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Mortem Post

An actor friend called Matthew Scurfield was a member of the repertory theatre company in Barrow-in-Furness. At one point in the play, which was a period piece, he was required to march on stage, stand before an expectant throng of actors and deliver a mighty and important speech. Matthew strode to his final position, stood with his back to the audience and gathered his cape around him. He then drew himself up majestically and extended his arms wide, holding on to the wings of the cape. He was bollock naked.

Thus disarrayed he delivered the entire speech. The actors could not possibly be seen to react. He could have killed somebody.

In 1982, towards the end of a performance of ‘Circus Lumiere’, Lumiere & Son’s most popular show, the five male performers, at the behest of Pamela the Ringmistress, enter the ring in their underpants in order to reenact their days as wild men in the jungles of Brazil. The uncouthness that they displayed before their discovery by Pamela, who had civilised them then launched them as circus performers, was made evident in the way they fought incessantly among themselves.cl-1-4-b478 This flashback sequence was punctuated by snap blackouts, during which the performers would assume fresh tableaux comprising complicated interlocking stacks of grappling bodies. For the effect to work properly, the audience must not see the performers changing position and the performers must move at top speed in the dark in order to be discovered ‘magically’ reassembled when the lights snap back on. On one occasion I hastened to my next position - a manoeuvre that had been rehearsed many times - and sensed that I was a tiny bit late. I dived into the pile of bodies just as the lights came up. I found that I was sitting on George Yiasoumi’s face. There then ensued a bout of uncontrollable behaviour that will be the subject of this post.

jimcarreySimilar behaviour can be easily located in such arcana as any Jim Carrey Blooper compilation on YouTube. His ‘Liar Liar’ bloopers will be found instructive in this respect. In the footage Carrey is seen pursuing two slightly different paths. Characteristically working at a maniacally elevated pitch he displays an impatience to achieve the results that the overall film project is designed to deliver. Some of the bloopers are simple errors based on bumping into the scenery or getting the lines wrong and they precipitate fits of giggling in all the actors present in the scene.

In these situations Carrey is rarely content simply to fail. He picks up on his initial mistake and runs it through a few more gears before giving up in order that a fresh take may be taken. He will land on a rather small error, which could easily be ignored, and instantly extend it, as if the end result of the extension represented the real nature of the original mistake. His fellow actors usually crack up and, as a result, perhaps Carrey gets a preview of the effectiveness of his comic persona. If this is the case then what the other actors and crew give the star is not an endorsement of the work in progress but the tension generated by that work. The cracking up demonstrates that the actors are tense and are pleased to experience relief from that tension. That they are tense simply indicates that they are professionals - they wish to optimise the presentation of their skills come what may and their attention is monopolised by acts of concentration, memorisation, collaboration and, importantly, surrender to the qualities of the character they are portraying. Carrey is also often seen - at least in the blooper reels - to subvert/undermine/increase tension (possibly constructively) and show off as he deliberately strays off script to deliver gags and pull faces that make him and most of his colleagues snort explosively or bray with delight. It’s debatable who is the more tense and therefore has a greater need for the release, Carrey or those working with him.

article-2368851-1ae06069000005dc-17_634x6521Carrey, in other words, enjoys corpsing and making others corpse. The term derives, it is thought, from the mischievous practice of trying to make a corpse, to be precise an actor playing a corpse, laugh when they should not even be seen to breathe. The risk here would be that corpsing is very contagious and may well reduce the least hardy of the company to helpless giggles as well. From the corpse’s point of view, then, the ideal position in which to play dead would be one in which you are facing upstage, away from the audience.

Corpsing is odd. It is a forbidden delight, with which audiences eagerly connive. Up to a point. Beyond that point it suddenly looks too easy. The corpsing actors start to feel uncomfortable, despite their being enwrapped and entrapped in the greatest of comforts. The audience suddenly senses that, as far as they are concerned, a few seconds of abandon is quite sufficient. They’d like to get back to the script now please. But why did they succumb in the first place? You pay a lot of money to go to the theatre, why would you be so delighted by the abrupt and thoroughly disenchanting collapse of the whole point of the evening out? avengersbloopers2Or, why would you appreciate the inclusion of blooper outtakes on your box sets? Why do TV shows based solely on collections of bloopers draw dependably respectable figures? It has been observed elsewhere in this publication that actors demonstrate to non-actors that it is possible to act. This disclosure can be taken as an endorsement of the practice of pretending - when the occasion seems to demand it - to be other than you are. It can also support the more offensive notion that all behaviour is performance. Whether this makes actual actors seem more or less skilled is open to question. It is, nevertheless, salutary to witness actors at work, especially since most of the time we are sufficiently seduced by the performance willingly to sideline the obtrusive sense that it is a performance. In other words, performances can be credible. And this is good to know.

The other side of the coin would feature uneasiness about the whole performance enterprise. If theatre or film performance and everyday performance are comparable in some way then non-actors could be prey to breaks in continuity on a par with those suffered by thespians. Professional corpsing is clearly a breakdown of some sort and may be seen as having its equivalent in everyday social life. Some non-actors can act, in everyday life, better than other non-actors but both parties will experience occasions when they turn in a bad performance. For many this will not be an issue. It happens - move on. However, both professionals and non-actors carry within them the possibility of the flawed and therefore detectable and therefore non-credible performance. While non-actors do not corpse - their performance errors tend not to occur in front of large, attentive and formally arranged audiences or highly focused groups of fellow actors and technical crews - they will regard corpsing as significant rather than trivial. Having suggested above that it is reassuring to know that the act of everyday acting may produce credible (if not authentic) behaviour, the more sweeping suggestion - that all behaviour is performance - may precipitate considerable anxiety.

joke-warfare-monty-python-200Death stalks these proceedings. Comedians ‘die’ on stage, Monty Python built a sketch around the ‘the Killer Joke’ which was killingly funny and some of us ‘almost die laughing’. If the experience isn’t actually terminal we may nevertheless find it ’sidesplitting’ or ‘cry with laughter’ or ‘piss ourselves’. The latter actually happens, of course, but people rarely die laughing, despite their assertions that they did.

The laughter business is fraught with danger. Almost by definition laughter is out of control and intense laughter threatens to lead us to a point from which we might have difficulty returning. I’m not suggesting that this is what anyone thinks when they burst out laughing but our colloquialisms do suggest that laughter is not simply restricted to things that we find humorous. I wrote recently about delirious, frightened or horrified laughter in the post ‘Murder in the Dark’. Given that we’re not going to die laughing there still remains within the corpse and the snort more than wholesome, disruptive fun.

The processes that comprise an actor’s preparation do not explain satisfactorily what it is that actors actually do. Somehow they create space within themselves for characters other than their own - that’s pretty clear. 0One wonders what happens to the actor’s own character when they submit to one that has been constructed in the rehearsal process. In the case of demonic possession the subject is held to be eclipsed or erased by the immigrant evil spirit. The rehearsal process demedievalises this setup, transforming a spectacular event into a series of measured operations.

Romantic misconceptions about method acting not only serve to assure audiences of the authenticity of performances but encourage the idea that the actor dies nightly and is resurrected within the terms of the script. It’s easy to form the impression that accomplished actors move beyond impersonation to almost complete submission to character. If submission were complete then the actor wouldn’t exist, she would walk offstage, get a National Insurance number and look for something to do with her life. If submission were complete then the actor - like the stereotypical schizophrenic who thinks he’s Napoleon and is disappointed at the lack of respect he receives - would not be able to follow the script, so diverted would he be by the myriad possibilities of interaction with those around him whom he would assume are real people. Notwithstanding the purportedly awe inspiring capacity of some film actors to maintain character between takes, the idea that they forget who they are and only remember the character is silly.mgm-lion-0061 They need who they are because so much of what they do on stage or before the camera is technical. They need to stand in prescribed places most of the time and they need to know when the other person’s speech ends so that they don’t interrupt them when they respond. Etc. So this whole submission thing is just not a useful idea. They just submit a bit. Some more than others.

