From iconoclasm to ruins

All paintings by the author
ALEXANDER ADAMS surveys the story of deliberate destruction

We are familiar with the folly and – from the Baroque period onward – the purposefully constructed ruin used to enhance the pathos of a place, most especially a view of a country estate. This would be a view that could be controlled, protected and secluded, reserved for the delectation of initiates, guests, devotees and – crudely – the owners of the land. For if wildness can be fabricated as easily as order, then ersatz history can also be generated to meet the expectations of the cultivated observer. The frisson of melancholy, the stimulation of imagination and the contentment of viewing destruction from a position of comfort are experiences the ruin can provide. Whether or not that ruin is ‘real’ is a matter of degree. After all, a building as a habitable residence and as a blasted ruin are separated by less than a human lifespan and can be produced through merely absence of funds or care. It can be cultivated by purposeful neglect as well as it can be forged by purposeful intent.  

Ruins as an aesthetic

The Romantic relic is generated through defacement plus time, one encountered in a time of tranquillity by a traveller, for it is the curious traveller or pilgrim who fully sees the artefacts in a way that inhabitants of the region cannot. Consider Piranesi’s views of Rome. Among the ruins – greatly enlarged by the artist – the Romans of the day continue their quotidian lives heedless of the grandeur their squalid lives animate. They cannibalise palaces and bath houses to build their meagre abodes. These Romans are portrayed in a way to contrast them with the nobility, purpose and polity of their Roman ancestors. Where the elder Romans were capable of epic achievements unmatched, the latter-day Romans can only rob and scavenge their ancestors’ ruins. Thus, the Romans of Piranesi’s day were little better than parasites or termites eroding their habitat to eek out their paltry existences. In Piranesi’s Rome, Man (brought low from his high estate) is no more or less than a mean function of Nature, like wind, rain or the roots of plants, destined to topple even the sturdiest of towers. Piranesi’s Romans are little different from animals which graze under the pinnacles of an abandoned cathedral spire. It is surely their very indifference which makes them animals; it is the traveller, pilgrim and connoisseur (one who can afford and appreciate the prints of an artist such as Piranesi) who is the moral being because he responds to art and comprehends history, thus elevating himself above the animals of the field and wood.

Note that tranquillity is prerequisite for the appreciation of nature and the ruin. Not only is measured contemplation in a time turbulence or movement impossible, but for a ruin to have stately gravity, erosion must be halted (or slowed) to a state where it is not perceptible to the mortal. For a ruin to have a timeless quality, time cannot be seen to be changing its subject visibly in “human time”. A sand castle being washed away by the waves is not noble. However, if the castle were large enough (or, conversely, the spectator small enough) and the waves slowed to a nearly imperceptible speed, then nobility would be achieved. Bears fighting is awe-inspiring; sparrows fighting is comic. Again, if those sparrows were large enough and fought more slowly, then they would inspire awe. The essential material conditions of sand castles and sparrows do not preclude grandeur; it is the framing of these beings that determines their emotional impact upon the viewer. It is our perception – not our comprehension or the material attributes of that which we contemplate – which imbues a subject with emotional weight and determines the amount of significance we attribute to it.

What separates the Romantic ruin from evidence of atrocity? How does shock and anger shade into estimable melancholy and detached contemplation? Time is surely one factor. When I painted the ruins of Berlin photographed in 1945, I was fascinated by their visual correlation to ruined abbeys and castles and yet the historical immediacy impinged upon my understanding of them. Captured photographically in 1945, they were too raw, too fresh, too soused in newly spilled blood to be Romantic. Did, I wondered, my translations of these images into paint take away their sting? When I painted from photographs of battlefields, I was unsure as to whether I was just playing in the mud of Flanders, turning soil, fetid water and shattered tree trunks into brush strokes that were dainty and earnest, slashed with élan or arbitrarily revised. Who was to say that I was not more selfish, cavalier and flippant than any Georgian poet or Victorian historian, considering my (comparably) much greater appreciation of the atrocities connected to these battle fields compared to any comprehension they might have had about the subjects of their contemplation?

Ignorance numbs. To the uninitiated, the crofters’ cottages of the Scottish Highlands have a tragic timelessness. Yet once one understands that crofters were sometimes forcibly evicted from their inherited homesteads, these buildings seem more a marker of political and socio-economic forces than simple tides of time. Lady Butler could take as her subject the Irish crofter departing her home for the final time as a contemporary subject, pointed in its political commentary. Over one century later, her painting and the ruined cottage carry emotional charges, if one has the basic information that allows the subject to become legible. The information needs to be recorded and imparted through conscious will.

Sometimes the landscape remembers for us. In dry summers, when water demand is high, the levels of a reservoir in mountainous North Wales sink low and, for a few days, the ruins of the village of Capel Celyn are revealed. The stone walls of houses and chapels are upright and dry under the hot sun, standing over pools of drying mud. Former residents can see the lost streets of their home village, lost when the valley was flooded in 1965 to provide the expanding thirsty conurbations of north-east England with potable water. Disgruntled Welsh nationalists paint anti-English slogans on the walls in white paint. No one paints on the slag heaps of the Rhondda Valley despoiled by miners; instead, their artificial outlines are abraded by foliage and erosion.

Sometimes we ourselves become ghosts – walking ruins. When a Cockney visits the back streets of Stepney to be surrounded by Bangladeshis and Somalis, is he any different from a Canarse Indian viewing the first palisades of Fort Amsterdam erected on the tip of Manhattan island? It is the visitor returning to his homeland who is the relic, the last fragment of the past washed up on a shore made newly unfamiliar. It is he who is out of time, like the Flying Dutchman drifting the oceans. He is the ruin, looked at by native eyes as a curiosity of history, a temporal aberration. In time, his mortal remains will mimic the ruin. His bones will imitate the exposed beams and the vacant eye sockets of his skull will be the glassless windows of the abandoned house. 

Decay is demonstrative of the passage of time. Time is difficult to measure visually, especially in a momentary encounter or a static record (a work of art or photograph), so visual evidence of decay – staining, erosion, cracking, weathering, lichen – forms the tangible mark of the passage of time. As for statues, we incorporate insults into their meaning. The hammer marks of statue defilers become the patina of our antiquities, absorbed into the meaning of the statue read backwards. A form of teleology, if you like. The statue was made to be defiled, lost, unearthed, traded and placed in an art museum for our momentary diversion. Art + time = pathos.

Buildings as their own memorials

This idea of decay spawning pathos is connected to the idea of a building as its own memorial. The building’s full potential is only realised in its ravaged, ruined form, when it can symbolise of the loss of a civilisation, religion or people. Only once it has served its first stage of utility can it enter its second stage of utility – as a former building.

When Albert Speer and Adolf Hitler discussed the grand architectural projects of the Third Reich, they referred to their projected buildings’ afterlife as ruins. Strange as it may seem for a regime which expressed a desire to last a thousand years (matching that of Rome), the planners of the regime had half an eye on the debris of their country as a failed civilisation, which was to manifest itself as ruins at which travellers would marvel. Thus, one component of the functionality of Nazi-created boulevards, memorials, triumphal arches, concert halls and ministries was to awe not only the inhabitants of Germania (as Berlin was to be called) but the inhabitants of the former Germania. For Speer and Hitler, the glories of Rome and Greece were a template for imperial greatness and architectural perfection. It therefore follows that for Nazi Germania to be the salutary example of cultural achievement it was intended to be, it had to be encountered in a defeated, fragmentary and partially erased by the people who would replace the German titans of old. The wonder and melancholy produced in contemplation of the ruin was a suitable spur to dreaming heroic figures of later ages who would strive to emulate their lost ancestors. A sensation of loss, temporal distance and incomplete comprehension were integral to the Romantic response to the ruin and for the architects of Nazi Germany.

It was this aspect that Anselm Kiefer admitted in his richly patinated giant paintings of Nazi buildings brought to ruin. The irony was that by the time Kiefer began his paintings in the late 1970s, the Nazi buildings had to be ruined in his imagination because the more significant Nazi buildings – especially the Neue Reichskanzlei – had been utterly erased. Kiefer had to consult publicity photographs of the buildings in pristine condition before he could summon the apocalyptic aftermath in his imagination. Generally, nothing so ambiguous or evocative as a state of ruin is permitted to Nazi buildings. They are either in use or completely erased. Exceptions are: coastal defences (abandoned, unusable and on liminal land), the Berlin and Vienna Flakturm (hugely expensive to dismantle) and the concentration and death camps (in a state of suspended animation, semi-preserved as historical reminders).     

Not one trace

Modern iconoclasts have no intention of allowing anything as material as ruins to survive. They call for the destruction of material they deem offensive, to be marked by open space or replaced with new icons of the religion of social justice. The warriors of social justice take an old-fashioned absolutist view of cultural material. Produced by the exploitation of ‘black bodies’, facilitated by ‘white colonialism’, set in service of Christianisation of foreign lands, the relics of the past are infused with the toxins of social injustice at an atomic level. The utterly unparalleled evil of white, European, colonialist, Christian, patriarchal systems of barbarism which sustained society and produced its monuments transferred its evil to the very matter of its manifestation.

The statue must be toppled, the plinth must be dismantled, the plaque must be removed, the street name must be erased, the books recording the subject’s deeds must be deaccessioned from every public library. Once the subject is eradicated, his ghost can take any form his detractors wish, unimpeded by material evidence. Just as the graves of holy men were opened during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, to allow the smashing of bones, so today’s iconoclasts pursue their own forms of ritual shaming. Not only was the Bristol statue of Edward Colston toppled and submerged in June 2020, stained glass windows dedicated to him were dismantled, his name was removed from the concert hall and from the school founded in his name. The society commemorating his beneficence was dissolved. He was unpersoned during an orgy of revisionist righteousness, designed to allow Bristolians to forget, to rest easy now their historical debt had been paid.  

Perhaps these new zealots intuit from their atavistic instincts that when material remains exist they can accrue mystery, significance and power in the minds of men. Colston’s statue may be permitted to live on in a museum, but only in its damaged state, to be surrounded by demeaning contextualisation intended to perpetuate the public humiliation. It is a trophy. Perhaps in future, no evidence of the supposed miscreants of history will remain except as trophies in displays intended to subvert lasting glory into endless infamy in stocks of the public space. Damnatio memoriae, as the Romans would have recognised. There will be no ruins to linger among and no fallen colossi to contemplate. Will the masked rioters of Europe mimic the masked iconoclasts of ISIS in Nineveh by reducing statues to stones, stones to pebbles, stopping only when the no trace of the subject remains identifiable?

The fury of today’s destroyers comes from the fact that the sins they condemn (colonialism, racism, capitalism, ecological exploitation) are diffused into every particle of their life. Pennies that flow through their bank accounts are residues of slavery. Houses they live in contain bricks made by the exploited. In their pockets, they have iPhones with components of cobalt and cadmium, mined by slaves in Africa. Their clothes are made in conditions they themselves have called ‘sweatshop’. Their pension providers invest in tobacco, munitions, genetically modified crops, oil drilling, polluting airlines, ‘big pharma’ and all manner of enterprises which have yet to be condemned by the pure. The very substance of the rioters’ lives cries out with injustice. So, they target scapegoats. They deflect and they project. Snagged in a trap of irresolvable contradictions, they lash out and their fury is strategically directed by politicians, educators, lobbyists and agitators. The Christian destroys the pagan idol; the Muslim destroys the infidel’s false image; the warrior for social justice destroys the statue of his ancestor. Each seeks to expiate guilt and protect the next generation from encountering the false authority. Some leave ruins, others leave none.

Classical Kent

Peter Warlock
STUART MILLSON searches for unjustly overlooked Kent composers

A recent release on an innovative recording label – with the somewhat obscure title, Heracleitus – brings a mysterious figure from 20th century music in this country into view. The CD from the recording arm of the English Music Festival, an organisation dedicated to the rediscovery of the musical traditions of this island, owes its name to an almost forgotten song by Peter Warlock, which receives its world-premiere recording in the disc (Heracleitus – songs by Warlock, Gurney and Butterworth, EMR CD036).

Peter Warlock (1894-1930) was perhaps one of the first English minimalists – or at least, a composer able to concentrate profound sensitivity and emotion into sparse and sparing spans of music.

Warlock is best known for his Suite, Capriol – based upon 16th-century airs and dances – and the slanting light of desolate marshland in the melancholic song-cycle, The Curlew; but in the song, Heracleitus, the listener encounters a timeless whisper from classical antiquity, set in an English mist, and reverently delivered by tenor, Charles Daniels:

‘They told me, Heracleitus, they told 
Me you were dead; 
They brought me bitter news to hear 
And bitter tears to shed; 
I wept, as I remembered, how often you and I 
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.’
(W J Cory, 1823-92, after Callimachus (3rd century BC)

Warlock lived for a time in the north Kent village of Eynsford, which even today (despite traffic) is a reassuringly old-fashioned place, standing beside and fording the clear stream of the River Darent, overlooked by downland and willows. By a stroke of good luck, the M25 – which planners wanted to build through the Shoreham and Eynsford valley – went elsewhere, saving an idyllic landscape from noise and destruction.

E J Moeran, Warlock’s fellow composer and boon-companion

A blue plaque at the Eynsford High Street cottage which he shared between 1925 and 1928 with fellow composer, E.J. Moeran commemorates his time there – and by all accounts (“with the kitchen swimming in beer”) it was a jolly, bohemian existence, or perhaps too dissolute to sustain. Moeran – a man who seemed as Irish as he was English – even earned the name, “Jolly Jack”, and when not composing his Violin Concerto or landscape-inspired rhapsodies, shared his composer-friend’s propensity for ale-drinking. Legends abound of the Eynsford sojourn: a naked Peter Warlock, no doubt under the influence of the local brew, even rode a motorcycle back and forth through the village – to the amusement of fellow bohemians, no doubt, but probably to the consternation of the natives. When returning from London on the train, the Eynsford station-master was always ready to bang on the window of the carriage in which Warlock was travelling – thus waking the slumbering composer from his stupor.

Another of the composer’s north Kent circle was the curious figure of one Hal Collins. As Michael Trend noted in his 1985 book, The Music MakersThe English Musical Renaissance from Elgar to Britten:

… Hal Collins – also known as Te Akau – a part-Maori, who boasted a cannibal grandmother. Collins was an interesting man in his own right: he was an effective artist, as his woodcuts show, and also, it seems, a self-taught musician who once played a whole act of an opera from Tristram Shandy which he had in his head.

