Sunday, 31 May 2020

Countess Dracula

Countess Dracula Ingrid Pitt Hammer
Loosely based on the life and crimes of Hungarian noblewoman Elizabeth Báthory who was tried and convicted of multiple murders in the 1700s and whose subsequent legend includes tales of her bathing in blood in the belief that she could retain her youth this late period Hammer movie was one of the last of the period gothic chillers Hammer was to produce.

Whilst retaining a modicum of the dark magic tropes of old, Countess Dracula is very much a shift away from the big bad creatures of the good old days and at its heart is a woman; a vain, psychopathic and profoundly broken woman but just a woman and this is very much a tale of the seductiveness of youth and the cruelty of vanity.

Ingrid Pitt Countess Dracula Hammer
Dominating the movie is the wonderful Ingrid Pitt utterly dominating the screen, by turns a seething, violent harridan and a seductive, lethal beauty drunk on her newfound vitality, obviously relishing her second lead role in two years following 1970s 'Vampire Lovers' for the same company.  She is ably supported in this by Nigel Green as her spurned lover Captain Dobi and the great Maurice Denham as the librarian Grand Master Fabio although Sandor Eles makes for an ineffectual male lead lacking both the chops and the presence.

For a film about a serial murderer bathing in the blood of virgins it is a remarkably bloodless affair with director Peter Sasdy choosing to focus on slowly escalating the horror that Bathory's addiction to the youth her actions bring over Pitt's desire for more gore. Watching now it seems to me that both were correct and it's a bit of a shame that a compromise wasn't reached but as noted earlier the finished article is a different sort of movie to what had gone before and it mostly eschews the action and the histrionics for a much quieter movie but that certainly doesn't detract from what was to be one of the final flourishes of the studios golden years.

Buy it here - UK /  US - or watch it below.



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Friday, 29 May 2020

The Story of the Ghost Story

Here we have a (very) brief synopsis of the development of the ghost story taking in such notables as Shakespeare, Horace Walpole, Sheridan Le Fanu, Charles Dickens, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, R. Chetwynd-Hayes, Robert Aickman and others and some behind the scenes glimpses of the making of the adaptations of both James' 'A View From A Hill' and Aickman's 'The Cicerones'.

The 30 minute runtime means much is glossed over and omitted but it's crammed to the gills and as a quick overview it serves its purpose well.



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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much appreciate a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Ice

Anna Kavan - Ice (Penguin Modern Classics)

Anna Kavan
Penguin Modern Classics

No one knows why the ice has come, and no one can stop it. Every day it creeps further across the earth, covering the land in snow and freezing everything in its path. Through this bleached, devastated world, one man pursues the sylph-like, silver-haired girl he loves, as she keeps running - away from her husband; away from the sinister 'warden' who seeks to control her; away from him.
 It was the cover image by Jim Stoddart that caught my eye and the possibility of a post-apocalypse novel that clinched the deal but what I got was something very different.

Anna Kavan was an English writer and painter born, Helen Emily Woods and first published under her married name of Helen Ferguson, she adopted the name of a character from one of her stories as her legal name in 1939 shortly after her divorce from her second husband.

Kavan started using heroin in the mid 1920s having been introduced to it by either racing drivers on the French Riviera or by her tennis coach, reports vary.  It was an addiction that was to follow her throughout her life to the extent that, according to reports, when heroin was prohibited in the UK she stockpiled so much that at the time of her death in 1968 her flat in London's Notting Hill contained "enough heroin to kill the whole street'

'Ice' was written a year before her death and is a Burroughsian fever dream of broken perspectives and Kafka-esque monolithic impenetrability. Now regarded as a 'slipstream' novel - one that falls between the cracks of the various genres - it is notionally sci-fi in its post-apocalyptic setting as a sheet of ice moves inexorably to cover the Earth but Kavan's tale of helplessness, brutality, rejection and loss is very far from most tales that characterise the genre.

