The conundrum involved with getting signed to John Peel’s own label was that – due to the BBC’s conflict of interest policy, Peel couldn’t actually play the records on-air on his show. So Bridget gigged on his road shows, and did a live 1969 ‘Top Gear’ session, its four tracks preserved on CD4 of this valuable box-set. Bridget resembles Françoise Hardy by way of Donovan, Nico via Nick Drake, a softly-bruised simplicity that trips barefoot on hot pavements, tastes buttercup sandwiches and hitchhikes with a boy with lizard-long tongue. All set with notes of crystal purity in a spangled bohemia where the alchemy of curlews, mistle-thrush and church-chimes ornate the melancholy 7:49-minute title song of ‘Ask Me No Questions’ (1969), underscored by John Martyn’s guitar and Dominic’s pitter-patter bongos. Then ‘Songs For The Gentle Man’ (1971) produced by Ron Geesin, is breathy pastoral chamber baroque-Folk with airy woodwind and Donovan’s exquisite “Pebble And The Man”. And ‘Thank You For…’ (1972) produced by Peel, choosing highlights is hard, but “Lazarus” is one. Three studio albums that pretty-much contain this vital phase of her career, bulked out with bonus live material and previously unreleased tracks, predominantly her own songs with a few Cohen, Dylan, Joni and Kevin Ayers thrown in. There were subsequent albums, a Greenwich Village sojourn and contributions to Mike Oldfield’s ‘Ommadawn’ epic, but everything you really need to know about Bridget St John is here, in this beautiful box.
Published in: ‘R2: ROCK ‘N’ REEL Vol.2 No.52’
(UK – July/August 2015)
glistening chameleons asquat on
rooftops of eternal cityscapes
watch masked people barter for tears
on unnamed street corners,
the chant of high mass ceases…
liquid eyes echo defeat as troubadours
shift in enchanted directions, playing
with the sand of naked boredom where
ochre-tinged alleys meet in dumb crucifix
beneath the beating of metallic wings,
and somewhere, people stop singing…
dawn erupts over a horizon of monoliths
bleeding into the waters where gurus sit
beside the lake, watching it mirror
crimson towers dissolving into yesterday’s
forgotten ambitions, and somewhere
the music stops playing…
poets detonate concept-bombs along cerebral
molecular chains, as insects of decay
skitter along the wide minaret stairs
to where midnight’s fire-dancers
swallow each others fingers in discordant glee,
and somewhere, silence grows to fill the universe…
Published in: ‘SNIFFIN’ FLOWERS no.1’ (UK – September 1977) ‘BIZARRE ANGEL no.2’ (UK – May 1980)
also in: ‘DEAF EYES’ collection
(Fiasco Publications – UK, April 1973)
I first met Genesis P Orridge circa 1971 in Hull, well before the ICA
‘Prostitution’ exhibition first impinged his name on national consciousness.
That was before Throbbing Gristle, and before Psychic TV, when he was
part of the ‘COUM’ group. Predictably my article which resulted got
butchered down to some seven paragraphs by a vindictive sub-editor… and
I’ve been subsequently re-writing it at intervals ever since in attempts to get it right. Until a retrospective as part of the 2017 ‘Hull: City Of Culture’
offers the perfect opportunity...
‘(1) COUM ARE FAB AND KINKY’
So it all COUMs down to this.
Everything here is true. Everything here is lies.
A retrospective respectfully preserved in rows in neat numbered glass-topped exhibits. All that extremism, shock, outrage, confrontation, all catalogued and contextualised. Was it really meant to be this way? Was it? The ‘Humber Street Gallery’ PR leaflet does all that arty gobbledygook about ‘on each occasion COUM’s auditory and kinetic actions constituted spontaneous responses to collective and individual experience. Simulation and artifice combined with actual and real, confounded familiar systems, methods and institution, re-activating the spaces of the street, lecture theatre or art gallery.’ Which is pretty-much what COUM was actively against. Because it was absurdist fun too, subversively silly, mad shenanigans, deliberately provocative in taunting and inflammable ways. Pretention was no real part of it. Take my word for it – no, don’t.
Now is a very safe controlled risk-free time, where art exists by not offending codes or consciences. These cobbled streets off the marina are fringed with trendy Bistros, coffee houses and chic galleries. Back then, this Old Town skirting the working docks and waterfront, held the edge of violence. See the signs? Back then, ‘Dagger Lane’ lived up to its reputation. Docker’s pubs and Biker bars. Drunks and lushes. The night air braced with the thrill of danger as well as the low lowing of trawlers out on the estuary. The front-space of the Humber Gallery is a chic café. Hull Pie is on the chalkboard. Was there ever Hull Pie? Or has this delicacy been concocted to meet the expectations of ‘2017: Hull, City Of Culture’? When in Hull, you must eat Hull Pie. It’s part of the consumer experience.
On the ground floor there are Sarah Lucas cast-plaster body-parts with cheekily inserted cigarettes – part of her ‘I Scream Daddio’ commission. But she seems so very dull and unexciting by comparison. The COUM exhib is more vital than all that slick cleanly-targeted cash-centric Brit-Art stuff. That’s unfair. In general, I like Sarah Lucas. It’s only when seen in this juxtaposition that she appears so coolly cerebral. COUM are never that. COUM use their bodies as weapons of the art-war. There’s no neutral space. So safety margin. No distancing. It’s every queasy squidgy internal organ, crinkly body hair and pulsing orifice.
In the first gallery there’s a flicker-experience of Dissident Watchers. Seven video-interviews with original COUM activists. Conceived by Cosey Fanni Tutti, whose voice retains her easy natural regional intonations, as though she’s selling you a bacon-bap in Greggs, not dealing gender-confrontational sexual-politics. Shot and edited by Gavin Toomey, there’s Spydee, Foxtrot Echo, the Very Rev LE Cheesewire Maull and ‘technical director’ John Lacey.
And notorious avant-garde provocational artist Genesis P Orridge, ‘The Keeper Of The Story’. Perpetrator of the 1976 ICA ‘Prostitution Show’, an exhibition of bodily emissions (ear-wax and beyond), which featured strippers and used-tampons. Called ‘wreckers of civilisation’ by Nicholas Fairbairn MP. Job done. Genesis P Orridge goes on as Industrial-conceptualist of Throbbing Gristle. Then the Psychic TV collective. To transcend sexual identity itself, into third gender. There’s an Apple-records pre-photoshop graphic sequence of John & Yoko’s faces gradually morphing into each other. In the same way, Genesis melds through body modification with Lady Jaye Breyer to become a pandrogyne s/he entity.
I’m thinking of Manchester. The ‘Hacienda Club’ in October 1982. A night of sartorial jacking off. An audience topography of primping self-esteem, friends selected as visual accessories, being seen and becoming SCENE. A squeaky-clean Faberge cabaret with eye-shadow setting eyes in deep wells, erogenous zones worn on the sleeve, lights and quirky visuals washing over an audience as flimsy and disposable as Kleenex. Above them two huge video screens are programming the night’s alternative entertainment, even though people-watching and bitch-banter wins hands-down.
A Psychic TV film, prefaced by Derek Jarman, is recreating an Aleister Crowley sex-magick ritual, shot in garish flesh-tone orange-lighting with jerky hand-held cameras deliberately out-focussing. A naked man is affixed to the wall of a sleazy-dank cell tormented by his captors. A knife zigzags blood-crimson slash-patterns across his chest, targeting his nipple, an acolyte erects the penis by sucking it juicily-deep into his throat, then they neatly sever the stiff cock in stomach-canting close-up while below they’re eating vegeburgers and slurping Pina Coladas, attention scarcely skittering to the castration on-screen…
That’s how I remember it. Remember it this way…
‘(126) COUM ARE YOUR
LOCAL DIRTY BANNED’
Hold On, It’s COUMing…
I first meet him circa 1971 in Hull before the ICA Arts Centre exhibition that first impinges his name on national consciousness. He’s then part of the ‘COUM’ group. I was leaving Hull, just as it was kicking in. But I’d seen him around town. We both use the Mod ‘Gondola’ café. There was the ‘Brick House’, on Baker Street which was a hippie corn-exchange, a kind of flea-mart for alternative paraphernalia and mimeo magazines. I was browsing there when I come aware there’s a debacle. Genesis is there dressed in head-to-toe knitted dayglo, he’s negotiating to come in and distribute subversive promotional leaflets about COUM. There seems to be a problem. The dialogue in itself mutates into a form of absurdist theatre. And some of those leaflets are here at the ‘Humber Gallery’. The original ‘1001 WAYS TO COUM’ copyrighted 1971 in orange mimeo. The ‘Book Of The End 1969/72’ a Gift To Cosey made up of drawings and writings. The ‘Trigger Happy Ballet’, 1972.
