“The hills in our minds cannot be measured in miles”
– Leatherface, ‘Shipyards’
“And tomorrow? Tomorrow’s been cancelled due to lack of interest.”
– ‘The Last of England’
Andrew Kotting’s 1996 psycho-geographic tour of Britain, ‘Gallivant’, played on the smeared TV set. Little Eden and Big Granny accompany him around the 6,000 miles of coastline.
It starts in Bexhill-on-Sea, faded Kent seaside promenades (faded even back then in the nineties), a reminder of my own childhood. Bizarre nostalgia for something I never really liked. I never knew these places in their prime, which was when? The sixties I assume, earlier maybe, post-war trips for the working class. Down to Margate, BemBom brothers, corroded memories of corroded infant rides. I went, definitely, so young, in Thatcher’s days. Years later, trips to the Lido to watch punk and hardcore bands. Walking back to the station along the seafront arcades, half-ignoring the prostitutes and the fights. The feeling that the town had been abandoned, was adrift and would float away in to the sea. Get back home, quick, and don’t look to your left or right.
Back to Gallivant. The film, a trip round the margins of the Island, a world half-recognised of pagan residuals, a giant whose blood flowed into the sea and ended his days. The giants, a pervasive force still in our minds. Gemma saw them due to migraine, squeezed blood vessels allowing insight into that that never (quite) was. We all read the BFG as children, probably saw the animation too. Sometimes think we’ll see the child-eaters appear over the London skyline when we’re out late, pissed or high or just after a late-shift, but we often live in the dead hours, and maybe that has scared them off. There is little space, or time, for wonder.
A Jack-in-the-Green festival, a figure we all know hopelessly entwined with the other figures who will just not die, The Green Knight. Hodekin. Woodwose. Robene Hode. King Ludd. The men of the woods who stand for everything the city is not; representing nature standing against the man-made-order. Green forest against concrete-grey town. Magic and myth versus reason, enlightenment, the humdrum. Andrew Kotting, in his film, knows that we know this, deep inside ourselves, and feels no need to explain, and the effect is all the more powerful. Watch that film, and you will feel a loss, sadness for something you never knew, never had, but perhaps you needed. I don’t have the answers.I love the city, my city, and I love the cities of the world, but at times I know the way we live is not, cannot, be right. ‘The centre cannot hold’, and all that.
So much pain and violence, humdrum atrocities, quotidian hatreds, they happen outside my window. Every day. A horror movie and a Daily Mail headline on the pavement outside the coffee shop. Dine at lunchtime on an avocado, rocket and goats cheese sandwich. Ciabatta bread. Ignore what you don’t like. Unsee.
I passed one of these cafes on my way up Stoke Newington Church Street, the day after watching Gallivant. A standard bohemian middle-class purveyor of coffee, sandwiches, organic gluten free cake. A thirty something mother sat outside, sipping herbal tea, sleeping child pram-bound. She was read a copy of Le Guin’s ‘The Telling’. I was on my way to a pub up the road, opposite Clissold Park (enclosed deer, sad aviary, demonic goats), to meet The Poet and Cerise. I had my headphones in; ‘Ar Ceol, Ar Canan, Ar-A-Mach’. I wondered why they wanted to see me.
In the last NSM pamphlet I had seen (I carried it with me now) The Poet and Cerise had outlined a reading list for what was happening. They claimed the authors on the list, knowing or not, had been visionaries, prophets, predicting the battles that (they said) were to come. Each entry had annotations, sometimes scrawled roughly then photocopied without regard to layout of the mythical missives the pair were flinging across London’s underground scenes.
“The punks, skinheads, the hippies, the squatters, the ska boys, the rastas, the ravers, the dubsteppers, the anarchos, the crusties, the water-rats, the poets, the marginals. These are the people who feel it coming.” This was something The Poet had said to me, once, in a hot summer as we broke into an abandoned house. I had mumbled some reply, passing it off as his usual blather.
I reached the pub, early. Ordered a pint of cider, sat with it alone and studied the reading list. Pub maybe a quarter full.
THE NSM READING LIST:
WORDS FOR A COMING APOCALYPSE
- 1. The Death of Robin Hood – Peter Vansittart
- 2. Gog – Andrew Sinclair
- 3. Hackney, That Rose Red Empire – Iain Sinclair
- 4. The Lowlife – Alexander Baron
- 5. Merlin – Robert Nye
- 6. Down and Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton – Stewart Home
- 7. The Golem – Gustav Meyrink
- 8. The Dispossessed – Ursula Le Guin
- 9. From Hell – Alan Moore
- 10. Alice in Sunderland – Bryan Talbot
- 11. Puck of Pooks Hill – Rudyard Kipling
- 12. Human Punk – John King
- 13. The Tain – China Mieville
- 14. The Great God Pan – Arthur Machen
- 15. The Philosophy of Punk – Craig O’Hara
- 16. All Ballard!!
