Unicorns and lawyers from BBC schools
Found in the attic squashed between the Skippy the Kangaroo TV annual and Amateur Gardening 1972. Illustrations by John Griffiths.
For anyone still moved by other times & places – a ramble on their role in the everyday
Regular readers (both of you) will know I’ve tried to explore something which would draw together all the eclectic strands of those things which capture my imagination. They extend into my domestic life: each time I made a house into a home, it was not a look I was seeking to achieve (as in our century’s ‘look’ that competes and seeks approval) but an atmosphere, something I could be transported by. It’s never been the time I am living in, and ideally I’d be able to hop between 1967, 1637, 1937, with maybe the odd bit of 1814, 897 and so on. Yes indeed, a carriage crash of design on the toll road.
I know this sounds a bit grand, but my mind is a library of such atmospheres – scenes in books or films are not recalled in words but are felt. (Sure, all this will sound like something from Pseud’s Corner.) Sometimes the particular quality of the light or turn of the weather will send me to some glowering seventeenth century landscape, cider apples in the air, beeswax wafting through an oak door, the crackle of wood on the hearth.
Heat from a baked pavement might invoke a TV memory of a US city I’ve never been – distilled polaroid gold, a coffee-diesel bath of warm air, an oscillating bassline catching sky-high sun in the glitter pulse of cars on distant freeway, going where?
Just a glazing of frost and a finch squeaking on a bit of yew and I’m indoors with Mrs Oldknow at Green Knowe, a tang of woodsmoke, butter sliding off a muffin, amber light on old stone. I’m going to call these motifs – I’m sure there’s an official term, but that will do for a short ramble.
In a way it’s like a dog surveying a scene, contemplating the unremarkable, then wagging its tail for no perceptible reason. So why try to analyse the pleasure, which like most academic thought ultimately leads to a definition that dulls the magic?
I’ll quote this scene from the TV series The Durrells where the prosaic Leslie, who likes shooting animals, is talking with his sister Margo and articulates his role as a matter-of-fact foil for his family:
Margo: “Why are you so worried about the play?”
Leslie: “You’re all so artistic. I see… ‘a tree’, you lot see…”
Margo: “Broccoli. Trees look like upside down broccoli.”
…which is a neat puncturing of the concept of the artistic soul, but what if Margo had said, “I can hear hounds, there’s a figure through the acorns – I can hear his heart pounding and smell the sweat of fear…” where would it have come from? The Ladybird Book of Charles II?
A few years back I thought my imagination grew from children’s literature, but I think I have read more of it as an adult. At 10 years old I was trying to read Tess of the D’Urbevilles for example (before it got taken away). Maybe I felt all grown up after I’d finished Margery Sharp’s Miss Bianca books and went straight for the dour, tragic Victorians.
The worlds presented in a lot of young adult novels are often chaotic and unformed (thinking, for example, of Alan Garner or Penelope Farmer). But they also invite things to happen, quests for belonging and reinvention, or simply, change – characters running to escape the banal and mundane, the once weird and now weirder world of grown-ups where some odd reason to judge, to smirk, deny or destroy is just beneath the skin.
Is there an audience of grown-ups out there still hungry for Ambrosia like Billy Liar, disenfranchised and disappointed, still hoping to find something more through the back of the wardrobe? Should we be embarrassed?
There are pleasurable motifs we carry with us and I think they’re essential to our sense of wellbeing, cinematic flashes of images and experiences internalised from reality or art. They can be used, if we want, to ‘create’ with our own filters applied.
And of course, there are unpleasurable motifs – things that stifle, doubt and procrastinate, and darker places.
From Mary Shelley to Richard Jefferies, from the cult series Survivors of the 1970s to 28 Days Later, The Handmaid’s Tale right up to The Walking Dead (oh yes, Fear the… as well) I’ve always been fascinated by post-apocalyptic visions.
But visiting dystopian futures on screen or in novel has lost that playfully gothic frisson of unsettlement. Science fiction is an outdated term because stock fantasies are a reality, weaving their way into our lives like mutating tendrils from John Wyndham’s pen. We peer into our near future with Black Mirror or Years and Years. But where once it was reassuring to return from these nightmares, we’re now putting the kettle on with predictability now dearly-departed and anything seems possible.
Did we choose our motifs at an impressionable age? Do we know where we found our fascinations? Are we more than the product of those who shared their imaginary worlds, those authors and screenwriters who showed us Herne the Hunter or that strange things happen when the wolves are running? I’d like to think we came into the world predisposed to the things that move us.
Is this ‘childish imagination’ a virtual reality overlay? Are we summoning these atmospheres from our personal motifs to challenge us (overcome our fears, the monsters under the bed) or enhance our reality, whether we want it simplified or decorated, or to realise ourselves and our possibilities, or just to feel some magic among the mundanity?
