Sunday, December 02, 2018

‘The Frankenstein Phantasmagoria’, Dundee Congregational Church & The Howff, 24th November

From Wikipedia’s entry on the Phantasmagoria:
a form of horror theatre that (among other techniques) used one or more magic lanterns to project frightening images such as skeletons, demons and ghosts onto walls, smoke or semi-transparent screens, typically using rear projection to keep the lantern out of sight. […] Some shows added all kinds of sensory stimulation, including smells and electric shocks.
Shocks and smells aside, that is a fair description of the second half of this magic lantern show by Jeremy Brooker, assisted by his wife Carolyn: they used mirrors against the lantern’s lenses to project spooks around the church walls and roof, and the previously flat screen was drawn back to reveal several more layers, including a semi-transparent gauze, a rainbow-shimmering, swaying surface which turned out to be bubble-wrap kept moving by a fan, and at the back the contours of a body topped by a skull in the centre of the screen-space. The effect of the projections on this was quite dazzling, much of it softened by the layers so that it became purely a visual pleasure (shoegaze for the eyes, cathedrals of light), but scenes came and went too, making the body and skull more or less obvious. Alongside this, Timothy Didymus played an instrument made from twelve glass turntables and wine glasses, a kind of reverse-engineered glass armonica, but softer-sounding, as (he explained afterwards) he had leather pads pressed against the sides of the glasses, producing the sound. It was a beautiful, immersive experience: memento mori ameliorated.

The whole event was immersive, actually. It began at the nearby Howff, a graveyard in the centre of Dundee with graves from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Guide Eddie Small met the audience there, in the dark and in the rain, wearing a black cloak and accompanied by two assistants dressed as friars, with lamps, who herded us this way and that, out of the way of the traffic. Small started by explaining something I didn’t quite catch about the Howff and Mary Shelley (she dug up bodies there and made a prototype monster, perhaps?), before going on to explain that James Bowman Lindsay, inventor of the incandescent light bulb, was not buried there, but in Dundee’s Western Cemetery. What the Howff did have, was an open-air mortuary (‘people were dying to get in’), and none the people buried there had a funeral, because, he said, there were none in Scotland for four hundred years prior to 1920. Is this really true? It doesn’t pass the quick Google test, but who knows? It certainly created a nice ghostly feeling, which was only intensified by walking down a dark side street to the church’s back entrance, past a large back-projection of the reanimation scene from Bride of Frankenstein in one of its windows. In the church hall before we were permitted access to ‘the other side’ (the church itself, where the performance was), organisers Keith Williams and Matthew Jarron wore white lab coats, and the darkened room boasted an impressive array of grisly medical equipment from the university’s collection, the better to consider the way of all flesh, bone and sinew prior to the main event.

The magic lantern show, as Brooker explained in a talk afterwards, was not a re-telling of Frankenstein. Rather, it explored themes relating to the novel, using a combination of genuine Victorian slides, copies, and entirely original slides. He told us that there are no Victorian magic lantern slides telling the story of Frankenstein, so he had to be inventive, adapting and recontextualising. He said he had made seventy slides for the show (one was of the entrance to the Howff), which is an extraordinary amount of work: I hope it survives in some form, either a recording or repeat performances (there were just two over the weekend). It would definitely bear repeat viewings.

Here are some of the slides which stood out: a woman in profile, full length, looking through a door at a body against a black background (more like a medical diagram than a ‘real’ body), I think a skeleton to begin with, then with layers of muscle. Similar but more horrific was a woman in medium shot, holding a black mask in front of the top half of her face, with just the eyes showing through. All set for a masquerade. She moved the mask down, so you could see her face. Then back up, and down again, and the top half of her face had become a skull, as though the flesh of her face were itself a mask. It made me think of Mark Fisher’s discussion of horror and pornography in his essay and blog post ‘Let me be your fantasy’, which I read recently in his gigantic posthumous collection k-punk:
‘Why stop with the genitalia?’ Baudrillard asks, ‘Who knows what profound pleasure is to be found in the visual dismemberment of mucous membranes and smooth muscles?’ Cronenberg’s early work – from Shivers and Rabid through to Videodrome – is an answer to that very question. Cronenberg famously posed his own question, ‘why aren’t there beauty contests for the inside of the body?’ (Mark Fisher, k-punk, p. 64, and online here.)
There was nothing explicitly sexual about the magic lantern show (though there was a slide featuring a suggestively growing nose), but perhaps the peeling back of flesh for entertainment necessarily entails a sexual element.