Our narrator spends the book chasing after, occasionally catching, occasionally losing the young, fragile albino woman he claims to love, seeking to rescue her from the brutal 'warden' who keeps her cowed, but who is often just as violent and domineering in his ways.

Such are the novel's vagaries, full of jarring perspective shifts and hallucinations, that it remains open to interpretation.  That it is a meditation on the role of women seems self evident but alongside this I felt like I was being offered an insight into the authors internal world as the various aspects of Kavan's psyche play out in one long heroin addiction metaphor.

On a straight forward readability level this isn't a novel to pick up - as I did - for a quick read and indeed I found much of it to be a bit of a chore but equally that's not something I'm necessarily put off by and in the final analysis it was beautifully written and showed an imagination free and unfettered by common constraints.

Buy it here - UK  /  US
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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much appreciate a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Witching Time

Hammer House of Horror Witching Time
'Witching Hour' was the first episode of the sole 1980 series of 'Hammer House of Horror' one of the last gasps of that venerable studio and one that was fully intended to cash in on the popularity of the regular television screenings of their phenomenal back catalogue.  It's reputation allowed it to attract some well known faces from British film television to populate it's episodes including Peter Cushing (of course), Denholm Elliott, Gareth Thomas, Paul Darrow, Simon MacCorkindale, Diana Dors, Barbara Kellerman, Brian Cox and Pierce Brosnan.

Hammer House of Horror Witching Time
There's an amazing Wyrd Britain cast here as Hammer alumni Jon Finch (The Vampire Lovers & The Horror of Frankenstein) plays David Winter a film composer left alone in his remote farmhouse whilst by his actress wife (Kinvig's Prunella Gee) has an affair with the Doctor (Survivors' 'Greg', Ian McCulloch) who finds a time travelling 17th century witch named Lucinda Jessop (The Rocky Horror Picture Show's 'Magenta', Patricia Quinn) with a nice line in period insults, "You must get rid of that strumpet whore" who decides to make herself at home.

It's a fabulous bit of folk horror schlock populated by a perfect B-movie cast full of great scenery chewing performances by everyone except Billy the dog that makes great use of its 50 minute runtime with a frenetic storyline and a fiery ending.

Buy it here - UK /  US - or watch it below.



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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much welcome a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories

Arthur Machen
Oxford University Press

Something pushed out from the body there on the floor, and stretched forth a slimy, wavering tentacle... 
Perhaps no figure better embodies the transition from the Gothic tradition to modern horror than Arthur Machen. In the final decade of the nineteenth century, the Welsh writer produced a seminal body of tales of occult horror, spiritual and physical corruption, and malignant survivals from the primeval past which horrified and scandalised-late-Victorian readers. Machen's "weird fiction" has influenced generations of storytellers, from H. P. Lovecraft to Guillermo Del Toro-and it remains no less unsettling today.
This new collection, which includes the complete novel The Three Impostors as well as such celebrated tales as The Great God Pan and The White People, constitutes the most comprehensive critical edition of Machen yet to appear. In addition to the core late-Victorian horror classics, a selection of lesser-known prose poems and later tales helps to present a fuller picture of the development of Machen's weird vision. The edition's introduction and notes contextualise the life and work of this foundational figure in the history of horror.

When Arthur Machen died in 1947 he left behind a body of work that has proved to be amongst the most quietly influential writings in the fields of strange fiction.  Various authors, film-makers, musicians and the society that bears his name have all promoted and been inspired by his work and as such collections are often to be found.  Now, I'm of the mind that all Machen collections are good Machen collections but occasionally a real gem appears as is the case here.

Produced as part of the Oxford World's Classics series and dressed in a cover illustration of Pan dating from 1895 - the year after Machen published the title story here - by William H Bradley, the doyen of American Art Nouveau illustrators, editor Aaron Worth has compiled an eye wateringly wonderful assortment of gems taken from every era of Machen's career.