Somewhere I have the germ of an idea that this might be about noticing and recognising. In reading or watching a story we absorb what are, after all, other people’s experiences. If they strike a chord, as motifs they become part of our own consciousness.
This is part of the act of reading fiction, to download the working of another’s mind, though in film an actor can do the same with barely the flex of a facial muscle or the shift of an eyelash. In this shared consciousness, there are connections from our own experiences (those ‘oh, you feel like that too’ moments). To continue a theme, we might be Game of Thrones’ Three Eyed Raven (the one who can “perceive the past, present and future through visions and time travel with ease”).
I’m not for a moment suggesting there is anything supernatural here, just using the ‘visionary’ trope to explore how a response to external ‘art’ becomes an internal experience which is ‘not real’ – as in not first-hand experience – but it becomes part of us, hidden until we notice and recognise it again, like the lamp-post from Narnia outside a branch of Aldi.
These motifs serve to remind us that things have been and will be, which is affirming, whether from light or dark. And so we end of up with a form of faith, a belief in the power of the imagination.
It would be great to hear if others enjoy a bit of time travel in the course of the everyday, or get transported in unlikely places when a motif is triggered…
Photographs copyright WhistlesintheWind
Of all the illustrators you’d find in a mid-century public library (in my mind, there’s a formica desk, a lightly medicinal scent of polish from a parquet floor, heavy swing doors with perfect geometry and wired glass, perhaps a square of orange carpet and a few teak chairs with brown hessian covering) Charles Keeping would be the most striking, memorable or even haunting. His images for Rosemary Sutcliff’s work send you to an eerie half-lit dawn, atop a pagan burial mound, with the ominous glint of shields on the skyline, before you’ve even touched the paper.
Keeping’s imagery is connected for me with the spectral designs of someone like Tibor Reich, thinking in particular of his work for the Shakespeare Trust at Stratford in the 1960s. This, and many other designs of the era for public spaces, take us through portals to other times and places – communicating something far beyond the scope that titles like ‘illustrator’ and ‘designer’ are meant to suggest (‘lesser than an artist’, I assume).
Of course, a Victorian Town Hall hung with Burne Jones might serve a similar purpose, but these stylised, mid-century interpretations have something hauntological about them. They don’t reassure, but unsettle.
Charles Keeping’s late widow Renate made a short film to promote the gallery of work she had curated after his death in 1988, along with much more to explore on the Keeping Gallery website.
More mid-century fonts, layouts and illustration from Abbey Mills, North Wales
All these images are a reminder of how much has been lost in the age of digital printing: a traditional printer was a true craftsman, custodian of skills passed through generations and now lost forever. Of course letterpress lives on as a niche artisan craft, but this kind of beauty was once an everyday item, as throwaway as a paper bag. The marriage of paper and colour is incredible, the tones so pure and vivid.
Mid-century fonts, layouts and illustration from Abbey Mills, North Wales
Featuring papers with names like Glastonbury Coloured Antique Laid, Basingwerk Parchment, Chariot Cartridge and British Oak Parchment this is a gorgeous volume. The production values are incredible, arresting the senses at every level, and even now the scent of musty forest hangs among its leaves.
Every letter is flawlessly crisp, and touching the many silks, sheens and matts of the papers makes you feel like a Tudor merchant plunging his hands into a trove of fabrics from a newly-arrived shipment.
In exploring the mindset of a figure clouded by legend, this Swiss-made retelling has a beautiful atmosphere. It uses shore, mountain and forest to depict Mary’s psychological terrain; puppet effigies twitch in firelight with folk-ritual precision, and Elizabeth is a constant presence, never made flesh – she is paint or puppet or a glimpse of doppelganger.
Central to the story is Mary’s court musician and advisor Rizzio. With shades of Hamlet’s ghost, he lends another layer of tragedy to a treatment based on Stefan Zweig’s Maria Stuart with its key notes of suffering and fallibility.
There are beautiful sequences of Scottish landscape which the director captured himself (though most of the filming was in Switzerland).
As Mary narrates the letters she writes to Elizabeth, it’s a deathly, rough-hewn and unresponsive backdrop. At her moments of dislocation, the camera flees wraith-like over sea-washed shores or broken forest paths.
Camille Rutherford captures Mary’s isolation, besieged as a powerful woman, long before she is imprisoned by the English queen, with a grace that captures both youth and regality. It’s a stark, European perspective which shuns Hollywood excess, with a layer of modernity that lies with ease.
Many sequences foretell a life of imprisonment, with gunmetal-grey lattice and winter’s branches, failing winter light and a cooling sun.
The years as a prisoner are beautifully distilled to a vision of purgatory: a crown woven with the fabric of her being, stained like Lady Macbeth.