Then I’m answering an item for the underground newspaper ‘Styng’, searching up an obscenity bust provoked by COUM. Their logo is an ejaculating penis. A logo printed on their promotional leaflets, advertising posters, and – if memory-search serves aright, it’s also painted on the side of the group van. Inevitably, as they fully anticipate, prosecution under the obscenity laws follow – earning them a limited notoriety via the underground press, for whom I write-up the legend. COUM are then housed in a derelict warehouse off the decaying red-light dockside area of Hull’s much-bulldozered much-gentrified old town. ‘Freaks in a Fruit Warehouse’, twelve rooms. A hole in the wall from which it’s possible to watch the ships on the winter Humber. ‘Cosmosi’s Warehouse’, backing onto 17 Wellington Street, ‘knock and yell for entry’. A building transfigured into a fetishistic fun palace of carefully draped black PVC sheeting patrolled by nude showroom dummies with added pubic hair and rouged nipples. The focal point is the toilet, swathed in black and raised like a throne or dais to become the building’s conceptual set-piece. The ‘Ho-Ho Funhouse no.1.’
We talk some – me practicing an interviewer-role to which I’m as-yet unused, them rehearsing an interviewee-routine to which they are equally unfamiliar. Them trying out their ‘Melody Maker’ interview-technique on me, me attempting spontaneous bop-prosidy on them. When Gen says COUM he pronounces it ‘cum’. But he’s softly-spoken, articulate, intelligent. When they tease me about my Mod-length not Freak-length hair he chides them to desist. Maybe it’s simply that he wants the press on his side? He bothers to do the interviews when they can’t be arsed. Or maybe, as I’m inclined to believe, it’s natural courtesy.
Why mention this very slight detail? Because it’s an indicator, that’s why. Across the years and decades of his career since, he’s been vilified and monstered in the shock-horror gutterpress. ‘This vile man corrupts kids. Demi-god feeds Pop Kids on sex, sadism and Devil Rites’ howls ‘The People’. Scotland Yard’s Obscene Publications Squad seize ‘an entire lorry-load’ of books, videos of ‘ritual satanic abuse’ and correspondence from his Brighton home following a Channel 4 ‘Dispatches’ so-called expose (reported in ‘The Observer’ 23 February 1992). Although, significantly, no charges follow – beyond a fine for the lesser offence of sending explicit ‘mail art’ through the post, it effectively ends the rise of the Psychic TV project, with Gen forced to relocate to San Francisco with wife Paula and two daughters. Yet even ‘Melody Maker’ brands him as ‘terminally sinister’ and an ‘arthouse gorehound’. Psychic TV ‘Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth (TOPY)’ had certain cult attributes, a fondness for nudity and piercing – long before body-ornamentation became high street chic, and Gen imbues it with a Charles Manson charisma. He’s photographed wearing a Manson T-shirt, which is damning evidence. And ‘The Wickedest Man In The World’? – ‘that’s why I like Aleister Crowley’ he adds, ‘he lived his entire life around his idea or philosophy. And that’s what I decided I should do, too…’ But at the core of his extreme projects, is the art-pulse.
I lacked the vocabulary of cultural interconnections. Did he? How aware was he…? Or was COUM more intuitive than informed? Punk, New Wave, Industrial would be a hard-core retaliation to hippie, the steel-capped boot of reality to its escapist dreams. Yet COUM was counterculture. The only analogies I can suggest back then are the Mothers Of Invention or Fugs. Which he doesn’t deny. That it’s also part of the Happening, Kinetic auto-destruct, Street Theatre, Absurdist Ritual, Experimental Event, Exorcising the Pentagon, Extreme Random-Noise, agitational propaganda, is all true. And all lies. Gen was there with the Exploding Galaxy in London crash-pads.
He reads about Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests in ‘Oz’ magazine, and replicates them here in Hull. Different, through necessity and invention. Taking it from the galleries and into the street, not even the Mall – there were no malls back then. Pushing a decorated gypsy pram down Whitefriargate like a beatnik down-at-heel Arthur Haynes. He credits Brion Gysin and William Burroughs cut-ups before Bowie’s ‘Cracked Actor’ (January 1975) makes it chic. And check the credit on ‘This Piece Extends The Ambiguity Of Marcel Duchamp’. There was another event in Belgium – ‘Marcel Duchamp’s Next Work’, made up of twelve differently-coloured bicycle wheels placed in a clock-like circle, COUM-members and audience pluck the spokes prompted by which colour is being flashed. Yes, he was art-smart back then.
At the ‘Humber Gallery’ there’s the Deed Poll registering the moment – in 17 January 1972, that Neil Andrew Megson (born in a state of ‘instant circumcision’, 22 February 1950) legally became Genesis P Orridge. In the vid-installation s/he talks of a revelatory moment during a 1969 family car journey through Wales. ‘The feeling of gravity shifting.’ The visionary insight that nothing is solid, everything is porous. An awareness of what s/he terms the Dissident Watchers, invisible entities in other dimensions and time zones, who tell him ‘COUM’.
William Blake had visions of ‘a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough with stars.’ Allen Ginsberg had visions of Blake that prove pivotal to his poetics. Were they real auditory and visual experiences or just intensified hallucinatory glimpses? What Colin Wilson calls ‘peak experiences’. Moments of heightened perception do occur. Sometimes for no obvious reason. Sometimes provoked by Rimbaud’s ‘systematic derangement of the senses’ via chemicals, or the Reichian orgasm releasing the repressive social inhibitions suppressing the libido. It’s all meat. Break on through to the other side. Opening the doors to perception. It’s part of the visionary alchemaic quest to understand what the hell’s going on.
A tale told, twice-told, and multiply-retold, ornamented and embellished by reiteration and the accretion of nuance, the oral history of Homer, the mythic origins of Camelot or Sherwood. The permeability of reality. A truth familiar through subatomic physics. We are 60% water. We are also space, with the nucleus, the quark, the strangeness of it all, the charm is that of matter and nothingness, an interaction of space and energy. This is basic Stephen Hawking. Life, the universe and everything. Forty-Two. This is also the vision that switches Neil Megson into Genesis P Orridge.
COUM were never entirely a musical entity, although it assumes elements of the guise. There was John Shapiro, listed as ‘violin’. Soon there was Christine Carol Newby – a Hull ‘townie’ but also the perfect flower-child vision. On their first encounter the psychic energies are so intense that her knicker-elastic snaps. She becomes Cosmosis, then Cosey Fanni Tutti. And Haydn Robb who plays bass guitar, but first writes ‘God Sucks Mary’s Hairy Nipple’ for the Hull University magazine ‘Torch’. Then Tim Poston, the group’s ongoing Scientific Adviser and Catastrophe Theorist. Gen was fully aware of John Cage. Cornelius Cardew was already working in avant garde composition with his experimental Scratch Orchestra, operating around ideas of untutored anti-musicians in limitless random improvisation. While the free jazz Spontaneous Music Ensemble, with John Stevens and Trevor Watts, was also playing within zones of loose formlessness. They were classical and trained musicians, utilising elements of chance. Yet none of them were quite like COUM.
Genesis had form. Later, with Psychic TV he’d tell the hyperdelicised ‘very special story’ of “Godstar” Brian Jones. He’d choose Nirvana’s “Rainbow Chaser” – ‘it was totally psychedelic – everything on it is phased backwards and forwards all the way though. It’s totally ludicrous’ for a ‘Melody Maker’ ‘Vinyl Solution’ playlist (28 February 1987). He also chooses two Velvet Underground tracks. Daughter Caresse P Orridge would narrate a tripped-out “Are You Experienced” with Sickmob (“RU Xperienced” Temple Records, August 1989). As well as a full acid-techno re-take on Brian Wilson’s “Good Vibrations”. COUM was never directly political either, beyond Yippie or Situationist stunts. Except in the counter-culture sense of small autonomous units against totalitarianism and capitalism. That all of us – humane, are cells of the same organism.