Even so, we are used to thinking that the better they are, the more they have submitted. Perhaps the notion of absorption is more versatile - it could describe a state in which both technical and character requirements are simultaneously maintained in focus. This makes the job sound more difficult yet it does suggest a multi-tasking the components of which are at odds with each other and could not confidently be described as complementary. IMG_9759And this in turn is consistent with a precariousness in which the actor’s condition is vulnerable to breaking down, splitting apart and being defined by neither of its disengaged parts. Suddenly, just because the drawing room doorknob comes off in your hand, you are between worlds and discombobulated, a zombie with a body but no character.

But they recover. In rehearsal they recover every few minutes. When the director says “Can we stop there for a moment?” the actors jump off the bus, hang around in the bus station with the director then just jump straight back on the bus when everyone is ready. The building of character is an act of composition and the actor is required to hold the character in a state of composure but this can be relinquished when it is appropriate to do so. However, when it is knocked off balance without warning then decomposition can follow, rather than the straightforward on and off the bus that is typical of rehearsal. The world of the actor in a scripted play is both thoroughly stable and teetering at the point of imbalance.

dngq5he
In his remarkable book ‘Boo! Culture, Experience and the Startle Reflex’, Ronald C. Simons presents a detailed study of the latah phenomenon. In Malaysia and Indonesia there are individuals who react to a sudden noise far more violently than others. Simons explains that ‘Latahs do everything that hyperstartling people do elsewhere. They may strike out at objects or others, assume overlearned defensive postures, or say improper or idiosyncratically stereotyped things…The disruption of ongoing attentional processes is for them more extreme. latah_echolaliaAfter a series of startles, a latah’s speech and behaviour may become quite disorganised. In addition, after being startled some latahs experience strong attention-capture, focusing on salient aspects of their perceptual fields and narrowing and locking attention on them. Latahs may call out the names of what they see or repeat or approximate sounds they have just heard. They may match movements of objects or other persons with movements of their own bodies. As with persons whose attention has been captured generally, latahs will sometimes obey imperiously given commands.’

Latahs or their non-Malaysian and Indonesian equivalents are found in many societies. They may not have the special status afforded them in these regions but the precariousness of their composure is much the same. They will ‘jump out of their skin’ and not be able to get back where they belong for minutes at a time. During this time their capacity to direct their own behaviour is spectacularly diminished to the point where they will be compulsively obedient or repetitive. They are, in a sense, ‘anybody’s’. While corpsing actors cannot be described in these florid terms, there is a similarity in the abruptness of the shift from composure to disarray in both latah and corpsing actor. Actors may be, in the particular sense I have suggested, fragile, but only when they are acting. In the case of the latah it is as if their entire being, or their sense of being, will only cohere if they are never startled. The video clip demonstrates that the non-latah peers of the latah individual tend to tease the latah, sometimes mercilessly, in order to precipitate what is clearly regarded as an hilarious performance, available on demand and unticketed.

Now let’s look at Andrea.

Plate

I found an alley I hadn’t spotted before and heard sounds of jollity at the end of it. I walked down and round and came upon a primary school fair in full swing. This could only mean one thing: a secondhand book stall. In fact, that particular thing proved to be unremarkable but there was, right next to it, a stall selling beer and wine. For the encouraging schoolyard price of £2 I got a plastic cup of prosecco and dealt with it. I strolled to the next street and found that it had been closed off and filled with stalls - another fair. But it isn’t a fair. It’s a street food festival where, instead of pleasing variety it’s types of snack on tables. Foods, as far as the eye can see down this packed street. Many cupcakes.cream-roses-cupcakes Just think, every cupcake is different but not in an interesting way. The cupcake is very easy to make. Six year olds can make them and so can thirty year olds, it would appear. Toddler foods by British bakers. Just how many food stalls do you need before a street event becomes nothing more than the contents of victuallers’ shops moved into the street? At the farmer’s market you can get a rabbit or a swede and take them home. At the restaurant you can get courses. But what if all you could get at Borough Market or Smithfield were dainties? What if the restaurant only had afters on the menu?

How many times can you eat when the only diversion from eating is eating? Could you have lunch several times so as not to waste the opportunity? Surely a fair or a ‘festival’ has more than one type of thing in it. Surely once 90% of the available street-side space has been taken up by over-priced rhinestone-displaydelicacy outlets, room should be made for tray after tray of over-priced jewellery. Ah! On closer inspection it becomes apparent that for every ten food stalls there is a ring and bauble stall whose proprietor will say “This is a very nice piece” to anybody about anything. Anyway, I don’t drive a 4×4 so I’m not really in the target constituency. When I was a boy you could see a pig with two heads. Can’t say fairer than that.

 

I escaped down a leafy side street, passing a group of people sitting on a low wall in front of a house, chatting in the sun. A boy of about five was playing in the background. I strolled on but flinched then froze as I heard a loud crack behind me. I swung round and the scene had completely changed. wired_glassIn slow motion the adults on the wall were rising to their feet and gazing in horror at the space where the boy had been. A large sheet of wired glass, broken in several places, was sliding down into the cellar whose access shaft it had been covering. The boy had climbed onto the glass and it had instantly shattered. The glass crunched into the space below. Onto the boy. A big man ran across to the shaft, peered down then lowered himself in. A woman screamed, leaped to her feet and desperately cried “Sam!” over and over. From the shaft the man shouted “He’s okay! He’s okay!” The man emerged holding the boy in his arms. His mother took him. The boy started to cry. It was clear he wasn’t hurt but just beginning to realise what a shocking thing had happened to him. The man stroked his head and murmured something reassuring. It was over. I had tears in my eyes.

Moved by the heroism of the big man, wondering what I would have done if one of my kids had been so shockingly swallowed.

yellowballoon-wStrolling down another alley, one I knew, I saw a man at a table with a boy on his knee. The boy had just let go of a balloon and was getting ready to wail. The balloon moved in an upward diagonal across my path. It was about three paces ahead. By the time I reached it, maintaining a steady pace, it would be eight feet above my head and somewhat to the right. I became calm and I focused myself. To my left the father was rising slowly. Grasping the balloon was out of the question, only a basket-ball player would be capable of this and there was every possibility he would burst it. But the balloon was trailing a string. Even as the way became clear my left hand, the one I am best with, shot, with serpentine certainty, towards that trailing tendril. Smuh! went my fingers around it. We were just about to have a situation there said the father. I smiled. As I made my way away I heard
Who was that man?
No one knows.
Does he seek reward?
No. He seems to be content with just the deed. Soon we will forget him. He will be like tears in rain.
That’s lovely.

bath-towel_light-pristine-green_singleAt the far end of the alley were piles of used books and fabrics - curtains, doilies, valances and the like. I spotted a pale green towel. I needed one. It’s a very nice one the man there said. It was. It was in terrific condition. The man said it was £2. Apparently, moreover, it was new.