There are of course certain stories that one can guarantee will be present in any collection, the title piece, 'The Shining Pyramid', 'The White People' & 'The Bowmen' but rather than just giving us the two more famous parts of 'The Three Impostors' - 'The Novel of the Black Seal' & 'The Novel of the White Powder' - he has, rather wonderfully, included the entire novel.  Alongside these undoubted gems we find later gold such as Machen's thin place story 'N', the simple kindness of 'Tree of Life', the hidden pagan rites of 'The Ceremony', and the alchemical experiments of 'The Inmost Light' amongst many others.

As a collection it works on both levels required of such a book, it provides a wide ranging overview of the authors work featuring both the more feted and the less read tales but equally for those with a more established love of the work it is simply a well selected overview that will allow you to revisit old favourites and passing acquaintances.

Buy it here - UK  /  US
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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much appreciate a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Monday, 18 May 2020

Wyrd Britain Mix 11

It's been a long time since I've made one of these but today I got the urge again.  A few years ago I made a run of mixes featuring a blend of old favourites and new friends and thought it was about time I made a new one.

Opening the mix is X-TG, former Throbbing Gristle members Peter Christopherson, Cosey Fanni Tutti & Chris Carter are here joined by Antony (now Anohni) on vocals, producing a stunning interpretation of Nico's 'Janitor of Lunacy' which you can find on the bands 'Desertshore / Final Report'.

'Possessors of the Orb' is taken from the eagerly awaited new Teleplasmiste album, 'To Kiss Earth Goodbye' released in early June on House of Mythology.  Band member Mark Pilkington recently contributed to our regular '3 Wyrd Things' slot which you can find here.

Embertides' is a collaboration between David Colohan of United Bible Studies and Grey Malkin (formerly) of The Hare and the Moon the pairing here making music of a deliciously darker hue than I'd previously heard from either before.

The great Paddy Kingsland I'm sure needs little introduction to readers of this blog and his composition here - 'Brighton Pier' - comes from 'The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy' which needs even less of one.

Heavy Water is another in a long line of pseudonyms adopted by Pk Chown the artist occasionally known as all of Action Catalyst and of Julius Vanderbilt, as half of James Beige and as an indeterminate amount of The Dandelion Set.  This album and more can be found at Fine Tune Recordings.

Grey Malkin (who has also done a '3 Wyrd Things' for us) has been on a roll of late and this, his most recent release, finds him in collaboration with Australian folk musician Adam Geoffrey Cole or Trappist Afterland as he's known to his mum.  The album is available from either chaps Bandcamp pages.

Hen Ogledd is a 4 piece consisting of Sally Pilkington (vocals), Dawn Bothwell (vocals & electronics), Richard Dawson (guitar & vocals) and Rhodri Davies (harp).  'Sky Burial' is taken from their third album 'Mogic' released on the Domino Records offshoot Weird World.

Revbjelde are old friends of Wyrd Britain and this is the title track of their most recent album on Buried Treasure.  Watch out for Revbjelde and Buried Treasure's head honcho Alan Gubby's '3 Wyrd Things' in early June.

Closing the mix is Carmarthen based Susan Matthews heard here alongside her son Roan on guitar.  Susan has been making amazing music for years both solo and alongside such folk as Tony Wakeford, The Dead Mauriacs and me.  This song, taken from the album 'The Self -Harm Handbook', and many more can be found on her Siren Wire label page.



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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much appreciate a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Escape Into Night

Escape Into Night
Based on the novel 'Marianne Dreams' by Catherine Storr originally published in 1958 this 1972 drama from ATV tells the story of a petulant little shit called 'Marianne' (Vikki Chambers) who, whilst bedridden recovering from the broken leg she gets falling from her pony, begins to dream of the spooky house she's drawn in her sketchbook.  In the house she meets a young boy named Mark (Steven Jones) who is unable to walk.  Following an argument with Mark, in a fit of pique, Marianne foolishly surrounds the house with drawings of standing stones complete with eyes to watch and trap Mark inside after which it becomes a race against time to escape from the encroaching 'Watchers'.

