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Originally published at Al Robertson. You can comment here or there.

So here’s Iain Sinclair, talking about London while wandering in Haggerston Park and Bethnal Green:

He’s sadder here than I’ve ever seen him. He talks in the film about how London has changed into something he can no longer engage with – that writers in general can engage with – in any particularly constructive way. But I think there’s also something very personal behind his grief.

Tom Raworth, a very major, often astonishing poet, died back in February. There’s more on him here. Sinclair knew him well and was – is – greatly influenced by him. He mentions his death at the end of this LRB piece, a companion to the film. I think the film is in part an elegy to him, and to a particular milieu which once surrounded Sinclair but is now slowly and inevitably slipping away.

And of course Sinclair’s more overt concerns about London are both very genuine and very incisive. Most of the film was shot within a few minutes walk of my own final London flat. I once knew that area well, but when I visit it now I feel a very absolute sense of slippage. London has moved away from me, too. There’s a sense of radical change afoot that is hard to keep up with, and both painful and (for someone less closely involved with the city) fascinating to watch.

And I write this on the day that Theresa May’s Article 50-triggering letter reaches Brussels and Brexit proper begins. I’m European as much as I am British – I spent my early years in France. I speak French, some German and Latin, which lets me read Italian and Spanish. I’ve found deep riches in all those cultures. And I’m British as much as I am English. My family on both sides is ultimately Scottish and I spent four immensely formative student years up there.

Brexit is at best profoundly suspicious of and at worst deeply corrosive to those international parts of me, and more broadly to those of England and Britain; to that positive, open European identity that the best parts of the 20th Century fought so hard for. So I felt for Iain Sinclair as he wandered through streets that he’d once felt lost in, and that he’d worked so hard to understand, and that were now puzzling him all over again. His film helped crystallise the sense of loss I’m feeling, without once directly referring to its cause. If you have fifteen minutes today, I’d recommend watching it.

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Originally published at allumination. You can comment here or there.

It’s been fascinating watching people mourn David Bowie. There’s a sadness there that I suspect comes from more than just the loss of a major creative icon. I think we’re also mourning the loss of the conditions that created and supported that kind of icon.

Bowie’s iconic status was a product of certain cultural and technological factors. Like all the gods of rock, he came up in a world with relatively few ways of creating and sharing media. And when most people are only spectators, and there are hardly any other channels or stations to turn over to, then it’s that much easier to dominate the the national conversation.

Our modern media world has blown that cosy homogeneity apart. There are so many different ways to enjoy media, and so much of it out there. The idea of any sort of mass canon is dead – instead, there’s only personal gathering of personally meaningful music, film, TV, games and just about any other kind of content you can imagine. These days, we’re all micro-curators of our own micro-channels, enjoying a range of media fully shared with at most probably a few dozen people.

Of course, Bowie was never cosy. But he needed a homogeneous, coherent cosiness to push against, to become coherent himself. That pushing against defined him in ways that would be impossible now. You can push against a hub; with a bit of effort, you can push against a node – but how do you push against a decentralized network? You can’t – if you try, it just melts away. The internet routes around rebellion as quickly and efficiently as it routes around blockages.

And there’s one other thing to mourn. Bowie wasn’t just a media construct. He was also built by the drama schools and generous state benefits of the 60s, supported by a society that understood that creativity both has profound value and needs time and investment to bear fruit. Those conditions helped post-imperial Britain understand itself in new, exciting ways. They no longer exist.

So we’re not just mourning David Bowie. We’re mourning the condition of full-spectrum stardom, broken by modern media. And we’re mourning the mirror we helped him – and so many like him – hold up to us all, shattered in the name of prudence.

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Originally published at allumination. You can comment here or there.

Today this has been hypnotising me, on and off. It’s John Foxx and Karborn’s cut-up movie, a Ballardian dream of the end of a century – and so much more:

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Originally published at allumination. You can comment here or there.

image

“Expelled as commander to be integrated as connector, the human is transformed by its own works from a brain legislating life to a ligament binding machine cycles.”