Then I saw Kenneth. There was no mistaking him: the white goatee, the bow tie, the challenging twinkle in his eye. He was a close friend of my father and had died about twenty two years ago. And now there he was in the street. When I was a little boy in the fifties Kenneth used to come round for supper. Unlike the other biochemists he talked about books and music in addition to amino acids and when greeting my mother would kiss her on the cheek, which she found unsettling. She said He’s a bit flamboyant. Biochemists in the fifties were dour and polite but Kenneth laughed loudly and was strongly opinionated. At a party in his garden, this would be after he had married my second cousin Doffy, the biochemists were discussing a strange new disease - more of a syndrome at this stage - that patients had been presenting in Los Angeles. It seemed to attack the immune system, was one line of thinking, insofar as the sickness seemed to comprise a number of pathologies at the same time. The people suffering from these odd symptoms were mostly homosexuals, particularly those who regularly visited the bathhouses where men would have sex with other men. The point was, the men were starting to die.

amylOne of the biochemists, a young Italian, had been on a field trip to the bathhouses to talk to some of the men there. He told his colleagues at Kenneth and Doffy’s party that some of the men had as many as twenty sexual partners per night. The biochemists were startled to hear this but instead of disapproving they nodded ruminatively. The young Italian said that the men often used cocaine and amyl nitrite to heighten their sexual experiences. One of the biochemists wondered if their immune systems had been compromised by an assaultive drug diet. Kenneth was listening to this discussion and said something that I have never forgotten. “Well, if this is going to be some sort of plague then it might solve the population problem. If you look at Africa, immune systems there are under constant attrition. A massive plague would solve a lot of problems.” He wasn’t suggesting that homosexuals might be usefully wiped out, just continentsful of people. It struck me that I might have misread that goatee.

Next door to Pizza Express there was a proper secondhand book shop. An Oxfam, in fact. And there, in the window, right at the bottom of a pile of books stacked spine out, was a book I’d had on the wish list for only a few days. Consonant with my career in the experimental arts I had always maintained a snobbish disdain for the work of Stephen King. “That’s one writer I won’t be reading,” I had thought. But then I read a number of warm reviews for ‘11/22/63′, in which the period leading up to the assassination of Kennedy is visited by a traveller from 2011. The New York Times said ‘It all adds up to one of the best time-travel stories since H. G. Wells. King has captured something wonderful. Could it be the bottomlessness of reality? The closer you get to history, the more mysterious it becomes. He has written a deeply romantic and pessimistic book. It’s romantic about the real possibility of love, and pessimistic about everything else.’ (Errol Morris 10/11/2011).
stephen-king-11-22-63-series-slice1

So I asked the woman in the shop if she could kindly retrieve the volume from its hard to get to location. Then it was in my hand. Hefty at 849 pp but a snip at £1. Where better to examine it than Pizza Express? First I read the paper for a bit then I turned my attention to the doorstop in my bag. As I opened the bag I caught sight of an upside down word on the back cover of the book. Something like ‘myos’. Suddenly the room was quiet. The chatter and the bustle just fell away. I flipped the book open and it was in Swedish. I had taken home a Swede. Fuck. No wonder it was cheap. As luck would have it I passed another Oxfam. I told the man what had happened then kindly donated the book to his cause.

I said “I don’t suppose you have one in English by any chance?” He said he was afraid not.

Some of the instructors had mixed groups of teenagers and adults but Olly, on this particular morning, the sky sullen but the waves regular, unlike the other day, had some really quite young ones to look after. I was standing out that day, because my ribs hurt so much, but my girls were in there, in another group, doing pretty well, standing up more and more. In Olly’s group there were maybe three small girls and three small boys. Each time one of them launched into a wave Olly would shout encouragement, clap his hands and laugh in celebration. A big, genial Australian, he wore a straw hat in the morning when hanging out the wet suits and now, standing among the breaking waves, had a peaked cap. It can get very tiring falling off or rolling off your board over and over and there’s not much you can do about that. But if you’re a little kid and Olly is your instructor then he will do this excellent thing. There’s a kid just coasted into the shallows, lying flat on his board and Olly wades forward, grasps the board on both sides and picks it up with the kid still on it. He then wades back to the waves, turns the board with the kid on towards the beach and launches him.
surf_report

The Telltale Glass

In an earlier post about tennis on TV I wrote about how the sport, when televised live, is adulterated in order to shore up incomplete narratives. The adding of narrative filler is but one aspect of a pervasive mode of interference associated with the live editing of broadcast material. A subtler form of intervention, designed to diminish narratives that are complete but too revealing, is to be found in television programmes that feature presenter-led interviews. So modest are the adjustments wrought in this territory that, if noticed at all, they may be written off as insignificant. They are, however, aspects of a concealed system that, like the fantasticated Deep Web and its fearsome contents, is hard to uncover. This is not because the portal to the territory has been cunningly rendered invisible to search engines but because it is located beneath our noses.

The phenomenon that defines this shadowy realm can be called the Performance of Unperformance. In itself it is not a new phenomenon but one that has acquired a pervasive presence - a veritable Japanese Knotweed of deportment - its behaviours gradually overwhelming the flora of native conduct. It is readily researched and will be found thriving on a television near you.

Outside the realm of the actual actor employed in dramas there are individuals who come under daily scrutiny and of whom the highest standards of presentation are expected. The current affairs programme presenter must not only operate within conventional performance criteria but he or she must also regularly deal with interviewees from public life who may not be polished public speakers.
 
394540_3024956423398_1247374767_33312465_1185588589_nOne of the most important things about professional non-drama performance is not to look at the camera in order to check if it’s looking at you. Presenters rarely do this but their guests sometimes find it hard to resist. If such evidence of everyday human frailty does arise then an intervention is made by a highly responsive technician.

In current affairs programmes, for example, the vision mixer – the person who actually cuts from camera to camera in the studio in order to maintain what is considered to be a fluid and focused visual account – will always cut away from an interviewee or, sometimes, a presenter who ought to know better, when they glance out of the corner of their eye to see if they are in shot or about to come into shot. Anxious glances to the left or right will be noticed within a moment or two, as will surreptitious examination of notes when somebody else is talking and expressions of distraction, indifference or discomfort from pundits seated in the space awaiting their turn. The vision mixer pounces and we are hastily ushered away from the site of leakage that betrays the performance of the nonperformed.
 
glass_of_water_350A similar protocol pertains when a studio visitor, having completed a response to a question, reaches for a glass of water. The vision mixers are invariably impressive – they rarely allow us to see such transgressions for more than a split second before cutting to another shot. A hand is extended, it moves towards a glass then pouf! It’s history. The mixer’s skill preserves the viewer from a sense that what is being viewed is in any way artificial. The viewer, it is assumed, will like to see people who can function without being compromised by nervousness. An inverted system of values is introduced in which to be seen reaching for a glass of water is not understandable but a sign of weakness. It is instructive to compare the team effort required to maintain these studio presentation values to the efforts of a football team, whose every mistake is fully visible and cannot be edited out.
 
The broadcast conventions generate images of individuals who appear to be at ease with performance conventions. They resemble, therefore, thoroughly confident and accomplished beings emptied of any compromising psychology that might have the unintended effect of suggesting that the studio situation is fundamentally untenable, by which I mean the notion that the mode in which they appear to function so well is absolutely not suitable for everyday life. Such beings are admired but there is a risk that they are seen as wholly spontaneous, that is, they do not think, they only utter. They have no interior, no mental process. Their powers of analysis and agility in argument are outwardly directed and focused but function without recourse to private knowledge.

Strictly speaking, it is possible for a presenter (but not an interviewee) to be wholly without knowledge if the director supplies them with a steady stream of information and instruction through a concealed earpiece. It is equally possible, of course, that the presenter is a well briefed professional but even if this is the case, the level of professionalism will be such that a drink of water or a quick scan of the notes can be pulled off while the camera is momentarily directed elsewhere.