Mary Queen of Scots is a film that haunts and ebbs and flows. It’s not going to appeal to anyone seeking a history lesson, either gritty or lavish: it’s a theatrical, dramatic sequence of legendary events filtered through a poetic vision of inner life.
It’s released on Region 2 DVD now and also on Amazon Instant Video.
Roddy McDowall’s 1970 retelling of the Ballad of Tam Lin, like its counterpart The Wicker Man, had a troubled release and was destined to rot away in a vault. It was Martin Scorsese who rescued and restored a print for VHS in the 1990s.
A delayed release in the early 70s (as The Devil’s Widow) dated the mod look and it was dismissed by critics: a surface glance might file it away as a swinging vision of camp Hammer Horror.
For a start, its lead is Ava Gardner, in one of those difficult horror roles given to pre-1960s stars – navigated to perfection by Deborah Kerr in The Innocents but usually always ending in disaster never mind how hard the trying (an example might be Joan Fontaine’s 1966 effort The Witches with its promising village setting).
But it’s actually quite a witty, intelligent film with some really beautiful cinematography and solid performances. As McDowall’s first and only film as director, it’s brimming with ideas and techniques, some of which aren’t exactly successful (cue a particularly awkward and entertaining stop-frame segment), but it all adds up to a fascinating spectacle to enjoy on many levels.
McDowall appears to have taken the original material seriously: the locations and landscapes are authentic, filmed around Selkirk in Scotland – specifically Ettrick Forest and Tranquair House. The soundtrack features songs by electric-folk icons Pentangle, including a superb version of Tam Lin, and a couple of beat arrangements apparently supervised by Stanley Myers (who orchestrates girl-with-the-sun-in-her-hair embellishments elsewhere).
That’s not to say Tam Lin isn’t awash with late 60s stylistic excess, but these exaggerated visions of modern are eery in themselves, and contribute to the success. It’s not nostalgia any more, but a glimpse into the axis-tilt of a parallel universe, an acid-filter processing metaphors for experimentation and otherness. McDowall apparently called Tam Lin a swansong for the sixties.
The cast includes many familiar stalwarts of British Cinema (in later years, if not at the time). We’ve got Sinead Cusack, her father Cyril, Magpie‘s Jenny Hanley (OK, not exactly a cinema stalwart), Fabia Drake and Joanna Lumley…
There are, however, many qualities that make Tam Lin a classic of folk horror, modernity giving way to the ancient in the best traditions of its golden age.
And then the magic begins…
These are really just notes – I was thinking about how we try to make sense of exhibitions, how much our own personal reference points guide what we take from them, how we challenge or absorb ideas, or rush to define, interpret or misinterpret, see what we want to see or not… it’s not an opinion of the exhibition, just an attempt to gauge how our own reference points filter information…
‘English Magic’ intrigues me as a title because it taps into my fascination with folklore and slightly arcane takes on history and landscape… I’m getting pictures of Shakespeare’s Prospero, maybe John Masefield’s Box of Delights and Herne the Hunter, paganism and druids. There’s something possibly Tudor, like Dr Doctor Dee, or Derek Jarman’s films touching on similar themes shared by Peter Ackroyd with their dreamy analysis of British art and literature and folklore.
Leaflets, guides/poster image for the exhibition – the pink image is a detail showing William Morris returning from the dead as a colossus to throw a luxury yacht into the waters. Morris is used as a political revolutionary in the exhibition, drawing on his beliefs that art and design should be accessible to all (though his products were bought by the wealthy).
The design of the promotional material is pastel pink and green… not sure what that says… it could be quite retro-nostalgic bake-off village fete competition styling, but there’s a huge hawk glaring out which I think will have set the context of my initial thoughts – wild England, which makes me think of Richard Jefferies (because of his Victorian after-the-flood apocalypse novel After London: Wild England). I’m quite precise here because it’s a whole cultural/historical area I’m really drawn to. I’m quite excited about what I’m going to find.
Film: Ooh-oo-hoo ah-ha ha yeah
The first room is darkness, a video playing – just about to start again – and various spot-lit taxidermy victims: owls and hawks. I love owls and hawks, but part of me is not reading this as I once would, because of the obnoxious turning of ‘wildness’ into a high-street shopping/interiors experience which seems ubiquitous now. (I say obnoxious, but that’s not true; there is some beautiful wild imagery and it’s wonderful to see deer and owls and foxes and nature influencing design… but then you read something like ‘If you love the wild outdoors trend, want antlers but not keen on hunting, you’ll love these plastic resin antlers!”, a paradoxical statement that has integrity and no integrity at the same time…).
The film opens with amazing footage of owls and hawks, tethered hunting birds in a pastoral landscape – it’s all high-definition detail, breathtaking in the way it captures feather and claw and expanse of wing in slow-downed movements, and that wizard-like power of watchfulness in the eyes… and a barn owl’s legs are indeed a thing to behold. Dust sparkles in the air and I wonder if it’s intentional that the eerie, almost medieval drone of the soundtrack is broken by the noise of families feeding and possibly whelping outside in the cafe. But nothing detracts from the innate power of the birds themselves.