There was also the fascination of: how was that done? All sorts of trickery is possible, between the magic lantern’s three lenses (allowing superimposition) and the manipulation of individual slides. But at the same time, it is all done live and there is nowhere to hide: everything is visible, blown up to screen size. There was an arctic section, with a ship in silhouette moving like a ghost from slide to slide. There was a whaling scene in which the sea went red with blood. Brooker said that this was his modern sensibility: Victorian whaling scenes tend to be heroic rather than horrific. There was a section on acrobatics, which I think was there on Brooker’s previous visit to Dundee, when he put on a Christmas show at the university. That was magical, because, to an audience used to video and computer graphics (and no longer used to overhead projectors), magic lanterns represent an entirely different way of manipulating images. It has a nostalgic feeling to it, sure, and the Victoriana is part of the appeal, but it’s also alien to see movement on a screen without Frames Per Second. The whirling phantasmagoria of the finale to this show, with its textures, layers, and its sprites and brownies darting around the periphery of our vision was something else again. Near the end of this sequence, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Death is not the End’ was played, like a pilot announcing a landing, signalling that we had strayed well beyond a story about science and the reanimation of flesh, to the territory of the soul. The screen, the entire place, was haunted.

____________________

The Frankenstein Phantasmagoria was part of the Being Human Festival, and timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication.
Jeremy Brooker is chair of the Magic Lantern Society.
Timothy Didymus’ Kosmiche Glass LP (this is also the name of his wine-glass instrument) is available on Bandcamp.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Muriel Spark – ‘Memento Mori’

My second Muriel Spark novel, after The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and, as in that book, much of the story happens elsewhen. The peer group skewered here (‘friends’ would be wrong) are all in their seventies and eighties, and have started to receive anonymous telephone calls which tell them ‘remember you must die’. A history of infidelities going back half a century binds the group together: there is blackmail, and the frequent changing of wills as new facts emerge or are imagined. It’s all about the money. Mrs Pettigrew, the blackmailer, selects a convenient enough version of reality for herself: she has a facelift, and within a few years is convinced that she hasn’t had one. She also denies that she has received an anonymous phone call, and believes that too. The facelift is presumably what allows her to pass for a relative youngster, and in addition to seriously depleting the capital of her employer Godfrey Colston by threatening to tell his wife about his decades of infidelity, she makes a little ready money by allowing him an occasional titillating glimpse of suspender.

As the novel begins, Dame Lettie Colston, Godfrey’s sister and an overweight philanthropist, has been receiving the calls for about six weeks. She reports them to the police, and also to a retired policeman of her acquaintance, Henry Mortimer, whom she then begins to suspect of making the calls himself. Mortimer summons the targeted group to his house for afternoon tea and a denouement in which the evidence diverges in as many directions as there are witnesses: the caller is a middle-aged man, a young Teddy-boy; his voice is ‘cracked and rather shaky’, ‘strong and sinister’ (p. 146); he is foreign, or not; he has a lisp, or not; he is, in Mortimer’s case only, a she. After the guests have left, his wife reflects:
        ‘How I wish,’ said Emmeline, ‘you could have told them outright, “Death is the culprit.” And I should like to have seen their faces.’
        ‘It’s a personal opinion. One can’t make up one’s mind for others.’ (p. 151)
Mortimer is one of only three sympathetic characters in the novel, two of whom are relatively minor. The third is Godfrey’s wife, Charmian Piper, a famous novelist in her day, whose books are coming back into fashion and being reprinted, which arrests and to some extent reverses the dementia to which she is prey in the early part of the book. Amongst her confusion about who is who (she tends to think everyone is her estranged son, Eric), there is still a sharpness of perception. Talking to Godfrey:
        ‘Ah,’ said Charmian, ‘you are taking your revenge, Eric.’
        ‘I am not Eric,’ he said.
        ‘But you are taking your revenge.’ (p. 73)
He is, indeed. After many years of resentment about not being the breadwinner in the marriage, he finally seems to be gaining the upper hand with Charmian’s worsening memory: ‘he could never feel really well unless she were ill’ (p. 153). Initially, he wants to send her to a nursing home, then loses so much money through blackmail that he thinks they can’t afford it. Given a new lease of life (and money) by her re-printed novels, Charmian eventually leaves on her own terms. Her recovery is heartening, given that she is the moral core of the book, but it is kept below the level of miraculous. In one scene, when Godfrey and Mrs Pettigrew are both out (she following, wanting to control him), she prepares her own afternoon tea in an agonising scene which makes it clear how dangerous this is, at the limit of her physical capacity. Carrying the tray is beyond her, so she makes many trips between kitchen and living room, taking the items one by one.