Viewers know that people on television are performing but the polish that is consistently constructed around this mode of performance is seductive: it is easy to imagine that people on television are not performing because they perform nonperformance so well. The next logical step is to assume that this is how ordinary people who are not on television should also behave. It may even be assumed that most people do behave in this way and that oneself is the unfortunate exception.

If television viewers do not notice the sanitising activities of the vision mixer, they still, I am sure, experience them subliminally. The interventions fall beneath the threshold of conscious perception but their significance is noted. One effect of this will be to make physical indications of uneasiness seem shameful. While it may be considered simple common sense not to stutter or look panic stricken on live television, the editing out of reflexive behaviour – that which acknowledges the mechanics of the studio setup – is executed not by the presenter but by an invisible, unidentified agent whose activities may seem disapproving and punitive. This can be compared to a hypnotic injunction the content of which the subject internalises then experiences as their own view.

Such is the predatory nature of the point of view shot - it becomes our point of view rather than that of the interviewer, who functions as a (personable, quick thinking) prosthetic extension of our own position - that not only do we imaginatively appropriate the skills of the interviewer but we are also compelled to regard the interviewee as a potential repository of the tics and twitches that we, in our other imagined role as interviewee, must work to suppress.

The experience of watching interviewers and their subjects at work is not quite as exciting as this - the anxious and uncharitable thoughts are moved to the periphery of consciousness as they are when we watch a tightrope walker or lion tamer and ponder on the possibility of their falling off or being eaten alive.
 
The gaze of the television camera is carefully and skilfully constructed. The edits occur in real time before one’s eyes but they are largely imperceptible. The seamlessness is sufficient to persuade us that what we see is the product of our gaze. If this is the case then it is we, not the servants of the broadcaster, who are continuously modifying what is seen. It is we who are suppressing evidence of psychology and frailty.
 
Such a state of affairs will contribute to a rigid definition of what constitutes performance and to the elevation of the performer to the level of an opaque, human-like machine rather than a psychologised being. Performance itself comes to be seen as a purified, optimised behaviour that is implicitly disparaging of unpolished, unprepared and hesitant conduct. Performance actually acquires the status of the nonperformed while the latter loses all its connotations of authenticity and becomes the repository of shameful behaviours.
 
If we subscribe to this notion of widespread subliminal messaging we are within a hair’s breadth of the widely reported delusion of the paranoid schizophrenic that the television is sending him secret, personalised messages that are controlling his behaviour. In addition to the content delivered by the programme itself there is, in the view of the complainant,  an extra level of communication which is no less meaningful than the programme. The paranoid schizophrenic, in this model, is not only trying to impose some sense on an elusive internal phenomenon but is picking up on something going on in the real world that he also finds destabilising.

pdvd_0161BBC2’s ‘Review Show’ is fertile ground for anxiety spotters because the guests are seated close to each other, often in a crescent, which makes it difficult for the director to isolate speakers without repeatedly going into a tight shot. The guests are not always aware that they are being included when attention appears to be focused on a speaker so they will often stray from the attentive ideal.  On this occasion everyone is performing their attention quite well.
 
pdvd_0011On this occasion the presenter, Kirsty Wark, seems less interested than she would wish to appear and has acquired a glazed expression. Her female guest, however, is being ideally attentive.
 
pdvd_013Attentiveness is obviously highly desirable. Here Kirsty – a highly experienced presenter -  has come up with an excellent version of attentiveness that could almost pass for the real thing. Possibly slightly too intense but pretty good.
 
The professional presenter, as distinct from the actor of dramas, must perform the unperformed with aplomb. The actor of dramas has, in some respects, an easier job because her objective is transformation – if she gets it wrong it will be seen as an insufficient conversion but if the presenter is seen to perform the unperformed then the shortcoming is a betrayal of the authenticity of the entire programme.
 
The unperformed of the presenter is not informal – we need it to be unwaveringly focused and efficient and we know that the autocue will often support this effect. Even so,the fantasy, I think, is that despite the fact that we know that it is the presenter’s experience plus the technical support of the team that gives him the requisite polish, we simultan­eously believe that he is a being of perfect confidence and self-belief.   
jpaxman_415
We know it’s artificial but we want to see the subjects denying this, both in the name of professionalism - we appreciate a polished production -  and of self improvement, whereby we are able to study and learn from individuals who are being closely observed in real time as they make public presentations. In these studies we can distinguish between the consummate professional – Jeremy Paxman, say, and those interviewees who are not schooled in studio behaviour but are aware of the rules. This isn’t a purely voyeuristic exercise  –  the TV professionals are an educative presence – they not only teach us what’s going on in the world, if they happen to work in current affairs, but they also show us the minute details of artificial composure, the  moment by moment maintenance of a fluid, attentive, integrated surface. They demonstrate that you can go a long way with an edited, smoothed, heightened, repurposed version of what is normally regarded as your self.
 

 

Murder in the Dark

In the Theatre section of the blog I have recently compiled the scripts of a number of short plays I wrote at the rate of two per year between 2003 and 2010. I have also written introductions to some of the plays, sometimes on the same page as the play, sometimes as a separate, linked page. The plays were designed and presented in the Theatre School of Wimbledon College of Arts, University of the Arts London. In the course of introducing a play called ‘Red Devils‘ I strayed from a strict focus on that work to such an extent that I decided to lift the text out and post it below.
The ‘Red Devils’ playlet is the result of subtracting everything apart from the blood from the text of Webster’s ‘White Devil’. To these remains were added various dialogue elements.

When I was a film student in the mid 60s I read a translation of Antonin Artaud’s four page play ‘A Spurt of Blood’ (1925) and was gripped by the blunt poetic directness of this remarkable work. Notwithstanding the author’s preoccupation with a punishing God and his fastidious unease with the sexual activity of women, the playlet is simultaneously pantomimic, florid, grotesque and grave. The Wikipedia article on ‘A Spurt of Blood’ supplies a synopsis which supports the notion that the show could be a good night out, if a rather brief one. In my own production of the show (see below) we almost burned down the elaborately panelled ceiling of the Royal College’s Gulbenkian Hall when an ‘exploding star’ failed to fall from on high to the stage level. But that’s another story.

The extremity of the play also elicits a sort of delirious laughter in its audiences (as far as I know, Peter Brook (1964, Theatre of Cruelty season at Royal Court Theatre) and myself (1968, Royal College of Art) are the only directors to have mounted full-scale public performances of the work, which was not, it is thought, performed in Artaud’s lifetime), akin to the nervous delight aroused by some horror films - John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ (1982) is a fine example of this, as are, in what can only be called the Lynch genre, David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986), ‘Twin Peaks’ (1990-91), not to mention the rest of his work apart from the untypically charming ‘Straight Story’ (1999).

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Peter Bradshaw, in a re-release preview for The Guardian captures the alarming humour of ‘Blue Velvet’ in a summary of the opening sequence that establishes the director’s mastery of deadpan excess - ‘(Jeffrey’s) capacity for obsessive rapture and scopophilia is unlocked by the bizarre discovery of a severed ear in some waste ground after walking home from the hospital where his dad is recovering from serious spinal injuries.’ The same species of horrified delight can be experienced most recently in the utter melancholic darkness of HBO’s ‘True Detective’ (2014, writer Nick Pizzollato, director Cary Fukunaga), which provokes dread-filled giggling in its rotating passages of philosophy, sociopathy and redneck homicidal occultism.
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‘True Detective’ is not devoid of cliché insofar as the obligatory naked, tortured, tattooed, decorated and decaying female corpse is revealed within the first few minutes of Episode 1. Images of the extreme and homicidal abuse of women have become common in ‘dark’ film and TV dramas and have supplanted other lesser darknesses (drug retail and dependency, mainstream murder, police corruption etc) associated with the contemporary thriller genre. The ultimate plot driver now, it seems, is something so foul that it will appal and energise all who choose to endure it.

