Friday, 28 October 2011

Why I love Halloween (and other Ghost Stories)

“Pleasure to me is wonder—the unexplored, the unexpected, the thing that is hidden and the changeless thing that lurks behind superficial mutability. To trace the remote in the immediate; the eternal in the ephemeral; the past in the present; the infinite in the finite; these are to me the springs of delight and beauty.” - H.P. Lovecraft

Of all the annual festivals, it is Halloween that most stirs up memories of childhood excitement.

Essentially a celebration to mark the end of the ‘season of the sun’, Halloween is one of the oldest holidays with origins that can be traced back thousands of years.  It is typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain, a name historically kept by the Celts in the British Isles and derived from Old Irish meaning ‘summer's end.’ Over time it was adopted into Roman culture as Pomona Day and Christian culture as All Hallows’ Eve.  In its contemporary form it has become a somewhat playful celebration of mythology, horror and the occult, but the sense still persists that this is the time of year when the physical and supernatural worlds are closest and magical things might just happen.

Whilst my Celtic antecedents may in part be responsible for my occasional affinity with the pagan, I consider myself more rationalist than religious.  Nevertheless, it seems entirely rational to me that we are unlikely to ever know or understand even a fraction of the true nature of our existence.  Whilst trick-or-treating had not fully crossed the Atlantic when I was of acceptable age to commit door-to-door candy extortion, I welcome the annual herds of little zombies, miniature witches and midget vampires. They are a reminder to recognise and celebrate the idea of mystery and the unknown – a reminder that becomes even more important as we become untethered from the spiritual certainties of our cosy old Monotheism. It is essential that, in a Godless word, we should still retain the humbling presence of mystery.

My childhood Halloween was mainly a time for parties and the cheap thrills of age-inappropriate horror movies. Night of the Creeps, Dawn of the Dead and, of course, John Carpenter’s Halloween are all fondly remembered October classics.  It makes me nostalgic for a time when even a battered video cassette of the truly craptacular space-horror Inseminoid was momentarily an event movie.

While gory and garish Horror movies may not appeal to everyone, they form an extension of seasonal folk storytelling.  The compelling and near universal draw of the simple ghost story once again speaks of our need for mystery. Observe how even the most egotistical and self-centred gatherings can be brought to hushed attention by a tale of the inexplicable, supernatural or strange incidence.

It seems that almost everyone has at least one short incident or vignette to share.  I’m somewhat sceptical in my outlook, but there is at least one story in my past that refuses to fit neatly into my rational little worldview.

I was probably 14 or 15 and was spending the night with a group of friends in bivouacs in the nearby woods of Thornthwaite on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales.  We were all scattered in an individual favoured spot all around the base of the valley, lost amongst in the thick spiky tangle of conifer trees.

When our fire died and we ran out of stolen cigarettes and teenage wit and wisdom to share, we all separated off to sleep.  I don’t remember actually sleeping, so I can’t have been long settled in the uncomfortable hole I’d quickly and lazily covered over with brush and leaves when was started by a scream.

Assuming it was a friend, I set off to investigate.  It turned out I was right as I found out later that my friend’s equally slapdash shelter had collapsed, but I didn’t discover this until morning because I immediately became hopelessly lost.

I suppose I was half asleep as, although the woods were modest in size and should have been familiar, I became so disorientated that I couldn’t find my way forward or back.  There was an eerie stillness and deep blue tint that seemed entirely alien.  I was just starting to worry when I saw a flickering light in the trees ahead.  Thinking this was one of my friends, I called out and the light started to move, blinking between the tree trunks. As I followed the light with my own torch beam, I realised that I was turning on the spot as it circled completely around me.  At that point the light blinked out.  I was just a little disturbed and ran away in the opposite direction, through the woods and past a long square modern building with the lights still glowing through the windows. I paused a moment to consider whether I could find help inside. Catching my breath, I suddenly felt rather embarrassed about the whole thing.  By now I was in the scattered broadleaves on the edge of the open fields.  From this vantage point, it seemed simple to rediscover my bearings. I lifted my torch to the treeline and shone it straight at what at first glance appeared to be a face. I froze and stared, waiting for the illusion to fade.  With terror, I realised the edge of the woods was now seemingly populated with vague but tangible figures, waiting still, as if frozen at the field break and unable to advance further. I kept staring, convinced it was a trick of branch and shadow, but they were clearly there, staring back at me.

At this point, I snapped, ran furiously across the field and spent a sleepless night in our fortuitously pitched tent near the roadside.  In the morning, I sheepishly had to explain my sudden retreat and had to endure a fair amount of ridicule.  I had to conclude that my experience was a mix of Pareidolia and night terror, but it shook me enough to remember it with incredible clarity, even now, close to 20 years later. The oddest thing about the whole experience – and the thing that interested my friends most at the time – was the incongruous modern building.  Noone can recall it ever being there and, on reflection, I have no idea what or where it was. Later, I’d reinterpret this little tale as alien, phantom or otherwise supernatural, depending on my interest at the time.  But while Tolkien, Argento or Castaneda may have influenced the odd creative flourish here and there, the fact remains that it is, for me, an entirely inexplicable event of non-specific weirdness.

There is an odd mixture of unease and excitement that comes from both the telling and the listening to stories such as this.  In some deep and instinctual way our fascination is rooted in our need for mystery that transcends the mundane.  Especially now, in this time of elephantine vanity and greed, it is a comfort to know that the world is not and never will be wholly knowable or controllable. Faced with a dark and endless universe, where black planets roll without aim and a vast and nameless void defies our comprehension, we find ourselves, friend and foe alike, just a little more equal and huddled just a little closer together for comfort…and isn’t that alone a good reason to welcome a little more mystery into our lives?