Brian Massumi, quoted by Pierre Joris in “Nomad Poetics”

I stayed in a Mercure Hotel last night (the picture’s the view from my room), and was struck by the contrast between its lovely staff and its ineffective IT and management systems. If I’d stayed in a more expensive hotel, I wouldn’t have been paying for better people but for better organisation and technology.

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Originally published at allumination. You can comment here or there.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Newbury lately. I usually stay in the same hotel, just by Greenham Common. I end each working day by running through the woods to the old airbase. Every time, I pass the empty nuclear missile silos. They fascinate me.

Greenham Common dolmen

They’re brutal pieces of architecture. I assume they were built to withstand a nuclear blast. I imagine them crouched in that post-nuclear world, outlasting humanity.

A colder war

They’re among the most durable artefacts our culture has produced. I’ve come to see them as modern dolmens. They will persist long after any meaning attached to them has dissipated.

Late night, Greenham Common

They’ll still stand in thousands of years time, commemorating both our presence and our unknowability. Every time I pass them I take another picture and lose myself in that deep future.

And no birds sing

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Originally published at allumination. Please leave any comments there.

It’s the way of great writing to bend the world to its own shape. And so, having spent yesterday lunchtime sketching out thoughts for a review of Erik Davis‘Nomad Codes’, I found myself last night at the Tallow Chandlers’ Hall, watching a combined Bollywood lecture / series of clips / song and dance extravaganza. I can’t think of anything that could have more convincingly brought some of his key themes to life.

First of all, a little background. ‘Nomad Codes’ collects essays and articles written over the last twenty years or so. And the Tallow Chandlers is one of the oldest social networks around. It’s one of the Livery Guilds of the City of London, originally formed to regulate the city’s tallow candle trade.

Founded in about 1300, it received its grant of arms in 1456. The hall we were sat in last night was built in 1672, after the original building was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. Alas, tallow chandlery is no longer the profitable business it once was; the Tallow Chandlers are now mostly a charitable and social organisation, though some trade links remain.

The Tallow Chandlers Guild is a deep, ancient structure that remains vividly present and dynamic in modernity; an effective metaphor for much of the religious thinking that Davis excavates in ‘Nomad Codes’. His easy, confident familiarity with Gnosticism, Manicheism, Tibetan and Mahayana Buddhism, and many other more or less occult religious traditions rings through the book, bringing each to life in a way that both respects their deep roots and acknowledges their modern relevance and (in many cases) vitality.

But that sense of separate religious structures isn’t what’s at the heart of the book. Davis is animated not by separate histories, but by colliding narratives. In one of the book’s central perceptions, he confronts our current problem of multiplicity and steps beyond it, defining a ‘networked spirituality’ as an emergent property of the multicultural barrage that is modernity. He describes how:

‘the mix-and-match spirituality derided by traditionalists is only the surface of a far more supple and dynamic synthesis in the making, one that demands a form of being we have only begun to intuit: open-ended and integral, embodied and viridian-green. This path is a matrix of paths, with no map provided at the onset, and no collective goal beyond the tenacity and grace of our step.’
(from ‘Meditating in Sensurround’, Nomad Codes p.187)

The solution to multiplicity is a kind of dynamic synthesis; the following of an interstitial path that acknowledges and respects all spiritual achievement, without finding itself locked into single mode of engagement with the eternal. Eternity, after all, is infinite; it seems entirely reasonable to look for it by stepping beyond the finite.

That sense of dynamic synthesis struck me forcefully as I listened to last night’s music, and watched last night’s dance. Each was a series of collisions that again and again locked themselves into ferocious, miraculous grooves.

Synthesisers, electric bass and electric guitars throbbed over sitars and tablas; Western and Eastern musics combined, with no critical judgement of either being made beyond one immensely practical question. ‘Will this work?’ you could hear musicians asking, again and again – and then, joyously, again and again the music roared back ‘YES!’.