Next up is footage of four-wheel drive range rovers being crushed in a scrapyard, an abandoned Victorian redbrick building (could be a school, a hospital, a factory?) in the background. I enjoy this because I don’t like these four-wheel tanks, don’t see the need for them if you’re not dealing with farming terrain or large equipment on a regular basis. To lazily generalise, they’re a symbol of an aspirational, ersatz country life associated with weekend homes whose value puts housing out of the reach of workers in rural communities.
This dissolves into the inflatable Stonehenge, which appears with the skyline of Canary Wharf’s financial centre in the background, and there’s May Day celebration as everyone cartwheels and does handstands. It’s pagan abandon/freedom. I can’t help, though not sure I want to, but think of Danny Boyle’s opening of the Olympic ceremony, which suggests a refashioning of an idea of ‘old England’, one that’s tied in with pop culture – I’m off on a tangent thinking about Michael Bracewell’s 1997 book England is Mine: Pop Life in Albion from Wilde to Goldie, with its fantastic image of Malcolm McDowell deep in a forest in a sparkling blazer, an image full of Lindsay’s Anderson’s political might from the film If…. Then I’m thinking about the book Electric Eden which explores similar ideas of an ‘old England’ in folk music from the 60s/70s.
The scene clears, Stonehenge deflates and the soundtrack winds down before breaking into footage of the Lord Mayor’s show. Various costumed dignitaries are beaming, seemingly benign, from the horse-drawn carriages. Two wicker giants, Gog and Magog, are paraded – so I’m thinking of The Wicker Man and 1970s ‘folk horror’ momentarily (but who will be sacrificed?) before getting lost in the knowing observation of details of the Lord Mayor’s show flowing thick and fast – there are parades from the military, financial institutions… it’s redolent of the gathering of parents at the school Speech Day in the closing scenes of If… before McDowell and his revolutionaries take over. In my head, I’m somewhere in the early 1970s. I was a baby at the time, so this is really a second-hand experience through film and TV and all sorts of media. I didn’t live it, but the ‘memory’ of this time is made real because I grew up in the landscape it created.
One image is particularly effective to me: a pair of bridled carriage horses are resisting their role, teeth and nostrils flaring, eyes rolling, as a costumed handler attempts to bring them under control, so any footage from any riot is echoing around too, but also the birds from the opening – both the hawk and horses are tethered, but who is ‘tamed’?
As the film closes (amid footage of the recording of the celebratory soundtrack by an English/Trinidadian steel band) it’s back to the hawks and owls, and you realise you’ve been sitting on a crushed range rover.
Lines and lines and lines, as Tubbs would say
Next up is a room which I’m not surprised to find given the time I’ve gone to in my head… here is David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour and the troubles in Northern Ireland (a series of photos line the walls, all taken in the time period of the tour). A vast image on the opposite wall traces lines across the country linking all the places Bowie played. It’s like a map of railway tracks (I think I remember a quote on the wall about Beeching and closing railway lines in the 60s, but can’t confirm that so may be wrong). It’s also like a map of ley lines. So I’m thinking of a map of latent pagan undercurrents, pop music as escape and, at the same time, restrictions on people’s options for travel (particularly those on the fringes).
This all ‘exits via the gift shop’ (pains me to quote Banksy, so why do it…) and here I get my first full view of the key image of the exhibition, unfortunately on a postcard. It’s a flying hen harrier with a range rover in its claws, and I buy two. For me the hawk represents an old, unfettered wild Albion, a latent ancient strength that will see out the excesses symbolised by the range rover. In other eyes it may be ‘We’re coming to get you’ – after all, the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft is not that far from the museum.
That’s the end of Part One, as the rest of it is upstairs labelled ‘Part Two’: the hen harrier with the range rover is huge on the far wall and explains the shooting of two such birds over the Sandringham Estate on a day Prince Harry was shooting. There were no prosecutions as the carcasses of the birds could not be found.
When this is past, a merry crew,
Bedecked in masks and ribbons gay,
The Morris Dance, their sports renew,
And act their winter evening play.
The clown turned king, for penny praise,
Storms with the actor’s strut and swell,
And harlequin, a laugh to raise,
Wears his hunch-back and tinkling bell.
Old customs! Oh! I love the sound,
However simple they may be;
Whate’er with time hath sanction found,
Is welcome, and is dear to me,
Pride grows above simplicity,
And spurns them from her haughty mind;
And soon the poet’s song will be
The only refuge they can find.
Verses by John Clare (1793-1864)
Wishing a Merry Yule to followers old and new, and thanks for reading: the thoughts, comments and likes are really appreciated…