierge who directed us to a man who awaited us with hands folded before his immaculately pressed and businesslike suit. Both were impeccably polite but also looked like they would eject us without pause for breath should we prove to be unwelcome visitors. Flat 99 was open and overseen by the architect who had redesigned it for its inhabitant, turning it into a luxurious batchelor pad. Tailored to the needs and tastes of this particular person, it seemed cold and full of needless flash to me. There were pleasant views over the river, spoilt as ever by the towers of the Canary Wharf cluster. The flats themselves rise in two blocks intersecting at right angles to form the apex of a triangle. They are stepped in a ziggurat cascade, and with their earthy brown colour have something of an Incan feel to them. It all seemed rather shadowy on the balcony, perhaps because of this dark brick colouring, and inside seemed small and overcompressed, a rather mean space. 80s property development in a nutshell - just pack them in.
Park Lane Hotel - the silver gallerySunday’s brief foray took us to the centre of London, the Pope now having buggered off to Birmingham (did he have to get off at New Street I wonder? – probably not). Here we took a tour of the Park Lane Hotel, which opened in 1927 and is renowned for the splendour of its art deco design. We started off in the Oak Room, passed on through the Palm Court tea rooms, and went upstairs to see the Lord Peter Wimsey suite (the bath in which we were told Marlene Dietrich used to entertain from – which sounds apocryphal, but you’d like to think was true). This was in room 209, which was the address of Dorothy L Sayers’ fictional detective. We returned via the Tudor Rose room, where we were told the Queen had learned to dance (who cares, Marlene’s bath was upstairs). This led on to the Silver Gallery above the ballroom, which contained the most spectacular art deco features. These included the lamp fixtures, the door frames, the gold leaf which lined the walls, the banisters and railings and the very 20s take on classical murals. Every detail, in fact. We didn’t get to see the grade 1 listed basement ballroom, since there was a wedding going on down there. A succession of Indian men and women in beautiful clothes, all bright jewel-like colours and gold brocade, came and went and it was evident, as the words and mellifluous cadences of what to my ignorant ears sounded like a Hindu chant drifted up the stairs, that they had chosen the perfect setting.
The Serpentine PavilionThere was one more architectural excursion before we headed back to the West Country a few days later. With a couple of hours to kill having arrived at Paddington, we wandered down through Kensington Gardens and had a coffee and a macaroon in the Serpentine Pavilion. This has become an annual feature in which architects from around the world are invited to erect a temporary structure behind the Serpentine Gallery, with Zaha Hadid the first to have been invited in 2000. This year it was the turn of French architect Jean Nouvel, who came up with a building which was a vivid and unmissable dash of red across the green of the park. The central sheltered area, with benches and a café, was overhung with an angled sheet of transparent red glass, which cast everything and everyone within in a deep red glow. The furniture was all red, so that when the sun was shining (which it really had to be for you to gain the full effect) the experience was almost hallucinatory, with edges seeming to blur and objects becoming less clearly definable from each other. Jean Nouvel’s most famous building, the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, shows a similar sensitivity to light, with its south facing glass wall patterned with photosensitive diaphragms which expand and contract to control the amount of sunlight shining into the interior. At the other end of the pavilion was what looked like a large Perspex box, its more translucent red walls allowing for a less intense enjoyment of the infrared end of the spectrum. It was always possible to see out of the pavilion, with views seeming to be specifically designed to give a contrast between the redness of the interior and the green of the park and the (hopefully) blue of the sky. The red communal table tennis tables out the front were a nice touch, too. It’s still up for a couple more weeks, so if the sun is shining, go and bathe yourself in a delirium of red light.