Afterwards, we adjourn through the narrowing streets of the ‘Land of Green Ginger’ to no.3 Magistrates Court to witness the hearing of a friend caught up on narcotics charges. Gen explains that it’s policy not to initiate criminal proceedings, but to ship them out to De La Pole hospital for psychiatric treatment. It proves to be the first, and possibly the most bizarre interview I’ve conducted. Predictably the article that results gets butchered down to some seven paragraphs by a vindictive sub-editor… and I’m subsequently re-writing it at intervals ever since in attempts to get it right. Until now.
As Gen phrases it, ‘better to figure it out now than never.’
‘(15) COUM URINATE DOWN
THE HANDRAILS OF
Everything you read here is absolutely true. Everything you read here is nothing but a tissue lies. Take my word for it – no, don’t.
COUMing Of Age.
In the ‘Humber Street Gallery’ exhibition there’s a poster for the ‘Bust Benefit Concert: To Aid Busted People’. According to Gen ‘a commune of freaks in Hebden Bridge had been busted and the concert was to raise funds for their legal costs.’ It was held at Bradford’s St George’s Hall, a dignified venue that hosts subscription classical concerts and ballets, as well as comedians and cheesy-Pop singers. Then – 22 October 1971, Hawkwind top the bill, with poet-activist Jeff Nuttall listed below.
Gen admits ‘sadly I cannot recall how the hell we managed to con our way to supporting Hawkwind…’ There was a craze among bands of that era to have massive drum kits, so the first part of COUM’s provocative circus consists of bringing on all the drums from three full kits and laying them out, compiling one impossibly huge and unplayable set. Tony Menzies (aka ‘Babbling Brook’) plays guitar for the first time in his life. Cosmosis is dressed as a classic English schoolgirl and walks around the stage firing a starting pistol. John Smith, from Bridlington comes dressed as a surfer and ‘sings’ standing on a surfboard on a bucket of water. And it all ends with the group throwing sackfuls of polystyrene ‘Polysnow’ granules everywhere. ‘Hawkwind were actually quite amused and very courteous to us, even when they had to clean granules out of effects pedals that were jammed up.’ It was perhaps COUM’s peak moment.
But it’s the Institute Of Contemporary Arts ‘Prostitution Show’ (19-26 October 1976) that mutates COUM into Throbbing Gristle, the ‘industrial-noise’ group named after a phrase in a pornographic novel. ‘In one of the cases is a syringe with a bloodied bandage by its side, a jar of Vaseline, a used Tampax, a rusted knife, some wire, a bottle of blood, some chains and a large black wig. The knife and wire I use to garrot myself – almost but not quite, in my performances’ he explains helpfully, ‘the wig is just to wipe up the blood.’ There’s satire and parody, obviously. ‘To offer reflections on the way TV programmes and the other media work… A lot of conceptualists and prestige galleries debase themselves with presentations that have little else but presentation. Our exhibition is about presentation itself, so banal information objects are presented beautifully, and the object looks as if it’s important when it’s not.’
In a 1971 meeting, William S Burroughs had advised Gen to ‘short-circuit control’. Burroughs uses addiction as a metaphor for power and cellular control, subliminal conspiracy theories and subversion. The ‘Prostitution’ exhibition takes and uses the gender transaction in the same way. Humans reproduce sexually. Male-female is the first vital binary duality we encounter. A biological thing, but enforced by social conditioning into the most basic human trade-off, interface and interaction. And also a metaphor for the market forces of capitalism and slavery, the link between abuse and exploitation, marriage, and objectification. The frisson between Art and pornography. ‘To live is to either exist, or to struggle against imposed controls and fight for an individual destiny, vision and expression’ Genesis wrote (sleeve-notes to Clock DVA’s ‘Thirst’).
The ICA centre is on the Mall, down the road apiece from Buck House. The ‘Prostitution’ dialogue debunks the po-faced art establishment by focusing on how art, and particularly performance art, involves selling both self and work – which is why the group is selling the material they have used in earlier shows. ‘One is debasing oneself by selling.’ So why are they debasing themselves? ‘Because we want to, and we need the money. To sell yourself is somewhat debasing and everyone is selling something.’ Another section of the show extends exploitation-selling into photo-spreads of Cosey posing for soft-core Top-shelf magazines. ‘The photographers aren’t just creepy blokes doing it for kicks,’ she says, ‘but the main thing was that I was doing it for reasons they didn’t know about – for the exhibition.’ The sexual impulse, when bent out of shape, denied and suppressed, mutates into dangerous perversity. And that’s here too. Via atrocity, and child murderer Ian Brady. In a jittery morally repressed society gender issues ignite outraged reactions that worry away at the very core of what is considered decent and proper. For art and Lit, that’s an irresistible equation. ‘Violence’ runs the cover-line to JG Ballard’s ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ ‘is the key’.
Nicholas Fairbairn opportunistically grabs press column inches by denouncing these ‘wreckers of civilisation’, although the Tory MP himself was later arrested for indecent exposure, and it’s surely a flimsy civilisation indeed if it’s wreckable by such teasing games. Predictably, the establishment disguises moral outrage by pointing at the price tag. COUM had been invited by the British Council to represent the UK at the Paris Biennale and the ‘British Film And Performance Art Festival’ in Milan, while the ICA is funded by an Arts Council grant to the tune of £90,000. Answering ‘anxieties’ about the ‘Prostitution Show’ the ICA director – Mr Ted Little, is summoned to the Council and interviewed. ‘They said our grant situation would be reviewed in the light of the show,’ he complained, ‘their attitude is totally unjustified – to talk of our grant being jeopardised because of eight days’ work. The ICA’s policy is to present new and innovative work by British artists. I never say what the quality is like. The public must pass comment’ (from ‘The Guardian’ 18 October 1976). Damien Hirst at the 2003 ‘Sensation’ exhibition is a storm in a paint-pot by comparison.
Predictably ‘Penthouse’ magazine is more supportive, ‘this sexhibition featured a selection of pornographic photographs of Cosey Fanni Tutti, P-Orridge’s girlfriend/ model and fellow artist, in various positions of sexual foreplay or sexy pose. There was also a series of small boxes of soiled tampaxes with amusing titles like ‘It’s The Time Of The Month’, ‘Tampax Romona’, ‘Living Womb’ and ‘Pupae’, which decorated one wall. An enigmatic construction of heavy chains positioned near the entrance of the gallery, like a shower of metal, evoked a feeling of cold violence and sensual delight’ (Vol.12 no.4, July 1977). Bizarrely vilified by both the ‘Daily Mirror’ and ‘Spare Rib’, the photos were nevertheless re-shown in the ‘Tate Triennial 2006: New British Art’. After all, Cosey is ‘a Hull girl with a healthy appetite for life and with unquenchable curiosity’ according to ‘Fiesta’ (Vol.10 no.7, 1976).
Yet the art remains. COUM is there in Paul Buck’s small-press ‘Curtains 14-17: Le Prochain Step’ magazine, and Scott Treleaven’s 2006 glossy artzine ‘The Salivation Army Black Book’. Gen participates in the week-long 2004 ‘Evolution’ film, video and performance art event in Leeds. Then ‘A-P-P-A-R-I-T-I-O-N’, takes its title from a Stéphane Mallarmé Symbolist poem for a collaborative Glasgow Tramway exhibition 29 September 2009, bringing image-and-text artist Cerith Wyn Evans into opposition with the Throbbing Gristle sound-sculptors, ‘an evocative bemusement of cross-associational mixed-and-multimedia, of images that metamorphose into sounds, of fragmented sentences, of sensory seduction and aesthetic disorientation, set to Evan’s chandeliers that pulsate with morse code.’
Retaining elements of COUM’s anti-art structure, Throbbing Gristle take it a step further. As ‘an egomaniac, a pervert, a porn queen and an introvert in a grey dufflecoat’ (‘Melody Maker’, 28 September 1985). There’s no drummer. Drums establish too strict a rhythmic structure. Instead, Gen is credited as bass. Cosey reluctantly plays a cut-down Woolworths guitar. But Leeds-born Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson contributes an experimental barrage of improvised triggered tape technology, and ‘the introvert’ Chris Carter devises or adapts electronics. Again, Kraftwerk had constructed their own electronic devices and beat-boxes. Can and radical atonal Amon Düül II operate in pure noise concepts. And anticipating Punk, there’s a gut-suspicion of virtuosity in favour of energy and invention. Yet again, TG is not quite like any on them. ‘Like Nietzsche’ as journalist Don Watson notes, Throbbing Gristle ‘advocate immersing oneself in the depths of forbidden thought, in the hope of emerging in the final daybreak with a deeper awareness and understanding’ (‘New Musical Express’ 17 December 1983).
