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 and we are very pleased to be able to share with you Mark's choices.


Eye of the Devil
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
Space Hymns
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).

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" 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
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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