The night’s three dancers had a similar, resplendent spontaneity to them. Chatting with two of them, Ash Mukherjee and Showmi Das, at the end of the evening (the third, Khavita Kaur Rendhawa, had alas left) I discovered that they’d only met for the first time that afternoon, and had improvised much of the evening’s dance in response to the unusually long, narrow space they had to work in.

That sense of surprise explained the immense exploratory freshness that animated their performances. It’s also at the heart of the spirituality that Davis advocates in his book. I know it works, because I saw it danced last night, and I’ve lived it myself, improvising music out of terrified on-stage ecstasies with the Stella Maris Drone Orchestra. It’s alive in ‘Nomad Codes’, too, leaping joyfully out of each new essay, each new perception.

Then, there’s Davis’ sense of technology. That’s fundamental to his understanding of religion; in fact, ‘Techgnosis’, his first book, dealt at length with the collision between the two. I’m not sure if he’d agree that the medium is the message; but he’s certainly very aware that the medium contains the message, and thus plays a fundamental role in defining both what’s transported, and how it transports.

And one final point worth noting; Davis’ awareness of the way that (as he quotes Philip K. Dick) ‘the symbols of the divine show up in the trash stratum’. Davis brings this out in his discussions of Dick, H. P. Lovecraft, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and other driven pulp visionaries. It’s a great description of Bollywood action, too; melodramatic pulp madness that contains and creates great, deep and very genuine emotion, wonder and awe.

So, in summary – I’m going to spend the next few months exploring Bollywood movies. Last night’s talk was given by Rachel Dwyer – her ‘100 Bollywood Films’ should be an invaluable guide. I’m going to try and see some Indian dance on-stage. And it goes without saying that I’d strongly recommend picking up a copy of ‘Nomad Codes’ – a rich, fascinating and hugely rewarding read.

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Originally published at allumination. Please leave any comments there.

Mark Pilkington is one of the few people I know who can genuinely say that they’ve broken people’s religions. He was an active crop circler in the late 90s and early 00s; his calm and careful descriptions of the truths of circle making has disrupted the reality of more than one person who’s built belief systems around either the supernatural or superplanetary origins of the phenomenon.

Now, he’s doing the same for UFOs. His new book, ‘Mirage Men’, documents his journey into the heart of the tangled web of information – and disinformation – that surrounds the saucery folk who’ve spent the last fifty years or so mysteriously invading our airspace. Without any trace of cynicism or negativity, it at once challenges the UFOlogical world’s more optimistic excesses, and highlights some fascinating mysteries of its own.

At heart, ‘Mirage Men’ is a history book. However, it doesn’t record UFO appearances; rather, it’s an exploration of the growth of the mythology that encounters with UFOs have created – a subtle but important difference. The question that drives the book is ‘cui bono?’. Rather than seeking to establish the truth – or otherwise – of UFO encounters themselves, Pilkington seeks to understand the uses to which UFO mythology has been put, and the extent to which those uses have defined its shape and development.

His answers are enthralling and disturbing in equal measure. The book traces the very direct involvement of various US intelligence agencies with the development and dissemination of UFO mythology, from World War II to the present day. It sets that involvement within the context of political struggles between intelligence agencies and the various arms of the armed forces; it describes various documented yet under-publicised technological advances that provide convincingly earthbound explanations for many classic UFO events; and it successfully redefines much UFO activity and mythology as a kind of spook theatre, deliberately designed to deflect hostile attention from highly secret flight testing and espionage activities.

These wider histories are set against a variety of more personal narratives. Accompanied by documentarist John Lundberg, Pilkington meets and explores the histories of various key figures stationed at the borders of the cosmic and the top secret. These range from charming arch-manipulators to tragic disinformation victims. The role of each within the development of wider UFO narratives is carefully explored, bringing to the advantages, motivations, and hazards of involvement with the UFO phenomenon very personally to life.

