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Flight & Fight

Some of the aeronautical terms used below can be examined in greater and probably more reliable detail by clicking on the links provided.

Back in the early 80s I was writing a TV screenplay about the USAF in East Anglia. I drove, for the purposes of research, to the Duxford Air Show to look at the Lockheed SR-71 ‘Blackbird‘ stealth plane, a long-range strategic reconnaissance aircraft which had recently come out of hiding. Having marvelled at the sleek, black, radar-invisible craft parked beside a hangar and guarded by machine-gun toting US airmen in blue grey uniforms with white silk cravats, I was drawn back to the main runway when it was announced that the Harrier jump-jet would shortly pay a visit. rs086-600border This is the one that can land by descending vertically and can even hover, using the downward vectored thrust of its movable jet nozzles, while delivering death from above. The V/STOL (vertical/short takeoff and landing) configuration makes runways, even aircraft carriers, redundant. Air show crowds are pleased by its versatility and its availability for anthropomorphic projection. The latter is apparent in the cries of pleasure that accompanied the fawning behaviour of the jet as it hurtled into view, skidded to a halt in the sky, hovered 30 feet above our heads then dipped its nose up and down several times, as if waving or bowing to us, who were its supreme and fearsome masters. One could imagine, on another day, above another country, the same manoeuvre being seen as a form of taunting.

43The Harrier’s dark enchantment is due in part to its special relationship with what is known in aeronautics as relaxed stability. The term describes an aircraft’s tendency to change its attitude and angle of bank of its own accord. If it drifts from its path it will begin to move from side to side in relation to the path, gradually moving further off course with each excursion. This can be corrected with controls that influence the three ways a craft can move in the air: pitch, yaw and roll. Pitch refers to an up or down movement of the nose or tail; yaw is a side to side to side movement of the nose and roll (or bank) is said to occur when the plane rotates around its longitudinal axis – the line that passes through the plane from nose to tail. There are two other types of stability: positive stability when the aircraft will maintain its attitude without constant control input and will eventually return to its intended position if its path is disturbed, and neutral stability when the craft will not return to its trimmed setting without control input, but will swing from side to side without moving further and further off course.

All of which suggests, reasonably enough, that you don’t want relaxed stability in any aircraft – it should be designed out at the offset. There are, however, situations in which a form of instability is considered highly desirable. Certain military craft are deliberately designed with inherent instability and equipped with flight control computers to compensate. Such craft will instantly lose stability if computer control is suspended. What would appear to be a form of designer recklessness actually brings the great advantages of being able to change direction with minimal intervention of the flight surfaces (the flaps, elevators, rudder etc). Responsiveness is increased and the craft can manoeuvre in dramatic and unpredictable ways. It will confound and frustrate its enemies by tossing itself around in the air.

It is hard to resist the thought that these ideas, and the terms in which they are expressed, could be fruitfully applied to certain contemporary social situations. The nature of stability, for example, is not just a matter of personal psychology but an effect of the ideologies that compete to secure a dominant definition of the concept. One man’s stability is another’s death-in-life. In the 60s, for example, stability was what your parents craved and you despised. Their ‘small “c” conservatism’ – a symptom of what was, in part, a widely dispersed postwar posttraumatic stress disorder – made them, in your view at least, unable to change direction without considerable forewarning and persuasion. Your view, consonant with the aeronautical theories with which you were not familiar, was that their stability would lead to their undoing. It had no flexibility insofar as it would guide its adherents further and further into inaction then rigidity. The aeronautical version is much the same: stability is synonymous with the maintaining of a set position but implicit in this condition is its own decay.

rimbaud-arthurThose enchanted by the revolutionary tone of the 60s (including the Editor in Chief of this journal) believed that all this must be put behind them by means of the active pursuit of instability. Where Rimbaud, in 1871, recommended the ‘long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses’ and was probably appreciated at the time by a relatively small number of Bohemians and Decadents, the youth of the 60s energetically took up the project in significant numbers. This was not a self-correcting fly-by-wire enterprise – for many it involved a comprehensive cutting loose from constraints, a vigorous immersion in experiences previously insulated by taboo, and an indifference to the straight and narrow.

l-iqa0htmra5mm1u1 This erraticised adventurousness piqued unattended and dormant appetites and prompted the emergence of desires people didn’t know they had. Thus it was, with the passage of time, that those who espoused a new anti-materialism and, to a greater or lesser extent, turned on and/or tuned in and/or dropped out, came to be regarded as excitingly needy by the manufacturers of such goods as clothes, records and posters. The Mad Men themselves, we are beguilingly informed, were able to navigate the haze of their own substance abuse in order to strategise the manufacture of desire for less folksy items such as cigarettes and saloon cars.

timothy-leary1Instability, with its basis in relaxed impulse control, acquired a perverse reliability as advertisers refused to see in it a frustrating elusiveness but instead found ways to exploit it as a resource. Timothy Leary, after all, had suggested that ‘To think for yourself you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable open-mindedness, chaotic, confused vulnerability (in order) to inform yourself.’ And it sounded good at the time, I have to say. But on the heels of voluntarily induced chaos and vulnerability came a complex of operations that succeeded in commandeering these states and repurposing them in such a way that they served the interests of authority rather than facilitating critical insight into it. ‘Cash from Chaos’, as Malcolm McLaren would observe some years later.