Going to see Throbbing Gristle, if you have quirks, prepare to have them quirked. I’m here to see them with Clock DVA at the Leeds ‘F-Club’ (24 Feb). It’s a strange night. Genesis P Orridge, in military fatigues, supervises setting up Monte Cazazza’s equipment, synching the tapes, triggering soundcheck reverb careening over packed heads and poking holes in the smoke. Now, theirs is a two-piece fifteen-minutes of musique concrète white noise. Cosey sits in leather, engrossed in evoking discord from a guitar, there’s a shadowy guy with a synthesiser, and Gen howls incomprehensible “Sperm Song” lyrics through voice distortion, then another about child-strangler “Mary Bell”. It’s cut-ups of sound like Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen used to construct in Paris arts-labs in the late-fifties, the kind of thing usually aimed at elitist modern classical audiences and critically deconstructed in ultra-serious arts magazines. A little more aggressive now perhaps, but here in Leeds, kids are bouncing up and down like it’s Blondie or something. Spontaneous reactions striking intuitively deep at unprepared brain-centres.
‘I want discipline, I want discipline, I want discipline, I want discipline, I want discipline.’ Bob Cobbing sound-poetry with a machine backbeat. Genesis screwed down into a stage-crouch, shrieking, on the very brink of psychosis. Extreme Primal Taboo-Probing Art-Noise. A murky electronic disembowelling. In a YouTube performance clip Gen reaches out to tongue-kiss an ecstatic guy in the moshpit. This, at the height of the AIDS terror, when Alice Cooper was calling the sexual exchange of bodily fluids “Poison”… ‘Something came over me… was it white and sticky...? I don’t know what it was, but I rather like it, so I’m doing it again.’ Like a dubious repetition of a comic misrepresentation of ‘cum’, with vocals sampled and warped into constantly changing multiple channels.
Lights around the stage event horizon drill upwards. As it gets hotter and the air gets more congested the lights get buried beneath mounds of discarded leather jackets. Internal combustion results in columns of toxic smoke drifting hazily across the snaking wires and control boxes. People stand around, watching like it’s Special-FX, Queen’s Dry-Ice or something. I’m watching, lager in hand – but at fifty-pence a pint I’m not about to offer to extinguish the imminent conflagration. Sound grates on. From the back of the stage Genesis P watches plumes of smoke gather and dissolve, and starts gesticulating like a refugee from Martha Graham’s Modern Dance, until Roadies slam to the front hurtling smouldering leather jackets – with button-badges of Throbbing Gristle/ Police/ Toyah, at odd trajectories into the crowd.
Afterwards I hand Gen a copy of my arts magazine which pirates some of his visuals from the COUM phase. He accepts it with a gracious comment about me holding onto it for a long time. Yes, I guess it may be a short time in years, but we’ve both come a long way. A strange night.
Throbbing Gristle purposefully exist beyond the margin, within their own created-continuum, in the aesthetic opposition of outsider alternative society tradition, operating and distributing their own Industrial Records in deliberate DIY rejection of major label control. The first release – ‘The Second Annual Report’ (IR0002, November 1977) includes both live and studio versions of “Slug Bait” and “Maggot Death”, referencing COUM Transmissions in the “After Cease To Exist” track which takes up the full 20:16-minute side two. Paul Morley says ‘this is a very harrowing record. Darkly subjective’ (‘NME’ 11 February 1978). The third album – ‘Twenty Jazz Funk Greats’ (IR0008, December 1979) which is usually acknowledged as the best representation of their work, features eleven tracks – none of which could remotely be described as Jazz or Funk! Yet the label also issues pioneering albums by other names operating in a vaguely similar zone, Clock DVA, Cabaret Voltaire, Surgical Penis Klinik, and William S Burroughs valuable ‘Nothing Here But The Recordings’ (IR0016).
While, through the conniving intervention of Stevo, the audio-visual Psychic TV sign with major label WEA/ Some Bizarre to release ‘Force The Hand Of Chance’ in late 1982. By now Chris and Cosey have split away to form their own techno-primitive duo, and using instruments of ‘ritual or psychic properties’, including human thighbones and bicycle wheels, around the basic nucleus of Genesis, Peter Christopherson and guitarist Alex Fergusson (ex-Alternative TV), there’s even a string-laden spin-off single “Just Drifting” with narrative break for Caresse – ‘if you sit with fear, a star too far, almost lost in this storm of life, a blazing ghost can become the host, and you breakthrough to the room of dreams’.
Then there’s a guesting Marc Almond – who’d taken elements of Throbbing Gristle to structure Soft Cell, and now adds vocals to “Guiltless” and “Stolen Kisses”. Although dark light years from anyone’s idea of commercial product, it – and sequel ‘Dreams Less Sweet’ (1983), constitute Gen’s most accessible shot at the mainstream. Until the “Godstar” (Temple TOPY009) single reaches no.67 (26 April 1986) and “Good Vibrations” c/w “Roman P” (Temple TOPY23, on 20 September 1986) goes two places better to to.65 on the chart, narrowly averting the terrifying prospect of Psychic TV appearing on ‘Top Of The Pops’, instead finding a natural home by moving into the Acid Techno Rave culture.
And it’s Psychic TV, whose video I’m watching here at the Hacienda Club… A skinhead has a wolf tattooed on his fore-arm. Later, in a bare concrete yard he gets his-self naked, pours petrol over himself, and ignites. As the corpse collapses and crisps in a heap of guttering embers, a wolf is seen escaping across the concrete…
of my grateful thighs where you’ve spent the night
the world ceases to exist
beyond our field of perception,
you climb the austere liquid watches
somewhere beyond the monastic emptiness
of vision until canopus defies uranus
across a street clogged with
the silt of unattached retinas,
eventually, unseen conversation
extinguishes itself in
a spill of coins…
DEAF EYES: HISTORY
‘Deaf Eyes’ was my first collection. As someone else said, if I had to write my first collection again, this probably wouldn’t be it. George Cairncross, publisher of ‘Bogg’ invited me to contribute to his ‘Free For Postage’ booklet series issued through his Fiasco Press on spirit-duplicator technology. He’d already produced ‘Strange Tales For Strange Children’ by Lawrence Upton, ‘Poems To The Passing’ by Paul Berry, a collection of Joe Hirst’s cheekily entertaining ‘Graphics’, as well as a couple of his own irreverently anarchic writing – ‘The Nightcrawlers’ and ‘It Was Only The Other Day’.
It was April 1973. I drew together eighteen pieces, the earliest “Variations On An Enigma” had already appeared in a magazine called ‘Viewpoints’ and sets the tone in that it name-checks Max Ernst. Other poems reference Paul Éluard and Andre Breton. Maybe that’s pretentious, a defensive-compensatory striving to assert art-credentials over lived experience, but it’s also very much what I was preoccupied with. It was discovering Dada, through editions of ‘The Penrose Annual’ in the Hull College Of Technology library (now Humberside University) that destabilized my psyche like napalm, and gave me the tools of technique to aspire towards. The next “Night Of The Crystal Dream” was from a collection-series produced by the Peace Pledge Union, called ‘Outburst Of Pacifist Poems’. I was a fellow-traveler, and went along to their Hull meetings, talking revolution and Communism. Although the poem was written under the influence of watching Fellini’s movie version on Petronius’ ‘Satyricon’ that was circulating with a subversive frisson at the time.
I was balancing and grounding such input by reading and drawing images from pulp SF magazines and comics, and consciously using them in the cut-up way described by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. So that occasional typing errors – ‘twenty-first story breaths of the eternal ask/’, which sound good, stay in. The oblique ‘/’ indicates where the text-cut occurs. I can’t remember where I first read Burroughs, but I’d certainly gleaned ideas by reading about him in ‘It: International Times’ and ‘New Words’. The other nudge was Bob Dylan, where images such as ‘ancient empty streets too dead for dreaming’ not only use multi-adjectives, in an Allen Ginsberg way, but build a beautiful nonsense beyond strictly literal interpretation. ‘Deaf Eyes’ is a modest fumbling step that I use as a measure to indicate how much I’ve got more capable at shaping words since. As a debut, if I had to write it again, I probably wouldn’t. There’s a lot I no longer recognize about this very-intense screwed-up writer. Is it any good? Does it mean anything now? Some of it makes me wince. But this is it. And this is how it came about.
