A couple of weeks ago I attended a two-day conference in Cambridge entitled Visions of Enchantment - Occultism, Spirituality and Visual Culture, and a very intellectually stimulating event it was. It appears that at long last occultism and esotericism have been recognised as important areas of research within the academy - obviously some, such as Ronald Hutton, have been blazing a trail for some time. Some big academic names in the field were present including Profs Antoine Favre, Massimo Introvigne and Wouter Hanegraaf, as well as such important younger scholars as Dr Marco Pasi (I was very flattered to hear him praise my most recent book when I asked him to sign a copy of Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics - a much recommended study into hitherto under-researched areas of the Great Beast's life and friendships, such as those with Fernando Pessoa and Tom Driberg).
By the end of Day Two I was relieved that I wouldn't have to hear the words 'embodied', 'multivalent' and the grating 'problematize' for some time, but on the whole the lecturers steered clear of too much academic obfuscation. High points for me were Dr Ulli Segers on Sigmar Polke and the Hermetic Tradition; Judith Noble The Wedding of Light and Matter: Alchemy in the Films of Derek Jarman; Dr Marco Pasi Western Esotericism and Artistic Creativity: Searching for a New Interpretive Model; Dr Nicholas Campion Surrealism and Astrology: The Esoteric Art of Xul Solar and Dr James Riley Pandemonium 69: Magick, Performance and The End of the Sixties. Another highlight was the opportunity to dine at Peterhouse in the magnificent hall with its William Morris stained glass - probably the one and only time I'll enjoy such a privilege.
As an art historian you're often encouraged to look for influences and borrowings, often where they simply don't exist and there were quite a few instances of this, although they were usually criticized by members of the audience. I was glad not to be in the shoes of one particular researcher who had delivered what I thought was the weakest lecture of the lot and had committed the aforesaid spurious connections sin, only to receive a scholarly put-down from (I think) Antoine Faivre, who ended with that withering academic kiss-off, 'But, of course you are much more knowledgeable in this area than I am.' There was plenty of material for research - if only I had the time - but maybe some will seep through into future work.
There were some particularly impressive April Fools this year, my two favourites being this and this. In both cases I really wished that they were true - I didn't make my way to Charing Cross. I hope the invitation to Malmesbury wasn't another April Fool.
Looks like I'll be speaking once more at the Philosophytown Festival in beautiful Malmesbury this autumn, probably on London coffee houses; previous speakers have included John Cottingham and Ray Monk. Talking of philosophy (and related matters) the Radio 4 In Our Time archive is an amazing source of stimulating ideas - so far I've listened to talks on Neoplatonism, Schopenhauer, Existentialism and Epicurianism.
Watched Antonioni's Blow Up last week for the third or fourth time - still loved it, although Vanessa Redgrave's performance is becoming irritating. This time I was interested in the locations and lo and behold there is an excellent obsessive website that offered me (nearly) everything I was hoping for in my post-viewing research.
Comparing then and now it's depressing how many buildings that looked perfectly fine in the film are no longer there now - those near the hostel, for example, would, I'm sure, had they survived redevelopment - and how bland and boring it is - be highly desirable. How many of us would want to visit that antique shop, original here?
The film really captures the massive architectural changes that London was undergoing at the time: the huge new office blocks flanking London Wall that Thomas (the perfectly cast David Hemmings) drives past in his Roller (previous owner Jimmy Savile) - already being demolished by the 1980s. The hostel where he spends the night roughing it in homage to Don McCullin still there, but probably 'luxury apartments' today; his studio now no doubt worth millions in the obscene madness of the London 'property market' (in recent reports of the prescient floods, homes are now invariably referred to by the media as 'properties'). I'm sure I wasn't alone in assuming that the park where the central 'murder' scene takes place was in central London (I thought Holland Park) and it wasn't until many years after my first viewing - through an Iain Sinclair essay (Lights Out for the Territory) - that I discovered it was Maryon Wilson Park in Greenwich. I'd forgotten the strange scaffolding sign looming behind the park, apparently deliberately constructed for the film and intended to be a 'meaningless' logo.
One scene that I hadn't remembered towards the end intrigued me as to its location: Thomas goes to an archetypal Swinging London party in a very posh house with wood panelling and paintings, stuffed with dolly birds and dope and ends up partaking. In the hazy morning he awakens sprawled alone on a bed and takes in the surroundings: through the window the Thames is clearly visible, with some houseboats moored alongside, so the location is probably Chelsea, certainly perceived as the heart of what was 'happening' at the time. Blowup Then & Now confirms this and delighted me by revealing that the building was in fact Lindsey House, a nice piece of synchronicity as I've recently been researching, in a minor way, Whistler's followers and their views of his house in Cheyne Walk.