The link between adventurous instability and the adventurer had been weakened, enabling the emergence of a fertile ground for a form of instant messaging. Manoeuvrability was found to be as exploitable as immobility and came to be seen as manipulability. The scene was set in such a way that Guattari would write ‘A certain type of subjectivity, which I would call capitalistic, is poised to overtake the whole planet; an equalised subjectivity, with standardised fantasies and massive consumption of infantilising reassurances. It causes every kind of passivity, degeneration of democratic values, collective racist impulses. Today it is massively secreted by the media, community centres, and alleged cultural institutions.’ Writing in 1985, Guattari uses the phrase ‘is poised to overtake the whole planet’ predictively. In 2014 his acute assertions seem simply descriptive.

A conception of the uses of instability forged within military aeronautics emerged at the same time as the commercial appropriation of 60s open-mindedness (the Hawker Siddeley Harrier V/STOL made its first flight in 1967 and the Russian equivalent, the Yakovlev Yak-38 strike fighter, in 1971) and became an aspect of an array of counter-intuitive ideas that normalised the production of dissident energies by aligning them with consumerism. The new instability was characterised by individuals easily knocked off course and prone to erratic behaviour. They were also highly responsive, able to react efficiently to rapid state changes and capable of high-volume decision making in short time periods. Affinities between stock market traders, military personnel and ‘accomplished shoppers’ became apparent, as did a willingness to obey orders. The latter quality has proved useful when the latent pathology of this malleability is presented as a psychiatric issue. workplace_feel_goodFortunately the reshaping of psychotherapy under capitalism has produced a treatment based on the issuing of orders rather than a consideration of such tiresome matters as the unconscious. What you do, right, is simply tell the patient to think differently. It’s the patient’s ideas that are the problem. Change them and the patient is relieved of their problem. You have to go at least six times, mind you. These things can’t be done overnight. Cognitive behavioural therapy – why worry when you could be at work not worrying?

It’s probably more sophisticated than that, but not a lot more.

So we are all soldiers now. A militarised technology contributes to a militarised psychology in which the unforeseeable is preferred to the reliable. The unforeseeable, apparently patternless, can be patterned. You want fighting men and women who will instantly obey orders, highly defined individuals who are careless, unattached, impetuous and obligated. With their yaws muzzled and their pitches perfected their disorder is a small price to pay for order.

Hey, Girlfriend!

sellotapeIn the cinema films are edited before they get to you. You can’t do anything about it. But what would you do anyway? Editing is a hard thing to criticise. It might be the least criticised aspect of a multi-disciplinary form in which casting, acting, dialogue, good bits, plots and stories, sets and setting, costumes and music tend to receive more attention than lighting, camera movement or sound design. Or hair.

Editing is among the least critiqued because it is premised upon being unobtrusive to the point of invisibility. Its unshowiness depends on seamlessness – transitions from shot to shot should not, on the whole, be readily describable as such. The seamlessness, in turn, encourages the view that the passing of time in a film resembles its passage in everyday reality.

This reality effect is based on a grammar that only exists within films. We know that films are put together in jumbled time – film crews shoot the end of the film on Monday because that’s the only day they can get those particular cars, horses, valleys or actors, then, for similar reasons, they shoot the beginning of the film on Tuesday. The actors quickly get used to this and develop appropriate but peculiar skills. The jumble produces a jumble of shots which, thanks to the grammar and, of course, the script, will be assembled into legible, coherent sequences.

With live television broadcasting, editing is carried out on the hoof. As you watch, sequences are being put together. You can, in this situation, mount small local complaints. You can say out loud “This Jubilee on the river thing, with lots of boats, singularly lacks good shots. These people should go to Film School, or at least watch more films.” Nobody cares that you said this but the point is made: a reality effect that is put together on the hoof will fracture from time to time.

This doesn’t mean that you suddenly see through the effect to a more definitive, hitherto concealed reality beneath. You will, more likely, gIimpse parts of an apparatus that usually serves to maintain the effect that an effect is not being maintained.

Editing is not only a matter of withholding ‘bad’ shots – often editors and directors conclude that something is missing and will have a range of strategies to compensate for this. Which is where tennis comes in.

tennisballs2pic-1Television coverage of championship tennis is, we can deduce from the way it is shot, basically flawed. The flaws stem from an impoverishment at the heart of the sport rather than a failure of imagination within the teams who produce the broadcast material. An abiding anxiety about the lack of anxiety evinced by the players is evident in the vocabulary of types of camera shot that typically constitute a sequence of play.