Monday, 3 October 2011

Slow Train Coming: Bob Dylan on the Northern Line

I hear my train a-comin'
Partially inspired by Simon Patterson’s artwork The Great Bear (1992) - in which he retitled the tube stations on the iconic map of the London Underground with a collection of cultural figures - I’ve spent many uncomfortable hours delayed on the tube devising more appropriate names for the various stops across the capital.  This kind of psychogeography is not only useful for keeping commuter sanity in check, but also fascinating in how easily familiar landmarks reveal distinct personalities.

I’m particularly intrigued by how the Northern Line, running from south to north London, seems to act as a rather neat narrative mirror to the career of folk icon Bob Dylan.  I would assume this to be an act of accidental symmetry rather than an elaborate subversion by some Dylan obsessed rail planner - however, if you'll indulge me, it bears closer scrutiny:

The Early Years, 1959-1963 (Morden to Kennington)

The Tube lines,
we are a-changin' (1964)
With little indication of the long and winding career ahead of him, Robert Allen Zimmerman was born to a suburban middle class family in Duluth, Minnesota.  Similarly, our journey begins in the suburban middle class suburbs of Wimbledon - two relatively unassuming locations whose primary identification is with sporting events.

Zimmerman moved to Minneapolis in September 1959 and enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where his early focus on rock and roll gave way to an interest in American folk music. In January 1961, he travelled to New York City – moving eastwards from the rural to the urban.  Travelling from Wimbledon to Clapham, we do much the same.

Soon, we find ourselves in the diverse international communities of Stockwell, Kennington and Elephant & Castle, reflecting not only on Dylan's appropriation of Black music and the roots of rythmn and blues, but also the adoption of the working class protest song.  This formative cultural mix is clearly reflected in Bob Dylan (1962), which drew heavily on familiar folk, blues and gospel material and featured only two original compositions. This came to fruition with the release of his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), in which he first began to make his name as both performer and songwriter.

Going Electric, 1964-1979 (Waterloo to Tottenham Court Road)

In London rush hour traffic, 
the roads are just not an option (1965)
As we reach the bustling crowds of Waterloo, we join Dylan at his first peak of popularity.  Standing on the concourse of this busy national terminal, lost amongst a crush of humanity, we can probably share Dylans bewilderment as he found himself standing alone on a pedestal of unexpected and unwelcome adulation.

Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) reflected a lighter mood, hinting at a rejection of the role being forced upon him and suggested the shift to rock and roll soon to dominate Dylan's music.  Like us, he was looking longingly at the bright lights and carefree delights waiting across the river and was increasingly eager to cross over.

In the latter half of 1964 and 1965, Dylan's appearance and musical style changed rapidly as he made his move from leading contemporary songwriter of the folk scene to folk-rock pop-music star. Scruffy jeans and work shirts were replaced by a Carnaby Street wardrobe as he prepared for his night on the town. 

This transformation would culminate with the infamous 1966 Free Trade Hall concert in England, touring in support of Highway 61 Revisited (1965).  The evening would climax with a member of the audience, angered by Dylan's electric backing, shouting: "Judas!"   
Dylans response to this was a terse "I don't believe you, you're a liar!" before promptly turning to his band with the demand to "play it fucking loud!"

With the cries of the folk purists ringing in our ears, we follow Dylan to the Embankment, the gateway of the West End.  Initially, the excitement of this new musical freedom was responsible for a whole slew of eclectic delights, including Blonde on Blonde (1966), Blood on the Tracks (1975) and Desire (1976).

Likewise, the West End is indeed an initially impressive glittering palace of hedonistic delights.   However, by the time we reach Tottenham Court Road, it becomes all too apparent how precariously the area clings to the vibrancy of the past.  Here, grand historic facades give shelter to cheap gift shops, tourist traps and faceless chain stores, the very embodiment of Self Portrait (1970) and Street Legal (1978), lurking in the otherwise vintage years of Dylans back catalogue.

Anyone who has spent a moment too long in London’s West End will recognise his weary reflection on the decade: "I was on the road for almost five years. It wore me down. I was on drugs, a lot of things…just to keep going, you know?"

Slow Train Coming (1979)
The Lost Years, 1979-1989 (Goodge Street to Euston) 

Eventually, hedonism, a motorbike accident & born-again Christianity took it's toll and we find ourselves down in the groove of an unmemorable 1980’s identity crisis. This unloved era is clearly shared in architectural empathy by the ugly transitory transit stations of Goodge Street, Warren Street and Euston.  It is here you will find the critically reviled follies of Empire Burlesque (1985) and Knocked Out Loaded (1986). 

Rediscovery & Reflection, 1990-Present (Camden Town to North London)
Moving swiftly onwards, if there is one stop on the line most truly representative of snatching Dylan-esque pop-cultural reinvention from the jaws of defeat, it is our next destination: Camden Town. From hippies, to mods, to punks, to goths and all manner of subsequent post-millennial suburban kids with guitars, Camden is endlessly rediscovered by new generations.  Dylan likewise entered the 1990’s reinvigorated by the rediscovery of his canon by a new generation of listeners. The next few years saw him returning the favour by returning to his roots with two minor but successful albums covering old folk and blues numbers: Good as I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993).

Finally, North London sees Dylan returning home in a number of ways. Pausing to reconcile with his Jewish identity in Finchley, he nears High Barnet and Mill Hill with a period of suburban reflection on his long journey.  It is here we leave the 21st Century Dylan to focus on the reissues of his back catalogue, his roots radio show and other legacy recordings.

In the course of this journey, Bob Dylan has become one of the most important and profoundly influential figures in the popular music and culture of five decades.  I have, once again, just barely made it to another meeting on time.

In conclusion, I am concerned that I am wasting too much of my life on trains.