Friday, 22 November 2013

Out of Time

Today is, of course, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F Kennedy, as well as that of the deaths of Aldous Huxley and CS Lewis. I note with interest that today’s Google doodle does not correspond to any of these three men, but to the 50th anniversary of Dr Who, which was first broadcast the evening following these events. But the advent of a popular science fiction tv series based upon the wanderings and adventures of a time traveller seems curiously appropriate to 1963, somehow.

Sometimes I feel myself to be out of time. Born in 1969, I can claim ownership to that decade not only because I was born in its fading months (I was round for the Apollo 11 landings, for Altamont Speedway, for the deaths by drowning of Brian Jones and Mary Jo Kopechne, for My Lai, for the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus; hell, John and Yoko got married on the day of my birth), but because growing up, the Sixties were immediate history. My Dad told me about 60s tv before it was repeated (I watched with wonder when The Prisoner, or The Avengers, was shown on terrestrial tv); the music played in our house was from the decade; the first lp that I ever owned was a Beatles compilation (A Collection of Beatles Oldies... but Goldies, 1966, which I still have), proved by my childish handwriting scrawled on the back cover.

It’s not that I’m prey to nostalgia for the decade; I don’t remember it. But there’s something about it that speaks to me, I return to the music and the films and the literature of the decade again and again, I write about it a lot (I’m due to complete a book on science fiction of the 1960s next year, and have published a fair few articles about the decade, from Len Deighton and food to Brian Jones as Orpheus). The events of that decade, including the Kennedy assassination, have a power over my imagination that is hard to explain. Why does it matter to me? What is it about the Ballardian mantra of Dealey Plaza, the Lincoln convertible, Jackie Kennedy, the Mannlicher carbine and book depository, which pervades my imagination?

Last year I published an experimental article, in the vein of the New Wave sf writers like Ballard and Moorcock, directly negotiating the Kennedy assassination and the figure of Oswald (and the curious figure of Charles Whitman, the shooter at the University of Texas at Austin, who used the campus tower in the summer of ’66 to kill 17 people, and who knew he was becoming deranged). I’ve read Mailer’s Oswald’s Story, of course, and Delillo’s Libra; but I’m suspicious of reading the Kennedy assassination as the ‘end of innocence’, or a kind of origin point for contemporary disillusion and lack of faith in the future: in the States, Johnson’s Civil rights and Great Society programs necessarily followed Kennedy’s death; and in Britain, the hopes expressed in Wilson’s ‘White Heat’ speech, and the development of the then ‘new’ universities (my own, Lancaster, in 1964) or the Open University (founded in 1969), the promise of social democracy and changes in the economic fabric of Britain, progressive legislation in terms of the franchise and gay rights, were all current up to the later 1960s.

Although Tony and Doug went down the Time Tunnel in 1966, my preferred model for the 1960s time travel narrative is Michael Moorcock’s Cornelius stories, which use shifts in time to re-imagine, and critique, post-war London, the legacies of Empire, and the fabrics of popular and counter-culture in the mid- to late-60s. Cornelius, in the short stories published in New Worlds, was a parodic adventurer, a counter-culture assassin, an emblematic figure of the Dionysian 60s. By the time Moorcock ‘took back’ Cornelius (in the words of John Clute) in the quartet of novels published from 1965 to 1980, the ‘character’ of the ‘rock and roll messiah’ had itself been smashed and transmitted through time and space, leaving him, in The English Assassin, as a near-corpse in a coffin, dragged around for much of the novel. Jerry wants to go home, but there isn’t one, because his home was the 60s, rather than Ladbroke Grove, and there’s no going back there.

Stephen King’s 700-page 11.22.1963 sits forbiddingly next to my bed, daring me to take it on. (I’m trying to get through Doctor Sleep first.) King’s text, mixing up time travel narrative, with classic ‘what if?’ and paradox tropes, with the inaugural event of the ‘Sixties’, is a pregnant one for me. I’ve yet to take it on, though plan to soon. Travelling back to 1963, or 1964 (Mods and Rockers on Brighton beach), or 1966 (for so many reasons), is a tremendous fantasy, particularly for someone, like me, who is so invested, embedded even, in the images and narratives and ideas and texts of the Sixties. I suffer, and I think always have done, from a sense of belatedness, of being born too late (for the Sixties, for Punk); recently I have also suffered from a sense that wherever I go, physically or mentally, I’m always haunting someone else’s steps, that someone else has always got there before me. This is another symptom of a collapse of the future, and in a sense, this is what Simon Reynolds diagnoses in Retromania, in relation to the Ghost Box music artists like Belbury Poly who seem to inhabit a ‘nostalgia for the future’: to return to the Sixties is not a return to the past, but it is a return to the possibility of a future seemingly foreclosed by neo-liberal late capitalism in all its forms.

So, I do not lament that JFK has been supplanted by the multiple Doctors, from Hartnell to Capaldi, for this time-travelling exile, born in the 1960s but who cannot return home, seems to embody an absolute longing for but terrible anxiety about the future that is diagnostic of our times. It seems, in many ways, we are all time travellers now.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Khora: the voice and the Essex shore

I went down to the Shorelines literary festival, held at Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, over the weekend. Leigh is the next town along the A13 from the town I grew up in and in which my family still live, Hadleigh; Leigh is where I worked for 2 years, and where my friend Ed lived, whose house, the Vicarage by St Clement’s church, was the rehearsal base for our band Tortoisehead, and the launching-place (and often late-night video watching) for our Friday and Saturday night nights out at a sequence of Leigh pubs (The Olde Smack Inn and latterly the Crooked Billet in Old Leigh; but mainly the Grand Hotel, the favourite watering-hole of the Feelgood’s singer Lee Brilleaux).