Despite the profusion, in our culture, of fictional narratives depicting struggles between men in which images of women may be absent for the entire duration of the artifact, and the innumerable broadcast instances of team sports coverage in which women are wholly absent for, say, both halves of those games thus structured or for, say, the duration of those comprising a number of successive innings, there is clearly a state of enduring crisis in the broadcasting of tennis that requires regular, radical intervention. The interventions, in the form of a species of camera shot, are radical not because they extend our understanding of the finer technical points of the sport but, instead, function as a narrative implant that, at first glance, has nothing to do with tennis.

In common with the broadcast presentation of most sports, the atmosphere and excitement attendant on tennis tournaments is enhanced by means of crowd shots and coach (or, in other sports, manager) shots, expert commentary and telling detail shots – the umpire conferring with a line judge, the relacing of shoes, the obsessive adjustment of racquet strings, for example. It is difficult, however, to think of a sport in which the girlfriend shot has acquired such importance.

fpib6f3fw5h2ngvlargeThe girlfriend shot caters to anxieties about the possibility that male tennis stars are not heterosexual, not properly socialised and not human. The shot also assuages the fear that tennis is obsolete insofar as all that can be achieved within its terms has been achieved. If the latter is the case then the peaked sport will tip over into a protracted but inevitable death characterised by decadent cultism of the body and baroque embellishment of the microkinesics of technique.

A friend who likes tennis explained that all the top seeded players differ in the matter of their skills by the tiniest of quantities. Winning is not an expression of superior play but superior focus. Any of these guys can play exceptionally well most of the time. Any of them could beat their nearest rivals and all of them do so from time to time. We are no longer watching games of skill, the sport has dematerialised and must be appraised as a war of nerves, a battle of wills etc etc.

These considerations are widely understood and have consequently divided the tennis audience into two camps; those who nostalgically crave a contest featuring a wide vocabulary of skills in addition to the power serve and those who find a source of fascination in the posthuman unearthliness of pure intention. In the latter group the fascination consists in a ceaseless process of research into the question of whether the star players actually experience stress at all. If they do not experience it, is it, nevertheless, still to be found somewhere within them, screened from consciousness? Or is it possible that there is simply no stress within them – have they taken a tip from the machines and sealed the the system so that it cannot be degraded?

Both possibilities are attractive. The achievements of those without emotional experience are considerable and new opportunities are emerging daily. Even those who may not wish to achieve can envy the unruffled demeanour of he or she who runs the gauntlet as if it were a velvet glove.

A handful of top tennis players can allay suspicions about their machinic qualities by being likeable in some way. This need not involve acknowledging their errors – displays of regret and irritation may fail to be ‘all too human’ and often suggest instead ‘coding malfunction’ and are therefore probably best suppressed. Likeability may consist in having a pleasant face, like Djokovic, or using a number of different facial expressions – all of which, needless to say, should be related to an event or a state of mind.
Having a girlfriend is tops, obviously. Having a highly focused mother will not appeal to everybody but an attractive girlfriend will solve a number of problems. It also introduces new levels of difficulty, however. While the presence of the girlfriend suggests not only that the millionaire player has a life, inhabits an emotional spectrum that includes the possibility of love and subscribes to the master template for all known relationships, namely heterosexuality, a certain amount of disowned anxiety is projected onto the female companion.

Her function is not merely to lay to rest uneasiness about the possible emotional vacuity of her partner but to fill in the expressive gaps in the partner’s repertoire. Where he does not, if he can help it, react to feelings of tension, trepidation, imminent loss, the vanquishing of a weakling etc, she will throw the emotional shapes on his behalf, thereby rendering legible the humanness of the struggle which otherwise might start to resemble computers playing chess together or an experiment in the command and control of humanoid drone vehicles.

The funny thing is that the girfriends almost invariably succumb to a sort of Stockholm syndrome wherein they appear to feel almost as constrained as their boyfriends. In what may be a bid for consistently ladylike behaviour, the girlfriends, isolated by the cameras every couple of minutes, suppress their faciality to within a few degrees of the range evinced by the partner they are gamely attempting to magnify to a human scale. The gravitational pull of gristly hypermanliness proves irresistible.

Posthumanists with an eye on sport would find the progression from blood to circuitry inevitable and predictable. Meanwhile tennis in its early phase of decay will, despite the assiduous application of the girlfriend shot, tend to the preconditions of mechanised warfare just as gamification – the applying of the principles of video gaming to non-gaming situations – facilitates the development of military drone guidance.

Storm Thorgerson, whom I had known since my early teens, died three weeks ago after a long struggle with cancer. Storm was a legendary graphic designer specialising in album sleeves. He is responsible for the artwork on all the Pink Floyd albums and, with the Hipgnosis and StormStudios team, has produced memorable imagery for Led Zeppelin, Peter Gabriel, 10cc, Black Sabbath, Muse, Biffy Clyro and many other groups and artistes. I was asked by Storm’s wife Barbie to deliver a eulogy at the funeral. I have reproduced it below.

Storm was the rudest person I have ever met. I have come across ruder people but they were not of my acquaintance and were not generally likeable. Storm was actually very loveable, despite being very rude.

