Currently reading for the first time The King in Yellow by American writer Robert W. Chambers (1865-1933) originally published in 1895. A very strange collection of well-written short stories that fit into the category of 'weird fiction' and were influential on the likes of H P Lovecraft, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman. This was prompted by watching the dvd of the tv series True Detective (season 1 not 2, which was a totally different beast and was critically considered a failure) wherein mention of the title of the book is clearly made in episode two and on subsequent occasions. In fact The King in Yellow is a play, a forbidden text that sends its readers insane: the first act is perfectly conventional, leading the unwary into the second in which madness lies. It is the acknowledged precursor of Lovecraft's fictional grimoire the Necronomicon written by 'Mad Arab' Abdul Alhazred - many invented versions of this cursed text have since been published (one which I own by George Hay who, I have since discovered, was a resident of Hastings Old Town, see here). Perhaps the appalling video tape recording of a ritual that appears in the penultimate episode is the equivalent of the King in Yellow's play, as anyone who views it seems to be a changed person (although not insane).
Reference to the book (and the city of Carcosa) in True Detective made me think that the series would become a kind of X-Files type occult thriller, even descending into Lovecraftian insanity, but that didn't really happen and the connection with Chambers' book wasn't made clear. Carcosa could well have been the name given by the cult to the atmospheric abandoned fort in the final episode. There were a couple of 'supernatural' occurrences that would not have been part of a normal cop show (such as the spiral shape made by a flock of birds and the weird vortex that appears in the spooky subterranean chamber at the climax). The creepy stick and skull altar in this chamber was decorated with yellow rags. I was glad it was on dvd: I frequently had to replay parts of Matthew McConaughey's dialogue, as his slurred Southern accent rendered it almost unintelligible, although his performance is spellbinding. I imagine the explanation could be that the murderous pagan animal-headed cult at the centre of the mystery based its ceremonies in some way on the King in Yellow - perhaps in an echo of occult groups such as the Typhonian Order using the work of Lovecraft, Richard 'Beetle' Marsh and Sax Rohmer as a basis for rituals. Nietzsche's theory of Eternal Recurrence also gets an airing. There is an excellent analysis of the King in Yellow references here. The other peculiarly resonant motif is the repeated mention of Black Stars - did the recently departed David Bowie watch this series, or is it purely coincidental?
A minor theme of Secret Tunnels of England is the long-forgotten shopping street or arcade lost beneath subsequent redevelopment. One example that is not in the book is in Keighley, West Yorkshire. Closed around 1890, Keighley's Royal Arcade was built over it in 1901. It was rediscovered in 2003 by builders working in the cellars of shops above and has been in the news recently as it was hoped to turn the atmospheric subterranean thoroughfare into a 'vintage' shopping experience. See the articles here and here. Another can be found in Southport and there is rumoured to be one beneath central Manchester. Of course the most famous example is the supposed 'perfectly preserved' Victorian street beneath Selfridges publicised by Malcolm Mclaren that I've written about in an earlier (and my most viewed) blog entry.
The secret tunnel talk for the London Fortean Society on 9th March at Conway Hall in London has sold out 'in record time' I've been told. But fear not, we are arranging another (or possibly even two more!) for the spring. Their talk programme is fascinating and can be found here. I shall try to get to the talk on the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, subject of a revealing exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, which I managed to visit over Christmas and which is on till 13 March.
To the October Gallery last Friday to see the exhibition of
art by Gerald Wilde (1905-1986), a singular painter, once again chronicled by
Dan Farson (see earlier posts) in his Soho books.While he was reported to lead a bohemian and bibulous life
at that time, he was not, as if often reported, the real life person on which
the artist character Gulley Jimson was based in Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth
(1944) (John Bratby, who lived in Hastings for many years, did the paintings
for the film version starring Alec Guinness released in 1956).
Wilde painted in a swirling abstract style – much of his
earlier work perished in the Blitz and he seems to have
stopped painting for a period in the 60s.
His friend the art critic David Sylvester wrote:
'If it makes little difference to the effect of a painting by Wilde whether it is more or less figurative, this is because the most eloquent thing about his paintings is their particular obsessive rhythm. It is a turbulent, convulsive, vertiginous rhythm, verging on chaos, teetering on the very edge of it ... rhythms are thrown together and somehow held in balance: colliding they check and deflect movement, so that in the end the tempo of these frenzied works is slow and halting. The groups of half-formed figures among buildings, the intricate webs of half-remembered images of the city, twist and turn passionately but without exuberance, grindingly, elegiacally.'
It was interesting to discover that in his final years, from the early 1970s, he
lived at Sherborne House in Gloucestershire, home of the Academy for Continuous
Education founded by John Godolphin Bennett (1897-1974), a place also attended at that time, of course, during his
post-King Crimson sabbatical, by one Robert Fripp.