Escape Into Night
'Escape Into Night' was adapted for TV by the great Ruth Boswell who had previously developed the fabulous 'Timeslip' and who would later go on to develop 'The Tomorrow People'.  Just like 'Timeslip' 'Escape Into Night' was originally filmed and shown in colour but those tapes have been lost / wiped and only the telerecordings exist but personally I think that not entirely a bad thing as the dark, grainy and almost washed out nature of the telerecordings gives Marianne's dreamworld a particularly sinister ambience that I can't really imagine in colour.

The acting of the two leads is very much of the middle class drama school variety typical of the era but beyond that everything about 'Escape Into Night' seemed designed to terrify it's young audience from the watching stones to the unrelenting build of tension over the 6 episodes, the Ralph Vaughan Williams titles to the massively creepy hummed end credits over the morphing childlike drawings of the cast and 48 years on its lost little of its creepiness.

Buy it here - UK /  US - or watch it below.



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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much appreciate a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Scandal & Beauty: Mark Gatiss on Aubrey Beardsley

Aubrey Beardsley
In a career lasting only 6 years, curtailed by his death at just 25 from tuberculosis, Aubrey Beardsley created a body of work that has remained vibrant and vital to this day.  His darkly erotic illustrations for Thomas Malory's 'Le Morte d'Arthur', Oscar Wilde's 'Salome' and for 'The Yellow Book' the periodical that he created and curated for publisher The Bodley Head continues to be amongst the defining art the era.

To coincide with the current exhibition of Beardsley's drawings at Tate Britain the BBC and Beardsley fan Mark Gatiss have produced this fascinating little documentary detailing the life and work of this most original and enduring artist.



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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much appreciate a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Trees vol.3: Three Fates

Warren Ellis
Jason Howard
Image Comics

The acclaimed TREES series, currently being adapted for television, returns with a brand new story of murder and ghosts.
In the remote Russian village of Toska, there's a dead body by the leg of the Tree that landed eleven years ago. Police sergeant Klara Voranova, still haunted by that day, has no idea how this murder will change everything, nor what awaits her in the Tree's shadow.

And so with this low key third act Warren Ellis' 'Trees' comes to a close, for now at least.

Set in a world caught between apocalypses these have been some of the stories of those people who are rebuilding their lives in the shadows cast by the Trees, monolithic and enigmatic alien craft that arrived on Earth .

As with the other two the Tree itself is almost irrelevant to the story possibly playing an enigmatic game of it's own whilst the little humans scuttle about around it's feet.  'Three Fates' is perhaps the most complete story told over the course of the three volumes; a murder mystery in the arse end of Russia filled with petty crime, murder and ghosts and it's the kind of lovely human tale that Warren does so well.

So, my hopes are that Image realise how good this concept is and keep it on their books.  Maybe open the world up and we see other writers take on this world on hiatus as happened with Garth Ennis' 'Crossed', that Ellis and Howard return to the world every couple of years and give us another mini series fix like this or we get an Ellis Trees novel - which personally I'd love - or we walk away whistling a jaunty tune and leave this world suspended in amber whilst we are left to our own imaginings.  I personally don't mind any which way and I'm happy with what we have although I really would like to know where Doctor Creasy's and Zhen's stories take them.

Buy it here - UKUS

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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much appreciate a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Skeletons

Skeletons (2010)
Ed Gaughan and Andrew Buckley play Davis and Bennett (Ed Gaughan and Andrew Buckley) two fabulously disheveled functionaries for an enigmatic agency run by The Colonel (Jason Isaacs) that travel the countryside on assignments to psychically extract the metaphorical skeletons quite literally from people's closets.  Their newest assignment finds them at a remote cottage helping a woman (Paprika Steen) and her children (Tuppence Middleton & Josef Whitfield) find out what's happened to her husband.