Certain crimes are deemed ‘unspeakable’ but they do, in fact, frequently prove to be describable both in words and images. Their unspeakableness is a function of the fact that they are, as far as the complainant is concerned, ‘undoable’ - one cannot imagine doing them oneself. (You can see the point of robbing a bank but do you really want to dismember women?) The crimes are not wholly unfamiliar, however. The horror that they provoke is partly comprised of uneasiness about the possibility that the darkness from which they arise is without boundaries. That is, it may reside in oneself, not just in psychopaths. It is possible, therefore, that one could imagine doing those sort of deeds oneself. But one would not do them. And one would not wish to test one’s imagination in order to see if they are imaginable. Because what if you started imagining then you liked what you saw? Unthinkable. But all sorts of cultural products will do it instead.

None of this is particularly contentious. Dark films and TV only thrive if they strike a chord, after all. And there’s no doubt that a violent, pervasive misogyny is on the rise. But why is it on the rise? Do we watch these dark programmes because we all somehow became psychos fairly recently? Or has the prevailing economic and political ideology reached the stage of development at which its hitherto obscured internal logic is steadily emerging and finding expression in extreme behaviours? If the latter is the case then the misogyny in dark films and TV is not only a psychiatric articulation but is a product of political formations that marginalise empathy and generate an extensive murderousness. It can then be argued that the fashionable and apparently fascinating dismemberment of women is ’successful’ in current fiction partly because it offers a coded indictment and partial analysis not of individual psychopaths but whole social systems. Such an analysis is hard to formulate, we see symptoms easily enough but causes are mysterious - we want to know whodunnit. But it seems to be transpersonal, taking place on a global scale. It would be objectionable to imply that widespread misogyny is no more than a symptom of a grander but less tangible scheme, but perhaps useful at least to make links between economic ideology, alpha masculinity and a hatred of women.

Flight & Fight

Some of the aeronautical terms used below can be examined in greater and probably more reliable detail by clicking on the links provided.

Back in the early 80s I was writing a TV screenplay about the USAF in East Anglia. I drove, for the purposes of research, to the Duxford Air Show to look at the Lockheed SR-71 ‘Blackbird‘ stealth plane, a long-range strategic reconnaissance aircraft which had recently come out of hiding. Having marvelled at the sleek, black, radar-invisible craft parked beside a hangar and guarded by machine-gun toting US airmen in blue grey uniforms with white silk cravats, I was drawn back to the main runway when it was announced that the Harrier jump-jet would shortly pay a visit. rs086-600border This is the one that can land by descending vertically and can even hover, using the downward vectored thrust of its movable jet nozzles, while delivering death from above. The V/STOL (vertical/short takeoff and landing) configuration makes runways, even aircraft carriers, redundant. Air show crowds are pleased by its versatility and its availability for anthropomorphic projection. The latter is apparent in the cries of pleasure that accompanied the fawning behaviour of the jet as it hurtled into view, skidded to a halt in the sky, hovered 30 feet above our heads then dipped its nose up and down several times, as if waving or bowing to us, who were its supreme and fearsome masters. One could imagine, on another day, above another country, the same manoeuvre being seen as a form of taunting.

43The Harrier’s dark enchantment is due in part to its special relationship with what is known in aeronautics as relaxed stability. The term describes an aircraft’s tendency to change its attitude and angle of bank of its own accord. If it drifts from its path it will begin to move from side to side in relation to the path, gradually moving further off course with each excursion. This can be corrected with controls that influence the three ways a craft can move in the air: pitch, yaw and roll. Pitch refers to an up or down movement of the nose or tail; yaw is a side to side to side movement of the nose and roll (or bank) is said to occur when the plane rotates around its longitudinal axis - the line that passes through the plane from nose to tail. There are two other types of stability: positive stability when the aircraft will maintain its attitude without constant control input and will eventually return to its intended position if its path is disturbed, and neutral stability when the craft will not return to its trimmed setting without control input, but will swing from side to side without moving further and further off course.

All of which suggests, reasonably enough, that you don’t want relaxed stability in any aircraft - it should be designed out at the offset. There are, however, situations in which a form of instability is considered highly desirable. Certain military craft are deliberately designed with inherent instability and equipped with flight control computers to compensate. Such craft will instantly lose stability if computer control is suspended. What would appear to be a form of designer recklessness actually brings the great advantages of being able to change direction with minimal intervention of the flight surfaces (the flaps, elevators, rudder etc). Responsiveness is increased and the craft can manoeuvre in dramatic and unpredictable ways. It will confound and frustrate its enemies by tossing itself around in the air.

It is hard to resist the thought that these ideas, and the terms in which they are expressed, could be fruitfully applied to certain contemporary social situations. The nature of stability, for example, is not just a matter of personal psychology but an effect of the ideologies that compete to secure a dominant definition of the concept. One man’s stability is another’s death-in-life. In the 60s, for example, stability was what your parents craved and you despised. Their ’small “c” conservatism’ - a symptom of what was, in part, a widely dispersed postwar posttraumatic stress disorder - made them, in your view at least, unable to change direction without considerable forewarning and persuasion. Your view, consonant with the aeronautical theories with which you were not familiar, was that their stability would lead to their undoing. It had no flexibility insofar as it would guide its adherents further and further into inaction then rigidity. The aeronautical version is much the same: stability is synonymous with the maintaining of a set position but implicit in this condition is its own decay.

rimbaud-arthurThose enchanted by the revolutionary tone of the 60s (including the Editor in Chief of this journal) believed that all this must be put behind them by means of the active pursuit of instability. Where Rimbaud, in 1871, recommended the ‘long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses’ and was probably appreciated at the time by a relatively small number of Bohemians and Decadents, the youth of the 60s energetically took up the project in significant numbers. This was not a self-correcting fly-by-wire enterprise - for many it involved a comprehensive cutting loose from constraints, a vigorous immersion in experiences previously insulated by taboo, and an indifference to the straight and narrow.

l-iqa0htmra5mm1u1 This erraticised adventurousness piqued unattended and dormant appetites and prompted the emergence of desires people didn’t know they had. Thus it was, with the passage of time, that those who espoused a new anti-materialism and, to a greater or lesser extent, turned on and/or tuned in and/or dropped out, came to be regarded as excitingly needy by the manufacturers of such goods as clothes, records and posters. The Mad Men themselves, we are beguilingly informed, were able to navigate the haze of their own substance abuse in order to strategise the manufacture of desire for less folksy items such as cigarettes and saloon cars.

timothy-leary1Instability, with its basis in relaxed impulse control, acquired a perverse reliability as advertisers refused to see in it a frustrating elusiveness but instead found ways to exploit it as a resource. Timothy Leary, after all, had suggested that ‘To think for yourself you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable open-mindedness, chaotic, confused vulnerability (in order) to inform yourself.’ And it sounded good at the time, I have to say. But on the heels of voluntarily induced chaos and vulnerability came a complex of operations that succeeded in commandeering these states and repurposing them in such a way that they served the interests of authority rather than facilitating critical insight into it. ‘Cash from Chaos’, as Malcolm McLaren would observe some years later.

The link between adventurous instability and the adventurer had been weakened, enabling the emergence of a fertile ground for a form of instant messaging. Manoeuvrability was found to be as exploitable as immobility and came to be seen as manipulability. The scene was set in such a way that Guattari would write ‘A certain type of subjectivity, which I would call capitalistic, is poised to overtake the whole planet; an equalised subjectivity, with standardised fantasies and massive consumption of infantilising reassurances. It causes every kind of passivity, degeneration of democratic values, collective racist impulses. Today it is massively secreted by the media, community centres, and alleged cultural institutions.’ Writing in 1985, Guattari uses the phrase ‘is poised to overtake the whole planet’ predictively. In 2014 his acute assertions seem simply descriptive.