Charmian’s former maid, Jean Taylor, is the third sympathetic character (it is interesting that two of them are working class, in a story mostly about the rich), and her bed in an NHS geriatric ward contrasts with the private room her former employer has at the nursing home. She is visited by Lettie, and by Alec Warner, a tragi-comic presence, a Casaubon, who is collecting behavioural evidence for the long-term study of the elderly which he intends to be his life’s work and legacy: several times he sends letters to characters making shocking, gossipy revelations and asking them to take their pulse and report back. Miss Taylor sees exactly how ridiculous he is:
She had discerned, after many years, that his whole approach to the female mind, his only way of coping with it, was to seem to derive amusement from it. When Miss Taylor had made this discovery she was glad they had never been married. He was too much masked, behind his mocking, paternal attitude – now become a habit – for any proper relationship with a grown woman. (p. 62)
It’s possible that his research could reveal scientific truths about ageing, but in observing, he has quit the field of human interaction (she might advise him, ‘remember you must live’). Charmian is quitting it slowly, as her memory goes. Godfrey was never much interested in it, he just wants sex and power. Mrs Pettigrew just wants money. Miss Taylor finds herself in posh isolation, a servant with a fine critical mind after years of sharing her employer’s intellectual life. No one is comfortable, no one has reached contentment by virtue of having lived a long time: the squabbles of a lifetime continue to the end.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

April to September

I keep reading books and not writing about them. Which isn’t really the idea, is it? See also: November 2011. It isn’t the Kindle’s fault this time, as that is tucked safely on a shelf, too late for its bashed screen, but it works fine if you turn the light off. However, its time (or certainly its peak) seems to have passed, and books are books once more. Since To Kill a Mockingbird, I’ve read Mike Barnes’ Captain Beefheart, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life
Octopuses in at least two aquariums have learned to turn off the lights by squirting jets of water at the bulbs when no one is watching, and short circuiting the power supply. At the University of Otago in New Zealand, this became so expensive that the octopus had to be released back into the wild. (p. 55)
… Elif Batuman’s The Idiot
I told him my theory. Most people, the minute they met you, were sizing you up for some competition for resources. It was as if everyone lived in fear of a shipwreck, where only so many people would fit on the lifeboat, and they were constantly trying to stake out their property and identify dispensable people – people they could get rid of. […]
        ‘Do you see yourself as one of the dispensable people?’
        ‘The point is I don’t want to get involved in that question, and it’s all most people want to talk about. The number of people who want to understand what you’re like instead of trying to figure out whether you get to stay on the boat – it’s really limited.’ (p. 142)
…some of Bill Drummond and Mark Manning’s Bad Wisdom (I got disgusted), some of Douglas Adams’ The Salmon of Doubt (which was on Kindle, actually), some of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring (also on Kindle, also unfinished), some of Lloyd Clark’s Arnhem (second attempt, unfinished again), Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which fits the Hark, A Vagrant! characterisation of its author to a T:
beside my abandoned wretch of a husband, the base, malignant Grimsby, and the false villain Hargrave, the boarish ruffian [Hattersley], coarse and brutal as he was, shone like a glow-worm in the dark, among its fellow worms. (p. 346)
…and Claire Tomalin’s A Life of my Own, which has pointed in so many different directions (Karl Miller, Michael Frayn, Samuel Pepys) that I’m in a quandary over what to read next. A nice sort of problem to have.