‘Indoctrinaire’ was Christopher Priest’s debut novel.
And there’s an intriguing story about how it was written,
how it first appeared in print form…
and how it was then revised…
‘Violent, like the furious breath of an ice-dragon, the gale howled across the frozen plateau,’ it first begins. The revised edition pares it down to just ‘the gale howled across the frozen plateau.’ Dr Elias Wentik is a scientist stationed at the Advanced Technique Concentration, a complex of research units located beneath the Antarctic ice-sheet. He experiments on tame rats – which die, and self-medicates himself with the same drug, producing lysergic acid hallucinogenic effects. But that’s not entirely the story. Instead, he’s promptly requisitioned by a mysterious American agent called Clive V Astourde, who beguiles him with film-frames of a strange unidentified aircraft. Then Wentik is in Brazil, accompanied by Astourde and a swarthy minder called Musgrave who – in a later deleted line, is ‘doing the heavy as Bogart used to.’ And he finds himself the subject of tight security.
Had Christopher Priest ever been to Pôrto Velho? Or did he just trace the journey with a finger on a map? He was born in Cheadle, an area of Greater Manchester – 14 July 1943, so it’s highly unlikely he’d been there. There was no Wikipedia back then to assist his research, and he admits to having ‘a limited fund of internal experience on which to draw’, yet the ‘muggy heat’ of his journey gives every impression of authenticity. A kind of Graham Greene dustiness, with the Kafka conundrum of a guiltless prisoner unaware of his supposed offence. Key words here are ‘disorientation’, ‘apprehension’, ‘unease’ and ‘displacement’. Now he’s being taken from his initial stay in a hotel – originally a ‘medium-sized’ hotel before this slight detail was omitted, on a long uncomfortable journey inland, in a truck escorted by twelve uniformed men, towards a place called the Planalto District. In response to his question he’s told ‘it’s a region of the Mato Grosso. In English it means ‘high plateau’.’ And what’s special about this destination? ‘You’ll see. It’s a part of the world where you can see in one direction but not in the other. A place you can walk into, but not out of.’
Christopher Priest writes about how ‘Indoctrinaire’ (1970) ‘was my first novel, and for this reason I am disproportionately fond of it.’ It tells of a zone in the Brazilian jungle mysteriously existing two-hundred years in the future. The novel started life as a short story – “The Interrogator”, submitted to editor and literary agent John ‘Ted’ Carnell who ‘said it was wonderful but that he didn’t understand it. He asked me to expand it and so I made it twice the length’ (a Christopher Priest interview with John Brosnan in ‘Science Fiction Monthly’ December 1974). The resulting 10,000-word novelette duly appeared in ‘New Writings In SF no.15’ in a June 1969 Dobson Books hardback, followed by the Corgi paperback edition in October. Carnell’s editorial welcomes ‘two more new authors to our pages’ – Michael G Coney, and ‘Londoner Christopher Priest, who plans to become a professional writer soon.’ According to this ‘Foreword’, Priest ‘presents a psychological study of a group of men trapped in an environment from which there is no escape. In “The Interrogator” he asks, who is the jailor, and who is the jailed under such circumstances?’ This unconsciously attunes with the volume’s ‘theme pattern’, which turns on psychology.
This original novelette text – which constitutes, roughly, the novel’s first six chapters, is more pronouncedly Kafkaesque in that it omits the novel’s later scene-setting completely. There’s only fleeting reference to Wentik being snatched from the Concentration ‘under the ice-cap of the Hollick Kenyon Plateau in Antarctica.’ Instead, it opens up decisively with the two-way interrogation games between Astourde and Wentik. In the novel, by the opening of chapter four – page nineteen, it’s already explained that the perfectly-circular Planalto District of Brazil’s Serra de Norte exists on two separate planes – the rain forests of 1979 (or 1989 in the revision), and the endless plain of 2189’s brittle stubble. And that it’s within this slice of futurity that the strange aircraft was seen.
The ‘New Writings’ text further specifies the location as ‘a high plain between two tributaries of the Amazon, the Aripuana and the Juruena rivers.’ Discovered by the American Government – or the CIA in the 1979 revision, ‘beyond an abrupt terminator in one of the densest jungles in the world’ there is ‘a plain of mown stubble that stretched beyond the horizon.’ In the novel it was Astourde himself who took the photo of the aircraft, not an Air Force Captain ‘at a time when no-one had been inside the District’, as in ‘New Writings’. There’s also a curious incident at the windmill, and then the interrogation-centre itself which is ‘a huge black-and grey cube standing in dereliction on the lonely windswept plain.’
Despite John Carnell’s assertion, Priest was not entirely a new name, indeed, Harry Harrison had already called him ‘a young man well-known in British SF (fan-)circles’. In the more informal guise of Chris Priest he was a protégé on the late-sixties SF scene, appearing in the BSFA journal ‘Vector’ – with occasional letters of comment, as early as winter 1962, when he was aged around eighteen. He began contributing essays and book reviews soon after, reviewing novels by Lan Wright, Dan Morgan, Philip K Dick, and magazine issues of ‘New Worlds’ and ‘Science Fantasy’. There was also prose in ‘Zenith’, in Graham Charnock’s fanzine ‘Phile’, and in ‘SF Commentary’.
His earliest traceable fiction shot – “The Ersatz Wine” started out in November 1963, but remained unpublished until some considerable time later – in ‘New Worlds’ (no.171, March 1967). His debut proper had to wait until Kyril Bonfiglioni selected “The Run” for ‘Impulse’ (no.3, May 1966). A suitably-doomy Cold War metaphor, it parallels Senator Robbins’ role in the escalating nuclear conflict against the Pan-Asians, with hordes of Juvies who deliberately court death in their mass ‘chicken run’ onto the filter-strip road he’s using, ‘testing their bravery against his.’ Their menacing presence, and the tense plot-momentum predictably climaxes in atomic inferno. By coincidence Judith Meril has a story – “Homecalling”, in the same magazine issue, which perhaps helps when she collects “The Run” into the excellent ‘England Swings SF’ (1968) anthology that she edits.
“The Run” is also part of a selection of his short stories from this period that can be found in ‘Real-Time World’ (1974). Priest’s “Conjunction” followed in Michael Moorcock’s ‘New Worlds’ (no.169, December 1966). Leading inexorably towards his first ‘New Writings In SF’ contribution. ‘It came out of a very unhappy period in my life when I was living in a flat in London and, due to rather mundane circumstances, I was getting more and more paranoid’ he confides to John Brosnan. ‘I hadn’t written much at the time but I had heard that writing was therapeutic and that to write about a problem was a way of solving it, and so quite coldly and objectively I sat down and said – okay, I’m going to write a short story about a man in totally paranoid circumstances and see if it gets me out of this mess I’m in. Well, it didn’t.’ But it did result in planting the seed for his transition from the short form, to novels. Fulfilling Carnell’s other prediction, the former accountant and audit clerk turned full-time freelance pro a short time later, in 1968.
The New English Library paperback edition of ‘Indoctrinaire’ has Bruce Pennington cover-art to provide the edge of Cold War angst with the atomic mushroom erupting in the background, plus the predatory birdlike image of the glimpsed future-plane, yet bottom right is the surreal intrusion of a human hand apparently growing from the smooth-wood table-top. It gives the art the haunting quality of a Giorgio de Chirico or a Magritte. Yet the hand is very much central to all versions of the text. The interrogation, the vulnerable victim of seemingly omnipotent totalitarian forces is very much part of twentieth-century literature, from Arthur Koestler’s ‘Darkness At Noon’ (1940), through George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (1949). There are even touches of Ian Fleming at play, as Wentik repeatedly faces the circularity of Astourde’s questions across the table from which the hand sprouts – ‘your name, Doctor Wentik. Give me your name’. As well as the surreal contradictions of TVs ‘The Prisoner’ when he muses ‘I am a free man’, then ‘I am a prisoner’. That Wentik’s predicament, especially subject to sonic ‘psychotherapeutic’ irritants in his cell, has been carried over into the Guantanamo Bay detention camp adds a further unsettling twist.