Yet a purity is found in Warlock’s music, at odds with the excesses – and darkness of his character (a darkness, emphasised by his strange, untimely, lonely death in a Chelsea flat in 1930): wistful phrases, beautiful and touching, yet slipping away into a feeling that the composer is longing for something unattainable. (Warlock wasn’t the musician’s real name – the composer abandoning his familial name, Heseltine, for a persona far more tantalising and provocative.) It was, perhaps, a natural thing for Warlock to have come to this Kentish valley. Neighbouring Shoreham was the home of the early 19th-century mystical and pastoral painter, Samuel Palmer. He and his followers loved the countryside and described themselves as “the Ancients”, often dressing in the mediaeval costume. The paintings – oddly modern, in their style – or at least, not entirely what one would expect of the early half of the 19th century – depict a mediaeval world of corn, twilights, harvest, rural-dwellers. A photograph exists of smiling Peter Warlock, tankard in hand, standing alongside members of the Shoreham Dramatic Society – the members in their rustic Robin Hood costumes.

English music is so often associated with scenes of rural Britain. As the inter-war Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, said: “England is the country, and the country is England.” Vaughan Williams wrote a Pastoral Symphony, in part, a response to the Great War; and a composer called Ernest Farrar (who was born in Lewisham in 1885 – some 10 miles from Eynsford) which in those days was a rural village by the River Ravensbourne) composed a suite of English Pastoral Impressions, the first movement of which suggests bells chiming in the distance, and a gentle dance on the village green – the music then subsiding into a dream sequence, as distant, watchful horn-calls evoke longing and memory. Farrar served in The Great War, his life ending on the Western Front in the last year of the conflict.

In the search for Warlock, other forgotten figures have emerged from the north-west Kent… Who, for example, has heard of John Veale (1922-2006)?  Veale was born in the suburb of Shortlands (famous for its 19th-century ragstone-constructed water pumping station, built in the style of a chateau) and a part of Bromley – once a Kent market town, but now known as the London Borough of Bromley. He composed symphonic works, and his Violin Concerto (which is reminiscent of William Walton) has been recorded by the Chandos label. Yet, just like the Cornishman, George Lloyd, Veale sank into complete obscurity during the time of the Second Viennese School takeover at the BBC during the 1960s and ‘70s; and was quite surprised in the early 1980s to have received a telephone call: “Is that the composer, John Veale?”

Just a couple of miles away in equally built-up Beckenham (although there are still village almshouses by St. George’s church), emerged another composer: Carey Blyton (a relative of the famous children’s author). Many will be surprised to know that Blyton wrote much of the early incidental music to the classic television sci-fi series, Dr. Who – haunting, abstract minimalist pieces, including a brief march-like interlude for the character of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, an accomplice of the Doctor. In complete contrast is the composer’s Song of the Goldfish – a strange evocation of the fish’s existence in a living room bowl – and an adventure-tale Overture, The Hobbit (recorded on a British Light Overtures series by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia).

Villages just beyond the M25 – suburbs which were once villages themselves. Look carefully through the neat hedges and fragments of still-wild woodland that has managed to cling to life in our congested age: a legacy of music created by some of England’s most unusual artistic personalities remains… 

Canadian rock revisited

Derek Turner interviews Canadian rock titan EDGAR BREAU

Q. Canada’s musical heritage is as varied as its landscape – from the Celtic-and French-infused “music of the maritimes”, via Portia White, Oscar Peterson, Paul Anka, Neil Young, Steppenwolf, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, to M.O.R. mega-acts like Rush, Bryan Adams, Céline Dion, Michael Bublé, and Justin Bieber. But your musical roots draw from less familiar soil. Critics have detected influences ranging from English folk to psychedelia and “Krautrock”, and Soft Machine to Stockhausen and Velvet Underground. I assume you don’t ever apply labels to yourself! But do you have a kind of philosophy of music? What attracts you to a song? Does it have to be ‘meaningful’ as well as melodic and rhythmic? How would you describe your writing process?

A. I started out playing Gordon Lightfoot cover songs from his record Back Here on Earth. Well-constructed songs of place, person, and lived experience by one of the best. Next came Scottish songsmith Donovan Leitch, with his bluesy Celtic mix – a very subtle writer, lovely melodies and rich lyrical content. Bob Dylan’s symbolist lyrical experiments were also a big influence on me in my youth. Those two poles pretty well sum up what I look for in a song. When I first recorded in 1974 my songs sounded nothing like the above-mentioned songwriters. Only later would the early folk influences return.

My writing process now – I take various open tuning approaches, finger style. I sometimes will start off with a catchy, promising song title. “That was the Week that Was”, the satirical BBC program furnished me with one such. It suggested word play to me, and the story line developed gradually into a romantic week that was brief and seemingly of little consequence – “the drinks got to me” – but upon reflection something more powerful occurred and reflection fills the mind of the protagonist with poignant memories. I throw out reams of material on the way to something solid that I can work on and develop into a good song. Trial and error and a lot of revision.

A 1757 map of French Canada

Q. What music did you hear around you when you were growing up? Were your parents musical? What is your family background? What was 1970s Hamilton like to grow up in? To an outsider, it looks like a city both busy, and with some commitment to culture.

A. There was always music in the home. My father, who was an east coast Acadian from Chatham New Brunswick, played the mouth organ and sang old French songs he learned in his youth. His musical tastes ranged from accordionist Harry Hibbs, a traditional Newfoundlander, country singer Hank Snow, balladeer Jim Reeves, Strauss waltzes and some Italian opera. I have three older sisters who played and danced to Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Jerry Lewis, Ivory Joe Hunter 78s. Later on, the youngest of them, Maureen began buying girl-group 45s by the Chiffons, Supremes, Ronettes, Martha and the Vandellas, and many others. I watched American Bandstand with her. She brought the Rolling Stones’ records into the house as well. My mom loved all our records. My father was mostly contemptuous of it, except for Gordon Lightfoot.

My father came from a French/Catholic Acadian background which reached far back in our country’s history. Our most distant relative, Vincent Breau (Breaux, Brault) arrived in Canada from France in 1661 and became the ‘Adam’ of the entire line of descendants bearing his name. It could be said that the ‘Breaus’ were one of ten or twelve founding families of Acadia, a former French colony established in 1604 in the territory that now includes Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island in Canada. My grandfather worked in a saw mill, and built and played violins despite the missing digit caused by an accident at the mill. My great grandmother was said to be Mi’kmaq who are a First Nations people of the Northeastern Woodlands, indigenous to the Atlantic Provinces. I learned this later in life from a relative and have no reason to doubt it. My grandmother was also French Acadian. Dad was a decorated soldier  in the Carlton York regiment and saw action in the Italian campaign after a stay in the U.K. training and – if his stories can be believed – rabble rousing, carousing and having the time of his life. He was shot through the wrist in Italy, ending his active duty as a sniper. On return home he left ‘down east’ as he always called it looking for work in the Toronto/Hamilton area of Ontario. Many others came here from the Atlantic coast. Dad worked at the Westinghouse factory but when layoffs loomed relocated to Guelph Ontario to work in the penitentiary as a guard. His qualifications: he had singlehandedly guarded hundreds of Italian POWs with a machine gun. Certainly he didn’t have much of an education, working in lumberjack camps at age 16.

Ever the soldier, he found it hard to understand his eldest son’s nonchalance towards jobs and education. I considered myself rather as a poet, and a musician destined for great things. We clashed at times, to put it mildly and understandably.

My mother came from Welsh/Irish stock, strict Catholic. Some were clerics, nuns, missionaries, one in Darjeeling, India. Our home was literally full of people. At the height of it, as I entered adolescence there were 15, consisting of myself, six siblings, an aunt (actually my cousin, family secret), two foster children and four cousins. We ate in three shifts. I grew up listening to prison stories, the raw violence that occurred there – stories of prisoners in the ‘hole’ being hosed down after they did unspeakable things with their own excrement, razors in toothbrushes, brawls my dad was involved in, challenges the soldier would never back down from. I believe Blood Sweat and Tears vocalist, David Clayton Thomas, was incarcerated as a young man when my dad worked there. He references a certain guard, ‘the silent tough one’, in his memoirs and I wonder if it’s Mr. Breau. My brother, Michael took after dad but his way was an outlaw, wild and lawless road that ended up behind the bars my father looked at from the other side. Michael was as tough as nails, a legend in the east end of Hamilton, a beloved lone wolf who carved out his own way, and eventually made good in the renovation business.

Things were chaotic at times and I was beginning to come off the rails. In the summer of 1972 after reading Kerouac’s On The Road, I found a hitchhiking buddy, my own Neal Cassady, and thumbed across the country, having many adventures on the road. Like Kerouac, I was a mix of Catholic and bohemian, a conservative in some ways intellectually, but living and moving in more liberal and for a time decadent and – I dare say it – dabbling in the occult and avant-garde circles. He was French Quebeçois, I was part French Acadian. Both of us were anti communist.

My father was a socialist, in early days pro-communist, but later on he became a social conservative. He rejected the labour movement’s drift away from working-class economic issues into social issues and, eventually, identity politics.

Hamilton was a tough steel town when I was growing up there in the east end of the city where the steel mills were located. I hesitate to name the gangs, even today, that divided up the turf. Warfare it was. One learned to be wary and forever looking over your shoulder on the streets for potential menacing action. Later on, I would take karate lessons from two wonderful streetwise African-Canadian black belts originally from Detroit, who taught me respect and honour while honing my fighting skills. Shortly after attaining my brown belt I decided to leave the dojo, worried about breaking a hand or a finger, intent now to be a musician and absorbed in romantic interests. A loss of discipline no doubt…

Hamilton today

Q. How did you meet your bandmates? What was it about Pink Floyd’s Saucerful of Secrets that inspired Simply Saucer’s name? After all, your favourite Floyd member, Syd Barrett, had much less to do with that album than its predecessor. Was listening to prog rock and psychedelia a way to imaginatively remove yourself from an unpleasing reality?

A. I met my bandmate Paul Colilli at high school. He was fascinated by Sixties bands as they emerged and buying all the records he could get his hands on. Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Byrds, the Nazz, Canada’s Kensington Market. We became close friends and talked incessantly about music, literature and film. Paul was taking instructions in classical piano and eventually I began rehearsing with him at his parents’ home. We collaborated in naming the band and began looking for other musical adventurers.

He was of Italian-Canadian background with strict parents and they eventually steered him into post-secondary school education away from the rough bohemian influences. Late in 1973, my best friend left the band to pursue a degree and career as an academic and eventually became a modern renaissance man, the Dean of Italian Studies at Laurentia University. He was a world-renowned scholar known for his writings on Italian literature, culture and philosophy. He released a couple of albums later in life, describing his music as metaphysical ghost music. Sadly, Paul passed away in 2018 but not before recording new music with his old friends in Simply Saucer. A release is due in 2021 under the name Saucer73. See the link for more on Paul Colilli –

I men another bandmate, David Byers, at a record store. His relatives in Holland had been sending him Dutch underground bands like Savage Rose, Wally Tax and the Outsiders, Supersister, and Group 1840. Dave had caught the Velvet Underground at a Toronto outdoor festival and immediately became a fan. I felt the same way about them and began patterning my vocals and guitar-playing after Lou Reed.

All of us were collecting records voraciously and would vie for bragging rights when we found obscure offerings, most of which would later become part of the rock canon, groups like The Seeds, The Stooges, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, The Thirteenth Floor Elevator, The Can, Faust. We held drunken rituals called Record Spinoffs where we would rate our latest ‘finds’ by criteria of “originality”, “obscurity” and there would be a winner at the end of the drinking bout crowned and celebrated.

Musically we began to jell, mainly playing improvisational pieces – long jams, psychedelic, erratic, angular – using electric guitars, audio generators, mini moogs, electrified flutes and saxophones. We had picked up a drummer by then, an eccentric fellow by the name of Neil de Merchant who had pop-jazz leanings. My foster brother, John, played synth under the moniker, “Ping”, and a high school friend Kevin Christoff rounded out the band.

At the time a coterie of us were engrossed in imaginative, fantasy fiction. The Lord of the Rings I had read in my high school days but now it was Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, Arthur Edward Waite’s occultist biography of Louis Claude de St. Martin and his novel, The Quest of the Golden Stairs, as well the Rider Tarot deck he designed. There was E.R. Eddison’s Fish Dinner in Memison, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land and, most frightening of all, the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

Incidentally I hadn’t read Lovecraft since those halcyon days but recently picked up a copy of Michel Houellebecq’s H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life – a penetrating disturbing essay, reassessing his works and was induced again to read The Call of Cthulhu and The Whisperer in Darkness, both stories absolutely terrifying. Houllebecq writes

The twentieth century may come to be recognized as the golden age of epic and fantasy literature, once the morbid mists of feeble avant-gardes dissipate. It has already witnessed the emergence of Howard, Lovecraft and Tolkien – three radically different universes. Three pillars of dream literature, as despised by critics as they are loved by the public.

The fantasy writers filled my young man’s head with dreams of forbidden planets, arcane occult rituals, monster races of humanoids spawned in the mists of times, places sublime ‘at the back of the north wind’. Arthur Machem, Lord Dunsany, Poe, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, with a Catholic mystic or two thrown in for good measure. I lived in a strange enchanting world mentally and it began to spill over into the music of Simply Saucer.

Q. But then you reinvented yourselves as rawer rockers, with ‘She’s A Dog’ – a steel-town sounding, stripped-down song which seems strangely unrepresentative of your earlier, later, and even contemporary careers. Other songs from that period were much more ambitious, with synthesizers and theremins. Why did you choose that song? Was it a simple bid for commercial success? Wasn’t the Hamilton audience ‘ready’ for the other things you’d been doing? Julian Cope implies this, when he says you

conjured up a whole raft of imaginary Canuck ne’er-do-wells to travel with [you on your] extremely idiosyncratic musical travelogue

A. The responses to our live show in the early days of performing could be rather dramatic. We emptied out an arena in Carlton Place, Ontario; they just weren’t ready for our heavy metalloid music. Two fans braved it out to the end, showering us with praise. In Oakville, Ontario we were thrown off the stage, the drummer, literally thrown out of the club. Projectiles were hurled at us in St. Catherines. Professor Colilli, years later, declared that we were ‘deconstructing music’. Either that or just self-destructing!

Eventually we ended up in the studio where we recorded the studio side of Cyborgs Revisited (1974) at the home studio of Daniel and Bob Lanois in Ancaster, Ontario. Daniel would become, later on, just about the most famous record producer in the world. His client list is very impressive – U2, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Willy Nelson, Neil Young, Peter Gabriel, the Neville Brothers – the list is long. Back then, I remember him sitting cross legged on the studio floor with his hands over his ears bravely enduring our “heavy metalloid music”. The six songs we recorded would not see the light of day for another 15 years, all the major Canadian record labels rejecting our demo. The day would come, though, when critics would outdo themselves in superlatives trying to describe the sounds on Cyborgs Revisited – our posthumous slab of vinyl, mysterious gift of outsider music to the world.