I think I’d probably have done better at finishing those books if I’d written posts on them, and it could have been a good set of posts too. On the other hand, one wants to be free to flit about.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Harper Lee – ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

[Spoiler alert: usually I try to avoid discussing the endings of books, but here it seemed unavoidable.]
One Christmas I lurked in corners nursing a twisted splinter in my foot, permitting no one to come near me. When Uncle Jack caught me, he kept me laughing about a preacher who hated going to church so much that every day he stood at his gate in his dressing-gown, smoking a hookah and delivering five-minute sermons to any passers-by who desired spiritual comfort. I interrupted to make Uncle Jack let me know when he would pull it out, but he held up a bloody splinter in a pair of tweezers and said he yanked it while I was laughing, that was what was known as relativity. (pp. 86-7)
Fiction is often the spinning of the yarn in order to reveal the splinter. Narratives drift in a certain direction, either leading the reader to a conclusion, or providing the framework for an argument which could lead in several directions. To Kill a Mockingbird uses the yarn of childhood innocence to pick at the festering splinter of racism in 1930s Alabama, and it does it in the main by showing the genteel end of white society (the respectable inhabitants of the town rather than the country bumpkins), set in their ways, living alongside black society only insofar as they employ black people as servants: the splinter is well hidden, only perceptible to the young, who have yet to absorb the prevailing attitudes of their time and class.
Jem was scratching his head. Suddenly his eyes widened. ‘Atticus,’ he said, ‘why don’t people like us and Miss Maudie ever sit on juries? You never see anybody from Maycomb on a jury – they all come from out in the woods.’ […]
        ‘Well, what if – say, Mr Link Deas had to decide the amount of damages to award to, say, Miss Maudie, when Miss Rachel ran her over with a car. Link wouldn’t like the thought of losing either lady’s business at his store, would he? So he tells Judge Taylor that he can’t serve on the jury because he doesn’t have anybody to keep store for him while he’s gone. So Judge Taylor excuses him. Sometimes he excuses him wrathfully.’ (p. 244)
Well-off whites outsource the responsibility of judgement to the poor, and since it is the poor whites who live in close proximity with black communities, it is they who, fed by trickle-down resentment, insult and abuse them. Mayella Ewell, the lonely and mistreated daughter of drunkard Bob, assuages her condition by making advances to Tom Robinson, a black labourer and young father, whose daily walk to work takes him past the Ewell house. She asks him to fix things in the yard at first, and then, having bribed her siblings into making themselves scarce, she asks him into the house and makes a pass at him. Her father, returning at the wrong moment, spots them through the window and intervenes, chasing off Tom and savagely beating Mayella. This then becomes a charge of rape against Tom, who is also blamed for the beating. The court case is the talk of the town, and Scout and Jem gradually become aware of a wave of public disapproval directed against Atticus, whom Judge Taylor has appointed the defence lawyer in the case. It’s a very distanced way of telling the story: the basic facts of it emerge slowly, and the characters involved in its defining scene are flung to the periphery. It’s not a story about the victim (Tom), or even the perpetrators (Mayella and Bob), but about the layers of society above them: the internal struggle within well-off white society between those (the majority) who want to see the black man executed for having broken a taboo the rules of which prevent the instigator from being blamed, and those (Atticus, Judge Taylor) who know this is wrong and make a valiant attempt to sway justice in the direction of justice, based on such slivers of conscience as they can encourage in the jury.

Most of the time, this is a book about growing up: from Scout’s first day at school to when she’s eight years old and dresses up as a joint of ham for a pageant (she fluffs her entrance, so is a failure as a ham actor – I wasn’t sure if the pun was intentional). She plays in and around the house with Jem, and Dill, a friend from out of town who spends his summers with an aunt in the same street. They become obsessed with a neighbour who never leaves the house, Boo Radley, who becomes a kind of ghoul in their imagination, but is actually very tolerant of their unwanted attentions, leaving small presents for them to collect in a hole in a tree in his yard (‘Two Indian-headed pennies, chewing gum, soap dolls, a rusty medal, a broken watch and chain’ p. 267). He is white, of course, or he couldn’t be a neighbour, but his constantly absent presence is almost certainly a comment on a society living alongside people it chooses to never really see, and on the paranoid myths the mind will construct around the unseen. His only appearance in the novel is right at the end, when Bob Ewell, eaten up by rage at Atticus for the things he accused him of during the trial of Tom Robinson, attacks his children on their walk home in the dark from the pageant. He leaves Jem with a broken arm, and crushes Scout’s chicken-wire ham costume, which fortunately protects her long enough for Boo Radley to come to their rescue.

In the wake of this attack, with Jem safely in bed, sheriff Heck Tate and Atticus debate what to do about the aftermath: Bob Ewell lies dead under the tree from behind which he sprang, a bread knife thrust under his rib cage. Did Jem do this? Did Boo? Did Bob fall on the knife? For a while Atticus insists that this killing must come to trial, such is his belief in the law and due process. The sheriff is against this, seeing that justice has already been served, and seeing also the injustice of bringing the reclusive (now heroic) Boo Radley into the limelight of a trial. And so the yarns of the book pull in opposing directions: Atticus is a moral ramrod for most of its length, but the final pages show that he is not unswayable in his devotion to the law. It, and society, are arguably moving in the right direction (evidence for this: it took the jury a long time to make the wrong decision about Tom Robinson), but at a glacially slow pace. The novel makes a powerful case against segregation, but more than that, its purpose is to show how racism can sustain itself within a society, how entrenched it can become within its structures. That, and the power of youthful idealism against it.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

John E. Smith (with illustrations by Annabel Wright) – ‘The Robert Stories’

In the dying days of Melody Maker, I tore one issue to pieces in frustration at the lack of any content worth reading, with the exception of a short interview with Annabel Wright of The Pastels towards the back, which I kept, in which she talked about her connection with Stephen being founded around their being the two ‘committed Swell Maps fans’ in Scotland. Something like that. Now she has illustrated a book of stories by her father about his childhood in a suburb of Birmingham in the 1950s, and I wonder if that background played into her admiration for Swell Maps, who came from Birmingham. In any case, it’s strange (and wonderful) to think of that city having a place in Pastels pre-history, though it makes sense in the light of Wright’s previous city-based artwork. Here, the cranes and riverscapes of Glasgow are replaced by terraces, brickwork, a suburb-centre with a Boots, ’50s cars and buses, Victorian buildings. Some of the drawings use perspective, and are very detailed (like the terraces above); others are more impressionistic (like the graveyard used to play Cowboys and Indians in), or design-oriented (floral aprons are great throughout). There is a river, but it has a concrete bottom, so it’s hardly the Clyde.

In each of these eight brief stories three young boys get up to mischief, and the smallest of them, Robert, who is never the initiator but always a keen participant, always seems to come off worst. John is the one who suggests things to do to while away an hour after school; Alan (his brother) is something like his second in command; Robert (from across the street) is the fall guy, even when there is absolutely no need for one. In ‘Robert and the Matches’, the three of them build a den on some waste ground and pretend to be explorers. One day John brings along some matches so they can have a fire, but it gets out of control and has to be put out by the fire brigade. They escape without getting caught, but just to be on the safe side John gives the matches to Robert, and then:
as his mummy folded his trousers the box of matches dropped out. ‘Where did you get these matches, Robert? You know it is dangerous to play with matches,’ she said sternly.
        ‘John gave them to me when the den caught fire,’ said Robert.
        ‘You naughty boy! You must never play with that John Smith again,’ said his mother. (p. 26)
Other chapter titles include ‘Robert and the Apples’, ‘Robert and the Greenhouse’ and ‘Robert and the Gunpowder’. With each one you sort of know what’s going to happen in advance: Robert’s going to get caught stealing apples / breaking glass / blowing something up, and the joy of the stories is in the unexpected way he invariably finds of doing just that. He has an irresistible knack of landing himself in trouble, when it wasn’t his fault, and when it would be the easiest thing in the world simply not to confess, but this never seems to occur to him. Then again, his mother doesn’t enforce her command that he ‘must never play with that John Smith again’, so he doesn’t suffer too much for his honesty.

The stories are great to read out loud: I tried them out on S., who loved them (in hysterics within 30 seconds most of the time), and my 3-year-old nephew, with whom I got deep into discussion about why the boys had tucked their jumpers in and filled them full of apples, which tends to be his way of absorbing a story.

The sad background (not mentioned in the text) is that John has Motor Neurone Disease, and the book is both a way of preserving his stories, and of raising money for MND Scotland. Available from Monorail.

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