He was a kind and generous rude man, an unfailingly engaged man. By this I mean that even when rudeness was in the air, Storm was paying close attention to you. At times it may have felt like a little indifference wouldn’t hurt but the fact is whenever I spoke with Storm, over the 55 years we knew each other, he always listened, always had an answer or another opinion, always told you very much what was on his mind. When we met socially, rather than in pursuit of projects, we would talk nonstop and laugh a great deal. When we were teenagers we discussed girls then rocknroll then alcohol then Jack Kerouac then drugs then Timothy Leary then spiritual matters, sharing a considerable scepticism for the latter topic, then madness and psychoanalysis then wives and sons and daughters. At Film School at the Royal College of Art we talked about movies and directors. Storm and Po posed as photography students at the college – Po wasn’t even enrolled there – and using the department’s equipment put together their first album sleeve for ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’. The rest is internationally renowned design history, as Po has so colourfully demonstrated.

When we talked we shared an elaborate vocabulary of jokes, catch phrases, nicknames, insults, silly voices, a Tourettish ease with foul language and an unnecessarily erratic volume control. Storm designed beautiful and peculiar posters for Lumiere & Son Theatre Company, sat on our board and watched our shows. As a critic of plays, films, books and works in progress he was exceptionally astute and seemed to cut to the flaws in a piece of work almost effortlessly.

But what about the rudeness?

When you’re a child, people, such as your parents, will, when you’re rude, say things like “Don’t be so rude!” I’m sure Storm’s remarkable mother Vanji, and his father, the late Elvin, when the parents were still together, said things like this. And I’m sure that Storm, who was very clever, completely understood what they were referring to and what was intended. But did he care? Did he take them seriously? Did he think that Mister Manners was a pleasant enough chap but ultimately rather superficial?

When he was four and a half years old Storm went to the legendary progressive school Summerhill, founded by the radical educator A.S.Neill. Neill’s view was that “the function of a child is to live his own life — not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, not a life according to the purpose of an educator who thinks he knows best.” The democratic nature of the school was most notoriously expressed in the principle that pupils were given the freedom to choose which lessons, if any, they would attend.

Storm stayed at Summerhill until he was nine then, missing his parents somewhat, told them that he was not progressing academically at a satisfactory rate and wished to be relocated to an ordinary day school. He had, it seems, already acquired low cunning.

But he’d also, I’m convinced, had an experience that changed him for ever.

A couple of years later this cheeky, noisy mini-bohemian was at the County School for Boys in Hills Road. I met him when we were both thirteen and, as I’ve said, we became firm friends. He had a loud, piercing, nasal voice – the result, he claimed, of falling nostril first onto a raspberry cane. At school he shone in all subjects and was exceptionally gifted in almost all the sports on offer. But he seemed unable to accept that while his teachers were allowed to criticise him he was not allowed to criticise them. While more than satisfactory scholastically his general demeanour was problematic. It was not that he was truculent or rebellious, it wasn’t the cheerful insolence, it wasn’t quite that he didn’t give a damn – he was just marching to a different drummer.

It may be fruitful to flesh this out by offering a small sample of Storm’s offences against common decency.

Back in 60s Cambridge it was the thing to have big cars. I had a Daimler I got for £30 and Storm had a huge blue 40s Studebaker saloon. We would playfully ram each other’s cars from time to time and were quietly proud of their tank-like strength. On one occasion we all piled into the Student Baker, as we called it, and Storm drove down Regent Street, the main shopping drag. We passed a stationary police car. Storm leaned out and skilfully broke an egg on its roof. As we whooped with delight, Storm drove round the park, came back down Regent Street and did it again. And then again. On another occasion he came to visit me in a house I was caretaking in South Kensington and at the end of the evening stepped into the street, jumped onto the roof of a parked car and ran along the street from roof to bonnet to boot to roof to bonnet, trebly denting six expensive vehicles whilst shouting incoherently. Was he a thoughtless vandal, a socialist revolutionary or a budding live artist? Yes to all of the above.