In the grand tradition of odd couples our bickering pair are both damaged souls, the latter is 'going native' desperately trying to connect with and help his clients deal with, rather than just expose, their issues whilst Davis is 'glow-chasing', mining is own memories for comforting experiences.

Skeletons (2010)  Tuppence Middleton, Ed Gaughan and Andrew Buckley
I first saw this film not long after its release back in 2010, I went in cold, chuckled for an hour and a half and came out raving it to anyone who would sit still long enough to listen. The script by writer / director Nick Whitfield is witty and strange, bittersweet and beautiful and has gentle and leisurely pace that allows you to slowly sink into the world.

The idea of people being haunted by their own ghosts is by no means a new idea but when it's done well it can be a joy and here Whitfield has created a sensitive and quirky play on the theme and populated it with eccentric, damaged and entirely human characters to create something lovely.

Buy it here - Skeletons [DVD] [2010] - or watch it below.



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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much appreciate a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Friday, 8 May 2020

3 Wyrd Things: Mark Pilkington

For '3 Wyrd Things' I've asked various creative people whose work I admire to tell us about three oddly, wonderfully, weirdly British things that have been an influence on them and their work - a book or author, a film or TV show and a song, album or musician.

Mark Pilkington
photo by Pete Woodhead
This month: Mark Pilkington

Mark is a musician, an author and the co-publisher (with Jaimie Sutcliffe) at Strange Attractor Press, a celebration of all that is strange, enchanting and unorthodox on the fringes of art, society and science for which he also edits the in-house 'Strange Attractor Journal'.

He is the author of two books 'Mirage Men: A Journey into Disinformation, Paranoia and UFOs: The Weird Truth Behind UFOs' (Buy it here) and 'Far Out: 101 Strange Tales from Science's Outer Edge' (Buy it here) and has written for Fortean Times, The Guardian, Sight and Sound and The Wire amongst others.

Musically Mark has collaborated on various projects most notably as part of The Begotten, as half (with Zali Krishna) of the criminally underappreciated Raagnagrok and currently as half (with Michael J York) of Teleplasmiste whose fabulous new album 'To Kiss Earth Goodbye' is out soon on House of Mythology.

I urge you all to take the time to explore the delights to be found at www.strangeattractor.co.uk and we are very pleased to be able to share with you Mark's choices.

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Eye of the Devil
FILM
Eye of the Devil (1967)
Buy it here (Region 1 only)

Based on a gothic romance by Philip Loraine, this enjoyable, if slightly starchy, occult curio is an interesting confluence of British late '60s cultural streams and a predecessor to the more colourful, and far more musical, The Wicker Man.

David Niven plays the scion of a French aristocratic family, gently living it up in London with his wife (Deborah Kerr) when he receives a summons to return immediately to his chateau back in France. Abandoning his English family without explanation, Niven finds the ancestral vineyards barren and the estate presided over by a mysterious priest, Donald Pleasance in fine creepy form. Elsewhere, crypto-erotic ayran siblings David Hemmings and Sharon Tate (in her first film role), ride horses and fire arrows, often at the same time, while dark-cowled figures stalk the land. Something is happening, but I won't tell you what, other than to say the plot is clearly inspired – like The Wicker Man – by the mythic anthropology of James Frazer's The Golden Bough.

Eye of the Devil
Aside from the melting pot of onscreen cultural icons, another interesting feature of the film is that Britain's reigning Witch King and Queen, Alex and Maxine Sanders, were hired as consultants, though it's very hard to tell what exactly they contributed, other than posing for photographs with Sharon Tate in a magic circle. American Christian conspiracists would tie these photographs to Tate's awful death at the hands of the Manson goons two years later. [I asked Maxine about this a few years ago and she felt they were just employed as a publicity gimmick].

Erstwhile director J Lee Thompson made the original Cape Fear, Guns of Navarone, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Death Wish 4, amongst many other films in a four-decade career.