Priest’s later revision of the novel updates the late-1970 references to the late-1980s. It strips the prose. ‘Now he stood with his arms apart, silhouetted by a light brighter than that which normally filtered down through the overhead foliage of the forest’ becomes ‘now he stood with his arms apart, silhouetted against brightness ahead.’ In the same way that ‘the guards stood round the perimeter and loaded their rifles with ammunition that looked decidedly live’ becomes ‘the guards stood round the perimeter and loaded their rifles with live ammunition.’ He tightens up the prose, razors down the descriptions and removes ambiguities. Although sometimes, the real world holds its own degree of pleasing ambiguity. He deletes some of the pauses, the pacing, the reflection – ‘his mental sluggishness extended to his movements, and he found himself content to lie still for a moment or two’, is gone. And the line about the fingers of the bizarre hand drumming on the tabletop ‘like those of a man kept waiting for an appointment’ survives the transfer for the ‘New Writings In SF’ text to the novel, but not to the subsequent revision.
This first novel section closes as the novelette does, with Wentik finally losing control, attacking one of his guards, and violently confronting Astourde across the interrogation table. There’s a tacked-on dénouement in the novelette’s very final paragraph to the effect that it was the results of Wentik’s Concentration research that had unwittingly infected ‘a whole continent’. He was not entirely the innocent victim he appears, and Astourde’s interrogation was based in some kind of moral legitimacy. But that to ‘reverse what he had inadvertently caused’ he had to return to the Time-past section of the world, even if that means killing Astourde. According to Priest, John Carnell ‘published it but still didn’t understand the ending… the last page was rewritten three times by Ted and I over the ‘phone, and he kept saying he felt there was more to come. And that’s how the novel came to be written. I solved the problems set up in the story.’
The second section of the novel began as a follow-up 10,000-word novelette called “The Maze”, documenting further complications in the maze-shack leading to Astourde’s death, but ‘Carnell saw through me at last, because he swiftly rejected it.’ Re-submitted to ‘New Worlds’, Michael Moorcock also returned it, which ‘was a blow… in those days, it sometimes seemed that the only way to publish in ‘New Worlds’ was to baffle everybody, but Mike Moorcock was actually more cunning than I had guessed.’ Despite these setbacks the 20,000-words of ‘wilfully obscure fiction’ came to the attention of Charles Monteith at Faber & Faber, who encouraged Priest to rework and reshape it into a novel, dangling the incentive of a waiting contract.
It’s a novel of interiors, circling and re-circling the prison. ‘A hand grows from a table, and an ear from a wall. A maze is constructed to sophisticated mathematical formula, yet is housed in a tumbledown shack. A minor official terrorizes me, and a man tries to fly a helicopter without vanes. Land exists in future time, though I feel and believe instinctively that I am in the present. Irrational behaviour creates a reaction pattern of its own. What else will this place do to me?’ Even when Wentik uses the restored helicopter to fly free, beyond the zone, he ends up similarly confined in a São Paulo hospital, albeit with nurses rather than guards. Once there he’s able to use a book to access the – for him, future history bridging the two time-zones, the nuclear war that left South America largely unscathed while devastating much of the world. With Brazil repopulated by refugee immigration during the ‘disturbances’ that follow.
The final section of the novel is concerned with solving ‘the problems set up in the story,’ with every question meticulously explained. Angling back to Wentik’s original project at the Concentration, and elaborating the hastily tacked-on closing paragraph from the ‘New Writings’ novelette. Snatched by the novel’s very machinations, Wentik’s research – completed by his tall Nigerian assistant Abu N’Goko, has been perverted into a weapon of disorientation, a gas responsible for the strange behavior inside the Planalto District, beyond ‘the chemistry of sanity’. As late as the short story “Whores” (in Robert Silverberg’s ‘New Dimensions: Science Fiction 8’, April 1978) the narrator suffers from the similar effects of ‘the enemy’s synaesthetic gas’, causing him to ‘taste the music of pain, feel the gay dancing colours of sound.’ To Wentik ‘it was all part of the permanent gulf between theory and practice, between the cold clinical light of a research-bench and the blinding heat of an interrogation-room. A scientist may develop a principle and produce something which is eventually used to ends totally abhorrent to the original scientist.’ He quotes Stalin’s misuse of Pavlov’s theories. Now he’s been summoned through time to ‘sort out the damage’ he’d ‘inadvertently caused’.
But if there’s a pattern to time-travel stories, Priest confounds each one of them. Travelling back to the Concentration to retrieve N’Goko, he finds the centre abandoned. Diverting to rescue his wife from the second wave of nuclear bombing that lays Western Europe waste, he arrives in England too late to save her. He fails to both un-invent the disturbance gas, or return to São Paulo to work on its elimination. There’s a degree of heroic adventure and resourcefulness, but the final resolution is a bleak kind of JG Ballard acceptance that ‘as time itself is unalterable, so is the progress of events’. There can be no triumph over adversity, no happy ending.
The novel was followed by ‘Fugue For A Darkening Island’ (1972), an account of three-way racial tension and civil war in a future Britain, a right-wing government is assailed by rising prices and unemployment, complicated by the arrival of refugees from an Africa destroyed by nuclear war. His third novel, what critic John Clute calls ‘his masterpiece’ – ‘Inverted World’ (1974), is a well-handled ‘slow perception of reality’ story also developed from a novelette first appearing in ‘New Writings In SF no.22’, although he explains ‘beyond a slight duplication of background and the inclusion of a few similarly named characters, there is not much between the two that is common.’ On reaching the age of six-hundred-and-fifty-miles Helward Mann is ready for initiation as a Future Surveyor, and to learn the secrets of the City into which he was born and grew up in. He discovers the City is constantly on the move to keep pace with the backward motion of the world. ‘The hyperboloid world on which the action takes place is perhaps the strangest planet invented since Mesklin in Hal Clement’s ‘Mission Of Gravity’ (1954)’ says Peter Nicholls (in ‘The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’).
OF SCIENCE AND CONSCIENCE
But already he was growing further away from direct genre-SF, into his own identity. ‘The Space Machine’ (1976) is a deliberate pastiche of Wellsian proto-SF. Set in 1893 it takes full advantage of Priest’s developing facility for a kind of considered formal prose, sensitively skirting its way around the moral sensitivities of the age. In meticulously detailed set pieces commercial traveler Edward Turnbull meets and romances the emancipated Miss Amelia Fitzgibbon, bicycling through Richmond Park to meet her inventor guardian Sir William Reynolds, who just happens to have built a Time Machine, which owes as much to George Pal’s 1960 movie as it does to Wells’ great Scientific Romance. Mildly intoxicated on port and dry wine their playful experiments lead to a terrifying vision of Amelia’s death in a 1903 war. Fleeing ‘through the attenuated dimensions of space and time’, they arrive in a bleakness they first assume to be Tibet, only gradually realizing that they’ve reached the planet Mars, absorbed into the human slave-population harvesting the writhing red tentacular weed-banks that sustain Desolation City.
Seen through the narrator’s eyes, without subplots or contrasting viewpoint, with little conversation – particularly once Amelia has been snatched by Martian war-machines, Edward is isolated by language as well as distance, only emphasizing the bleakness of his plight. Although the space-gun that carries him across hemispheres to the embattled Martian city seems to owe as much to Jules Verne, it does furnish the apparatus by which the Martian projectiles will land on what they term ‘the warm world’, proposing links and plot-explanations for some of the narrative gaps left between Wells’ two seminal works.
There’s only a sideways glance at Mars in the 1898 ‘The War Of The Worlds’ novel, enhanced by Sir Cedric Hardwicke’s dramatic voice-over to Chesley Bonestell’s visionary art for George Pal’s 1953 movie. Priest fills in the background to the invasion, with the resourceful Amelia acting as the spark that ignites the human-Martian rebellion against the vampiric squid-like monster-creatures they’d genetically created, and then become enslaved by. Returned – not only to Earth but to Woking, smuggled inside the first of the invasion projectiles, HG Wells himself joins them as they row their way through the ensuing scorched desolation down through Walton-on-Thames. Weaving events from ‘The Time Machine’ novella into the narrative of the novel, Mr Wells with his ‘startling blue eyes’ that ‘shone like optimistic beacons’, constructs a flying bed-frame based on the time-travel principle to strike back at the already-doomed invaders. This time, by neatly avoiding the terrible fate that Edward had glimpsed for Amelia during their first time-trip to 1903, it seems that – unlike for Dr Elias Wentik, destiny can be circumvented. There can be triumph over adversity, and a happy ending.