At the beginning of a long video shoot that would comprise every song on Barry Gibb’s album ‘Now Voyager’, Storm insisted that Barry shave off his beard so that Storm would have more facial expression from the star. Barry refused, understandably, given that the beard was as iconic as Madonna’s pointed bra or Elton’s colourful glasses. Storm said he would not shoot unless the beard came off. The crew languished on the beach in Florida, tanning and reading magazines while the contestants slugged it out. In the end Barry caved in but only on condition that he start growing the beard again from day one. The ensuing video is of special interest in that facial hair continuity is completely deranged, sprouting and receding over Barry’s chin at random moments throughout. When Bill Cosby invited Storm to L.A. to discuss shooting his Christmas show, he showed Storm the script and asked his opinion. Storm told Bill that it wasn’t very good. Bill thanked him and Storm left the office. As he was passing through the outer office Bill’s producer approached Storm and unceremoniously sacked him. When my mother told me off in front of Storm when we were in our mid teens he turned to her and said “Mrs Gale, I really think you should consider bringing up your son differently.’ He received a lifelong ban from the well kept household. Never especially self-conscious about bodily functions Storm had to mend his ways when, at the studios in Belsize Park, one of his female assistants told him she was not prepared to discuss the day’s work with him while he was in the toilet with the door open. On holiday with Trudy and Del he caused something of a stir one night by wandering through the sitting room of the villa clad only in a short tee shirt, no underpants. Seamus O’Connell, a fellow pupil at the County School, recalls that when the boys were in the second form they were required to wear short trousers, a particular handicap if you wanted to go promenading down town after school. Storm however, showing characteristic resourcefulness in Seamus’s view, would frequently turn the shaming garment to his advantage by hiking up one trouser leg then thrusting the free arm up that leg in order to scratch his balls in the high street. On set, in the course of numerous pop video shoots, he would argue with his producers, insult the record label functionaries, berate the artistes and harangue his assistants. He was, to quote the sound designer Steve Wald, ‘a man who would never take ‘yes’ for an answer’. He was a perfectionist who made Stanley Kubrick look poorly motivated.

But we loved him for it. Eleanor Church, who used to work in Pip Printing, next to the studios, said that every morning, without fail, she would hear a tap on the window of the shop. Storm would be out in the street, giving her a V sign. Elly and her colleagues looked forward to this daily salute, it made the workaday grind bearable.

Lee Baker from Storm Studios sums all this up in a tribute he wrote recently:

‘There were times he would get us to do things that made us all feel like a bunch of foolish twats, but hey, we did these things all the same. I think this was because Storm was never embarrassed or ashamed of what he said or what he did and I think he needed his working people around him to be the same. He would often, though not maliciously, embarrass us or make us feel uncomfortable in public, so we no longer felt shame or cared about what other people thought. 

“Good grief!” he would exclaim, “Honestly Lee, are you a man or a mouse? Just get it done, I don’t care how, just do it and do it quickly!”
We had a job to do, and we got it done, no matter what.

That was one of his bizarre qualities, making you do things you might otherwise think twice about doing and making you achieve near impossible tasks in half the time it should have normally taken. And these things, these sometimes ridiculous things, these sometimes seemingly pointless things – nearly always had a higher purpose of some kind that we weren’t often privy to at that moment in time, but would become crystal clear after the event.’

I’ve suggested that Storm’s experience at Summerhill was exceptionally formative but this over simplifies him. Storm was a one-off, a unique type, a rare psychological creature. A person without boundaries. Somehow he escaped the profound forces that shape most of us and tend to keep us in shape for the rest of our lives. Storm’s early schooling, and the loving tolerance of his mother Vanji, ensured that he would never accept conventional hierarchies and he would always argue his corner. Those of us who grew up with him or who worked closely with him know well that he was warm-hearted, insightful and bounteous in addition to what we will call his ‘difficult’ qualities. He barked but did not bite. He lifted our spirits even while insulting us.

Storm’s death brings with it a special sadness because as well as losing a friend, a colleague, a collaborator, a father, a husband, we will no longer have among us the product of an era that predates the age of the mass production of personalities, the hollowing out of psychology and the narrowing of possibility. Storm was vintage stock, a Tricksterish testament to the richness of being that can flourish when the full force of socialisation is somehow sidestepped or rejected.

The truth is: they don’t make them like that any more.

The Inner Argosy

argos1976The man next to me has a pint glass of water, a biro and an Argos catalogue. He is bent over the catalogue circling pictures of watches. At first I assume he must be picking out a few examples in order to come back and compare them all later. But he leafs through the watches section and finds his way to gardening tools, where he circles forks and trowels. His concentration is considerable and from time to time he sips the water quickly without looking at the glass. I notice that the barman doesn’t seem too pleased with him. Probably because he’s not drinking a proper drink. The man finishes with trowels and moves on to the hi fi section, in which he proceeds to circle a number of compact stereo systems. He doesn’t study them for long, preferring to scan them then firmly mark them. Each time I look up from my book he has moved to a new section and continues to circle and to circle.

The man seems very methodical and efficient. Were he to select and purchase one item from each of the sections to which he had attended, his outlay would be considerable. The state of his clothes, however, does not suggest that he has access to significant outlay. His cuffs are frayed, his glasses are secured with tape, his shoes are laceless. But he has a project.

He has, perhaps, mastered the art of inner shopping, accessed the pleasures of virtual purchase. Perhaps he is able to imagine what it would be like to have things, to imagine this having in such detail that, with the end of reverie comes satiety: I dreamed of having it and I fantasised the pleasure pursuant on the getting and then I was over it. I say ‘I’ because I can do this. I can browse attractive items in magazines designed to make me yearn but the yearning does no more than smoulder, it remains platonic. I enjoy the attractive thing in my head. I have to say I think this is rather clever. Not to mention being possessed of a timely frugality.

