Having recently read in Iain Sinclair's American Smoke that the writer Malcolm Lowry was buried in the village of Ripe, not too far from us, I thought a visit to the grave was in order. This is how Sinclair describes the scene: 'Lowry's name on a curved slab, a granite postcard buried in an extension of St John the Baptist Church, is not in deconsecrated ground, but this garden strip, close to a low wall, has a detached aspect. Like a recently abandoned allotment. Margerie is not beside him or with him. The salient facts are faded but visible. Combing back untrimmed blades of grass, I discover a glazed tablet with a Spanish inscription: "Le gusta este jardin? Que es suyo? Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan!" I have a notion where that comes from but I'll have to check. Also buried are several empty mescal miniatures. And a Guinness can. [not visible on my visit] The grave is thoroughly libated. Wild roses thrive.'
Lowry died during the night of 26th June 1957 of an overdose of sleeping pills combined with alcohol. As Sinclair notes, Lowry's wife, 'could not be planted further from her husband without striking off towards Charleston' - despite precise instructions in the porch of the church, I couldn't identify her gravestone. Iain Sinclair also comments on this. Biographer Gordon Bowker has questioned aspects of Lowry's death and the subsequent inquest [Foul Play at White Cottage, TLS 20th Feb 2004], pointing the finger of suspicion at Margerie.
Phyllis the tunnelling machine this week completed the first lengthy tunnel bore between Farringdon and Royal Oak, a distance of 4.2 miles. More than half of the 26 miles of tunnels has now been excavated. Crossrail is due to open in 2018. More news here, here and here.
The reference to Hermes Trismegistus reminded me of a couple of visits I've made to the Duomo in Siena. Not only does it contain one of the most magnificent frescoed libraries in Europe - the Piccolomini Library decorated by Pinturicchio (probably my favourite example of Renaissance decoration) - but also boasts an ornate marble pavement that includes an image of the great Magus (see above). As Yates outlines in her book, during the Renaissance Hermes Trismegistus was thought to have been the author of the Hermetic writings believed to date to the ancient Egyptians; eminent Fathers of the Church such as Lactantius and Augustine had earlier added their own imprimatur to the texts' antiquity. In fact they were probably written in the second to third centuries AD.
Therefore the Renaissance Magus 'was not returning to an Egyptian wisdom, not much later than the wisdom of the Hebrew patriarchs and prophets, and much earlier than Plato and the other philosophers of Greek antiquity, who had all - so the Renaissance Magus firmly believed - drunk from its sacred fountain. He is returning to the pagan background of early Christianity, to that religion of the world, strongly tinged with magic and oriental influences, which was the gnostic version of Greek philosophy, and the refuge of weary pagans seeking an answer to life's problems other than that offered by their contemporaries, the early Christians.' (Yates p.2)
And from the sublime to the ridiculous: a personal prog rock fave of mine is by Todd Rundgren's Utopia at the peak of their bombast - it's called Mr Triscuits. Not the version on Another Live but the longer more far out one that can be found on the bootleg Nimbus Thitherward taken from a 1975 BBC radio broadcast that well and truly blew my teenage mind when I first heard it. As Todd announces before they play it, the original title was The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus.
This recent interview with Gary Lachman about Hermes Trismegistus and Hermeticism made me reach for my copy of Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition by Frances Yates. Despite doubts about the reliability of their scholarship - voiced particularly by Brian Vickers - Yates' books have been hugely influential and for many were their introduction to various occult movements and ideas: Rosicruciansim and the House of Memory for example. On p.54 I found a wonderful passage from the fourth book of Picatrix (Sloane 1305, f.III recto) describing a city said to be founded by Hermes in Egypt:
' There are among the Chaldeans very perfect masters in this art and they affirm that Hermes was the first who constructed images by means of which he knew how to regulate the Nile against the motion of the moon. This man also built a temple to the Sun, and he knew how to hide himself from all so that no one could see him, although he was within it. It was he, too, who in the East of Egypt constructed a city twelve miles (miliaria) long within which he constructed a castle which had four gates in each of its four parts. On the eastern gate he placed the form of an Eagle; on the western gate the form of a Bull; on the southern gate the form of a Lion, and on the northern gate he constructed the form of a Dog. Into these images he introduced spirits which spoke with voices, nor could anyone enter the gates of the City except by their permission. There he planted trees in the midst of which was a great tree which bore the fruit of all generation. On the summit of the castle he caused to be built a tower thirty cubits high on the top of which he ordered to be placed a light-house (rotunda) the colour of which changed every day until the seventh day after which it returned to the first colour, and so the City was illuminated with these colours. Near the City there was an abundance of waters in which dwelt many kinds of fish. Around the circumference of the City he placed engraved images and ordered them in such a manner that by their virtue the inhabitants were made virtuous and withdrawn from all wickedness and harm. The name of the City was Adocentyn.'
An oddity in the Hammer canon Straight on till Morning was released in 1972 and is an unsettling little film that I suppose fits into the category 'psychological thriller'. The acting is impressive: Rita Tushingham plays a naive Northerner coming down to the Big Smoke hoping to meet a charming Mr Right and prospective father. Unfortunately she runs into 'Peter' played by Shane Briant an affectless serial killer living in squalid luxury in a Kensington mews house. It's all a bit of a downer and probably about 20 minutes too long but I liked the period evocation, especially the interiors: the boutiques and her clumsily painted psychedelic room from which she moves into his 'tastefully' decorated bachelor pad with Hogarth prints (The Rake's Progress, appropriately, certainly the debauched scene in the Rose tavern Covent Garden) and scenes from executions on the walls. I'm pretty sure these were from Jacques Callot's Les Grandes Miseres de la Guerre published in 1633 and depicting the horrors of war, looting, pillaging and summary execution (I think I saw the image reproduced above on his wall). There's a great scene filmed in the early hours at the deserted South Bank looking hugely impressive in its newly-created Brutalist splendour, before it was toned down so as not to frighten the horses.