‘A Dream Of Wessex’ (1977) is set in a twenty-second century where earthquake has sheared England apart, a consensus-imagination vision of a half-submerged future-England with Dorchester a tourist centre with mosques and casinos in a Wessex separated from the mainland. By 1979 – and ‘The Infinite Summer’ short-story collection, the Pan Books revision of ‘Indoctrinaire’ had appeared, tidying the text. ‘There are a number of dangers facing a writer who revises his earlier work’ Priest admits, ‘not the least among them the risk that while removing what he sees as the bad he might, in the process, also remove what other people see as the good.’ Understandably the reference to the ‘finding of fissionable ores in the dead crust of the Moon’ is excised, Cape Kennedy reverts to Cape Canaveral, and ‘in an effort to recatch a glimpse of it’ becomes a simpler ‘in an effort to see it’. ‘I was taking the compound intravenously’ reduces down to ‘I was injecting myself.’ And if Astourde’s middle name is Victor, the sly in-joke that ‘that would have been inappropriate’ is deleted. But there’s even a very minor shuffling of words, Wentik being taken ‘to a destination unknown’ switches ‘to an unknown destination’.
The later ‘The Affirmation’ (1981) revisits Priest’s hauntingly sensitive ‘Dream Archipelago’ in a novel-form that is both wistfully nostalgic and infused by an affecting sense of loss, as Peter Sinclair becomes caught up in an ambiguity of what is real and what is fiction. Before moving into more edge-of-definition books with ‘The Quiet Woman’ (1990) and ‘The Prestige’ (1995).
Long-haired, part of the New Wave culture… but not quite of it, out of the SF field, but with a love-hate relationship with the genre that saw him gradually growing away from it, Christopher Priest nonetheless carries the New Wave impatience with established forms, conventional tropes and old verities into the next decade, and beyond. Disclaiming SF completely – he tells ‘The Observer’ ‘these days, I fear that SF is fast becoming a played-out, bankrupt form’ (16 April 1989), he continues expanding and pleasingly blurring its boundaries. Like the cult Indie-band which scores an unexpected Pop hit, and hence loses its subculture credibility, SF-fandom resents those who betray its tight restrictions by achieving mainstream acceptance. They’re no longer tribal property, no longer exclusively part of the extended fan-family. Christopher Priest not so much suffers from the backlash, as playfully rides it.
In the ‘Author’s Note’ appendaged to the 1979 Pan Books revision he writes that ‘if I had to write a first novel again, I don’t think that it would be ‘Indoctrinaire’ all over again, but I do think it might be a book rather like it.’ Needless to say, I prefer the raw energy of the original rough-cut version over the more streamlined focused revision. But that’s just me. That’s probably why Christopher Priest is a famous published novelist, and I’m not.
1963 – ‘ERSATZ WINES: INSTRUCTIVE SHORT STORIES’ (GrimGrin Studios) published in November 2008, this volume collects his earliest, primarily unpublished fiction, with introduction and afterword. With ‘Going Native’ from November 1963, ‘Stranglehold’ and ‘Star Child’ from March and November 1964, ‘The Witch Burners’ (January), ‘Nicholson’s Repentances’ (October), ‘Combined Operation’ and ‘The Ostrich Seed’ both November 1965, and ‘Chance’ from April 1967
January 1966 – ‘SCIENCE FANTASY no.80’, editor Kyril Bonfiglioni devotes his editorial to debating a long letter from Mr Chris Priest about what Priest describes as the ‘eternally-lost golden moment when SF clicks and we’re sold for the rest of our life. In that infinite moment there is no need to rationalize the why’s and wherefore’s, it’s like converting to a new religion, you don’t need convincing’
January 1966 – ‘VECTOR no.37’ in the BSFA magazine Priest reviews the current issue of ‘Science Fantasy’, noting that ‘there is a wide gulf in this magazine at present, between the best and the worst’
May 1966 – ‘IMPULSE SF no.3’, edited by Kyril Bonfiglioni, includes ‘The Run’ as by Chris Priest, a relatively sophisticated fiction-debut, with genuine symbolist menace in its Juvie-horde, subsequently picked up by Judith Meril for her ‘England Swings SF’ (1968) anthology (Doubleday, 1968), and in the ‘Real-Time World’ collection (New English Library, 1974)
December 1966 – ‘NEW WORLDS SF no.169’, edited by Michael Moorcock, including ‘Conjugation’ as by Chris Priest, untypical compressed, fragmentary, cut-up style experimental piece around thread of spaceship ‘Outwarder II’ wreck, with diversion into the apostrophe in ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ as ‘The Wake Of Finnegan’, and extract from ‘unfinished novel by Kenneth G Robbs’, collected into ‘Ersatz Wines’
February 1967 – ‘SF IMPULSE no.12’, edited by Harry Harrison, includes ‘Impasse’ as by Chris Priest, rare traditional SF-themed flash-fiction length ‘mordant and satirical glimpse of a future’ as a Denebian intruder makes ultimatums to the Earth Field-Marshal who makes a counter-ultimatum, then shoots him! collected into ‘Ersatz Wines’
March 1967 – ‘NEW WORLDS SF no.171’, edited by Michael Moorcock, includes ‘The Ersatz Wine’ as by Chris Priest, Hawkins is pursued through a dark 1960s city haunted by random voices – a preacher, a Pop Singer (Gene Piney!), and advertising jingles, he has sex with a girl with a room warmed by a fan-heater. The last voice is the Surgeon saying ‘what right have we to keep this man alive?’
June 1969 – ‘NEW WRITINGS IN SF no.15’, edited by John Carnell, includes ‘The Interrogator’ January 1970 – ‘VISION OF TOMORROW no.4’, ‘Breeding Ground’ with art by Dick Howett, ‘Tentacular BEMS, weird monsters, and the like, are all part and parcel of the hoary traditions of SF to scarify the reader. Most of them have been happily laid to rest, but Mr Priest here gives us a fresh slant on the Things From Outer Space…’ Space-salvage pilot Luke Caston discovers the 200-year-old wreck of ‘Merchant Princess’ with its invaluable cargo of Procyon IV diamonds, but it’s crawling with horrible Space-mites! June 1970 – ‘INDOCTRINAIRE’ (Faber and Faber, New English Library paperback November 1971, Pan Books revision, 1979)
July 1970 – ‘VISION OF TOMORROW no.10’, edited by Philip Harbottle, short story ‘Nothing Like The Sun’, art by Eddie Jones. Frontier encounter on wind-swept Taranth between four lost soldiers led by sick Lieutenant Gracer, and the previously-unseen enemy Ghouls who at first give aid. Stripping a dead alien they discover that, due to short-sighted birdlike eyes, they steal human eyes and surgically graft them into their foreheads. Another regular SF story, untypical for Priest February 1972 – ‘FUGUE FOR A DARKENING ISLAND’ (Faber and Faber, New English Library paperback, September 1973) novel May 1974 – ‘INVERTED WORLD’ (Faber and Faber, New English Library paperback June 1975), Priest explains how the idea of the novel ‘first came to me in 1965’ and how he ‘talked out the idea to many of my friends’, including Graham Charnock who suggested the Guilds, Brian Aldiss ‘who wanted the city to go the other way’, plus Kenneth Bulmer and Christine Priest. An early version published as ‘The Inverted World’ in ‘New Writings In SF no.22’ in April 1973 October 1974 – ‘STOPWATCH’ edited by George Hay (New English Library), with ‘The Invisible Men’ in which Prime Minister Harold Murdoch, on the brink of his resignation, has a clandestine meeting with Charles Greystone of the Anglo-American Economic Recovery Program (AMERP) in Blakeney on the Norfolk coast as Britain severs its last ties with Europe and the Commonwealth, to become the fifty-first US State. Meticulous background detail of other, apparently casual characters, are the ‘invisible men’ of security. Anthology also includes Robert Holdstock (‘Ash, Ash’), Ian Watson (‘EA5000: Report On The Effects Of A Riot Gas’) and Andrew Darlington (‘When The Music’s Over’)