The man in the pub probably has not had the opportunity to develop such a privileged enervation. It may be that he has not enjoyed the consumptive possibilities of the capitalist play area. He has not gone the whole way without protection. When I take my yearning for a walk I am fortunate to be able to recall the times when there actually was cake or stylish snowshoes and feed this into the chamber of vapours. However, my neighbour’s diligent circling does confirm the palliative aspect of consumption – in this case a modified shopping therapy with some of the satisfaction but no goods. The implanting of the yearning to yearn, however, can be counted as one of the success stories of consumerism.

If the circling project is there to take his mind off laceless life then the choice of shopping catalogues cannot be arbitrary. It’s not the need to draw circles that is compulsive – that could be satisfied by doodling. The need to corral images must be paramount. Once corraled they can be treated as objects of meditation. Consumerist spirituality, wherein essences are, by acts of worship and contemplation, transformed into materials, encourages an intense visualisation that may, at least in a magical world, cause images to take on extra dimensions and become pocketable.1chocopologie-1 The Tibetan Buddhist notion of the tulpa is a useful correlate: it is believed that an esoteric meditation technique may be employed gradually to transform a thought into an intense and detailed image and thence into a material object or being: the tulpa. If the tulpa is a being it is both sentient and autonomous. Once out of the bottle it must be treated with care lest it wreak havoc. Self help psychology also supports this notion: many an opulent charlatan, fattened by book sales and the lecture circuit, will assert that if you want something badly enough you will get it, such is the power of positive thinking.

It’s window shopping – for some the window will be opened on pay day, for others the window glazes the world. It’s enough to drive you mad.

Poking around in my hard disk I came across an aborted piece on aborted pieces which reminded me that what goes around comes around. (Despite its aspiration to the crisp, Strength Weekly does not systematically eschew the homily.) In this case I was unsettled to find that something I wrote eleven years ago spells out a number of concerns that still concern me. Given that the piece is an account of the dangers inherent in setting unrealistic goals, I suppose the lesson to be learned is that if you don’t learn your lesson you will eventually find yourself writing a short introductory item like this.

The disinterred and unfinished account can be read here, in one of the archival wings of this digital estate.

Cafe Society II

At the next table are a middle aged woman and a man in his late thirties. He is tall, heavily built with an untrimmed goatee. He speaks quite forcefully to his companion, breaking off to order something from the waitress. He then continues to make his point but I’m no longer listening. The waitress returns with a message for the couple and goes back to the counter. The man says “They won’t give me what I want.” The woman murmurs something. He raises his voice, “They won’t give me what I want.” He repeats this over and over, becoming more anxious and sad with each declaration. Soon he is weeping. The woman is trying to calm him down. He won’t be calmed. He’s loud now. The woman takes his arm and leads him out into the street.

He’s a big baby.

I think quite a lot about how my early then subsequent reading of psychoanalytical material impressed on me the idea that mental suffering, anxiety and worse were largely a product of the subject’s immediate and local experience and that this, in turn, was distilled and refracted in the subject’s mind, often reinforced and renewed by ongoing family experience, for better or for worse. Notwithstanding my strong engagement with Laingian ideas in the 60s and 70s, wherein the notion of the ‘maddening society’ was lucidly, shockingly and, for me, attractively, laid out, I still persevered with the diagram of the ‘patient in a bubble’ that featured the marginalising of broad social input and seemed to restrict the scope of a maddening network to a very few persons, usually known to the subject. Now that the world has actually gone mad and may not be able to locate the resources for its own healing, it has become appropriate to characterise it as a psychotic terrain stippled with pockets of sorely tested mental integrity.

baby-shilo-diamond-pacifierThe big baby was shouting at the intersection of the nursery and the supermarket – two locales in which desire is impassioned. While the guardians of the nursery impart the management of impulse, this requirement is waived in the supermarket, because you deserve it. You’d think that because you deserve it they’re going to give it to you. Don’t be silly.

It’s enough to drive you mad.

Cafe Society I

ENG150488113  01The cafe, situated on a main road, gets its fair share of passing citizens not currently carrying coin. The manager generally shoos them back onto the street but sometimes gives tea and a sandwich to one or two of them, even allowing them to wheel their battered and heavily laden trolleys in and set them beside their table. A young guy, pale and sullen, wanders in and starts moving from one table to the next, aggressively demanding of each patron that they give him a cigarette. He is ignored or politely rebuffed. The manager hasn’t noticed anything. Everybody at the tables is now watching with interest if they have been approached, with mild trepidation if their turn is to come. The guy approaches a man sitting on his own, reading the paper. This man tells the guy to go away. The guy brings his fists up threateningly. The man stands up and, in a pleasant almost friendly way, says “Come on then” and assumes a boxer’s stance. He’s a big man but he’s parodying the fighter pose by giving it an upright, Victorian quality. The cigaretteless guy is transformed. He backs off rapidly and start flailing his arms like a five year old in the playground trying to rain blows on a classmate. The big man playfully lurches forward, the manager moves in, the trembling youth is shown to the door. The big man smiles untriumphantly.