One of the sessions had a particularly poignant moment for myself and old friend Simon, who had also come down from elsewhere to sample the festival’s events. This was a group walk around Leigh in the company of Justin Hopper, whose poem sequence Public Record: Estuary memorialises the disasters and loss of life that regularly occurred in the Thames, crowded as it then was with shipping going up and down to London, barges and lighters traversing the coastline, and the Leigh fishing fleet. The first point of call was St Clement’s church, where a poem, ‘The Terror of Saint Clement’, was read, which commemorated the loss of the anchor of the Arctic exploration vessel the HMS Terror in the Thames mud, whose 1845 expedition, commanded by Sir John Franklin, ended in disaster when the ship became trapped in the ice, resulting in the death of over 100 men.

The churchyard is on a high point, the bluffs leading down steeply to the sea (now marked by houses on Leigh Hill, including the Vicarage); from there, you can look down over the Ray and (to the right) Two Tree Island and Canvey Island, and beyond, over the grey Thames, the lights of the Isle of Grain and the north Kent coast. The poem was engaging, in the fading afternoon light, but my own attention was split; for, over the wall of the churchyard, we could see the Vicarage, and the low outbuilding that had been our rehearsal space in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I could almost hear the sound of the band rehearsing, transmitted across the decades, signals picked up through my association with that place.

The connection between sound and place is one that has occupied my thinking over the last few weeks. I presented a short paper at a Lancaster conference on the Tour de France and Kraftwerk, and the relationship between the bicycle, mobility and modernity as transmitted through the electronic cadences of their music. In ‘Tour de France’, Kraftwerk also use the human breath as an aural punctuation, part of the rhythm of the track (the 2003 remaster, unlike the original 1983 track, begins with the breath, the human pump of heart and lungs preceding the sound of the machine, the sequenced rhythms of drum machine and synthesizers).  

The connection between electronic music, modernity and place has also been something I’ve been turning over, from the Ghost Box label to Box Springs Audio to the writings of Simon Reynolds, in particular Retromania. In that book (you can find it anticipated in some entries in his blog Reynold Retro), Reynolds suggests that the Ghost Box artists, and others like Pye Corner Audio, revisit a particular post-war British sensibility, a utopianism to do with popularizations of avant-garde practice (such as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop), progressive mass education (the new universities of the 60s, such as the one I work at, the Open University, and so on) and also a lingering adherence to Modernism in architecture.

The music of Pye Corner Audio, or Ghost Box artists such as Belbury Poly, uses electronic rhythms and synthesized textures that echo those of Kraftwerk (in particular Radio-Activity, 1975); it proved an illuminating connection, then, that Justin Hopper’s Public Record: Estuary readings had themselves been recorded and accompanied by Scanner, the recording name of Robin Rimbaud, a highly-prolific electronic musician and performer whose work, as the name suggests, is concerned with transmissions, electronic and white noise, shifting ambiences, fugitive pulses. It is ideal for putting Public Record: Estuary in place, of locating it, if not with the clich├ęd sound-set of waves, the tonking of rigging on metal masts, or even folk idioms. (Though it must be said that the ‘Intro’ track does feature something resembling a concertina.) Often, Scanner augments ambient washes and synth pads with choral voices, as well as the readers (Hopper and others, Essex voices) speaking the poems.

The connection between place and sound is expressed by Reynolds in his appropriation of the term ‘hauntology’, derived from Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx. ‘Hauntology’ derives from the aural proximity, in French of ‘ontology’ (the philosophical investigation of being) and ‘hantology’ (‘ghost-ology’, from the French verb for haunting, ‘hanter’).(Not to be confused with the even more pregnant French word for ghost, ‘revenant’.) Derrida suggests, through the idea of hauntology, that being is never full, complete, present; it is always ‘haunted’, somehow spectral. Reynolds took this idea in the mid-Noughties to characterise the work of recording artists like Belbury Poly or The Advisory Circle, ‘nostalgic for the future’, the future that has been foreclosed by late capitalism.

It’s a provocative idea, and one that certainly can be applied – carefully – to works like Public Record: Estuary, in its recorded form. In particular, Scanner’s use of voice – the choral – relates directly to articulations of place. The etymology of ‘choral’ goes back to the Greek ‘chorus’ (well-known from Greek tragedy), or khoros, which means a group that sings or recites poetry. Proximate to this is khora, described in Plato’s Timaeus, which means a space or receptacle, but which has connotations of being a space between, an interval, neither being nor non-being. Derrida takes this word to name an otherness which remains other; Julian Wolfreys takes up the idea of ‘chorography’ an Elizabethan word that denoted antiquarian approaches to mapping (cartography). Wolfreys, in an online article, relates this to the work of Iain Sinclair. In no coincidence, Sinclair, Macgillivray and Jem Finer performed to a ‘remix’ of Andrew Kotting’s film Swandown at Shorelines on Saturday night, in which Kotting’s work was re-worked as a meditation on space, the sea, the beach, and the voice.

The shoreline, the space between land and sea, manifested in Justin Hopper’s response to Leigh-on-Sea and its history in Public Record: Estuary, is the space in which to explore khoros/ khora, the relation between poetry and place, voice and landscape. My response to standing in St Clement’s churchyard is one that opened up, for me, my personal history in which space is articulated or mediated or transmitted through music, a missing point of triangulation in my own thinking until now. As well as being stimulating in many ways, Shorelines returned me to myself, as much as it returned me to Essex.