All of the songs were composed in a dreary narrow storefront, with walls painted black. I lived and slept and ate there for a year, amplifiers, guitars and chords on the floor where I slept on a thin piece of sponge, the sounds of the street echoing in the background, hoods pulverizing their latest victim perhaps with a pool cue, knife, or once when the local gang ‘ladies’ stopped by brandishing a plank with nails in at aimed at the head of our cheeky new drummer. It was claustrophobic in there, and so what better to do than compose my songs of dystopic technology running rampage over the fields of fairy?

Such considerations as a job to provide food and clothing, I blithely ignored. My concerned mother sent care packages over to the hovel, concerned that I would starve. The local thieves took advantage of my naivete, stowing stolen Harley Davidsons at the back of the rehearsal space on one occasion… ”Would you mind keeping these here for us for a couple of days? Thanks man…” I had no idea.  

The gangs penetrated the inner sanctum now and again, threatening me with tyre irons, stealing guitars (alas), and demanding the band ‘play some Led Zeppelin’. One of them years later led a phalanx of motorcycle bad boy riders, some Hells Angels included, out of respect for their compatriot, brother Mike, to the graveyard where they hastily constituted an honour guard for my deceased father, the tough old prison guard whom they well respected. Later on in the church hall, George, we’ll call him, who had bitten off a rival’s ear and wore it around his neck as a talisman remarked that he remembered dropping acid outside our rehearsal space and then inspired by our music went out and “busted some heads”. I was flattered …

So yes, She’s A Dog was written for commercial success, and in fact England’s New Musical Express declared it “the pick hit single of the week” – a mix of the Kinks, Who and Velvet Underground, which suited me very well.

Q. Now, of course, Cyborgs Revisited is viewed as one of the great Canadian rock albums. But the songs on it were quite old by the time it was issued in 1989, and you had long ago reinvented yourself as a balladeer. You must have had mixed feelings at hearing those songs again, not to mention being expected to perform them.

A. Yes, absolutely it was difficult. I had abandoned the electric guitar by 1979 and invested in an acoustic guitar made by a soon-to-be internationally celebrated luthier by the name of Grit Laskin. I was enthralled by the American primitive guitar stylings of John Fahey and had crafted new songs with a more mature lyrical content. I was in the studio at the time Cyborgs Revisited was released, recording my first solo album. The critical reaction to Cyborgs Revisited right from the beginning was extremely positive and in some cases ecstatic. I felt very divided. The reviews poured in, and folks were calling Cyborgs Revisited one of the greatest Canadian rock albums ever made. There was shock that this music had come out of Canada. The record collectors salivated over it, stunned that the music had been hidden from the world since 1974.

Meanwhile, back at home my wife was very pregnant with our third child, fearful of my return to playing music, hysterical at the late hours I was keeping and my increasingly outside the mainstream political beliefs and their inclusion in my songs. “Think of your kids”, she would say. “We could be subject to an arson attack. What’s happening to you?” The centerpiece of my album, New Sacred Cow Blues, was rather reactionary in a revolutionary kind of way. The intent was to write a new kind of protest song, one not coming from a liberal progressive outlook but au contraire from a radical traditionalist perspective. The cannon was now on a swivel and pointing directly back at the smug and complacent ‘former’ counter culture that had become ossified, mainstream and as intolerant as the straight culture it had denigrated in the Sixties. My new anthem began with the words  “I’m serving notice, on a wooden door…” casting me as a modern Luther intent on dismantling the smug countercultural ‘verities’ that had gone unchallenged for so long, a reaffirmation of the medieval call to order and hierarchy. In short, it was a clarion call of battle for the soul of the West.

Under the strain of my own grandiose obsessions and my wife’s nervous projections of paranoia (which would eventually lead to a nervous breakdown), with inner divisions running wild in my psyche, I cracked, walked away from the studio and the music world and hunkered down for the next ten years, homeschooling my children and subscribing to radical traditionalist publications like Small Farmer’s Journal, Modern Age, University Bookman, the Chesterton Review, the Dawson Newsletter, Issues and Views (African American conservative entrepreneurs who introduced me to the economist Thomas Sowell’s libertarianism).

Inspired by Chesterton’s and Belloc’s politics of distributism and championing of a new Agrarianism, I made plans to move into the north country and live self-sufficiently, growing my own food, making cheese (I had already made a start on this), homeschooling my children, farming in the three-cows-and-an-acre tradition. I made inquiries about a century-old farmhouse in Tara, Ontario, but on the homefront things were starting to fall apart, and money was running out. I took a woodworking job and left my wife to school the kids. Soon after she completely broke down mentally and ended up at the psyche ward at the local hospital. The plan was put on hold and soon faded into the distance as crisis mounted year after year.

Q. The folk influences you and others have cited seem much more obvious in your modern work – in songs like ‘Patches of Blue’, ‘Martha’s Back’ or ‘Mount Idaho’. Articles about and interviews with you throw up English folk names, like Steeleye Span. But what about other folk traditions? Were you conscious of an Acadian, or more precisely Franco-Ontarian, inheritance, and did you listen to that vein of traditional music?

The Acadian flag

A. My father stressed the nobility of our French heritage, taught us French phrases, extolled the unparalleled military virtues of General de Gaulle (who remains a favourite). The Acadian side of the family were fun loving, uninhibited, opinionated, argumentative.

My father played his music, yes, but it wasn’t until his retirement that he delved deeply into the history of his family and learned in depth the tragedy of the Acadians – their dispersal and deportation from Acadia in 1755 when they refused to sign an oath of allegiance to the English crown. He immersed himself in their history and genealogies, nursing a grudge against the predatory English, drawing Acadian flags, writing poems of his lost homeland and inculcating in his children fervour for our lost heritage.

Q. Folk music is frequently associated with radical or at least liberal politics – probably inevitable given its emphasis on giving voice to the unheard and unlucky. But this is not today’s cultural kind of radicalism, with its abortion, BLM and transgender activism – but more about economic fairness. I ask because of your foray into politics in the late 1990s, when you stood for the Family Coalition Party in the Ontario provincial elections, on a socially conservative and even fiscally conservative platform. What brought that about?

A. I became interested in apologetics in the 1990s. John Henry Newman’s “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine” and his “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” were influential as were the high Anglican popular works by C.S. Lewis and Dorothy L. Sayers. George Bernanos, Charles Peguy, Russell Kirk all influenced my thinking – the list is long.. After the band broke up in 1981, I began reading Solzhenityn’s three volume Gulag Archipelago. I’d sit in the corrugated iron shack on the coke oven battery, while my fellow workers got stoned and played cards, absorbed in the tortures, interrogations, the bone-numbing fear and the ever present bureaucracy heartlessly processing the prisoners. My father’s socialist and rosy view of the Soviet Union crumbled. Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ I began to see as symptomatic of our own culture’s dreamy abstractional drift towards totalitarianism. The woke social justice warriors, critical race theory, cancel culture are all modern manifestations of it in our own time.

I gave a talk on apologetics at church one evening, and a couple of the founders of the Family Coalition Party happened to be there. They approached me afterwards urging me to run in the upcoming provincial election. They must have been mightily impressed with my talk! The party was socially conservative, and much of their approach was based on the Catholic principle of subsidiarity – defined as an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Health savings accounts, diverse educational models like charter schools, home schooling were extolled by the party. I was already home schooling at that time. Government encouragement of small family farms and stewardship of the environment were a part of the platform.

My politics are localist, communitarian, distributist, ecology-mindful, freedom-oriented, based on the principle of subsidiarity. They are agrarian-centred, with an emphasis on the common good, the nation state over individual assertions of an atomistic, narrow, idiosyncratic, often times delusional, ‘identity’. I believe a society works best when there is a tension between liberals and conservatives. We need them both – iconoclasts who can smash up the dead ideas and debris of our imperfect past and the conservers of tradition, our lovely countryside, family farms, faith and yes our history.

Q. Why didn’t you carry your politics further? You lost that election, but most politicians lose their first elections. What do you make of Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservatives – and Canadian politics more generally?

A. I was asked to run again but declined. The shellacking I took in the polls had been rather bracing but that alone doesn’t account for my reluctance to run again as I’m by nature a strong-willed contrarian accustomed to living outside the mainstream, unbowed by a lack of popular support for my convictions. I ran a respectable campaign and learned much about the intricacies of our democratic process. There were tensions at home by that time that sidelined my nascent political career. Things were beginning to fall apart in my marriage.

Premier Doug Ford has shut down numerous small businesses due to the pandemic while allowing bigger franchises, such as Costco and Walmart, to continue to thrive. He’s promised to give the taxpayer the scientific data in support of his closures but has consistently failed to deliver on that promise. He sold out and betrayed the social conservatives he needed to win the nomination in the first place and since then has demonstrated his incompetence convincingly.

I supported Leslyn Lewis in the recent federal Conservative leadership race; although she lost a close contest, I believe she’s the future of the party. A Jamaican immigrant, she earned degrees from the University of Toronto, York University and Osgoode Hall Law school, and practiced law for 20 years starting her own firm. She specialized in corporate, real estate, immigration and energy law. She has a Masters degree in environmental studies, and would push back against political correctness. She agrees with Jordan Peterson that ‘gender expression’ and ‘gender identity’ should not be grounds for discrimination protection in the Criminal Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act because she believes it would threaten people for using ‘incorrect speech’. A more ecological version of Maggie Thatcher, perhaps?

Right now the federal government under the ‘leadership’ of Justin Trudeau is spending the country into oblivion and pushing every politically correct woke dogma imaginable down the throats of the populace. A kind of soft totalitarianism begins to pervade our institutions, and cancel culture abounds. Our state broadcaster the CBC feels like a mere adjunct of the Liberal Party, while universities demonize views which just a decade ago were perfectly acceptable. Illiberal mover and shaker elites, buttressed by critical race theory, racialize every aspect of life, including mathematics. As identity becomes paramount in divvying out social justice, the poor remain on the sidelines; economic hardship takes a back seat to the latest favored “identity victim’. Trudeau’s election promise to bring safe water to every indigenous reserve has fallen by the wayside, his carbon reduction plans are an empty promise. He cowers before Communist China, failing to speak directly to them about the Canadian hostages they keep. Justin Trudeau is a mere shadow of his father and former Prime Minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

I applaud James Lindsay, the mathematician/philosopher, whose website, Public Discourses, systematically critiques Critical Race Theory and demonstrates that is not at all about social justice but about Marxist political power and dominance through the destruction of the liberal norms of political discourse. Indeed, it is at heart anti-democratic and totalitarian.

Q. What do you think of the contemporary Canadian musical scene – acts like Arcade Fire, July Talk, Deadmau5, and Drake? Which, if any of these, do you enjoy? If none of them, then who do you listen to mostly?

A. I know little of any of them other than Arcade Fire named one of their albums, Neon Bible, after the novel of the same name by the great Louisiana writer John Kennedy Toole who wrote the masterpiece, A Confederacy of Dunces. (I identify deeply with Ignatius Reilly sans the disgusting bodily functions.)

I find my music in out-of-the-way thrift storesand junk shops, and friends give them to me as gifts. Recent finds – a six record (vinyl) set by celebrated Polish harpsichordist, Wanda Landowska on RCA Victor 1958, called The Well Tempered Clavier by J.S. Bach. All of this for Canadian $3.50. Another is Sing Round the Year, 18 carols selected and composed by Welsh born composer, musician, singer and entertainer, Donald Swann – sung by him and the girls of Mayfield School, Putney and the boys of Westminster School. A real find that, for a total of 0.25 cents! One more – a record by the legendary Memphis-born blues singer, Alberta Hunter, an original soundtrack recording from the film Remember My Name. She recorded it at the age of 83 and it is smoking hot great. Picked it up used, for a mere pittance. You get the picture. I collect as always really finding whatever happens to show up. Books the same way. I’m not systematic or organized at all really. Whatever catches my fancy, and currently I’m reading Michel Houllebecq. Bed time reading are the Essays of Graham Greene.

Finally, Simply Saucer continues to thrive. We were a headlining act at the 2019 Goner Fest in Memphis Tennessee and have played NYC, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, Austin and many other American cities, and much of Canada. We were slated to tour California and much of the American west coast in 2020 but Covid had other plans. We are returning to the studio to record once again. I have wonderful bandmates of spectacular talent including original member Kevin Christoff on bass, Mike Trebilcock, formerly of the popular powerpop band the Killjoys on guitar, Colina Phillips, who as a session singer worked with Bruce Cockburn, Bryan Adams, Alice Cooper and many others, on backing vocals and synth and a youthful drum phenom, Brad Bridges. And finally, I’m an avid member of the Churchill Community Garden Association, a rank amateur amazed each year by the fecundity of my plot at harvest time.

Worlds before Narnia – C S Lewis’s Heavens

GREG JINKERSON reminds us of C S Lewis’s Space Trilogy

Beyond his still-popular works of Christian apologetics, C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) may be most familiar as creator of The Chronicles of Narnia, the classic children series published in the 1950s, and since filmed several times. But long before Aslan and the Pevensies debuted in the first Narnia story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), Lewis was the demiurge of other fantastic worlds formed with adult readers in mind.

His first published novel was the Bunyanesque bildungsroman The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), where the pilgrim John encounters people like Mr. Enlightenment and Mother Kirk, and Lewis gives an impression of how such abstractions shaped his early intellectual development and later Christian faith. In between the Pilgrim and the Lion, Lewis devoted a deal of the WWII years to writing his Space Trilogy, about a man drawn into a cosmic moral conflict that comes to a head on earth. The series is a more mature expression of the allegorical seeds planted in his first novel, and an anticipation of many themes from Narnia – the combat between good and evil animating human characters and their angelic counterparts, miraculous trips and oracular bulletins from distant lands, and “unattained ideals…in the history of Man.”1

As in his Chronicles, Lewis spins a fairy tale replete with haunted houses, necromancy, enchanted groves and bewitched familiars. The interplanetary saga begins in Out of the Silent Planet (1938) where the hero Elwin Ransom – a philologist and a character Lewis once called “a fancy portrait of a man I know, but not of me,”2 – is abducted to Mars by a megalomaniacal physicist, Weston, and his sidekick Devine. (Incidentally, Ransom’s history shows that Lewis inserted plenty of his own experiences into the don, along with several traits of his Oxford friend and fellow author J. R. R. Tolkien.) Ransom’s adventures continue in Perelandra (1943) set on Lewis’ conception of the planet Venus, and winds up back on earth in That Hideous Strength (1945).