Space Hymns by Ramases
ALBUM
Space Hymns
Ramases
Buy it here

In 1968, the Egyptian god-pharaoh Ramases appeared to Barrington Frost. The immortal told the Sheffield-born Army fitness instructor and central heating fitter that he was to be his latest earthly incarnation (Ramases XII according to Wikipedia) and that he had a musical message for the world.

Frost – now Ramases – and his wife Dorothy, now Selket, released their first single, a melancholic slice of cosmic pop, Crazy One* the same year, to a muted response. Undeterred by their lack of immediate success, Ramases persisted, the Sun god shone, and fortune smiled. Vertigo recognised his unique talents, assigned him studio time and the embryonic 10cc as a backing band and, in 1973, a legendary album, Space Hymns, was born.

*(The A side is actually called "Quasar One", but was mistitled thanks to a communications problem with the record company, CBS).

Ramases
By turns thrilling, profound, deranged, ludicrous and beautiful, Space Hymns is an autobiographical musical account of Frost's pharaonic rebirth, and his urgent message for humanity. "The sun is fading from your city / From where I stand it ain't so pretty / I see your sun is going down / I see your wreckage on the ground" he sings in the fuzzed-out opener, 'Life Child'. Like many others touched by soul fire, Ram (as his friends called him) wanted us to change our ways and reintroduce the life child, the cosmic avatar sometimes known as Jesus, back into our lives.

Musically the album is wildly eclectic yet always highly accomplished, with tunes that the Beatles would have been proud of, sitar drone experiments and bongo furies all wrapped in lyrics that had waited thousands of years in a cold tomb to be heard. And that cover! At once amongst Roger Dean's most restrained work, yet also his most immense – a 6 panel fold out of a cathedral spire becoming a medieval rocket-ship.

Unfortunately tussles with the label over the follow up album, Glass Top Coffin, left Ram depressed – Vertigo added strings and other elements without his approval. But while perhaps more conventional musically, it's just as far out, though haunted by a deep cosmic melancholy, perhaps as Ram sensed that things weren't going his way. Its standout number is the beautiful, bucolic Stepping Stones, in which Ram sings "Blowing your mind out, down by the river...now" repeated over and over again until the song ends. In 1976 Ramases took his own life, leaving his musical legacy largely forgotten.




Monstrum by Tony 'Doc' Shiels
BOOK
Monstrum! A Wizard's Tale
Tony 'Doc' Shiels
Buy it here

The first issue of Fortean Times I ever saw, (#42, Autumn 1984), featured the cover headline "Is Nessie a Giant Squid?". The accompanying image suggested that what was usually interpreted as the Loch Ness Monster's head and neck was, in fact, a long, thick tentacle waving above the water's surface. As an 11-year-old boy healthily obsessed with giant squids and sea monsters, the point of the piece, with its deeper allusions to Max Ernst and surrealism, went way over my head, but it, and its illustrations, stayed with me.

Its author, Tony 'Doc' Shiels, is a remarkable character: artist, occultist, illusionist, prankster and mythographer, who remains unknown outside of a few magical and fortean circles, yet anyone with even a fleeting interest in magic or cryptozoology will have seen his work.

Up for the jubilee tony doc shiels nessie daily mirror
Too wild for the art world – a brief stint in the St Ives art colony during the 1950s ended when he drunkenly pulled a fake pistol on a policewoman – Shiels became an illusionist, and is credited with inventing the Bizarre Magic, merging occult lore and tradition with stage magic. Again, this was too much for the largely conservative theatrical magic world, so for his next trick Shiels adapted these ideas and took them to the largest audience he could reach, the British media. A series of theatrical, open-air conjurations in the 1970s, sometimes performed alongside his naked, painted witch daughters, led to manifestations of the sea serpent Morgawr near Falmouth, a winged humanoid known as the Owlman in Mawnan (both in Cornwall) and, ultimately, Nessie herself, who made the cover of the Mirror in June 1977 – "Up for the Jubilee!".