October 1974 – ‘REAL-TIME WORLD’ (New English Libraries) collection includes: ‘The Run’ (from ‘SF Impulse no.3’, May 1966) ‘The Perihelion Man’ (from ‘New Writings In SF no.16’, 1969), almost traditional SF-thriller, when aliens from Venus retrieve former Cold War orbital nuclear warheads to use against Earth, it’s left to washed-up astronaut Jason Farrell – who’d been in closer to the Sun than any other human, to save the day ‘Breeding Ground’ (‘Vision Of Tomorrow no.4’, January 1970) ‘Double Consummation’ (from George Hay’s ‘The Disappearing Future: A Symposium Of Speculation’, June 1970) ‘Fire Storm’ (from anthology ‘Quark no.1’, November 1970), to David Wingrove in ‘Legerdemain: The Fiction Of Christopher Priest’ is is ‘a study of the controlled destruction of a city by a man obsessed with his job and, ultimately, driven to a spectacular suicide. It reads like power fantasy’ ‘Real-Time World’ (from ‘New Writings In SF no.19’, June 1971), although the Observatory looks outwards, the story turns inwards on the psychology and news-management of its crew, ‘what was observed at the observatory was the observer’, is it on an alien planet time-phased one nanosecond by the elocation-field? is it a closed experiment on a nuked Earth? or in the Joliot-Curie crater on the lunar line of libration? Intelligent mature speculative fiction ‘Sentence In Binary Code’ (from ‘Fantastic vol.20 no.6’, August 1971) ‘The Head And The Hand’ (from ‘New Worlds Quarterly no.3’, 1972), ‘a powerful tale of obsession, and its impact is considerable. It is a genuine horror story, with its own cool, implacable logic. Unlike anything in Priest’s work preceding it, the story is densely written, each image crucial to the overall effect. It concerns Todd Alborne, the ‘Master’, a man suffering from some deep psychological blight. He hates all signs of life and visits his hatred upon both his own body and upon all that surrounds him’ (David Wingrove) ‘A Woman Naked’ (from ‘Science Fiction Monthly no.1’, January 1974), a future society imposes a system of rigid morality upon women – who are, incidentally, outnumbered by men in a ratio of four to one, and punishes offenders by making them ‘a woman naked’ and made to go unclothed and unprotected in public. The ‘trial’ here is not to ascertain a woman’s guilt or innocence, but to provide vicarious pleasure for the male ‘audience’. ‘The rape had begun’ Priest ends, in a brutally effective conclusion ‘Transplant’ (from ‘Worlds Of If no.170’ January 1974), a man’s brain, kept alive artificially after his death, creates for itself a kind of pleasurable dream world. ‘His mind is liberated, you see. Anything he imagines, wishes or expects would be entirely real to him. He could build a whole world, I suppose, and it would be totally real and have substance and existence. In some ways, it’s man’s oldest dream. But in others… it’s a hell we cannot conceive.’ In ‘Vector no.93’ (May/June 1979) David Wingrove uses the idea as a metaphor for the writer who also builds imaginary worlds purely from imagination August 1975 – ‘NEW WRITING IN SF no.26’ edited by Kenneth Bulmer (Sidgwick and Jackson) short story ‘Men Of Good Value’, in a teasing fiction-autobiography blend Priest is writer and writer-protagonist in Cornish village inveigled by TV-producer Frank Mattinson, right-wing but subject to Partiality Agreement
March 1976 – ‘THE SPACE MACHINE’ (Faber and Faber, Orbit/Futura, September 1977) novel, in 1893 the workaday life of a young commercial traveler is enlivened only by his fervent – if somewhat distant, interest in the new sport of motoring. It’s through this that he meets his ladyfriend, a chance encounter in a dingy hotel and a compromising incident in a bedroom that lead to an unexpected adventure in Time and Space. She takes him to Sir William Reynolds’ laboratory, where the most eminent English scientist is building a Time Machine, and from this discovery it’s but a small step into futurity. As the young couple emerge into the Twentieth Century, they find a ferocious war devastating England. But the 1903 world war is only the start of a series of adventures that culminate in a violent confrontation with the universe’s most ruthless intellect… May 1976 – ‘ANDROMEDA 1’ edited by Peter Weston (Futura Publications) includes ‘An Infinite Summer’, in hauntingly beautiful immaculately-wrought Jane Austen precision of formal prose, Thomas James Lloyd is time-locked in Edwardian June 1903 Richmond on the point of proposing to younger sister Sarah Carrington – to unfreeze in August 1940, endlessly awaiting her to ‘erode’. Freezers from ‘some unknown period of the future’ take living tableaux as we take art-photography, regardless of the separation and aching loss it causes. Vivid images include the German aviator parachuting into the Thames October 1977 – ‘A DREAM OF WESSEX’ (Faber and Faber, Pan Books paperback novel, November 1978). Dorset in the near and no-so-near future. Through the government-sponsored Ridpath projector, thirty-nine scientist-members of the Wessex Project engage in communal dreaming from large metal drawers beneath Maiden Castle, in order to create an alternate fantasy-future. Both Dorset’s are convincingly detailed, the grim ‘real’ world of 1987, with army checkpoints and urban terrorism, and the ‘unreal’ island of 2137 Wessex where Dorchester is a fishing port and beach resort, the Soviets rule and Islam is the major religion. Julia Stretton is given the task of retrieving project-member David Harkham, but their fantasy-world personas fall in love April 1978 – ‘NEW DIMENSIONS: SCIENCE FICTION no.8’ edited by Robert Silverberg (Harper and Row) includes “Whores”, a richly-detailed prose-poem with the SF-elements – the enemy’s synaesthetic gas he’s convalescing from which causes him to ‘to taste the music of pain, feel the gay dancing colours of sound’, an excuse for surreal perception. He searches for the whore Slenje, but takes Elva instead April 1978 – ‘THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SF’ Vol.54 no.4 (all-British issue with Keith Roberts, Kenneth Bulmer and Brian W Aldiss) includes the voyeuristic-novella ‘The Watched’, on the Dream Archipelago island of Tumo Yvann Ordier is the inventor who then rejected the tiny scintilla spy-lenses used during the ongoing war. From his folly on the Tumoit Mountain ridge he watches an erotic ritual enacted by the secretive Qataari refugee-community in their valley. Are they also watching him, seeding their own scintilla? The enigmatic close in which he becomes observer and also the watched in the narcotic sweetness of rose-petals is vastly effective September 1978 – ‘ANTICIPATIONS’ (Faber and Faber, Pan Books paperback, 1980) anthology edited by Christopher Priest including his introduction and ‘The Negation’ a bleak Eastern European totalitarian Dream Archipelago story, with conscripted Border Constable Dik meeting his idolized Moylita Kaine, author of ‘The Affirmation’ (title of a 1981 Priest novel!). With Trump-prescience she tells him ‘There have always been walls, Dik!’ Also Ian Watson (‘The Very Slow Time Machine’), Robert Sheckley (‘Is This What People Do?’), Bob Shaw (‘Amphitheatre’), Harry Harrison (‘The Greening Of The Green’), Thomas M Disch (‘Mutability’), JG Ballard (‘One Afternoon At Utah Beach’), Brian W Aldiss (‘A Chinese Perspective’) January 1979 – ‘THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SF’ Vol.56 no.1, “Palely Loitering” an elaborately convoluted romance around the Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow bridges of the Flux Channel Park which lead Mykle in an endless quest for a glimpsed Estyll, meeting numerous selves on the way. An answer to the question ‘what advice would you give to your younger self?’ October 1979 – ‘AN INFINITE SUMMER’ (Faber and Faber, Pan Books paperback, June 1980) collection with ‘Introduction’, ‘An Infinite Summer’ and ‘Palely Loitering’ (‘Magazine Of Fantasy And SF’, January 1979) plus the Dream Archipelago tales ‘Whores’, ‘The Negation’ (‘Anticipations’, 1978) and ‘The Watched’ (‘Magazine Of Fantasy And SF’ April 1978)
('Let's Go' - Yuri Gagarin, immediately prior to launch as First Human In Space)
'Poetry, Like Bread, Is For Everyone'
'Stay True To The Dreams Of Thy Youth'
'Religion is a real danger to the survival of civilisation... it will be the death of us all, the end of humanity' - Christopher Hitchens
'Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover...' - Mark Twain