Lindsey House was built in 1674 and in the late 18thc was divided into four separate dwellings: Whistler lived at No.2 Lindsey Row (now No.96 Cheyne Walk) between 1866 and 1878 - today the divided Lindsey House is numbered 96-101. A couple of years ago I managed to visit it on a London Open House weekend, although I was disappointed to be only allowed into the hallway, ground floor and garden of one house - it's owned by the National Trust, an institution whose often extremely limited 'access' to many of its properties, paid for by ordinary people so that toffs can carry on living there, is discussed in The Gilded Acorn.
The room in Blow Up has been set-dressed to look suitably patrician but dishevelled: the 'paintings' include the cherubs at the foot of Raphael's Sistine Madonna (later to become a hackneyed cliche, were they already by that point? was this a framed Athena-type poster from the King's Road?) The painting to the left above the chaise longue looks like a Rubens nude, but it's hard to tell. No doubt the paintings were chosen especially by Antonioni. Above stills from Blowup Then & Now and a photo I took of a club in Palermo in February 2013.
The walk this Wednesday is fully booked. Unfortunately a tube strike has been planned and it looks as if the rain will continue, although it may not be as heavy that night as it has been. I had my doubts about doing it at this time of year, but it was important to mark the centenary. Should be interesting.
I've since been informed of this site with details of similar events this year, including an unusual one in Greenwich this week which I probably won't be able to get to.
This site has been very useful in research for the walk.
The films that Burroughs made with Antony Balch can all be found on YouTube:
Warpaint at the Brighton Dome were excellent - probably how The Slits would have sounded if they'd stayed together longer. A grooving rhythm section (prominent bass) and guitar channeling Robert Smith c.1980 with ethereal vocals from Wayman and Kokal. Unusually these days a group with their own unique sound. I'd heard one session track by them on the Marc Riley 6 Music show last year and decided to give them a punt - avoided listening to anything else until the concert so that I might be pleasantly surprised; rare enough these days. This reviewer differed in his opinion - I wouldn't say it was soporific at all, but there we are. The crowd loved them - surprisingly large number of older people - great venue, great sound; pic above from Brighton Dome.
Andy Sharp, English Heretic, who shares many of my interests and contributed to the Netherwood book, is interviewed at The Quietus. Anti-Heroes was one of their albums of 2013 - check it out.
During Soho investigations for next month's Burroughs walk I was shocked to discover that the green plaque formerly on the front of 59 Old Compton Street marking the birthplace of British rock'n'roll - the 2i's coffee bar - is no longer there. I was present on 18th September 2006 when the plaque was unveiled - all sorts of early rock royalty was there - various Shadows and Skifflers. I met Big Jim Sullivan and chatted with Cliff Richard, who, whatever you may think of him, was a gentleman throughout the event, signing stuff thrust at him by fans outside and unfailingly unruffled. He graciously accepted a copy of my coffee house book - I wonder if he still has it? The wine bar that was there at the time has gone, to be replaced by The House of Ho, a fashionable eaterie. I do hope the removal is temporary. [By mid-April the plaque had returned]. If not, it may be time for a petition. Walker's Court, home of sex shops and the Raymond Revue Bar, just around the corner from Burroughs' 'portal doorway' in Peter Street, Soho (now site of a hideous replacement) has been given the green light by Westminster City Council for redevelopment - another local landmark erased (popular for band publicity shots - Felt spring to mind).
Yet another Underground London talk this time at the new Artizan Street Library in the City of London.
I'm not sure what's happening with the Sax Rohmer/Fu Manchu book now that the centenary has passed - it will be out sometime in the next few months I imagine. It's out of my hands I'm afraid. All future projects will appear under my own Accumulator imprint. One of the contributors to the Fu Manchu book, Alan Moore, has an interesting (last?) interview here. I can certainly sympathize with his reluctance to do public appearances in the future.
William Seward Burroughs was born 100 years ago this February 5th. To mark this auspicious occasion Bill Redwood asked me if I would like to repeat a walk we did together on the controversial writer for The London Adventure on 10th September 2005 (was it really that long ago?). I readily agreed, although with slight misgivings about the possible weather conditions - but this is London after all, so there should be places to shelter. That walk attracted a very varied and interesting crowd, including one or two who had met the great man, so I'll be interested to see who turns up this time. On that occasion we started in Earls Court, where WSB lived in the early 1960s; there was a wonderfully Burroughsian moment outside the Empress State Building - on the site of one of his residences - where the large group put the security guards in a panic and we were escorted a 'safe distance' away to deliver out talk - the subject 'CONTROL'. This time we can only cover the West End, although that will be in considerably greater detail than we had time for previously, with a number of places we didn't have time to see before. At the time of writing there are still places left - must be booked in advance. Details here. If there's enough interest we may do the full version in the summer. Pic above WSB and Brion Gysin at Dalmeny Court, 8 Duke St, St James's.
There's also an event in Bloomington Indiana, which looks great, but there's no way I'd be able to get there.