Tony 'Doc' ShielsShiels' technique, which he called NNIDNID, or "surrealchemy" was surrealist in origin, and explicitly magical in intent, involving evocations, sea sigils, some crafty slight of mind and deft media manipulation to summon creatures of myth into consensus reality. And it worked: decades later Morgawr and the Owlman are long-running fortean fixtures, still seen by people who have never heard of Doc (in fact very few people have).

Monstrum is Doc's 1987 account of his monster-summoning adventures, but it's also a wondrous surrealist document, and an absurdist magical grimoire, filled with sigils, summonings, spells, proclamations and Guinness-soaked humour:

Fill your minds with monstrous images and ideas... try spotting uncanny things in mirrors. Think of photography as alchemy... Bang a drum... Employ sky-clad witches, respectfully... Practice Oneiromancy... untame your eyes... Learn to recognise magic circumstance and objective chance...believe absolutely that you can cause unusual happenings... Go for a swim.

Shiels, now in his early 80s, is still with us, living in Killarney, Ireland. In 2015 the historian of Cornish art, Rupert White, wrote and published Monstermind, an informative, enjoyable biography of Shiels that documents his unlikely – yet almost entirely true – life story and wild talents.



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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much appreciate a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Thursday, 7 May 2020

The Lark Ascending: People, Music and Landscape in Twentieth-Century Britain

The Lark Ascending by Richard King (Faber & Faber)
Richard King
Faber & Faber

Over the course of the twentieth century, The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams is the piece of music that has come to define the mythical concept of the English countryside, with its babbling brooks and skylarks. Yet, the landscape is not really an unaffected utopia, but a living, working and occasionally rancorous environment that has forged a nation's musical personality. On a journey that takes us from post-war poets and artists to the free party scene embraced by the acid house and travelling communities, Richard King explores how Britain's history and identity have been shaped by the mysterious relationship between music and nature.

Taking as its starting point Ralph Vaughan Williams' 1920 composition from which the book takes its name King has undertaken an exploration of the changing face of the British countryside through the 20th century and of the individuals and musicians that have been inspired by it.

Taking a sedate journey across the century we are introduced to a wide variety of both the savoury and unsavoury characters who have found solace and identity in nature; from those escaping the horrors of the battlefields of WWI to the blood and country ugly politics of the inter war years which mixed communing with nature with a nationalist ideology and folk music / dance that still pollutes much of the outside edges of folk music and on to 'back to basics' pioneers like John Seymour who's West Wales small holding along with the books and programmes he made through the 60s and 70s championed the cause into a movement so parodied in shows like 'The Good Life'.  Beyond this King provides a keen, if brief, overview into pivotal events such as the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp, the Peace Convoy, the free festivals and the early rave scene and of the various legislations introduced to curtail all these activities.

Musically we travel from Vaughan Williams via Cecil Sharp and the various folk archivists through the acid folk generation chronicled in Rob Young's fabulous 'Electric Eden' (UK / US). Further on we skirt around Hawkwind and The Penguin Cafe Orchestra and composer Gavin Bryars before settling on the hauntologically lysergic sounds of Boards of Canada whose music often feels like an oneiric time capsule of days gone bye.

It's a fascinating read.  Personally I'd have liked to hear much more of the voices of the actual musicians and their views on how the landscape had influenced their work but in their absence King provides a coolly authorial analysis.  Unusually for what is a fairly short book King takes a rambling approach and makes a number of leaps of logic - those who raised an eyebrow at the mention of Penguin Cafe back there in a book about the links between music and landscape I can assure you I did the same - and the finished article is too idiosyncratic to provide the definitive word on the topic but this is a subject I hold dear and one that fuels my own music so I eagerly devoured the book and generally wasn't disappointed with what proved to be a timely and interesting read.