As the first book opens, Ransom has embarked alone on a long walking tour of the English countryside with a backpack – reminiscent of Christian with his heavy burden as seen by the Dreamer in The Pilgrim’s Progress. With a sabbatical before him and few obligations beyond his pleasures, he has failed to notify anyone of his plans or whereabouts, and isn’t expected home by anyone for many months. This anonymity makes him a ripe Everyman for the adventures ahead.

One night, finding that the inn where he had planned to stay is no longer lodging odd pedestrians, he knocks at the door of a secluded cottage in hopes of a bed. Overhearing violent shouts, Ransom stumbles onto the scene of an attempted kidnapping, where two men are struggling to subdue a young boy. Ransom intervenes and rescues the boy, becoming an unwitting substitute in the partners’ abduction scheme:

“The three combatants fell suddenly apart, the boy blubbering. ‘May I ask,’ said the thicker and taller of the two men, ‘who the devil you may be and what you are doing here?’… ‘My name is Ransom, if that is what you mean. And…’ ‘By Jove,’ said the slender man, ‘not Ransom who used to be at Wedenshaw?’ ‘I was at school at Wedenshaw,’ said Ransom. ‘I thought I knew you as soon as you spoke,’ said the slender man. ‘I’m Devine.”3

The first speaker, Weston, is Ransom’s arch enemy throughout the series, an ingenious physicist who immediately calls upon the devil; Devine, in his more easygoing approach to mischief, calls upon Jove. The former plans to use his spacecraft to colonize the galaxy in a quest to preserve the human race; the latter wants to plunder planets for their riches. The friends are a devilish pair, but Ransom’s weariness and his familiarity with Devine are enough to lure him into sheltering with them.

After being drugged, Ransom awakes in a spaceship and is first terrified and later exhilarated to realize his captors are carrying him to Mars, where they have already done reconnaissance on a previous voyage. Although they believe themselves to be bringing Ransom there as a sacrifice to the rulers of that planet, we find “the stars in their courses were fighting against Weston.”4 The allusion to the Book of Judges is a sign that Weston’s efforts are the inadvertent means of Ransom’s apotheosis – in spite of himself, Weston is delivering his enemy into a position of honour he himself covets.

Each book marks a stage in Ransom’s understanding of the Heavens – Lewis’ preferred term for outer space – and of the influence of extra-terrestrial creatures, many of whom become his friends. He meets for example angels, or eldila as they are known outside earth. The eldila are somewhat local to each planet and are ruled by archangels, or Oyeresu. The Oyarsa of Malacandra (Mars to earthlings) teaches Ransom that the solar system is an open field of angelic communication with just one Bermuda Triangle issuing no messages: the silent planet Thulcandra (Earth). In fact, the eldila of our planet have become sinister creatures. Upon meeting the Oyarsa, Ransom asks,

“Then you knew of our journey before we left Thulcandra?’

‘No. Thulcandra is the world we do not know. It alone is outside the heaven, and no message comes from it.’

Ransom was silent, but Oyarsa answered his unspoken questions.

It was not always so. Once we knew the Oyarsa of your world — he was brighter and greater than I — and then we did not call it Thulcandra. It is the longest of all stories and the bitterest. He became bent.5

In this accounting of Lucifer, Lewis invokes the medieval cosmology wherein “daemons are…creatures of a middle nature between gods and men – like Milton’s ‘Middle spirits’”6, and throws new light on the Fall of earthly life. “Through these intermediaries, and through them alone, we mortals have any intercourse with the gods.”7 Having lost contact with Earth, Oyarsa sent for a human ambassador to visit Malacandra and effect a rapprochement.

Ransom also encounters the native species of Malacandra: the seal-like hrossa, including a Friday to Ransom’s Crusoe named Hyoi – the amphibious pfifltriggi, artisans of the planet – and sorns, the mandarins of Malacandra. His odyssey even affords a glimpse of “the original of the Cyclops, a giant in a cave and a shepherd.”8 While on the planet, Ransom uses his philological training to master their universal language (which he terms Old Solar). All told, what had begun as a tour of England stretches light years afield before circling back to a thrilling and hectic voyage home.

Ransom’s gleanings in Malacandra are, naturally, not merely academic. By the time of Perelandra, Ransom has been communicating for several years with the Oyarsa about a new mission: stopping the Fall and its attendant curse from being inflicted upon Venus. Weston’s defeat on Mars has hardly discouraged his urge to rule new worlds, and he sets his sights on Perelandra as a consolation.

This second journey to a neighbouring planet has an uplifting effect upon Ransom, bringing him hitherto unknown sensations and even open new senses. His first breakfast on Perelandra is nothing short of psychedelic:

“The smells in the forest were beyond all that he had ever conceived. To say that they made him feel hungry and thirsty would be misleading; almost, they created a new kind of hunger and thirst, a longing that seemed to flow over from the body into the soul and which was a heaven to feel.”9

On Perelandra, and elsewhere in the heavens, Ransom’s body and soul meld in a peaceful anticipation of what might come; his desires awaken no fear about whether they will be fulfilled, for they are intrinsically pleasant. Indeed, fruit is a kind of superfluity:

“He picked one of them and turned it over and over. The rind was smooth and firm and seemed impossible to tear open. Then by accident one of his fingers punctured it and went through into coldness. After a moment’s hesitation he put the little aperture to his lips. He had meant to extract the smallest, experimental sip, but the first taste put his caution all to flight…It was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasures, something unheard of among men, out of all reckoning, beyond all covenant.”10  

This is more a sacrament than a meal, and binds Ransom beatifically in a kind of symbiotic nourishment with the vegetation. The unspoiled environment of Perelandra yields up a world eminently edible and edifying.

Ransom also encounters the Venusian Eve, Tinidril, whom he must protect from Weston’s attempt to involve her in a second Fall on Perelandra. This Ransom successfully averts, and his beatific vision is fulfilled when Tinidril is safely united with the king of Perelandra.

In That Hideous Strength, Ransom joins the angelic ranks back on earth for a climactic battle in an English university town against a deranged cabal of academic and scientific elites in league with their own Satanic allies. One of these is Lord Feverstone, a nom de guerre for Devine from the first adventure. The final volume’s primary theme, which Lewis lays out persuasively in his essay “The Abolition of Man” as a companion to the novel, is a caution against a naïve programme of inhumane central planning which he feared would accompany advanced Scientism in world governments.

Ransom again plays a heroic part in the action, but this time he shares the stage with new allies—the sociologist Mark Studdock and his wife Jane, along with a reincarnation of the Arthurian Merlin and a menagerie of benevolent animals. Despite the worst efforts of the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) to impose a technocratic police state upon England, Ransom’s forces of good and the whole host of heaven fight and stop them.

After their victory, one of Ransom’s cohort makes a speech about what Ransom learned during his time on the prelapsarian Perelandra about the history of England:

“It all began,” he said,

when we discovered that the Arthurian story is mostly true history. There was a moment in the Sixth Century when something that is always trying to break through into this country nearly succeeded. Logres was our name for it – it will do as well as another. And then gradually we began to see all English history in a new way. We discovered the haunting…Something we may call Britain is always haunted by something we may call Logres. Haven’t you noticed that we are two countries? After every Arthur, a Mordred; behind every Milton, a Cromwell: a nation of poets, a nation of shopkeepers: the home of Sidney – and of Cecil Rhodes. Is it any wonder they call us hypocrites? But what they mistake for hypocrisy is really the struggle between Logres and Britain.11

Although certain critics have found the series to verge on the didactic – the science fiction author Brian Aldiss said as much in a friendly way12, and Lewis’ own Oxford colleague, the biologist J.B.S. Haldane said it in a far more strident mode in a review of That Hideous Strength13 – Lewis for his part disagreed. In discussing the plot of Perelandra, and Aldiss’ suggestion that Lewis had set out to write it in order to make a moral point, Lewis gave an emphatic disavowal while laying out his approach to story making:

Yes everyone thinks that. They are quite wrong…the story of this averted fall came in very conveniently. Of course it wouldn’t have been that particular story if I wasn’t interested in those particular ideas on other grounds. But that isn’t what I started from. I’ve never started from a message or a moral…the story itself should force its moral upon [the writer]. You find out what the moral is by writing the story.14


  1. Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis, Scribner, New York, 1938; p. 75
  2. Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories by C.S. Lewis, edited with a Preface by Walter Hooper, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York and London, 1966; in “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” p. 78
  3. Out of the Silent Planet, p. 14
  4. Ibid., p. 127
  5. Ibid., pp. 119-120
  6. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature by C.S. Lewis, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1964; p. 40
  7. Ibid., pp. 40-41
  8. Perelandra by C.S. Lewis, Scribner, New York, 1944; p. 40
  9. Ibid., p. 37
  10. Ibid. p. 37
  11. That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis, Macmillan Publishing Co. New York, 1946, pp.368-369
  12. “Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories” in Unreal Estates, p. 87
  13. Ibid. in “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” p. 74, where Lewis mentions Haldane’s complaint that Lewis’ characters “are like slugs in an experimental cage who get a cabbage if they turn right and an electric shock if they turn left”
  14. Ibid. in “Unreal Estates”, p. 87

Home learning

PETER KING says that houses are not machines, but ‘organisms’ animated by us

I was lying in bed one morning, with no plans other than to roll over. It was too early to get out of bed, and I had nothing to get up early for. As planned, at 7.00am the heating system clicked into life with its distinctive rumble and low hum. Usually, this is a comforting noise, suggesting that things are working as they should. Except that they did not continue to work as they should on this particular morning. The low hum was replaced by a clang as if someone had dropped their tools on the landing, and then a loud bang. There was still a humming but louder and more insistent and with an ominous edge to it. There was also a smell of burning. The heating pump had burnt out after more than 20 years of consistent use. We turned the system off and arranged for an engineer to call to replace the pump, which duly happened the following morning. The repair was straightforward and took barely an hour. However, what had become clear to me was that there were things in our house that we could not control and could not maintain ourselves. There are any number of complex machines in our house that we rely on, that we expect to work reliably and constantly.

Le Corbusier, theorist of the house as machine

Naturally when one considers the idea of machines in this context one’s mind goes to Le Corbusier’s statement that ‘A house is a machine for living in’. This is a notion that I have always found abhorrent, with its emphasis on both uniformity and conformity.

Quite simply, we just do not see our house like that. When we consider the nature of the specific place where we live what stands out is its distinction. It is definitively different from those around it, even if the external appearance is very nearly indistinguishable. We never mistake our neighbour’s house for our own regardless of how similar it might look. A dwelling is always particular to those using it. Its use is always specific and not interchangeable. Our dwelling is not there simply to sustain us – although it must do that – but it acts too as a repository for our life experience and as a store of memory. While on a utilitarian level, any dwelling of a certain level of amenity would suffice, in practice we want something specific and we make it so.

Our dwelling is then a place that contains machines, but it is not a machine itself. We might see it as an assembly of machines, but again it is not merely this. We have to add to this assembly our memories, relationships (past and current), habits, eccentricities, and so on. These are the things that we use our dwelling for. They are the essence of what dwelling is and what the machines are there to serve.

A machine is something that can transmit force. It is powered in some way. But in what way is our house ‘powered’? There is no obvious power source (as opposed to what powers the machines within it). Our house does not move. It appears to be in stasis and as such it might be the very opposite of a machine.

But I want to suggest that dwelling does have a motive power. But it is not a quantifiable one. We can explore this by positing an alternative metaphor, namely that of the organism. We can define an organism in a number of ways. We can see it as a living being, as a distinct thing. But we can also see an organism as a system consisting of interdependent parts. As a living being an organism is contiguous and complete. But it is made up of a number of interdependent elements all with their prescribed function. This makes it sound like a machine, but there is an important difference. Unlike a machine, an organism is something whose motive force comes from within and not without. It is animated from the inside and does not depend on an external power source. So an organism, like a machine, can be seen as a complex or network of things. It too has a material structure with defined parts. But what animates the organism comes from within and is already part of us.

Like the machines in our house some parts of us must be in continuous use. We cannot turn them off and remain a viable being. We can appear to be largely idle, when we are at rest or asleep, but some of our core functions, such as digestion, respiration, heart function, must continue on. These are involuntary, automatic and outside of our conscious control. They operate without our direct involvement. The same applies to our unconscious mind. We cannot control our dreams. We cannot stop them from bursting into our heads, confusing and confounding us, perhaps even in frightening us. There are, so to speak, programs always running in the background, which we cannot control and which we would struggle to inhibit.

It is in this way that we can see our house as an organism, as having a number of systems that appear to work independently and outside of our direct control. It might be argued that we should only take this metaphor so far. Unlike our breathing, we can turn the systems in our house off. We can turn up the heating if we are cold or increase the shower temperature. This is certainly true, and we should be careful in not overusing our metaphors. But we also need to add that, while we can turn machines off or alter their use, we still need them. There is a cost in turning them off and it may be fatal, just as if some of our core bodily functions cease to work. A metaphor need not be exact to be helpful to us.

Where the metaphor is helpful is with relation to the issue of power. What is it that powers an organism? As I have suggested, it is this that differentiates an organism from a machine, and it is this facet that makes the organism a better metaphor for dwelling that the machine.

One way of looking at this issue, is the idea of animation. While a dead body of a loved one looks familiar, it is clear that there is something really significant missing: it is familiar, but it is not the same as the person we knew and loved. In some way the body appears to be empty. There is then something that appears to animate us. This can be seen as a life force that turns us from simple matter to a living being. We might be able to measure this life force, in indirect ways through pulse, brain wave patterns, respiration and so on, but this is not the force itself. It is not what gives us life, what gives us a mind. This is what distinguishes us most from a machine. It is also what distinguishes dwelling from the machine. A dwelling comes alive become it is inhabited by something that appears to give it volition and purpose.

An inanimate object can only do as it is bid. It can either work in the prescribed manner or not at all. It always does the best it can. It can do no other. It has no will and nor is it prone to mood swings and tantrums. It may appear temperamental, but this will be perfectly explicable in mechanical terms. A machine will work until it is turned off or breaks. The inanimate is implacable and cannot be reasoned with. There is no contingency, no variety or diversity in its operation. An object is functionally transparent.

Martin Heidegger, who believed we ‘humanised’ objects by using them

As Martin Heidegger has suggested, what animates the object – what gives it its spirit – is our use of it. In his book, Being and Time, Heidegger refers to the idea of objects as equipment. We turn it from an object to a tool, into something that is not only ours but, for as long as we use it well, part of us. In his famous example Heidegger talks about a carpenter using a hammer. This is an old and now familiar tool, and the carpenter is undertaking an action – hammering in a nail – that he had done countless times with this tool. Heidegger states that the hammer becomes transparent to the carpenter’s consciousness. It, as it were, becomes part of him, an extension of his will. It is, to use Heidegger’s jargon, ready to hand. But were the hammer to break it would become unready to hand and appear to the carpenter as present to hand. In other words, it becomes visible as an entity distinct in itself.

The jargon here may be clumsy – at least in English translation – but what Heidegger points to is that we use objects as extensions of ourselves incorporating them into our motives and aspirations, such that we literally do not notice them. And this is indeed how we act with all those things we use every day. We find we have driven home from the office without really noticing the route we’ve taken, because we do it every day. We don’t focus on the chair we are sitting on while we are eating, and we do not notice the machines working away in the background keeping us warm and providing us with hot water and light.

Indeed, our lives would not be recognisable if we had to focus specifically on every object we were using rather than on our objectives. Much of what we have around us are means – things for us to use – rather than ends. They are present to do a job for us, but in such as manner as not to be noticed. Many of the machines in our house have been devised precisely so we do not have to engage directly with them. They are made to work instead of us, and often to work in a way that is hidden from us. They are programmed to turn on and off and are placed away from us, so we do not have direct and regular contact with them.

In this sense, it might appear that these objects lack meaning in that we do not directly animate them, and certainly it is the case that we relate to them differently. They remain, as it were, strangers to us. However, these machines are in constant use and they perform crucially important tasks such as heating, light and supplying constant hot water (which is why they are preprogramed and automatic). Their meaning is necessarily implicit. They are the necessary background or framework on which our conscious lives depend. When these machines break, like the central heating pump, we are brought up short and made to think about the complexity of dwelling. The object is unready and most definitely present to us.

We can no longer ignore all those things hidden behind doors, walls and kept in inaccessible parts of the dwelling. But just as the heart and lungs are integral to us, so are these machines to our house. That we do not have to think about them is precisely the point. We are dependent on them, but this dependency does not have to made explicit. They remain tools just as much as those objects we active pick up. We use them and this use makes them opaque.

A machine can only be animated by our use of it. This is not to give it life as such, but to share our life with it, to make it part of it for as long as we need it, and it works as we wish it to. We take the machine and use it – and only this gives it meaning.

This sporting life – from football to (web) surfing

MARK G. BRENNAN remembers a strange but deeply significant job interview

My lacklustre grades, inflated ego, and halfhearted work ethic combined to make me unemployable when I graduated from college in 1986. But Price Waterhouse’s dire labour shortage during the economic rebound after the early ‘80s recession forced them to consider undesirables like me. Jack McKinnon, a stolid partner from Price Waterhouse’s Boston office, came to my school to rustle up prospective employees in the fall of 1985. For some baffling reason, Price Waterhouse had selected my mediocre resume from a pool of more qualified applicants for an on-campus interview. As I sat down in the cramped room to redress my (dis)qualifications, and beg for a job, McKinnon crumpled up my resume and exclaimed how excited he was to finally meet me. I sat there perplexed. Me?

McKinnon skipped the perfunctory quiz on accounting arcana and Price Waterhouse trivia. Instead, he grilled me on that weekend’s upcoming football game between my school, Holy Cross – where my athletic prowess on the field rivaled my academic incompetence in the classroom – and his, our archrival Boston College. A purebred BC Eagle despite his lack of feathers or a hooked beak, McKinnon proudly told me had attended almost every Boston College home game since his mid-1950s graduation. Desperate for a job, I kept trying to sell my paltry financial skills while deflecting his gaze from my Scarlet Letter grade point average and blank resume. Waving off my subterfuge, McKinnon kept bringing the conversation back to Holy Cross’s game plan for Saturday.

Rick Carter, celebrated 1980s coach of Holy Cross football team

Catastrophic visions of financial distress had loomed in my mind as graduation approached. I feared lifelong unemployment were I to blow this opportunity, my sole on-campus interview. I respectfully pled, “Jack, I’m happy to discuss the game. But I need a job and this is my only chance. Can we please discuss the possibility of me working at Price Waterhouse?” Our dwindling 30-minute time limit started to count against both our agendas. Every minute I subjected him to my meek supplications was a minute less for him to get the inside scoop on the upcoming clash of rivals. He impatiently snapped, “I will call the New York office right now to recommend they hire you. Now, back to Saturday’s game”. What was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me – employment at the most prestigious accounting firm despite my lack of qualifications – was an even rarer opportunity for him – discussing that weekend’s upcoming match with one of its participants, an aspiring accountant no less.

McKinnon eventually called Price Waterhouse’s New York office. I got the job. My first year there I earned $22,500, decent money for a recent college graduate in Bonfire of the Vanities New York. $22,500 went a lot farther in 1986, and not just because of inflation. With Communism’s collapse still a few years in the future, Russian plutocrats had yet to bid up Manhattan real estate and coarsen its already brusque culture. My post-collegiate expenses fell into two buckets, rent and “weekends”, the practical and the otiose. My weekend expense line contained several subcategories: draft beer, tequila shots, and pizza, as well as greasy food, Gatorade, and aspirin for hangovers. My fixed lease determined my rent payments. So I had to scrimp on my “weekends” to finance my escape hatch from Price Waterhouse, graduate school.

Skip ahead to 2020’s pandemic lockdown. I deleted the “weekends” category from my personal income statement about 20 years ago. When I turned 35 I had a welcome epiphany. Two hours of drunken bliss didn’t compensate for two days of hungover misery. Goodbye booze, hello books. Since March I have rarely left the house. But my expenses again fall into just two categories, the practical and the otiose: real estate taxes and books. I’m lucky. I don’t have a mortgage even though I still don’t own my house. If that last remark makes no sense to you then try this experiment: Stop paying your real estate taxes and then tell me who owns your house. So aside from forking over protection money to the village tax collector, my only other pandemic outlay has been for my avocation, reading.

When I’m not imitating a college professor as I teach online from my dining room table or writing articles that you mistakenly stumble upon like this one, I serve as Books Editor for the monthly magazine Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. My responsibilities include selecting books for review, identifying reviewers whose expertise will provide unique insight, and hounding those same experts when they miss their deadlines. Aside from that last task, no job could better sate my incurable bibliophilia. Unfortunately, my dream of daily book deliveries from publishers eager to market their latest imprints will never come true due to the financial exigencies of 21st century publishing.

Nevertheless, publishers eagerly ship me single copies upon request and my personal finances provide for shopping sprees on Amazon. My wife sees my spending priorities differently. Nary a day goes by without her remarking,

You’ve worn the same pair of pants for three months straight and your wallet has now worn a hole through the back pocket. Why don’t you spend money on a new pair of khakis instead of another shipment of books?

True, during the pandemic I have dressed like a Depression Era hobo. Zoom’s limited viewing frame has empowered this disturbing habit. Perhaps my wife should just be thankful I don’t ask her for spare change when we pass in the hallway. Nonetheless, her sartorial pleas have had as much effect on my insatiable book buying as my snide comments about her overstuffed closets have had on her ceaseless clothing purchases. Luckily for our marriage, she only buys electronic books now. She rules the closet. I rule the bookshelves. And we agreed to our separate realms without plagiarizing the 9th century’s Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum or consulting a matrimonial lawyer.

Book shopping sucks when you do it from your sofa. I only spend two days per week in New York City – and both those days locked in my apartment thanks to my immuno-compromised status. I no longer visit The Strand, the United States’ best bookstore. Hyperbole you say? Then I guess you didn’t know The Penn Book Center in Philadelphia closed. Besides: my essay, my opinion. Go whine in the comments section below. 

New York’s famous Strand Bookstore

Anyway, I have not had the pleasure of browsing The Strand’s dusty shelves for nine heartbreaking months. Late stage withdrawal has set in. I no longer serendipitously happen upon books lying among the store’s legendary “18 miles of books”. Instead, I now suffer with Amazon’s inane “You Might Also Like” function, the way a recovering heroin addict suffers with a lollipop in place of methadone.

Aside from giving me bad book selections, Amazon’s artificially intelligent (read: moronic) algorithm fosters bad scholarship and promotes historical fallacies. Test it yourself. Click on my doctoral advisor Jonathan Steinberg’s biography of Bismarck. Lo and behold, the Amazon computer program tells Bismarck fans “You Might Also Like” to learn about the discredited, ahistorical nonsense that links the Iron Chancellor inextricably to Hitler. No historian has drawn a straighter line from Imperial Germany to the Nazi horrors, in all its Sonderwegisch glory, than the STEM brain trust typing away like monkeys in Amazon’s IT department.

And if you like your incorrect history raw, right off the Amazon website, then “Add to Your Cart” Telford Taylor’s The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir. If not, then diehard Bismarck fans can toggle over one book to the right where Amazon has “In Stock” Flip the Script: Lessons Learned on the Road to the Championship by Louisiana State University’s head football coach Ed Orgeron. The great men of history: Bismarck and Orgeron, with a spicing of Telford. And if you still can’t make up your mind which book to buy, Amazon’s “FREE Shipping” might coax you to purchase all three.

Maybe I should send Orgeron’s tales of football success to Jack McKinnon as a 35 year-late thank you gift. Perhaps I should include Steinberg’s Bismarck since Alexa, Amazon’s ghoulish spokesputer, tells me these books are “Frequently bought together”. I never thought I would miss The Strand’s tattooed, condescending staff. I shuddered every time I asked an information desk worker to direct me to a book. He/she/zie would adjust his/her/hir nose rings and ear gauges before deigning to type my politically incorrect query into the store’s computer. So thank you Amazon. You have taught me that there are in fact punishments worse than a 26-year-old gender studies graduate student’s caustic sneer when I ask which shelf holds Charles Murray’s latest work.

While I can wait to reunite with The Strand’s woke staff, I fear the pandemic can’t. My accounting career never took off for various boring reasons. But I can read a balance sheet and an economic environment. And neither of them look good in The Strand’s case. New York City has lost its pre-pandemic zest. “To Let” signs paper the windows of every other retail space. Each day brings more restaurant closings. Cabs have become impossible to find. Drivers now figure they lose less money sitting at home than burning a tank of gas in pursuit of nonexistent fares. Depression swallows me as I imagine my book buying future. My laptop will take the place of New York’s best bookstore. Instead of The Strand’s in-house Antifa brigade hissing at me, Amazon’s saccharine-voiced Alexa will politely ask, “I’m sorry. Do you really want to read Charles Murray?” And my wife will remind me my pants have a huge hole in the rear that would otherwise embarrass a normal person.

What to do?  Maybe I should look up Jack McKinnon, who must now be in his mid-80s. As an alumnus of Holy Cross, I’m pretty sure Boston College graduates don’t qualify for entry through the Pearly Gates. But Saint Peter should make an exception for Jack and admit him to that eternal accounting firm in the sky. If I could reach Jack I imagine he might tell me he noticed my unhealthy obsession with the practical during our brief encounter in that stuffy room late in 1985. He might remind me that the best part of my life, the otiose part, was passing me by, just as I fixated on the practical.

I can picture Jack telling me over Zoom,

The last football game of your life, the last athletic event you would ever be part of, was just a few days away. And all you cared about was getting a job so you could sit in a fluorescently-lit office, 60 hours a week, and watch your muscles atrophy as you added up numbers no one would ever look at. I kept pushing you to enjoy the last fleeting moments of your youth. I bragged about reliving my college days through my near perfect attendance over three decades at BC games. But you kept pushing back. Well, I hope it all worked out for you. If nothing else, I pray you understand the otiose determines how well one lives his life, not the practical. You certainly didn’t understand that when I met you. Read great books. Worry less about where you buy them. And one last thing. You have a huge hole in your pants.

Rage, rage, rage for the killing of the light!

ALEX WOODCOCK-CLARKE says a noisy segment of the British population wants to extinguish fireworks

And God said, “Let there be light”: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good. God did more than that. He gave it to Man so Man could paint the night skies with stars and fountains of light to the music of thunder. Now it is the modern age, and God is dead. New voices arise from the void, querulous and offended, and what they say (and they are legion) is: “Let’s snuff out fireworks!”.

Is it me? Did I go mad? As I walked along the Bois de Boulogne did an anvil fall on my head in the manner of a Looney Toons cartoon? Is a large, statistically significant demographic of the British population truly mustering to eradicate joy? Has prevailing opinion really come down in favour of darkness and silence?

Transitory and brilliant is the history of fireworks. Though their origins are lost in the smoke of pre-history, the historian of chemistry, Professor J R Partington, notes they were known to the Chinese by the end of the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1206-1368 AD) and used as “arrows of flying fire” at the siege of Kai-feng Fu. By the end of the 15th century, one mandarin scholar, Wan Hu of the middle Ming dynasty, devised a flying machine from two large kites, a wicker armchair and 47 large rockets so that he might escape troubled times and go and live on the Moon. His slaves ignited the blue touchpaper and retired. After the gigantic explosion, Wan Hu and his machine were never seen again. Some are sceptical Wan Hu’s lift-off ever took place (its first mention only came in the October 1909 edition of Scientific American) but in 1970 the International Astronomical Union named an ancient crater lunar crater after him. Fifty-two kilometres wide, it is as good a place as any to mark his landing or, considering its depth of five kilometres, impact.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, fireworks were bringing colour and fire to the Enlightenment all over Europe. Not of any historic importance themselves there was no historical figure which they did not throw into relief. Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, incorporated a regiment of fireworkers into his army to put on victory displays. Peter the Great of Russia initiated the tradition of setting off pyrotechnics at New Year’s Eve. In 1693, he put on a high fireworks scenario, cued by a 56 cannon salute, which included a fiery portrait of Hercules prying open the jaws of a lion while live dwarves, dressed as cherubs, “desported themselves madly” within the burning frame.

In France, Louis XIV instituted a tradition of firework displays in the garden of Versailles, some of which went on for five days at a time. The climax of one huge festival entitled, “The Pleasures of the Enchanted Island” culminated in a blazing battle between three sea monsters, which spread to the “Palace of Enchantment” and led to a volcanic cataract of fireworks which exploded the very island itself and blew the wigs off the Sun-King and 600 invited guests.

Of course, wherever there is excitement, there is danger. Fireworks have never been any exception. George Plympton, the editor of The Paris Review and a noted fireworks aficionado, cited Ralph Waldo Emerson: “As soon as there is life, there is danger” in recalling the immense pyrotechnical displays that took place in 1749 to mark the ending of the War of Austrian Succession. At one, in Paris, “there were forty killed and nearly three hundred wounded” when two competing clans of artificiers, one French and one Italian, “quarrelling for precedence in lighting the fire, both lighted at once and blew up the whole”.

Something similar happened on the same date in England. An enormous pyrotechnical machine was built in Green Park by the famous Italian fireworks designer, Gaetano Ruggieri. It was over 114 feet high and designed to be fired while Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, especially composed for the occasion, was debuted before George II and his retinue. On the night, the machine blew up prematurely causing Ruggieri to attack Charles Frederick, the English comptroller of the Woolwich Depot, with his sword;  a man fell off the machine to his death; a boy tumbled from a tree, also fatally; another man toppled into a pond and drowned; a crowd gathering outside Buckingham House panicked and many bones were broken; people on the Surrey shore tried to escape on boats that were so in danger of being swamped their crews threw interlopers into the Thames in batches. The diarist Horace Walpole saw a young girl whose party dress was set on fire by a wayward rocket. “She would have been destroyed if some person had not the presence of mind to strip her clothes off immediately”. On the plus side, there were fewer casualties than it might have been expected since it transpired the Duke of Richmond had previously confiscated twenty-five tons of fireworks on the grounds of “public safety” (and used them at his own party three weeks later). At the end of the evening, Ruggieri was arrested and sent to the Tower.

Walpole’s verdict on the night?

Whatever you hear of the fireworks, that is short of the prettiest entertainment in the world, don’t believe it. I have never passed a more agreeable evening

Few places in the world gave fireworks as warm a welcome as in the British Isles. Alan St. Hill Brock, a member of the great Brock dynasty of British fireworkers (or, more properly, pyrotechnicians) speculates that it was Roger Bacon (1214-1294), a friar known also as a doctor mirabilis, was the actual (if dubious) inventor of gunpowder, as its written formula first appeared in his 1267 Opus Majus treatise. Certainly, one Mr. Guido Fawkes was a fan of British fireworks since the 3,400 pounds of explosive he smuggled into the House of Commons in 1605 were purchased from Pains, the Salisbury-based (and still operating) fireworks manufacturer.

Fireworks have painted the backdrop of British history throughout recent centuries, adding size and drama to the grand events like royal weddings or birthdays or jubilees, or great victories when we used to have them. The enormous extravaganza of 19 July 1919 commissioned from the Brocks fireworks family to celebrate the Treaty of Versailles was the largest show ever put on in the UK, perhaps even in the world. Prints and engravings of the time show the entirety of Hyde Park alive with rocketry, aerial bombs and hundreds of curlicue serpent shells. The finale alone was based on 2,000 rockets exploding in the air at the same instant.

What may be more recurrent in the national experience and perhaps more British are not the giant displays but the smaller, private experiences. Watching dad in the back garden trying to launch a two-inch rocket in the rain with a sodden box of matches. A line of school pals huddled together spelling rude words in the air with sparklers. The Scout pack watching through binoculars a display in the Co-Op carpark lit by the local vicar who has insisted on safety protocols that rival a guided missile test. Such fleeting moments that put the power of Zeus or Thor, all their fire and thunder, in your hands and the hands of people just like you – that’s the British experience. And it’s that experience that a new surge of anti-firework campaigners wish to extinguish.

2020 has seen a surge in resentment against the use and enjoyment of fireworks. Her Majesty’s Government has spent time and money this year reviewing nine live petitions submitted by members of the public to ban, limit, ration, restrict, weaken or otherwise squelch fireworks (out of 164 submitted). The one in 2019 received 753,000 signatures. The most recent one (which runs into 2021) already has 278,000 signatures, well over the threshold to trigger a parliamentary debate. This petition demands fireworks be strictly limited to state-licensed displays. “Better enforcement of existing law is insufficient”, the petitioners insist. Vulnerable people and animals must be protected from “the distress and anxiety caused by unexpected firework[s]”.

There was something approaching ecstasy amongst supporters of a ban when COVID restrictions led to the cancelling of 5th of November firework displays in London, Sussex, the Midlands, Manchester, Yorkshire, Devon and Newcastle, Perth and the Highlands. The renowned Skinningrove Bonfire, in North Yorkshire, which features complex Heath Robinson-type wooden structures like castles and pirate ships, was squelched. Further south in Lewes, East Sussex, Bonfire Night celebrations, which usually attracts 80,000 people, were abandoned, as were the riotous Tar Barrels celebrations at Ottery St Mary in Devon, a tradition dating back to the 17th century. It was the same story for the event at Kenilworth Castle, one of the most-anticipated fireworks displays in the Midlands.

And don’t think you can make up for the cancellation of the organised displays by setting off a few bottle rockets in the back garden. Devon and Somerset Fire Service, for example, reminded anyone caught in breach of lockdown rules on household mixing, even in their own garden, faced a fine starting at £200. If you were found to be the organiser of a gathering of more than 30 people, like a firework display for family and friends, the fine rockets up to £10,000. “Think about your neighbours, particularly older people or those who are self-isolating, pets and, of course, those of us in the emergency services”, says Paul Jennings, the assistant commissioner for fire safety at the London Fire Brigade, says. Yes, think about us. Us, the local bureaucrats, the safety enforcers, the fun police, your paid servants.

“Woohoo!” was the persistent and general reaction on the Facebook page of FAB (FireworkABatement) as news of each of these cancellations rolled in. FAB is not a very large activist group on the face of it, with only a little over than 20,000 supporters on its new media channels. It’s led by Julie Doorne, a fine-looking woman in late-middle age who runs a horse-related business. All she does, and does it very successfully, is exchange information about domestic firework horror stories with like-minded types and then watch them bounce back and forth, always amplifying, always gaining force across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like until they’re picked up by the local and national media. “Puppy was Literally Scared to Death from Cardiac Arrest Due to Fireworks” is one of hers from last year. It’s about an adorable 18-month old black lab, Molly, who heard a firework go off at local firework display, instantly had a heart attack and keeled over, stone dead. If that incident was not terrible enough, the accompanying FAB release adds: “Moreover, some animals also mistakenly eat the remnants of fireworks, and it often results [sic] to choking and death. Lastly, the fumes that fireworks emit might be poisonous to some animals”. This story then appeared unquestioned in Metro, the Independent and the Daily Record.

Ms. Doorne is not asking for much. She doesn’t want to ban all fireworks. Only those used by private individuals. And she doesn’t want to stop fireworks being used whenever we want. Just restrict them to November 5th, Diwali and some other official public holidays when they can be let off in council-sanitised environments.

Well, who cares what she thinks? And yet her campaign has now been adopted, almost point-for-point, by the billion-pound campaigning charity, the RSPCA. Both the Welsh and Scots governments have promised “urgent reviews” of existing laws. Children’s charities and those associated with the elderly and the military veterans are also falling into line. Slowly but surely, the big battalions of moral suasion are coming into line. If you think the humble whizz-bang, the sparkler and 800 years of history can stand against them, think again.

The inevitable consequence of welfare democracy is the dictatorship of “the vulnerable”. The poor, the sick, the stupid, the drama student, you know, chumps. Unlike other tyrannies, this one is babyishly impotent (power vests, of course, in its state-appointed or media self-appointed “carers”) in all respects except one. To wit, stamping on the fun of other people so long, of course, as the fun is utterly inconsequential, and the other people in question are not like themselves. So, after fox hunting, ready salted crisps and guffawing at the sex lives of celebrities, the next simple pleasure scheduled for cancellation maybe not this year, maybe not the next but very soon will be – bang! – fireworks.

Work with Joy – Rawnsley, Ruskin and the Keswick School of Industrial Arts

Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley at Crosthwaite
ROSALIND RAWNSLEY pays tribute to a great idealist and reformer

Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley is usually thought of today, a century after his death, as one of the three founders of the National Trust, or, in Lakeland in particular, as the Defender of the Lakes. The National Trust, it is true, remains his most tangible memorial, but his active involvement in a multiplicity of other fields, made of Canon Rawnsley a household name during his lifetime, not just in the field of conservation – but also in education as an early advocate of co-education and equal opportunities for girls, and in the encouragement of music, nature study and the arts; in public health, local government (he became one of the first County Councillors for Cumberland and towards the end of his life was co-opted onto the Education Committee for Westmorland) and literature, to name but a few of his wide-ranging concerns. Rawnsley was what today would be called an ‘activist’ – to any of the many and varied causes which captured his interest, he would devote his wholehearted attention, leading from the front wherever possible and whenever his ecclesiastical duties permitted.1

Born at Shiplake-on-Thames into an ecclesiastical family with its roots in Lincolnshire, Hardwicke, in spite of uncertain health throughout his life, was an indefatigable man of phenomenal energy and stamina. He would think nothing of tramping several miles across the fells during the night to see the sun rise over Helvellyn, catching a train to London after breakfast the next morning to attend a meeting, and returning home in the evening to deal with his correspondence or to prepare a sermon. No theologian, but a devout man of simple faith, he was much sought after as a preacher. He was blessed with a melodious voice, which he used to advantage not only in church but as a lecturer on a wide range of topics which interested him, ranging from the history, customs and archaeology of his beloved Lakeland, the influence of the Vikings, the German miners of Keswick in the time of Elizabeth I, to the archaeology of Palestine and ancient Egypt and the paintings of J.M.W. Turner, or the life and work of the Venerable Bede, and of course the application of John Ruskin’s philosophy of labour. He did however sometimes allow his vivid imagination to run away with him, and was not above reinventing history to suit his purpose. 

Rawnsley never stood on his dignity, getting on famously not only with the great-and-good, whose deep pockets could be relied upon as a source of funds for his various causes, but also with the Lake District shepherds and dalesmen. He made a study of the Lakeland native breed of Herdwick sheep, an interest he shared with his good friend and protegée Beatrix Potter, who herself in later life became a famous breeder of Herdwicks, and in more than one of his books about Lakeland he wrote knowledgeably about the upbringing and particularities of the breed. Somewhat choleric at home and in Committee, he could be rash and impatient with those who disagreed with him and his impetuosity not infrequently got him into trouble, but he was never afraid to apologise when proved to be in the wrong. To any cause capturing his interest he would not just lend his name, but would invariably be an active participant, always leading from the front. 

John Ruskin

Hardwicke Rawnsley was educated at Uppingham under the enlightened rule of his godfather Edward Thring, who introduced him to the Lake District and to the poetry of William Wordsworth, who was to become his poetic muse. From Uppingham he went up to Balliol, where he became an enthusiastic and life-long disciple of John Ruskin, whose ideas of social justice he wholeheartedly embraced and endeavoured to put into practice throughout his life.  

After university he volunteered as a lay chaplain to a mission to the poor in Soho, during which time he became acquainted with Octavia Hill, the social reformer, who was herself a disciple of John Ruskin. They remained friends thereafter and some 20 years later, in company with Sir Robert Hunter, would together become co-founders of the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, since abbreviated to The National Trust.  At Balliol, having neglected his studies in favour of athletics and the river, both areas in which he excelled, Rawnsley, achieved only a respectable Third in Natural Science. He made up his mind to follow his father and grandfather into the Church, was ordained deacon in 1875 and was appointed Curate to the newly-formed Clifton College Mission in Bristol. 

A prolific writer, Rawnsley published innumerable ‘occasional’ sonnets, having been introduced to what became, under the guidance of Charles Tennyson Turner, a family connection, his favoured verse form. Unfortunately for his reputation as a poet, he did have a fatal facility for sonnet-writing, which proved to be his undoing in this field at least, since he would dash off a sonnet at a moment’s notice on whatever topic occupied his attention at any given time. As a result, the poetic quality was, to say the least, variable. However, it has recently been realised that in the absence of any surviving diaries, Rawnsley’s sonnets – especially his first published book of verse, Bristol Sonnets – prove to be an invaluable primary source of information about his life and personal feelings.2

His literary output over the next 40-odd years, published on both sides of the Atlantic, extended far beyond verse, encompassing biography, pamphlets, magazine articles, papers for learned journals, innumerable letters to the press including at least 160 to The Times, memoirs, lectures, sermons, and ten books devoted to the Lake District, its scenery, history, literary associations and customs. The lyrical writing in these volumes, to a certain extent intended as early ‘guide-books’ to Lakeland, has seldom if ever been equalled, and never surpassed.

Marrying into a wealthy mine-owning family, Rawnsley became financially independent of his ecclesiastical stipend, as Vicar first of the tiny parish of Wray-on-Windermere, in the gift of his cousin who had inherited Wray Castle, and thereafter of Crosthwaite in Keswick. (He was later appointed a Canon of Carlisle Cathedral and an honorary Chaplain to King George V.)   

At Wray, Hardwicke and his wife Edith, herself a talented artist and craftswoman, recognised the precariousness of the lives of many of their parishioners, seasonal farm labourers, laid off during the winter months.  For these men, idleness led not only to poverty but also to boredom, to relieve which they would all too often resort to the pub, as Rawnsley had also found to be the case among the poor of Bristol. In the spirit of Ruskin, the Rawnsleys decided to offer lessons in woodcarving, a Lake District traditional craft in danger of dying out. These classes could not only provide an occupation to keep the beneficiaries at home, but also give them a new skill by which they could earn a competence during the winter months. When the Rawnsleys left Wray to take up the living of St. Kentigern, Crosthwaite and moved to Keswick in 1883, the classes in Wray were discontinued, but the seed had been sown. 

The Rawnsleys, as convinced Ruskinians, and in accordance with Ruskin’s teaching that, “Art is the expression of man’s delight in the works of God”, wanted to put into practice what they understood to be Ruskin’s philosophy of labour. In his influential work The Stones of Venice, Ruskin, through a close study of the architecture of that city, made it clear that, to him, the secret of its incomparable beauty lay in the hand-work which lovingly created it – the balconies, in which each element, taking inspiration from nature, was individually wrought by a master craftsman, using as his materials the hand-cut stones and hand-made bricks which comprise materials used for the buildings and palaces. No two are identical, but all bear what Ruskin described as a “family likeness”. He pointed out that objects, when hand-made, fit for purpose, and without any superfluous embellishment, have an intrinsic charm and attraction of their own which no mass-produced item, however well-made, could ever emulate.3

Rawnsley at Balliol, 1872
Edith Rawnsley in 1874

All Ruskin’s thoughts and reflections on this subject were distilled and synthesised in the eight volumes of Fors Clavigera. This series of open letters addressed “to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain”, appearing almost monthly from 1871 to 1884, taken together afforded Ruskin with a device for a philosophical exploration of various aspects of work and its conditions in England. Labour was a topic close to Ruskin’s heart – when Rawnsley had come under his influence at Oxford, soon after Ruskin had been appointed to the chair of Fine Arts at the University, ‘The Professor’ had recruited a team of undergraduates, of whom Rawnsley was one, to build a new road for the people of the village of Hinksey, an exercise which Ruskin deemed would provide a suitable antidote to their usual diet of athletics and beer, and teach them the value of manual labour. The ‘Hinksey Diggers’, immortalised in an early photograph, and much ridiculed in the contemporary press, represented an early exercise in ‘public relations’ long before the term was invented. Ridiculed or not, the lesson was not wasted, on Rawnsley at any rate who, as a sensitive and impressionable young man, was later to put Ruskin’s philosophy to effective practical use in the Keswick School of Industrial Arts.