I failed to see the connection between many of these books, even the ones I had read myself. I felt that Cerise and The Poet were lost in their own fantasies, humdrum apocalyptic visions, a desire for the great leveller of destruction to come and make things fair again.
I swigged my pint. A voice in my ear: “Can’t you feel the days are getting shorter?”
A quote from Jarman’s ‘The Last of England’. I had watched it with The Poet at the ICA, years ago. Twat.
“Alright man, been a long time.” He looked opaque as he sat down and his eyes had an insect sheen. Skittery movements, shambolic clothes, an odd pendant hanging round his neck. Like a bad approximation of Lovecraft.
“How’ve you been? You and Cerise been dancing in the sewers of London again?”. I lit a cigarette as I said this, in a more affected way than I would have hoped.
Ignoring my question (I presumed tales of personal well being bored him these days), he flickered to the bar, like some old German expressionist film played at the wrong speed, ordered some local ale. Leered a little at the barmaid. I wondered where Cerise was. The pub was filling up now, with faces that looked alien and threatening. I wondered who I had more in common with, him or them.
“Machen said that a part of ruined Paradise was round ‘ere.” He was back at my table. “Nice story don’t you think? The last remnant of Eden turns out to be in Stoke-fucking-Newington.” He laughed an odd laugh at this. I just stared at him. He didn’t smell right.
“Where is she? I haven’t seen her in months you know.”
“The red one? Gone mate. Fuck knows where. Went looking for The Golem. Sad, really. Got lost in all that Jewish shit, thinks she understands the fucking Kabbalah.”
Thoughts of Rodinsky in my head, cider stinging my tongue. Some cunt in front of me who I used to knock about with. A friend lost to her obsessions, and a wannabe mystic sipping ale at my table.
“Heard about the shooting?” he said. He referred to London Fields. I nodded. Of course I had heard.
“What was that all about, eh?!” he said, grinning. Swigged his ale. I was refusing to indulge him in this bullshit. I just stared. His insect eyes twitched, his form flickered. I drained my pint. He continued explaining as I listened, appalled and fascinated. He finished. Paused.
“Wanna come see something?” the smug, condescending tone was gone.
The NSM believed that the flimsy, cellophane wrap of what we took for granted was coming down. Falling apart. Disintegrating. Whatever way you looked at it, it was on its way out. Cerise had once babbled to me, high on mephedrone, about The Great God Pan. Machen, again, poking his head a hundred years into the future. It meant the awful reality we could not normally see, the stuff of nightmares, but also, perhaps, of liberating freedom. As one man’s idea of freedom is another’s terrorist nightmare.
In the post-everything detritus of the twenty-first century, what was there to cling onto? Let alone believe in. In an age where the old political belief systems had failed – both communist and capitalist – what was there now? Nothing but fear to keep people in line. No promise that things could get better, only that they could get worse. In such sour times, believers became the most dangerous people one could imagine. The NSM believed. They took novels as their holy texts, guidebooks across the visionary landscapes of the land behind that Clingfilm curtain. They devised new maps of hell, psycho-cartographic exercises in insanity and belief. Punk bands their cantors. A worldview built on the rubble of all the old. They were dangerous.
“The shooting in London Fields? That was us” The Poet had told me.
Cerise was dead. Died somewhere unimaginable, in unimaginable circumstances somewhere amongst the shifting time zones of Stamford Hill, endlessly hunting the golem. “Put me underground with a smile on my face”. She died so quietly, I had not noticed. So enmeshed in webs of my own paranoia and narcissism. Fucking prick. Not that she needed me, needed no rescue. She went willingly.
We stood in the fragment of Paradise that Machen had seen nearly a century ago. Heart stopping, the beauty unimaginable, colours I couldn’t name. The sight made me cry, for reasons I didn’t understand. We were in the Green, had passed through the curtain, stood with The Great God Pan. Here, The Poet looked full and fleshy, in this land of dream and fiction. I held out my palm in front of my face. It was partly transparent; I could observe vegetation that shimmered like opal through my own flesh.
The Green Man wandered up to us, a gnarled face, wooden yet dynamic.
This brings us to the present.
In voice of leaf and byre he makes a greeting.
“You felt it long ago, didn’t you, the waste of people’s minds, the rise of belief, the death of imagination. Your collective consciousness gone flabby, wheezing, asthmatic.”
I want to say I’m sorry.
The Poet wanders off, smoking, into the visionary landscapes.
I am left alone. A Green Man in front of me. He smiles, fades into the Green. An ondine swims through my memory, and I am left with feet of clay rooting me to the spot.
I see a figure approach. The dead girl, my friend. She says:
“Can you stay a while? I’ve made tea. It’s been so long.”
Tears of some unnameable emotion. I nod.
We walk under the light of a new sun.