Me Ree

I like a Knock Knock joke (Little old lady who? I didn’t know you could yodel) but I have no time for riddles and puzzles. It seems to me that we have been delivered into the state we know as Life and it is a difficult thing. Why would you add to this difficulty by spending time on a riddle or puzzle? Whenever I am riddled I go “Don’t know” and then when I hear the answer I go “Oh”. Gets them out of the way.

For the recent ‘Dining with Alice’ project I was asked by the director, who loves riddles, puzzles and jigsaws, to compose some riddles, in the Alician manner, for placing on the dining tables in order to divert the diners. I said I could do it if I didn’t have to come up with the answers. Deal. Here they are, in the order in which they were written:

And is there pie in these tall halls?
If the raven is ravenous what of the otter?
Whither the philanthrope?
Of what packed lunch is this lost carton?
What, in the name of crikey? 
Will Jack see Jill across the crowded platform?
Does the clock still tick its deathless tock?
What did the dodo?
What has Peter got, three arms and fits in a paper bag?
I have a full stop. What am I?
What is this tall?
My first is insane, my second incense. Am I?
Is this the way to treat the Home Counties?
Which well known ballroom begins with a polka?
My first is incredible, my second in Cardiff. Is it?
If the party of the first part parts, is the second party depressing?
A man takes three years to paint a room. What kind of man is this?
A girl and a boy climb a tree. Whom shall we inform?
Is the wombat the female of bat or is this a rumour?
Why does the pony trek?
I am my brother and my sister. How is this possible?
When is a jar not a jar?
How many light bulbs does it take to change society?
Is this the way to carry on?
What is black and white and a camel?
Why did the man eat regularly?
Why did the condiment?
Is an artist palatable?
What is the difference between a concept and a catacomb?
Why is the dog only visible from a considerable distance?
Shall we take the air?
Three men step into the road. Will they get there?
I am surrounded by trees. Who am I?
Is this strictly true or merely strict? Explain.
When will whatever will be be?
I have two arms, a personality, and some pets. What more could I want?
The rich man has it in spades. The gardener shelters in the hut. What?
If this is an answer then what is the question?
A dog licks a man’s elbow. Here, boy?
My car is in second and I am in pieces. What is it?
Look! There! On the horizon! Is it a bird?
Here today, gone fishing. Is that all there is?
What is between a difference and the same again?
When are the rough ready?
What is the difference between a rope, a string, a cord, a fibre, a thread, a hawser, and a cabinet?
What is the difference between a cord and a card?
What is the difference between a kid and a cod?
What paper is it that is widely discussed but never eaten?  
What is this that I am holding?
Where is the station?
A man sees a dagger before him. What day is it?
What is the difference between Swedish and this?
A three year old digs a hole. Under what circumstances is this permissible? 
What is that lives in a burrow, drives a car and eats blancmange?

Captain or Crew?

The Alice of Lewis Carroll’s books would not be good company. She is pedantic, humourless, irritable and finds fools where others would find engaging eccentricity. It’s odd, then, that she is seen as an emblem of the liberated imagination as well as one who is endowed with fluent social skills. In the Sixties she should have been seen as ‘uptight’, yet was credited by Jefferson Airplane, in their stirring 1966 acid anthem ‘White Rabbit’, with being an intrepid psychonaut leading the children of emergent consumerism out of their conformist slumber:

And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you’re going to fall
Tell them a hookah smoking caterpillar has given you the call
Call Alice
When she was just small

Carroll’s heroine is being confused with the spirit of the book in which she serves as an unenthusiastic navigator. While Alice certainly embodies Carroll’s antipathy to the stuffy formality of Victorian life, she lacks the playfulness and abandon with which she is commonly credited. The paradox that prompts this upbeat misreading may reside in the fact that the logic of many of the Wonderland characters is not actually nonsensical but excessively logical, to an absurd degree. This is not the same as their being wild, wacky or anarchic but seems to have been taken as evidence of such a condition.


The purportedly trippiest, most psychedelic encounter in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is between Alice and the Caterpillar. The latter smokes a hookah pipe and is seated on a mushroom – that’s got to be trippy, right? Probably wrong. The Caterpillar asks plodding questions and says nothing that is at all wise or excitingly unwise. The only direct advice he gives is ‘Keep your temper’, hardly a siren call from the healing maelstrom that is imagined to lie beyond sense.

Alice is constantly shifted across the line so that she becomes an eager participant rather than a small and conventional girl who falls down a hole by accident and at best puts up with the mayhem she encounters down under. Somehow her characteristic consternation and vexation have been systematically overlooked, perhaps because readers take up the invitation to identify with her but do not share her antipathy to inflexible logic, which is seen as pleasing nonsense. Her own misgivings are ignored as the reader simply invents a surrogate who is more tolerant and adventurous.