To the Prince Albert in Brighton on Tuesday night to see Kiran Leonard. I'd heard one song by him on 6 Music's The Freak Zone and was so intrigued I felt I had to check him out. I'd seen a still-impressive Wire in the tiny upstairs room last year and it's a great pub within a minute's walk of the station, which was handy for catching the last train to Hastings. First up were Let's Eat Grandma, two girls from Norwich who are astonishingly young (15?) and who play a variety of instruments in an endearingly eccentric way with wavering vocals and a bit of rap - I was reminded of another all-girl group (purely instrumental) I saw last year called Haiku Salut. The audience was surprisingly ancient considering the youth of the bands - I'd say at least two thirds were middle-aged, many even older than me!
I was unusually excited at the prospect of seeing Kiran Leonard and he didn't disappoint. He started boldly with the new single Pink Fruit (the track I'd heard on the radio), a 15 minute semi-experimental magnum opus that passes through a number of different moods and modes and is really growing on me (I bought the etched disk version afterwards). His band (conventional apart from the second guitarist playing violin and keyboards) are considerably older than his 20 years and rather than front them he confronts them from the right-hand side of the stage as they look across at him - they probably need to do this because of the number of abrupt tempo changes.
The music is thrilling: a constantly evolving stew of post punk, math rock and post rock; buried deep at the heart - I'd like to think - is the kind of classic early 70s prog of the likes of Genesis. I also thought of The Birthday Party and American groups such as Mission of Burma and Slint. He's an interesting (left-handed) guitarist: not reliant on effects pedals he picks out delicate arpeggios, then thrashes away with the abandon of a Zoot Horn Rollo, or at other times percussively like Andy Gill of the Gang of Four or even Wilko Johnson, detuning and retuning while playing. I suppose he could be lumped in with 'outsider artists' like Daniel Johnston and Jandek, but he's potentially much more listener-friendly. I couldn't help being reminded, as I watched, of witnessing Jeff Buckley's first London show upstairs at The Garage (something I've been meaning to must write up for ages). Definitely worth seeking out. Guardian review here. A slightly less enthusiastic review (although I agree that the bass player was a lookalike for Badly Drawn Boy and Benny out of Crossroads), but with more emphasis on prog from the following night's gig here.
Over the Christmas period I reread Trampled Under Foot, Barney Hoskyns chronologically edited collection of interviews with members of Led Zeppelin and their entourage; it's a fascinating book that's a real page-turner. Mention of the offices of Swansong in the King's Road inspired me to see if the building was still there, as I had a few hours spare and was staying nearby. It is indeed still in existence, no.484 Kings Road opposite the World's End pub where the staff apparently spent considerable amounts of their time. It looks refreshingly rundown - nearby was the famous Swinging Sixties emporium Granny Takes a Trip (more info on this blog which is well worth checking out). Swansong was the record label set up by Zep for their records and those of label mates such as Bad Company, The Pretty Things and Maggie Bell - obviously Bad Company did very well for themselves, but there are constant complaints in the book that very little promotion was undertaken for the other acts on Swansong. Maggie Bell became so frustrated that she was forced to become a secretary there just so that she could speak to Peter Grant.
In fact, according to the interviewees, the whole operation seems to have been fairly thrifty and shambolic: the offices were shabby and there weren't enough chairs to sit on if all members of the band turned up for a meeting. One ex-employee Dan Treacy of the TV Personalities shares his memories here. I used to be a regular at his club above the Enterprise pub in Chalk Farm in the mid-1980s where many fine nights were spent watching the likes of The Membranes, June Brides, Yeah Yeah No, The Go Betweens, Mighty Lemon Drops and lots of other C86-type groups.
Another character who appears in the book is John Bindon, employed as a minder/bodyguard for Grant during the notorious 1977 tour and involved in the unsavoury 'Oakland Incident' on 23 July when a security guard was badly beaten. Bindon was an interesting character, a hardnut from Fulham who had extensive connections with the underworld and pursued an acting career in early life, most famously appearing in Ken Loach's Poor Cow and Roeg and Cammell's Performance. He was found not guilty of murdering gangster John Darke in 1978 at the seedy Ranelagh Yacht Club by Putney Bridge. Many of his Fulham and Chelsea haunts (some of which such as the Water Rat were also used by the staff at Swansong) have inevitably been turned into luxury apartments or changed function. One such was the Gasworks, a louche-sounding establishment on Waterford Road in Fulham, frequented by local crims, musicians, films stars and Princess Margaret. Some evocative descriptions can be found here and here, although both first-person accounts seem strangely similar in some respects. Now yet another iconic development opportunity.
I also read the biography of Bindon by Wensley Clarkson, a fast-moving journalistic account replete with a number of amusing mistaken homophones: apparently using his famed prodigious member Bindon 'stirred the moose' at a society do; he regularly carried a 'sheaf' knife and also once enjoyed reading a book by 'an intellectual travel writer called Paddy Lee Firmer [sic]' (one of the Firm?).
Pics The Gasworks and the former Swansong Office (this one taken by me on 28 December 2015).
Inspired by all this I've been buying the vinyl reisssues of all the records up to Presence which I never owned in the 1970s, not being a big fan and also being fed up at the time with Stairway to Heaven.
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