One of the best philosophy books I've read is Philosophy as a Way of Life by Pierre Hadot which tells you how you can actually use philosophy to change and enrich your life, rather than endlessly theorize. Here's a pertinent section [p.83]:
'In the view of all philosophical schools, mankind's principal cause of suffering, disorder and unconsciousness were the passions, that is, unregulated desires and exaggerated fears. People are prevented from truly living, it was taught, because they are dominated by worries. Philosophy thus appears, in the first place, as a therapeutic of the passions...Each school had its own therapeutic method, but all of them linked their therapeutics to a profound transformation of the individual's mode of seeing and being. The object of spiritual exercises is precisely to bring about this transformation.
To begin with, let us consider the example of the Stoics. For them, all mankind's woes derive from the fact that he seeks to acquire or to keep possessions that he may lose or fail to obtain, and from the fact that he tries to avoid misfortunes which are often inevitable. The task of philosophy, then is to educate people, so that they seek only the goods they are able to obtain, and try to avoid only those evils which it is possible to avoid. In order for something good to be always obtainable, or an evil always avoidable, they must depend exclusively on man's freedom; but the only things which fulfill these conditions are moral good and evil. They alone depend on us; everything else does not depend on us. Here, 'everything else' which does not depend on us, refers to the necessary linkage of cause and effect, which is not subject to our freedom. It must be indifferent to us: that is, we must not introduce any differences into it, but accept it in its entirety, as willed by fate. This the domain of nature.
We have here a complete reversal of our usual way of looking at things. We are to switch form our 'human' vision of reality, in which our values depend on our passions, to a 'natural' vision of things, which replaces each event within the perspective of universal nature.
Such a transformation of vision is not easy, and it is precisely here that spiritual exercises come in. Little by little, they make possible the indispensable metamorphosis of our inner self.'
The Fall at Clapham Grand 15th November. Probably would have been better if it had been louder, from my perspective on the side I couldn't hear it properly - the mosh pit in the centre seemed to be having fun. MES possibly the happiest I have ever seen him onstage - new ep track The Remainderer was aired plus a pretty shambolic oldie 15 Ways. Alright, but I have much fonder memories of the Islington concert last year - far better venue for a start, where you could see and hear well from anywhere.
Christian Scott Ronnie Scotts 20th November. I was really looking forward to this. I still find the idea of eating a meal while listening to live music a bit strange, but the young bankers and legal professionals around me seemed perfectly at home. Scott was with a quartet (no piano) but fortunately had his guitarist Matt Stevens onboard. Stevens was more noodly Methenyesque with a much cleaner sound than on the records but certainly doesn't run down the usual worn grooves; then Scott announced that the guitarist was leaving to form his own band, which will be quite a loss I think and it seemed that Scott felt the same. He spent quite a lot of the evening telling us what he thought - it took up way too much time in my opinion - how much he loved his wife (who came on to sing a number) and making numerous humorous observations. The first set was a bit of a disappointment to me and it was only in the second that the group came alive and played with more bite and heaviosity, Stevens finally started using distortion - Jihad Joe and KKPD stood out. I agree with this review that if more of this type of music could have been played I'd have enjoyed it more.
Troyk-estra Purcell Room 23rd November. The best of the bunch - I've written about Troyka before (see earlier post) so it was interesting to see them in a much augmented line up. The music was dense, constantly changing, but with a great rock and funk groove on most numbers. This review and this one chime with my thoughts (a number of people walked out, always a good sign I feel) - Chris Montague is a very interesting guitarist and Kit Downes is certainly one to watch - he works in many different ensembles and plays solo piano - Joshua Blackmore the drummer's pretty good too and contributed my favourite piece Zebra (alternative anagrammatic title Braze). The sound was excellent and I had a great view from the fourth row - the cd of the band live at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival this year was available and is recommended.
Wooden Shjips Audio Brighton 9th December. I had high hopes for this concert but they were marred by the very poor venue. Firstly, I can't have been the only person to go to the wrong club Haunt, as most of the publicity said the gig was taking place there. Fortunately Audio wasn't far away along the seafront - but what a badly designed club for live music! The stage was along the side wall past the entrance and the crowd was bunched in front of it meaning that anyone else coming in afterwards had to stand at the side with minimal view and the prospect of having to push through a very densely packed group of people to reach the toilets stranded on the far side of the room - combined with one of the most bored and surly barmaids I've encountered for a long time (not enough bar staff certainly) it wasn't a great experience. However the music, what I could hear of it (once again it wasn't loud enough), but was probably good for the people directly facing the stage, was hypnotic and entrancing - as with any group I haven't seen before I don't prowl the internet for a preview - heavy psychedelic fuzzed drone influenced by the VU with hints of Suicide, Felt even, and most of all Spacemen 3 I thought. They plough a very narrow repetitive furrow, but they do it well. At the gigs you can buy the latest lp Back to Land on lovely pink vinyl with a far-out sleeve modelled on Led Zeppelin 3 and the 13th Floor Elevators artwork.