And of course, by observing, Pilkington himself becomes an actor. At one point, certain sections of US UFOdom become convinced that he’s an MI6 agent; at another, US intelligence operatives seem to be actively trying to recruit him. And of course, one fascinating question underlies much of the information that the book passes on; to what extent is Pilkington himself being used to manage the UFO myth, and move it in useful new directions?

Room is also left for a healthy dose of awe. Pilkington convincingly demonstrates that modern UFO myth cycles have been developed and directed by very specific groups of people, to achieve very specific goals. However, summoned or not, the god will always be present; here, too, traces of the genuinely inexplicable linger. ‘Mirage Men’ does an excellent job of bringing UFOs down to earth; but, in the final analysis, it is also open-minded enough to admit that room for the impossible remains, and that genuinely astonishing, paradigm shattering truths may yet remain to be discovered out there.

In summary, then, it’s a great read, and well worth checking out. For more information on it, visit the book’s blog here – and to pick up a copy, go straight to amazon. For more on Mark’s activities as a publisher, here’s the Strange Attractor site.

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Originally published at allumination. Please leave any comments there.

I recently took part in the BSFA’s British Science Fiction & Fantasy survey, which led to the publication of a rather nifty little book comparing genre self-perception now and 20 years ago – more details here.

The book was edited by Niall Harrison and Paul Kincaid; they’ve done an excellent job of picking out interesting survey responses, and weaving them into a text which both once reaches clearly defined conclusions, and encourages further consideration and debate. One of his key concerns is to understand just what Britishness means to genre writers working in the UK.

To celebrate publication, I thought I’d post my answer to his question about Britishness in full, here on the blog. So:

Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?

That’s a difficult question to answer. I’d say probably that everything I write tends to be rather depressive (either the world gets destroyed, or the protagonist dies, or both), and to have a strongly interior focus; the weird elements are usually amplifying metaphors for whatever’s going on emotionally or thematically in the story. I’m not sure that these are exclusive properties of British genre fiction, though.

On reflection, for me the most purely British genre moments don’t come in fiction. They’d be Delia Derbishire’s original orchestration of the Doctor Who theme:

[youtube width=400]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4hI_CHOFY3Y[/youtube]

the ‘flashbacks to a Martian hive cleansing’ sequence in Nigel Kneale’s ‘Quatermass and the Pit’:

[youtube width=400]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbT9hABJoMU&[/youtube]

and Christina Rossetti’s sensationally peculiar poem, ‘Goblin Market’.

Of them, the first two combine deep and entirely convincing visionary reach with a sense of having been patched together with double sided sticky tape, papier mache, and whatever else is to hand. They feel very low-tech, and entirely personal – the product of deep personal need and craft, fulfilled in a Neasden back room rather than a Swiss laboratory, an LA film studio or the board room of a Japanese zaibatsu.

There’s something very British about that; as Ballard knew so well, it’s the obsessed achievements of the suburban imagination that are our tomorrow. Come to think of it, that sense of an entirely convincing, menacingly peculiar science fiction that was also clearly built in a shed comes out beautifully in Doctor Who classic ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’.

And of course, there’s ‘Goblin Market’ – a wonderful poem, clearly fascinated by and soused in the deep matter of rural Britain, but also one that refuses to finally draw the bleak and terrifying conclusions that it is so clearly leading up to.

For most of the way, it’s a truly odd tale of the Fair Folk, fruit addiction, and late Victorian twin sisters; but it resolves with a deeply conventional, deeply unconvincing, deeply sentimental ‘if sisters love each other, everything will be ok’ finale (in fact, my story ‘Changeling’ is in part an attempt to write a truer conclusion to it). Rossetti repressed the poem’s true conclusion – there’s something very British, too, about that repression.

Having said that, I get the feeling that there’s much really interesting genre work worldwide that just doesn’t get translated into English. Not having read any of it, it’s difficult to say how British writing might compare with it, and thus what might in fact be specifically British about the SF / Fantasy written within these borders.

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