There are a number of rather obvious Peter Pan references and Tushingham's character is rechristened 'Wendy' - towards the end she has an ill-judged makeover, emerging, I have to say, looking remarkably like the young Shirley Collins. Filmed mainly around the Earls Court area - famously home to London's transient population - it supposedly starts in Liverpool although I immediately recognised Sarf London - in fact not far from where I grew up - see here for some atmospheric stills - much of The Sweeney was also filmed in this area. Also enlivened by the appearance of the gorgeous Katya Wyeth, you can also find James Bolam, frizzy haired John Clive (the director Peter Collinson - died young - also made The Italian Job in which Clive features) and an unrecognisable Tom Bell. The editing initially is very much of its time, rapidly cutting forwards and backwards, but soon settles down; there's also some very disturbing use of the type of reel to reel tape recorders that many households had in those days. How did he manage to so easily dispose of all that blood and all those bodies? It's well worth watching if you like to see the fag-end of the optimistic 'swinging' 60s as it slides remorselessly down towards Thatcherism in 1979. Would make a great double bill with Dracula AD 1972. See also here and here.
One of the key figures in American Smoke, apart from William Burroughs, whom Sinclair tracks down to his home in Lawrence, Kansas, is Charles Olson, poet and critic, denizen of Gloucester, New England, which is also visited for the book.
Reading this, I was suddenly reminded of my three enjoyable years at the University of Leicester in the early 1980s when I decided to take two years of American Studies to supplement History and the History of Art. The American Studies department at Leicester was a peculiar institution indeed and would probably never be allowed to exist in today's rigorously instrumentalized academic climate. Most of the department was flamboyantly gay (one tutor frequently dressing in full Leatherman outfit - he once dozed off in the middle of a tutorial after a particularly heavy night) and then there was Lyman Andrews.
It was the reference to Olson that brought him back after thirty years, as he'd recommended that we read the poet's work on Melville and Moby Dick (Call Me Ishmael 1947, can't remember if I did or not) - one of the few reasons I'm glad I took the course is that I got to read that wonderfully rich novel. I found some material on Andrews online which pretty much chimes with my memories of his demeanour and behaviour. He clearly had little interest in teaching - his lectures were often shambolic - and it was not uncommon to turn up for an afternoon tutorial to find him passed out in an alcoholic stupor on the floor of his study. He could come alive if the subject was one of his favourite writers - he certainly amplified my interest in Hemingway.
After a hurried session he would invite you to the student union bar so that he could continue with his daily drinking schedule. If he really fancied you it would be the university academics' own bar, whose portals I penetrated a couple of times - on one occasion eminent sociologist Laurie Taylor was holding court there much to Andrews' disgust. He would then ply you with pints of snakebite in the hope that you might accompany him home to his shared student house - reader I stoutly resisted. What I didn't realise at the time, being a hopelessly callow youth, was that he had an earlier reputation as a decent poet (once poetry critic for The Sunday Times - those were the days) had met the likes of Burroughs and Ginsberg and partied with some key figures of the sixties. His Wikipedia entry mentions his 'colourful' life at Leicester. A blog entry by a fellow student at Leicester (did I know him at the time?) gives a sympathetic and ultimately sad account of his life: ending up as a recluse in a Nottingham YMCA where he died in February 2009.
Last Thursday to Brighton to meet up with Gwilym Games (Machenalia editor for The Friends of Arthur Machen) and various guests of the World Fantasy Convention in the Victorian-flavoured Cricketers pub. Friday in London, at the invitation of a friend, went to Soho's Alleycat Bar to see a couple of youngish groups I knew nothing about: Six Years - Post Punk with a drum machine, very much in thrall to The Au Pairs and Delta Five-type early 80s female-fronted bands and yet when I mentioned this to the singer/guitarist she'd never heard of them - and Psycho Delia a riot grrl style, White Stripes lite, drummer and singer/guitarist with a lot of ferocious energy and a nice line in see-through white body stockings (pic above).
Saturday to The Beacon in Hastings to hear Iain Sinclair read from his latest book and recite some poetry. He was accompanied through some of this by top sax man John Harle (a noted composer in his own right, he's also played with the likes of Elvis Costello) and some ambient laptop soundscapes. American Smoke is Sinclair's homage to the Beats who he has long admired and been influenced by - I purchased a signed copy and have been reading it. I have to confess I find him less convincing when sundered from his Hackney/Spitalfields haunts but, as he himself admits, he's pretty much exhausted this ground. The evening was part of the admirable Black Huts festival put on by St Leonards poet and publisher Nicholas Johnson who I briefly talked with at the end.
Author of Subterranean City, Beneath the Streets of London, London's Coffee Houses, Decadent London, The Folklore of London, Subterranean City (Revised and Expanded Edition), Netherwood, Last Resort of Aleister Crowley, Lord of Strange Deaths, the Fiendish World of Sax Rohmer; Secret Tunnels in England, Folklore and Fact