The Hinksey Diggers, 1874 – Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley is leaning on the spade

Returning to Fors, as Clive Wilmer in his commentary on the work remarked, while the letters are indeed concerned with labour, their subject is work viewed through the lens of human destiny, the Fors or ’Fortune’ of the title, being she who holds the key to the future of mankind. (Perhaps in the midst of the current pandemic, through which Gaia seems to be at last wreaking vengeance on mankind for destroying the planet, ‘Gaia’ should have usurped the title!)4

All forms of labour are seen as rooted in nature and having a common purpose – that of promoting the wealth that is life, rather than simple existence from day to day, from hand to mouth. “There is no wealth but life”, as Ruskin proclaimed in Ad Valorem, the fourth of his essays on Political Economy in Unto This Last, the title being a reference of course to Christ’s parable of the workers in the vineyard.

Happiness, in Ruskin’s model, a model incidentally shared by his good friend Thomas Carlyle, does not depend upon making as much money as possible in as short a time as possible. Money, per se, should not be an end-in-itself, but only a means to a higher end, and payment should be geared to need, rather than to desert.

As Ruskin’s biographer, John Batchelor, makes clear, in an ideal world there would be no place for competition – no market forces – no laws of supply-and-demand – no industrial capitalism. This idealistic philosophy was diametrically opposed to the ideas of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill (Ruskin’s particular bête noir), for whom the sole purpose of labour was the generation of wealth, which in turn, it was to be assumed, would increase the overall happiness of nations.5

England in the third quarter of the 19th century, through the efforts of the newly-enriched and powerful entrepreneurs, had become the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth and the first to become an urban rather than an agrarian society. Yet at the same time, for much of the population the norm continued to be a life of grinding poverty, starvation and injustice. This paradox was not wasted on Ruskin. He laid the responsibility for this state of affairs squarely at the door of the industrial revolution. Men were no longer in touch with the land and with nature; they no longer gained inner satisfaction from working with their hands to create beautiful or functional objects, from the conception to the finished product. Instead the majority had become mere cogs in the wheels of industry – mechanical ‘hands’ on a production line. They had ceased to be individuals, happy in the joy of creation.

In his writings, Ruskin urged the socially conscious middle-classes to put the clock back by restoring to nature the urban wastelands which they themselves had created. Perhaps the new-rich individual with a social conscience would be in a position to put into practice Ruskin’s exhortations, but for the urban man-in-the-street this must have seemed a vain hope and an idealistic philosophy, impossible actually to put into practice. Those who do not have enough to eat do not have the time, leisure or inclination to engage in philosophical reflection.

Rawnsley in 1885

It was in reaction to this state of affairs, and drawing on Hardwicke’s experiences in Mission work in Soho and Bristol, that the Rawnsleys, building upon the work they had already carried out at Wray with the woodcarving classes, decided during the winter of 1884 that the time had come to put into practice some of Ruskin’s ideas about the dignity of labour. Ruskin had taught that for work to be enjoyable the worker must not only learn new skills, but he must at the same time have some autonomy and control over the task in hand – a notion completely at odds with the modern and more cost-effective factory system, where each man was employed to carry out one single repetitive task on a production line.

No doubt actively encouraged by Ruskin, who now lived conveniently close at hand at Brantwood on the shores of Coniston Water, the Rawnsleys wasted no time in setting up classes in woodcarving and metalwork. These classes were financed by local ladies, who paid to attend classes in the Parish Room in the afternoons, so that the classes for working men could be held in the evenings, free of charge. Woodcarving was taught by a local artist and designer, and Edith Rawnsley, who had taught herself to do metal repoussé, took charge of the metalwork classes. In this she was aided by a talented jeweller from the vicinity, she herself providing many of the designs. And so, the Keswick School of Industrial Arts (KSIA) was born. It was an immediate success, owing, as Ian Bruce observed in his magisterial history of the KSIA, to “the careful selection of instructional material and tuition”, and grew rapidly in size and scope. After two years, some 30 students were attending full time, rising to 67 after four years, with many more attending the evening classes. Every finished article remained the property of the school, with the student who had created it receiving part of the proceeds when it was sold.6

After only a few years of activity the School outgrew its makeshift temporary premises; better workshops and a showroom were essential. Accordingly, by the late 1880s, fund-raising for the erection of purpose-built premises had already begun. The money was raised with astonishing rapidity; in 1891 land was acquired on the banks of the River Greta in the centre of Keswick, and the first turf was cut in May 1893. The attractive building, in Arts and Crafts style, reflecting Westmorland vernacular architecture and featuring the round stone chimneys on square pedestals which Wordsworth had so appreciated, with a traditional ‘spinning gallery’ providing access to the showroom on the first floor, was largely built of various types of native slate-stone. The new School, with workshops adorned with improving quotations from Ruskin and others, was opened in April 1894 with considerable ceremony, though Ruskin himself was not well enough to attend. Ruskin’s philosophy of labour was encapsulated in the couplet, inscribed underneath the spinning gallery, and undoubtedly composed by Hardwicke himself:  The Loving Eye and Skilful Hand shall Work with Joy and Bless the Land.

The Carlisle Journal on 6th April 1894 reported that a particular feature of the new building was a collection of art objects and models, designed to constitute a museum of reference for art workers. A library well-stocked with reference works, displayed gifts from artists including William Morris, who presented specimens of printing by the Kelmscott Press, self-portraits by Holman Hunt and G.F. Watts, later to be joined by others promised by William Morris and Walter Crane. Since observation from nature was a key element of the teaching at the School, the grounds were planted with trees, shrubs and flowers. As Ian Bruce recognised, the school “embodied the ideas and philosophies which underpinned the idealised communities envisioned by the proponents of the Arts & Crafts movement.”

From its earliest years, even before the opening of the new building, the School flourished, making a wide range of products in silver, copper, and wood, such as trays, candle sconces, bowls and vases. In the woodcarving department, tables, screens, corner cupboards and clock-cases were produced. All were individually hand-worked and finished, to point up the contrast between these lovingly created objects and the soulless factory-made, die-cast products then flooding the market. Good design was of course vital, and this became even more important as the School, with its growing reputation, began to attract special commissions, often for church furnishings such as altar crosses, chalices, alms dishes, candlesticks, and so forth. One of the School’s most important commissions was for a new reredos for Rawnsley’s own Crosthwaite Church, designed by Edith and worked by her with craftsmen from the School.  She also designed elegant copper electroliers for the church and for the new Keswick Museum building, all of which were made at the KSIA and are still in use today.

The reredos at St. Kentigern’s church at Crosthwaite, designed and worked by Edith Rawnsley

In addition to metalwork and woodcarving, another local craft which had almost died out was the hand-spinning and weaving of linen. This had first been revived by Albert Fleming, another disciple of Ruskin, who with Marion Twelves, had set up the Langdale Linen Industry. Miss Twelves and her team of ‘spinsters’ had eventually moved ‘over the Raise’ (a reference to Dunmail Raise, now the A591, a mountain pass that connects the southern and northern sides of the Lake District, the main route through the centre of the Lakes) and became for some years amalgamated with the KSIA before differences of opinion between Miss Twelves and Edith Rawnsley resulted in the amicable separation of the two enterprises. Miss Twelves, yet another follower of Ruskin, then set up her own linen manufactory, which with his permission she named the Ruskin Linen Industry. Apart from beautifully worked items in what she called ‘Ruskin Lace’, a form of embroidered lacework incorporating different types of stitching and cutwork, two of the most publicised of the items produced by Marion Twelves and her team were the unbleached handwoven and embroidered linen palls, designed by Edith Rawnsley, for the funerals of Tennyson, the Poet Laureate, in 1892 at Westminster Abbey, and for John Ruskin eight years later. Ruskin’s pall is still on display in the Ruskin Museum at Coniston.

Many thousands of items were produced by the Keswick School of Industrial Arts during its century of existence, and are now much sought-after, commanding high prices. Unfortunately, however, in the end the KSIA became the victim of its own success. Increasing demand meant that orders could not be fulfilled without resort to the introduction of some mechanised processes. The range of goods was simplified; products in stainless steel which could not be entirely made by hand, were introduced and proved very popular, and in spite of the best efforts of the Trustees and management committees, changing tastes and the effects of two World Wars finally caused the School to close a few weeks short of the hundredth anniversary of its foundation. The fatal flaw of Ruskin’s philosophy of labour was embedded within it from  the start – as long as the enterprise remained small, with only a limited production, hand work from the drawing board to the finished product by a single craftsman as an ideal could not be faulted, but in practice, as the organisation grew, it simply was not commercially viable, and Ruskin’s principles had to a certain extent to be jettisoned, for the business to survive.

Today, in spite of various vicissitudes including serious flooding on more than one occasion, the attractive KSIA Arts and Crafts building, now a restaurant, still stands – a monument to the vision of the School’s founders, Hardwicke and Edith Rawnsley, and to John Ruskin, who inspired them.

Rawnsley, photographed by Herbert Bell (Courtesy of Armitt Centre)

Ruskin, in Ad Valorem, wrote:

There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, of admiration. That man is the richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost; has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions; over the lives of others

If Ruskin’s dictum is accepted, Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley was a rich man indeed.7

  1. Rawnsley, E.F. – Canon Rawnsley []
  2. Rawnsley, H.D. – A Book of Bristol Sonnets. Ruskin & The English Lakes []
  3. Ruskin, J. – The Stones of Venice, Unto This Last, Fors Clavigera []
  4. Wilmer, Clive – John Ruskin: Unto This Last and other writings []
  5. Batchelor, John, John Ruskin: A Life []
  6. Bruce, I. – The Loving Eye and Skilful Hand – The Keswick School of Industrial Arts []
  7. Carlisle Journal 6th April 1894 []

Secrets of the archives

MICHAEL WILDING remembers stirrings among the dead letters

The first piece of writing for which I got paid was an article in the local weekly paper. I was just 18, marking time between leaving school and going to university. The paper, Berrow’s Worcester Journal, claimed to be the oldest newspaper in the world, dating from the 17th century. My article, “Miserrimus: the story of a cathedral stone”, appeared on 1st April, 1960. To have an article called, to translate the Latin, ‘most wretched man’, and to have it appearing on April Fool’s day may not have been the most auspicious start to a literary career.

That tombstone in Worcester Cathedral with the single word inscription had prompted William Wordsworth to write a sonnet, “A Gravestone Upon The Floor in the Cloisters of Worcester Cathedral”, and it was this literary association that had prompted me to write my article. Having discovered the sonnet in Wordsworth’s collected poems, I went down to the cathedral and there indeed was the tombstone. I researched the unhappy man in some local histories and found he had been a 17th century clergyman, Thomas Morris, who refused to swear the oath of allegiance to William of Orange, the Dutch Protestant brought into England in 1688 to replace the deposed Catholic King James. As a consequence, Morris lost his living as a canon of the Cathedral and vicar of the parish of Claines – the parish in which I had grown up.

Wanting to be a writer I was eagerly looking for signs of any writers or writing associated with the provincial world I lived in. Could there be writers outside of London or Paris or other remote metropolises? Well, Wordsworth had visited my home town, presumably, and written that sonnet, so there might be hope. Maybe other writers had visited. To be a writer you need something to write about. Writing about local literary associations could provide some of the materials I needed.

My English master had given me a two volume book recording all of the documents associated with Shakespeare’s life, every known, surviving record of baptism, marriage and financial transactions. Two documents were listed as having been held in the Worcester Diocesan Records Office but their whereabouts were now unknown, according to the book. Shakespeare had been born in Stratford-upon-Avon which in 1582 was in the diocese of Worcester.

So I went down to the records office, housed in an old church near the cathedral, St Helen’s, and inquired whether the documents still existed. I was shown the card index catalogue, found the two items listed, and ordered them up from the archives. They came, not lost at all. But while I was down there, I came across two much more interesting documents. One was a licence for Wm Shaxpere to marry Annõ Whateley of Temple Grafton. The other issued the following day was a marriage licence bond for Willm Shagspere to marry Anne Hathwey of Stratford-upon-Avon with only one reading of the banns. Scholars still lack agreement on the meaning of the documents. Had Shakespeare been planning to marry Anne Whateley, but was then coerced into marrying Anne Hathaway? Or was Whateley just a misspelling of Hathaway? But could Temple Grafton be a clerical error for Stratford-upon-Avon? No record of the marriage taking place has been found.

My second article for the local paper, raising the various possibilities, duly appeared: “Did Shakespeare Ever Marry?”. A couple of weeks later the director of the Shakespeare Memorial Trust was reported in the same paper as warning,

Disregard any reports you may have read recently concerning William Shakespeare… Shakespeare was a very decent man, and you would have welcomed him, or at least his daughter, into your house

The archives were a fascinating resource for a writer or a historian. I spent many an hour there. There was a machine that used ultra-violet light to make the faded ink on old documents legible, which was the height of technology. But the main difficulty was reading 16th and 17th century handwriting styles, very different from the present day. A distinguished local historian had spent years transcribing the quarter sessions court records for publication, but when he died no one could read his handwriting, and they remained unpublished.

I had been recalling the archives and planning an article about them when I dropped into a Sydney charity shop to find something to read. Now that the University of Sydney library has emptied the stacks of half a million volumes and deposited them off-campus, it is hard to find much to read on the open shelves. Vinnies’ has more to offer. On this occasion I picked up a memoir, Open Secret, by Stella Rimington, the first woman director-general of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5, and author of a number of spy novels I had enjoyed. Leafing through the pages I found that from mid-1959 to the end of 1961 she had been an assistant archivist in the Worcester County Record Office – the very years I used to haunt the place.

Ever since writing my column on conspiracies and paranoia for another weekly paper, Nation Review,in the late 1970s I had developed an unhealthy interest in spooks and surveillance. To think that I might have literally brushed shoulders with this female super-spook. Of course this was before she had joined MI5 – or so she wrote. But could you trust the words of the director of a spy agency? I tried in vain to remember if there had been any young lady who had tried to recruit me in the shadows of that old church. Or had I delivered some subversive views even at that age, had I blotted my copy-book as far back as then?