A conception of the uses of instability forged within military aeronautics emerged at the same time as the commercial appropriation of 60s open-mindedness (the Hawker Siddeley Harrier V/STOL made its first flight in 1967 and the Russian equivalent, the Yakovlev Yak-38 strike fighter, in 1971) and became an aspect of an array of counter-intuitive ideas that normalised the production of dissident energies by aligning them with consumerism. The new instability was characterised by individuals easily knocked off course and prone to erratic behaviour. They were also highly responsive, able to react efficiently to rapid state changes and capable of high-volume decision making in short time periods. Affinities between stock market traders, military personnel and ‘accomplished shoppers’ became apparent, as did a willingness to obey orders. The latter quality has proved useful when the latent pathology of this malleability is presented as a psychiatric issue. workplace_feel_goodFortunately the reshaping of psychotherapy under capitalism has produced a treatment based on the issuing of orders rather than a consideration of such tiresome matters as the unconscious. What you do, right, is simply tell the patient to think differently. It’s the patient’s ideas that are the problem. Change them and the patient is relieved of their problem. You have to go at least six times, mind you. These things can’t be done overnight. Cognitive behavioural therapy - why worry when you could be at work not worrying?

It’s probably more sophisticated than that, but not a lot more.

So we are all soldiers now. A militarised technology contributes to a militarised psychology in which the unforeseeable is preferred to the reliable. The unforeseeable, apparently patternless, can be patterned. You want fighting men and women who will instantly obey orders, highly defined individuals who are careless, unattached, impetuous and obligated. With their yaws muzzled and their pitches perfected their disorder is a small price to pay for order.

Hey, Girlfriend!

sellotapeIn the cinema films are edited before they get to you. You can’t do anything about it. But what would you do anyway? Editing is a hard thing to criticise. It might be the least criticised aspect of a multi-disciplinary form in which casting, acting, dialogue, good bits, plots and stories, sets and setting, costumes and music tend to receive more attention than lighting, camera movement or sound design. Or hair.

Editing is among the least critiqued because it is premised upon being unobtrusive to the point of invisibility. Its unshowiness depends on seamlessness - transitions from shot to shot should not, on the whole, be readily describable as such. The seamlessness, in turn, encourages the view that the passing of time in a film resembles its passage in everyday reality.

This reality effect is based on a grammar that only exists within films. We know that films are put together in jumbled time - film crews shoot the end of the film on Monday because that’s the only day they can get those particular cars, horses, valleys or actors, then, for similar reasons, they shoot the beginning of the film on Tuesday. The actors quickly get used to this and develop appropriate but peculiar skills. The jumble produces a jumble of shots which, thanks to the grammar and, of course, the script, will be assembled into legible, coherent sequences.

With live television broadcasting, editing is carried out on the hoof. As you watch, sequences are being put together. You can, in this situation, mount small local complaints. You can say out loud “This Jubilee on the river thing, with lots of boats, singularly lacks good shots. These people should go to Film School, or at least watch more films.” Nobody cares that you said this but the point is made: a reality effect that is put together on the hoof will fracture from time to time.

This doesn’t mean that you suddenly see through the effect to a more definitive, hitherto concealed reality beneath. You will, more likely, gIimpse parts of an apparatus that usually serves to maintain the effect that an effect is not being maintained.

Editing is not only a matter of withholding ‘bad’ shots - often editors and directors conclude that something is missing and will have a range of strategies to compensate for this. Which is where tennis comes in.

tennisballs2pic-1Television coverage of championship tennis is, we can deduce from the way it is shot, basically flawed. The flaws stem from an impoverishment at the heart of the sport rather than a failure of imagination within the teams who produce the broadcast material. An abiding anxiety about the lack of anxiety evinced by the players is evident in the vocabulary of types of camera shot that typically constitute a sequence of play.

Despite the profusion, in our culture, of fictional narratives depicting struggles between men in which images of women may be absent for the entire duration of the artifact, and the innumerable broadcast instances of team sports coverage in which women are wholly absent for, say, both halves of those games thus structured or for, say, the duration of those comprising a number of successive innings, there is clearly a state of enduring crisis in the broadcasting of tennis that requires regular, radical intervention. The interventions, in the form of a species of camera shot, are radical not because they extend our understanding of the finer technical points of the sport but, instead, function as a narrative implant that, at first glance, has nothing to do with tennis.

In common with the broadcast presentation of most sports, the atmosphere and excitement attendant on tennis tournaments is enhanced by means of crowd shots and coach (or, in other sports, manager) shots, expert commentary and telling detail shots - the umpire conferring with a line judge, the relacing of shoes, the obsessive adjustment of racquet strings, for example. It is difficult, however, to think of a sport in which the girlfriend shot has acquired such importance.

fpib6f3fw5h2ngvlargeThe girlfriend shot caters to anxieties about the possibility that male tennis stars are not heterosexual, not properly socialised and not human. The shot also assuages the fear that tennis is obsolete insofar as all that can be achieved within its terms has been achieved. If the latter is the case then the peaked sport will tip over into a protracted but inevitable death characterised by decadent cultism of the body and baroque embellishment of the microkinesics of technique.

A friend who likes tennis explained that all the top seeded players differ in the matter of their skills by the tiniest of quantities. Winning is not an expression of superior play but superior focus. Any of these guys can play exceptionally well most of the time. Any of them could beat their nearest rivals and all of them do so from time to time. We are no longer watching games of skill, the sport has dematerialised and must be appraised as a war of nerves, a battle of wills etc etc.

These considerations are widely understood and have consequently divided the tennis audience into two camps; those who nostalgically crave a contest featuring a wide vocabulary of skills in addition to the power serve and those who find a source of fascination in the posthuman unearthliness of pure intention. In the latter group the fascination consists in a ceaseless process of research into the question of whether the star players actually experience stress at all. If they do not experience it, is it, nevertheless, still to be found somewhere within them, screened from consciousness? Or is it possible that there is simply no stress within them - have they taken a tip from the machines and sealed the the system so that it cannot be degraded?

Both possibilities are attractive. The achievements of those without emotional experience are considerable and new opportunities are emerging daily. Even those who may not wish to achieve can envy the unruffled demeanour of he or she who runs the gauntlet as if it were a velvet glove.

A handful of top tennis players can allay suspicions about their machinic qualities by being likeable in some way. This need not involve acknowledging their errors - displays of regret and irritation may fail to be ‘all too human’ and often suggest instead ‘coding malfunction’ and are therefore probably best suppressed. Likeability may consist in having a pleasant face, like Djokovic, or using a number of different facial expressions - all of which, needless to say, should be related to an event or a state of mind.
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Having a girlfriend is tops, obviously. Having a highly focused mother will not appeal to everybody but an attractive girlfriend will solve a number of problems. It also introduces new levels of difficulty, however. While the presence of the girlfriend suggests not only that the millionaire player has a life, inhabits an emotional spectrum that includes the possibility of love and subscribes to the master template for all known relationships, namely heterosexuality, a certain amount of disowned anxiety is projected onto the female companion.

Her function is not merely to lay to rest uneasiness about the possible emotional vacuity of her partner but to fill in the expressive gaps in the partner’s repertoire. Where he does not, if he can help it, react to feelings of tension, trepidation, imminent loss, the vanquishing of a weakling etc, she will throw the emotional shapes on his behalf, thereby rendering legible the humanness of the struggle which otherwise might start to resemble computers playing chess together or an experiment in the command and control of humanoid drone vehicles.