Tenniel has much to answer for here, of course. He supplies Alice with expressions that could be said, at a pinch, to service his employer’s need for a sensible, level-headed girl yet simultaneously equips her with a range of highly ambiguous looks that may be read as debauched abstraction, cool and sophisticated disdain or ravenous impatience – all of which are qualities of the pleasure seeker rather than the bluestocking.

It is the artists who eroticise Alice, if only mildly, who make her an active participant rather than a spectator. This tendency is to be found in the images of another distinguished Alice illustrator, Mervyn Peake (published in 1946).


3347412986_f813731745_zRene Cloke, on the other hand, is unambiguously illustrating for children and presents images (published in 1944) of a passive child subjected to a mad situation in a way that emphasises her unworldliness and vulnerability rather than her appetite for immersion.
Perhaps those illustrators who saw the books as charming fantasies gravitated towards depicting the child as captured by the events around her while those who sensed a darker psychology beneath the fantastical surface would produce an Alice who was the generator of her own dreams, one who would embrace rather than resist her imaginings. It could be argued, however, that if we have dreams because we do not wish to know about our darker selves then Carroll was merely being psychologically realistic when he made Alice so tentative and sceptical.

Alice in Shadowland

The main problem with Alice is the darkness. It’s not as if this were a recently concocted and Freudianised 20th century difficulty. A key contemporary of Carroll unhesitatingly treated his ‘Wonderland’ text as if it were a tissue of whimsy concealing a substantial and threatening shadowland. Less than two years after Carroll’s ‘golden afternoon’ spent in a boat with Alice Liddell and her sisters, on the 4th of July 1862, the writer was extending the text transcribed from the original storytelling as part of its preparation for publication. He had supplied a number of his own illustrations but was advised to seek a professional draughtsman. The Punch cartoonist and caricaturist John Tenniel was approached to illustrate the work, which was executed in 1865. Carroll sent the illustrator a photograph not of Alice Liddell but another child, Mary Hilton Badcock. Tenniel refused to work with any model however, and, in Carroll’s words, ‘drew several pictures of “Alice” entirely out of proportion – head decidedly too large and feet decidedly too small.’

Tenniel’s distinctive sense of proportion was not confined to his renderings of the dreamchild. The cartoonist stripped the language of dream of its sunshine and imposed the shifty, shifting, scratchy and shadowy crosshatch that would unsettle nursery-dwellers for the next century and a half. Sloughs of febrile gloom and maniacal despond provide the dark ground upon which Carroll’s’s lighter fancy comes to rest, profiting greatly from the interplay with its shadow, so insistently conjured by the illustrator.

But is the darkness actually there? Without Tenniel would the tales not be delightful blossoms of absurdity no more taxing than the drift of a rowing boat along the upper reaches of the Thames? The short answer is that the tales are bristling with invitations to explore the abyssal depths but these latter are consistently overlooked in favour of jolliness. Tenniel reversed this trend, reacting as though a surface sweetness was to be expected then brusquely swept aside.

Notwithstanding the purportedly ‘factual’ yet debatable view that Carroll’s preoccupation with pre-pubescent girls constituted a perversion, this possibility was not the one so firmly taken up by Tenniel. It is more likely that the illustrator recognised, in the subterranean location and disjointed narratives of Wonderland, a territory that was not just quaintly engaging but psychologically rich and therefore deserving of the imagery of nightdream rather than daydream. Some decades later the Surrealists would come to a similar conclusion.

The invitation to the land of light, child-pleasing enchantment has been declined on a small number of occasions in the course of the history of the adaptation and illustration of ‘Alice’. In 1985 Gavin Millar directed ‘Dreamchild’, a film about Alice Liddell’s relationship with Carroll/Dodgson. The screenplay, by Dennis Potter, focused on the reminiscences and insights of 80 year old Alice Hargreaves, née Liddell, as she travelled to New York in 1932 to attend Carroll’s centenary celebrations. The film moves between Alice’s American experiences of being a celebrity, her recollections of her intense friendship with the author of the Alice books and hallucinated encounters with the creatures from the stories. The latter are fine examples of cable-control puppeteering, a pre-animatronic technology, constructed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and featuring the Gryphon, the Mock Turtle, the Mad Hatter, the Dormouse, the Caterpillar, and the March Hare. The creatures are crabby, shrill and unkempt. Those with teeth have yellowed fangs and those with skin have livid, blotchy skin.

The lack of whimsy in the film is, more importantly, not restricted to those denizens of Wonderland who are ordinarily portrayed as wacky and cuddlesome. As Alice finds her long forgotten or suppressed memories of Carroll returning, the film dares to raise, quite tastefully, the possibility that Carroll was passionately in love with Alice Liddell. Ian Holm’s portrayal of Dodgson/Carroll elicits our sympathy with the author and helps us to be reassured that his inclinations were in some sense ‘ innocent’ and never actually enacted. The film moves beyond this widely held view, however, when it examines the impact on young Alice, as recalled by the octogenarian Mrs Hargreaves, who is seen to be haunted if not permanently marked by the experience of her girlhood exposure to the pressure of an adult’s amorous attentions.


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