One of her recollections of those days chimes in with mine. She writes:

Some of our most frequent customers were the Mormons and their representatives. They were researching the ancestors of fellow Mormons, by searching for names, usually in the parish records. My understanding was that if the ancestors could be identified their names would be written down and they would be posthumously baptised so that their spirits would pass from wherever they were into the Mormon heaven

I remembered this bizarre behaviour of the Mormons. But by the time of my Nation Review column twenty years later, some of us had developed new theories about what the Mormons were up to. One of the alleged tricks of intelligence agencies, it was revealed in the 1960s, was to search through registers of births and deaths, find someone who had died young, and use their birth date to obtain documents in their name and create a false identity to be used by some spy going undercover. Were the Mormons in fact working for the CIA or FBI to fabricate legends for their undercover spies? Indeed, was the later-to-be director of MI5 doing something similar?

This theme of stealing identities from parish records cropped up again in my researches. Another local figure was Edward Kelly, the associate of Dr Dee (1). I published a book about Dee and Kelly 20 years ago, Raising Spirits, Making Gold and Swapping Lives: the True Adventures of Dr John Dee and Sir Edward Kelly. Since its publication, new material on Kelly had surfaced and I began updating it for a new edition. I was in touch with an American academic, Terry Burns, who with another American scholar, Vincent Bridges, had written a book about Kelly, An Alchemical Enigma. They both argued that the person who made gold at the Emperor Rudolf’s court was not the Edward Kelly born in Worcester, but some other figure who had adopted the identity of the Worcester man from the parish records. Naturally, I prefer to keep Kelly as the product of my own home town.

Terry Burns also drew my attention to a recently discovered document in a German archive. It is a letter from Sir Richard Bingham, Governor of Connaught, authenticating Kelly’s claim to be of noble Irish descent. Kelly had been thrown in gaol by the Emperor Rudolf and the letter may have been an attempt to get him rehabilitated. Bingham was a correspondent of Sir Francis Walsingham, who ran secret service operations for Queen Elizabeth. Kelly may well have been some sort of agent for Walsingham, though naturally it is impossible to find any unambiguous evidence for this. But the name Bingham resonates in this context.

Charlotte Bingham is a prolific contemporary novelist and I recently read her memoir MI5 and Me – a hilarious account of working for an intelligence agency. She got the job because her father, John Bingham, worked for MI6, where he was John le Carré’s boss and encouraged him to begin writing. A recent biography of Bingham, The Man Who Was Smiley, suggests he was a model for le Carré’s Smiley character. Bingham himself wrote crime and spy novels: he was also an Irish peer, the 7th Baron Clanmorris. Presumably he is a descendant of that 16th century Bingham of Ireland, a family familiar with espionage operations over generations – though I have yet to do the genealogical research to prove it.

The aura of espionage seems to permeate archival records. When I was researching The Paraguayan Experiment, my book about William Lane’s New Australia settlement (2), I tracked down a Confidential Memorandum to the British Foreign Office about the settlement by M. de C. Findlay, preserved in the Public Record Office at Kew. I found it suggestive that the British Foreign Office was keeping watch on New Australia. But it was not till 30 years later when reading Andrew Cook’s M. MI5’s First Spymaster that I came across M. de C. Findlay again and my suspicions about his role were confirmed:

I Manfeldt de Cardonnel Findlay, acknowledge to have received from Sir Edward Grey, Baronet, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the sum of twenty-five pounds (£25) for the purposes of His Majesty’s Foreign Secret Service, and I do hereby solemnly declare that the said sum has been disbursed faithfully and according to my best judgement for those purposes …

There were other materials about Lane in the Fisher Library at the University of Sydney. I was allowed into the rare book stacks at one point and by chance happened to notice a shelf of boxes containing the papers of Alf Conlon (3), who ran a mysterious research unit in Sydney’s Victoria Barracks in the Second World War, the Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs, along with James McAuley (4) and Harold Stewart (5). A note was stuck onto the side of one of the boxes. “If anyone asks for these, say we do not have them” – though when I mentioned this to Conlon’s nephew he was sceptical that there might have been any secret service implications. “He probably wrote the note himself”, he said.

Editor’s Notes

  1. Edward Kelly (or Kelley), 1555-1595, alchemist, ‘skryer’ to John Dee in their dialogues with spirits, knighted by the Emperor Rudolf and then gaoled, died while escaping from prison. Mentioned in Butler’s Hudibras. Dr John Dee, 1527-1608, adviser to Elizabeth I, alchemist, astrologer, and mathematician, often suspected of sorcery. See
  • William Lane, 1861-1917, British-born Australian journalist who founded the socialist settlements of New Australia and Colonia Cosme in Paraguay in 1893/4
  • Colonel Alfred Austin Joseph Conlon, 1908-1961, high-level Australian administrator and influential think-tanker 
  • James Philip McAuley, 1917-1976, poet, co-instigator (with Harold Stewart) of the 1943-44 Ern Malley literary hoax, and co-founder in 1956 of the Australian magazine, Quadrant
  • Harold Frederick Stewart, 1916-1995, poet, Orientalist, and co-instigator of the Ern Malley literary hoax

Moby Grape – the greatest rock-and-roll combo you’ve never heard of

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD recalls a brilliant, betrayed band

All rock musicians carry a strong potential for disaster. On top of their youth and volatility, already a toxic combination, they swim in the notoriously shark-infested waters of showbusiness. Add the proximity of mind-warping drugs, uncomplicated sex and other inducements, and, notwithstanding the example of a few carefully preserved vintage hotrods like the Rolling Stones, it’s possible to see how the spectacular rock-music flameout is the rule, and truly sustained creative or personal fulfillment the exception.

When coming to consider the list of such artists to have been undermined by their own management, the writer finds himself somewhat spoilt for choice. There was the particularly poignant case of Badfinger, for example. Despite being the first signing to the Beatles’ Apple label in 1968 and going on to enjoy four consecutive worldwide hit singles, the Anglo-Welsh combo spent much of their lives locked in a bitter and ultimately unwinnable feud with their New York-based manager Stan Polley, a man apparently only dimly familiar with the concept of paying his clients. Two of the four band members eventually committed suicide.

Badfinger’s contemporaries the Zombies were another case in point. In short order, the group from the north London suburbs scored three hit singles and released an LP, Odessey and Oracle (so spelt) now ranked in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Albums of All Time, but who found their audiences understandably perplexed by the fact that two other bands, one hailing from Texas, the other from Michigan, had both appropriated the name ‘Zombies’ (the real band had never trademarked it) and were blithely touring the world playing the group’s original hits.

Or there was Tommy James, who along with his band the Shondells had no fewer than 14 Top 40 smashes between 1964-69, enjoying a vast mainstream success that extended – surely a first in these matters – to having the Vice President of the United States volunteer to write the liner notes to one of his albums. Perhaps the one flaw in James’s otherwise glittering success story was to have signed away his rights to one Morris Levy, a man AllMusic describes as “a notorious crook who swindled artists out of their owed royalties”, and who died in 1990, aged 62, shortly before he was due to report to prison after being convicted of extortion.

The above list is far from exhaustive, and readers may well have their own candidate or candidates in mind for inclusion. Somehow I’m always reminded on these occasions of Carlos Santana’s onetime colleague Marcus “The Magnificent” Malone, who ended up living under a bridge in suburban San Francisco, where, alerted by a local news station, Santana himself once came by to say hello. The reunion seems not to have done much for Malone’s fortunes, because not long afterwards he was critically injured by an unsecured tyre that flew off a car passing by his makeshift home, and today remains on life support in hospital.

But perhaps no group of musicians suffered the slings and arrows of misfortune, and more specifically of mismanagement, quite as grievously as the Bay Area-based quintet Moby Grape. Named after the punch-line of the absurdist joke about what’s purple and floats in the sea, the band covered the waterfront from folk, blues, country, jazz and pop, with an underlying sense that the five musicians might conceivably have been on terms of some familiarity with the world of hallucinatory drugs. Their 1967 single ‘Omaha’ is surely one of the great psychedelic rock songs of all time. To those both in and out of the music business enlightened by LSD, it seemed all human problems and divisions were issues, not of substance, but of perception. With acid, the theory went, humanity could “transcend its primitive state of neurotic irresponsibility”, to quote Terry Southern’s script for the 1968 cult sci-fi romp Barbarella, and, realising the oneness of all creation, proceed directly to utopia. Nowhere was this touching belief more ingrained than in the San Francisco of the mid- to late-1960s.

That there was indeed something unusual in the air can still be heard from many of the records of the period: Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, It’s A Beautiful Day’s eponymous first LP, and the Grateful Dead’s Anthem of the Sun, to name but three that in their different ways managed to be both joyful and serious, characterised by their tactical deployment of switched-on lyrics, a propulsive rhythm, and a general spirit of adventurous improvisation epitomised by the ‘cross-talk’ guitar work that led the way to the sort of extended instrumental exchange that stadium audiences still boogie to, echoing out among the plastic cups and soggy programmes, of a ‘Hotel California’ or ‘Layla’.

Even in this illustrious company, Moby Grape’s self-titled first album, released in June 1967, stands supreme as a Summer of Love artefact that manages to be distinctly of its time and yet still with the power to move us today. Far from being self-indulgently diffuse or free-form, the band members brought to their work a tight, if idiosyncratic, sense of structure and a well developed ear for melodic economy. In stark contrast to those of many of their peers, almost all of the band’s songs came in at less than three minutes. All five musicians – Jerry Miller, Skip Spence, Peter Lewis, Bob Mosley and Don Stevenson – sang, and no fewer than three of them played variations of lead guitar. The venerable music critic Geoffrey Parr described the ensuing confection as follows:

No rock and roll group has been able to use a front-line guitar trio as effectively as Moby Grape did on Moby Grape. Spence played a distinctive rhythm that really sticks out through the album. Lewis, meanwhile, was a very good player overall, and was excellent at finger-picking … And then there was Miller

equally adept at playing the string-shredding solo as he was an unobtrusive, bluesy rhythm, and still today regularly voted one of the great all-round masters of his craft; ask Eric Clapton what he thinks about the subject.

Parr concludes,

The way Moby Grape handled their parts and played together on the first album is like nothing else I’ve ever heard in my life … The guitars are like a collage of sound that makes perfect sense

What most strikes the modern listener to Moby Grape’s freshman LP is the sheer variety of the band’s wares. Nowadays we expect our commercially successful pop acts to tick one of the approved stylistic boxes and stick to it. The Grape, by contrast, always shunned the lure of the pigeonhole. As originally released, the band’s first record comprises 13 songs lasting a total of just 31 minutes. There are fast numbers like ‘Hey Grandma’ and ‘Omaha’ that come out of the gate sounding like a revved-up fusion of Hendrix and the Sex Pistols, with added Beach Boys harmonies, if you can imagine such a thing, and slow ones like the plaintive ‘8:05’ and the refined ‘Sitting by the Window’ that bear comparison to some of the all-time great busted-heart country ballads. Like a Swiss Army knife, Moby Grape provides different tools for different needs: there are times when headbanging mayhem comes in handy, and others when a certain introspection does the trick. It’s the evocation of these disparate moods, always executed with the greatest technical skill, and a refreshing absence of self-indulgent noodling – the band members give the clear impression that they were keenly aware at all times of where a song was heading – that gives the whole record its bite. You could do much worse than to buy a copy of it today.

Unfortunately, Moby Grape’s musical acumen was matched only by their truly tragicomic litany of personal misadventures. Their problems began even before the release of their first album, when their manager presented the young musicians with a contract that gave him, not them, ownership of the group’s name. In time this led to the expedient of the band releasing their records under an alias, among various other Spinal Tap-like indignities. For its part, the group’s record company seemed to go from zero to 80, as it were, without levelling out at 40 in between, in its marketing hype. Their decision to release no fewer than five of the band’s songs as singles on the same day was widely thought counterproductive. In due course, the members of Moby Grape became aware that the suits owned the rights to their songs, as well as to their name, and 30 years of intermittent legal wrangling ensued.

Meanwhile, a combination of bad advice, bad breaks and bad behaviour served to further undermine a band that we might otherwise think of today in broadly the same terms as a more musically adept version of the Eagles or Led Zeppelin. One regrettable episode saw Skip Spence forcibly removed from his New York hotel and transported to the criminal ward of a nearby psychiatric hospital. In the 1960s, the available treatment for such issues had barely progressed beyond that afforded the most pitiful inmates of a Victorian lunatic asylum. The prodigiously talented Spence lived most of the rest of his life in a series of mental institutions and died in 1999, aged 52.

Moby Grape’s bassist Bob Mosley also displayed emotional problems. In 1969 he quit the band and, in a notable career move, joined the US Marines. Discharged for medical reasons, he spent several years living on the streets. Peter Lewis (son of the Oscar-winning actress Loretta Young) developed an interest in metaphysics, moved to the upscale wine country of California’s Santa Ynez valley – familiar to viewers of the 2004 film Sideways – and still occasionally plays the guitar. Don Stevenson managed to continue in music while becoming national sales director of a Canadian luxury timeshare concern. Jerry Miller, for his part, returned to his native Pacific Northwest, and – I speak from at least brief personal acquaintance – remains the most natural, modest and unaffected of men, let alone of psychedelic-rock guitar gods, anywhere in the world. Collectively, the band is one of those cautionary tales in rock and roll about exceptional talent being squandered on poor choices (other people’s as much as their own, it should be noted) of which the biographer Jeff Tamarkin writes:

The Grape’s saga is one of lost potential, absurdly misguided decisions, bad breaks, blunders and excruciating heartbreak, all set to the tune of some of the greatest rock and roll ever … They could have had it all, but they ended up with nothing, or less

Except, of course, that’s not quite the end of the story. Despite seeming to have been on one long death march from the moment they released their incendiary first album, Moby Grape never truly disbanded in the formal sense of the word. A reunited version of the classic lineup performed for 40,000 fans in their spiritual home of San Francisco as recently as 2007, and the four surviving originals continue to play in various combinations, solo or collective, today.

Moby Grape may still mainly be thought of as precociously talented but commercially underperforming victims of callous management, satirically inept record company marketing and mutual poor judgement, but that’s at best only half the story. There is lasting greatness in several of their albums, but the first one is almost consistently great, and progressively so, an overall experience as thrilling as any that their particular brand of music can provide. I can’t imagine that anyone would listen to it now without at least reflecting on how great rock music’s promise was back in 1967, and how far it’s fallen.

Moby Grape’s self-titled first album is still widely available from all the usual outlets. For further information on the band’s guitarist Jerry Miller and his music, contact either Jo Johnson or Arne Nordwall at