The funny thing is that the girfriends almost invariably succumb to a sort of Stockholm syndrome wherein they appear to feel almost as constrained as their boyfriends. In what may be a bid for consistently ladylike behaviour, the girlfriends, isolated by the cameras every couple of minutes, suppress their faciality to within a few degrees of the range evinced by the partner they are gamely attempting to magnify to a human scale. The gravitational pull of gristly hypermanliness proves irresistible.

Posthumanists with an eye on sport would find the progression from blood to circuitry inevitable and predictable. Meanwhile tennis in its early phase of decay will, despite the assiduous application of the girlfriend shot, tend to the preconditions of mechanised warfare just as gamification - the applying of the principles of video gaming to non-gaming situations - facilitates the development of military drone guidance.

Storm Thorgerson, whom I had known since my early teens, died three weeks ago after a long struggle with cancer. Storm was a legendary graphic designer specialising in album sleeves. He is responsible for the artwork on all the Pink Floyd albums and, with the Hipgnosis and StormStudios team, has produced memorable imagery for Led Zeppelin, Peter Gabriel, 10cc, Black Sabbath, Muse, Biffy Clyro and many other groups and artistes. I was asked by Storm’s wife Barbie to deliver a eulogy at the funeral. I have reproduced it below.

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Storm was the rudest person I have ever met. I have come across ruder people but they were not of my acquaintance and were not generally likeable. Storm was actually very loveable, despite being very rude.

He was a kind and generous rude man, an unfailingly engaged man. By this I mean that even when rudeness was in the air, Storm was paying close attention to you. At times it may have felt like a little indifference wouldn’t hurt but the fact is whenever I spoke with Storm, over the 55 years we knew each other, he always listened, always had an answer or another opinion, always told you very much what was on his mind. When we met socially, rather than in pursuit of projects, we would talk nonstop and laugh a great deal. When we were teenagers we discussed girls then rocknroll then alcohol then Jack Kerouac then drugs then Timothy Leary then spiritual matters, sharing a considerable scepticism for the latter topic, then madness and psychoanalysis then wives and sons and daughters. At Film School at the Royal College of Art we talked about movies and directors. Storm and Po posed as photography students at the college - Po wasn’t even enrolled there - and using the department’s equipment put together their first album sleeve for ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’. The rest is internationally renowned design history, as Po has so colourfully demonstrated.

When we talked we shared an elaborate vocabulary of jokes, catch phrases, nicknames, insults, silly voices, a Tourettish ease with foul language and an unnecessarily erratic volume control. Storm designed beautiful and peculiar posters for Lumiere & Son Theatre Company, sat on our board and watched our shows. As a critic of plays, films, books and works in progress he was exceptionally astute and seemed to cut to the flaws in a piece of work almost effortlessly.

But what about the rudeness?

When you’re a child, people, such as your parents, will, when you’re rude, say things like “Don’t be so rude!” I’m sure Storm’s remarkable mother Vanji, and his father, the late Elvin, when the parents were still together, said things like this. And I’m sure that Storm, who was very clever, completely understood what they were referring to and what was intended. But did he care? Did he take them seriously? Did he think that Mister Manners was a pleasant enough chap but ultimately rather superficial?

When he was four and a half years old Storm went to the legendary progressive school Summerhill, founded by the radical educator A.S.Neill. Neill’s view was that “the function of a child is to live his own life — not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, not a life according to the purpose of an educator who thinks he knows best.” The democratic nature of the school was most notoriously expressed in the principle that pupils were given the freedom to choose which lessons, if any, they would attend.

Storm stayed at Summerhill until he was nine then, missing his parents somewhat, told them that he was not progressing academically at a satisfactory rate and wished to be relocated to an ordinary day school. He had, it seems, already acquired low cunning.

But he’d also, I’m convinced, had an experience that changed him for ever.

A couple of years later this cheeky, noisy mini-bohemian was at the County School for Boys in Hills Road. I met him when we were both thirteen and, as I’ve said, we became firm friends. He had a loud, piercing, nasal voice - the result, he claimed, of falling nostril first onto a raspberry cane. At school he shone in all subjects and was exceptionally gifted in almost all the sports on offer. But he seemed unable to accept that while his teachers were allowed to criticise him he was not allowed to criticise them. While more than satisfactory scholastically his general demeanour was problematic. It was not that he was truculent or rebellious, it wasn’t the cheerful insolence, it wasn’t quite that he didn’t give a damn - he was just marching to a different drummer.

It may be fruitful to flesh this out by offering a small sample of Storm’s offences against common decency.

Back in 60s Cambridge it was the thing to have big cars. I had a Daimler I got for £30 and Storm had a huge blue 40s Studebaker saloon. We would playfully ram each other’s cars from time to time and were quietly proud of their tank-like strength. On one occasion we all piled into the Student Baker, as we called it, and Storm drove down Regent Street, the main shopping drag. We passed a stationary police car. Storm leaned out and skilfully broke an egg on its roof. As we whooped with delight, Storm drove round the park, came back down Regent Street and did it again. And then again. On another occasion he came to visit me in a house I was caretaking in South Kensington and at the end of the evening stepped into the street, jumped onto the roof of a parked car and ran along the street from roof to bonnet to boot to roof to bonnet, trebly denting six expensive vehicles whilst shouting incoherently. Was he a thoughtless vandal, a socialist revolutionary or a budding live artist? Yes to all of the above.

At the beginning of a long video shoot that would comprise every song on Barry Gibb’s album ‘Now Voyager’, Storm insisted that Barry shave off his beard so that Storm would have more facial expression from the star. Barry refused, understandably, given that the beard was as iconic as Madonna’s pointed bra or Elton’s colourful glasses. Storm said he would not shoot unless the beard came off. The crew languished on the beach in Florida, tanning and reading magazines while the contestants slugged it out. In the end Barry caved in but only on condition that he start growing the beard again from day one. The ensuing video is of special interest in that facial hair continuity is completely deranged, sprouting and receding over Barry’s chin at random moments throughout. When Bill Cosby invited Storm to L.A. to discuss shooting his Christmas show, he showed Storm the script and asked his opinion. Storm told Bill that it wasn’t very good. Bill thanked him and Storm left the office. As he was passing through the outer office Bill’s producer approached Storm and unceremoniously sacked him. When my mother told me off in front of Storm when we were in our mid teens he turned to her and said “Mrs Gale, I really think you should consider bringing up your son differently.’ He received a lifelong ban from the well kept household. Never especially self-conscious about bodily functions Storm had to mend his ways when, at the studios in Belsize Park, one of his female assistants told him she was not prepared to discuss the day’s work with him while he was in the toilet with the door open. On holiday with Trudy and Del he caused something of a stir one night by wandering through the sitting room of the villa clad only in a short tee shirt, no underpants. Seamus O’Connell, a fellow pupil at the County School, recalls that when the boys were in the second form they were required to wear short trousers, a particular handicap if you wanted to go promenading down town after school. Storm however, showing characteristic resourcefulness in Seamus’s view, would frequently turn the shaming garment to his advantage by hiking up one trouser leg then thrusting the free arm up that leg in order to scratch his balls in the high street. On set, in the course of numerous pop video shoots, he would argue with his producers, insult the record label functionaries, berate the artistes and harangue his assistants. He was, to quote the sound designer Steve Wald, ‘a man who would never take ‘yes’ for an answer’. He was a perfectionist who made Stanley Kubrick look poorly motivated.

But we loved him for it. Eleanor Church, who used to work in Pip Printing, next to the studios, said that every morning, without fail, she would hear a tap on the window of the shop. Storm would be out in the street, giving her a V sign. Elly and her colleagues looked forward to this daily salute, it made the workaday grind bearable.

Lee Baker from Storm Studios sums all this up in a tribute he wrote recently:

‘There were times he would get us to do things that made us all feel like a bunch of foolish twats, but hey, we did these things all the same. I think this was because Storm was never embarrassed or ashamed of what he said or what he did and I think he needed his working people around him to be the same. He would often, though not maliciously, embarrass us or make us feel uncomfortable in public, so we no longer felt shame or cared about what other people thought. 

“Good grief!” he would exclaim, “Honestly Lee, are you a man or a mouse? Just get it done, I don’t care how, just do it and do it quickly!”
We had a job to do, and we got it done, no matter what.

That was one of his bizarre qualities, making you do things you might otherwise think twice about doing and making you achieve near impossible tasks in half the time it should have normally taken. And these things, these sometimes ridiculous things, these sometimes seemingly pointless things – nearly always had a higher purpose of some kind that we weren’t often privy to at that moment in time, but would become crystal clear after the event.’

I’ve suggested that Storm’s experience at Summerhill was exceptionally formative but this over simplifies him. Storm was a one-off, a unique type, a rare psychological creature. A person without boundaries. Somehow he escaped the profound forces that shape most of us and tend to keep us in shape for the rest of our lives. Storm’s early schooling, and the loving tolerance of his mother Vanji, ensured that he would never accept conventional hierarchies and he would always argue his corner. Those of us who grew up with him or who worked closely with him know well that he was warm-hearted, insightful and bounteous in addition to what we will call his ‘difficult’ qualities. He barked but did not bite. He lifted our spirits even while insulting us.

Storm’s death brings with it a special sadness because as well as losing a friend, a colleague, a collaborator, a father, a husband, we will no longer have among us the product of an era that predates the age of the mass production of personalities, the hollowing out of psychology and the narrowing of possibility. Storm was vintage stock, a Tricksterish testament to the richness of being that can flourish when the full force of socialisation is somehow sidestepped or rejected.

The truth is: they don’t make them like that any more.

The Inner Argosy

argos1976The man next to me has a pint glass of water, a biro and an Argos catalogue. He is bent over the catalogue circling pictures of watches. At first I assume he must be picking out a few examples in order to come back and compare them all later. But he leafs through the watches section and finds his way to gardening tools, where he circles forks and trowels. His concentration is considerable and from time to time he sips the water quickly without looking at the glass. I notice that the barman doesn’t seem too pleased with him. Probably because he’s not drinking a proper drink. The man finishes with trowels and moves on to the hi fi section, in which he proceeds to circle a number of compact stereo systems. He doesn’t study them for long, preferring to scan them then firmly mark them. Each time I look up from my book he has moved to a new section and continues to circle and to circle.

The man seems very methodical and efficient. Were he to select and purchase one item from each of the sections to which he had attended, his outlay would be considerable. The state of his clothes, however, does not suggest that he has access to significant outlay. His cuffs are frayed, his glasses are secured with tape, his shoes are laceless. But he has a project.

He has, perhaps, mastered the art of inner shopping, accessed the pleasures of virtual purchase. Perhaps he is able to imagine what it would be like to have things, to imagine this having in such detail that, with the end of reverie comes satiety: I dreamed of having it and I fantasised the pleasure pursuant on the getting and then I was over it. I say ‘I’ because I can do this. I can browse attractive items in magazines designed to make me yearn but the yearning does no more than smoulder, it remains platonic. I enjoy the attractive thing in my head. I have to say I think this is rather clever. Not to mention being possessed of a timely frugality.

The man in the pub probably has not had the opportunity to develop such a privileged enervation. It may be that he has not enjoyed the consumptive possibilities of the capitalist play area. He has not gone the whole way without protection. When I take my yearning for a walk I am fortunate to be able to recall the times when there actually was cake or stylish snowshoes and feed this into the chamber of vapours. However, my neighbour’s diligent circling does confirm the palliative aspect of consumption - in this case a modified shopping therapy with some of the satisfaction but no goods. The implanting of the yearning to yearn, however, can be counted as one of the success stories of consumerism.

If the circling project is there to take his mind off laceless life then the choice of shopping catalogues cannot be arbitrary. It’s not the need to draw circles that is compulsive - that could be satisfied by doodling. The need to corral images must be paramount. Once corraled they can be treated as objects of meditation. Consumerist spirituality, wherein essences are, by acts of worship and contemplation, transformed into materials, encourages an intense visualisation that may, at least in a magical world, cause images to take on extra dimensions and become pocketable.1chocopologie-1 The Tibetan Buddhist notion of the tulpa is a useful correlate: it is believed that an esoteric meditation technique may be employed gradually to transform a thought into an intense and detailed image and thence into a material object or being: the tulpa. If the tulpa is a being it is both sentient and autonomous. Once out of the bottle it must be treated with care lest it wreak havoc. Self help psychology also supports this notion: many an opulent charlatan, fattened by book sales and the lecture circuit, will assert that if you want something badly enough you will get it, such is the power of positive thinking.

It’s window shopping - for some the window will be opened on pay day, for others the window glazes the world. It’s enough to drive you mad.

Poking around in my hard disk I came across an aborted piece on aborted pieces which reminded me that what goes around comes around. (Despite its aspiration to the crisp, Strength Weekly does not systematically eschew the homily.) In this case I was unsettled to find that something I wrote eleven years ago spells out a number of concerns that still concern me. Given that the piece is an account of the dangers inherent in setting unrealistic goals, I suppose the lesson to be learned is that if you don’t learn your lesson you will eventually find yourself writing a short introductory item like this.

The disinterred and unfinished account can be read here, in one of the archival wings of this digital estate.

Cafe Society II

At the next table are a middle aged woman and a man in his late thirties. He is tall, heavily built with an untrimmed goatee. He speaks quite forcefully to his companion, breaking off to order something from the waitress. He then continues to make his point but I’m no longer listening. The waitress returns with a message for the couple and goes back to the counter. The man says “They won’t give me what I want.” The woman murmurs something. He raises his voice, “They won’t give me what I want.” He repeats this over and over, becoming more anxious and sad with each declaration. Soon he is weeping. The woman is trying to calm him down. He won’t be calmed. He’s loud now. The woman takes his arm and leads him out into the street.

He’s a big baby.

I think quite a lot about how my early then subsequent reading of psychoanalytical material impressed on me the idea that mental suffering, anxiety and worse were largely a product of the subject’s immediate and local experience and that this, in turn, was distilled and refracted in the subject’s mind, often reinforced and renewed by ongoing family experience, for better or for worse. Notwithstanding my strong engagement with Laingian ideas in the 60s and 70s, wherein the notion of the ‘maddening society’ was lucidly, shockingly and, for me, attractively, laid out, I still persevered with the diagram of the ‘patient in a bubble’ that featured the marginalising of broad social input and seemed to restrict the scope of a maddening network to a very few persons, usually known to the subject. Now that the world has actually gone mad and may not be able to locate the resources for its own healing, it has become appropriate to characterise it as a psychotic terrain stippled with pockets of sorely tested mental integrity.

baby-shilo-diamond-pacifierThe big baby was shouting at the intersection of the nursery and the supermarket - two locales in which desire is impassioned. While the guardians of the nursery impart the management of impulse, this requirement is waived in the supermarket, because you deserve it. You’d think that because you deserve it they’re going to give it to you. Don’t be silly.

It’s enough to drive you mad.

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