Buy it here - UK  / US

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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much appreciate a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

John Betjeman at Avebury

John Betjeman at Avebury
In 1955 Sir John Betjeman was hired by Shell to narrate a series of 26 short films extolling the glories of the British Isles that were now more easily accessible to the public at large in this new era of the motor car.

The series, 'Discovering Britain with John Betjeman', was one of several travelogue style films that Betjeman was to make throughout his life and was a continuation of an association with Shell that stretched back to 1934 when he had written and edited the guidebooks known as the 'Shell Guides' for the company.   Of the 26 films the one of most interest to us here at Wyrd Britain is the one concerning the stone circles at Avebury.

Betjeman has an obvious affection for the stones and the nearby burial mounds and as a lifelong fan of both Arthur Machen and M.R. James it comes as little surprise that in his narration he stresses the religious aspect, the pagan burials and the "sinister atmosphere" of the place which he contrasts with vivid imaginings of the toil, the skill and the scope of the work involved in their construction.

It's an enchanting little film that is almost as much a time capsule of a lost era as the stones themselves and which offers us another glimpse of a part of the land that has long proved irresistible to artists of all flavours.



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Sunday, 3 May 2020

The Dead Room

The Dead Room
Mark Gatiss has been on a seemingly one man crusade to bring back the glory days of the BBC ghost story and over the last few years has produced several sympathetic contributions to the series including an M.R. James adaptation, 'The Tractate Middoth'.

This contribution from 2018  has shades of the late 70s tale 'A Ghostly Voice' in its setting as a radio personality known for his readings of classic ghostly tales begins to experience unsettling events on his return to his old studio.

Here we have a typically strong performance from Simon Callow as 'Aubrey Judd' and also from Anjli Mohindra (Rani from The Sarah Jane Adventures) as his producer, 'Tara', in a tale that continually references modern technology whilst retaining a real period feel.  Gatiss' script is sensitive and his direction is measured and in the grand tradition the reveals and the suspense are allowed to build slowly as Judd slowly sinks into the clutches of the ghostly presence although the final reveal is a little heavy handed.  It is though a respectful but entirely modern contribution to the venerable series that retains all the flavours of the originals whilst adding some new ones of its own.



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Friday, 1 May 2020

Weep Not My Wanton: Selected Short Stories

A.E. Coppard
Turnpike Books

A.E. Coppards short stories capture a sensual rural England combining poetic description of its landscape with characters tied to a more elemental life, who experience passions of love, loss and regret. Drawing on traditional folklore and ballads, at a time when the countryside s traditional culture was dying out, Coppards stories have a uniquely melancholic tone, an understanding of human nature and the secret desires of women with an individual vision of England.

Until a month or so ago I'd never heard of Coppard and then along came Mark Valentine's newest collection essays extolling the quiet joys of those authors who have fallen by the wayside and those never quite found the path in the first place.  There was much in the book that intrigued but none more so than A.E. Coppard.  Mark's description was just so enticing that I put in a quick order for the only currently available collection of Coppard's work.

Coppard was apparently much admired by, amongst others, Algernon Blackwood and the stories in this collection show they shared an imagination defined by landscape but for Coppard this is governed by an arcadian vision of life.  His stories tell of a deep understanding of the quirks and foibles of humanity and celebrate their interactions and their comunications without ever feeling the need to judge or moralise.  They are elegantly formed and display a real mastery of the short story form.

On the whole I must admit to not being as entirely smitten with the book as I'd hoped to be.  The stories are beautifully written and enjoyable enough but the ones featured here aren't really entirely to my taste being for the most part bereft of the oddities I look for in a book. I know though that he had a bit of a penchant for the strange and the one truly weird tale here, 'Adam and Eve and Pinch Me', with its wandering spirit along with the strength of his writing has me positively craving for a copy of a collection of his stranger stories.

Buy it here - Weep Not My Wanton: Selected Short Stories

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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much appreciate a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain