ways of seeing

August 2012

Two years ago I read Hemingway so I am learning Spanish slowly. One week ago I knew nothing but now tengo un animal pero no tengo un perro. Tengo que darle algo ahora, es urgente. Quiero beberlo. Lo siento. I have always been lucky, my memory is good. Whispering words to myself in the dark. I use the thick Fabriano for which I trawled around town, six or so pages of colour pencil portraits dissolving to cartoon what’s-before-mes and tested calligraphy. 2008, end of first year uni. July: still stuck there, and feeling it. Close studies of the eye and an over-complex cartilage of the nose. Plath’s dangle-strung telephone poles and Vergil tall in thick, red serif. On August twelfth I showed fifty-five strangers around the sad ruins of my summer. Low-ceilinged hallways and blue-bleak walls. Spiders everywhere. The vague persistent smell of dust and foreign sadness. An incidental pipe band paraded us across the car park and up the stairs as I told the same ten jokes; watched the half torn moon hung still and white in the cold mid-morning sky.

I read a book that begins We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it. I travel with a constant sense of impending [something], a hard kernel wrongness, deep tap root. Moon too long; torrential to taps aff. I am not well, I whisper, sitting on beds, staring at walls. A minute later, it’s passed. I have been waiting some time to tell you these things. Be patient. I am finding.

Genius, she says, gen-i-ous. Your whole way of seeing is mine. This second time is stronger than the first, and I have been seeing, and she asks me how do you keep yourself safe? And I notice I do not. I wait it out and I notice the rhythms of my body, coming back, volver. I sit on beds, I stare at walls, and je croix encore entendre.

You wanted to kill me for looking.

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lecture notes

I. Julia told us that when the Persians sacked the Athenian acropolis during the invasion of 479BC it was all but completely destroyed. When the forces were eventually pushed back — the city stabilised and the sanctuary rebuilt — only the foundations remained: everything else had to be reconstructed. The fallen temples had housed dedications and offerings to the gods: symbolic devotions given not simply in thanks for past assistance but in the hopes of securing future favour. Anything brought into sanctified space automatically becomes sacred; is seen to have been accepted by the gods, kept here in their house on earth only because it cannot be lifted from our material world to their ethereal one. To remove it would be to incur their wrath, to renege on the gift-giving cycle, the reciprocity of god and man. The gods want our gifts just as much as we want theirs. Nothing could be thrown away then so deep pits were dug and the debris buried under the acropolis, protected from the weather and the world: body and detail, even paint, preserved for centuries. Julia said it is the great paradox of archaeology. If those offerings hadn’t been broken, they would never have been buried. If they hadn’t been buried, they would never have survived. Destruction is horrific for those who live through it but vital for those looking back. It’s God’s great gift to historians, she said.

II. The first day of Philosophy and Alan tries to explain to us what it is: he says it’s easier to explain to us what it isn’t. It’s not a physical science and it’s not a social science. Not about the study and dissection of matter, of people, of a substantial body of anything. There are no tools of the trade: no clipboards, no test tubes and beakers, no jabs in the arm or spades in the ground. It’s a discipline based entirely around thought experiments, he says, there is little that is tangibile in Philosophy. All we can do is construct a theory, create analogies that seem to prove it, and argue the point. He says, it’s like that old question of the brain in the vat: how do we know we’re not just a brain in a vat in a laboratory being programmed with thoughts we believe to be experiences; just a brain in a vat that thinks it’s a real person interacting with a real world with real people in it. And I’m not sure what he says next because everything rushes out of me as I realise that that’s exactly what I’ve been for so many years, thinking and thinking and thinking on things, just a brain in a vat, a life lived out in thought experiments.

III. Hobbes was concerned that, with the American Civil War, society was under threat of becoming a civilisation without a state, the government overthrown and no central body to organise and oversee the lives and actions of the people. He wrote an argument in support of the civil state, imagining this ‘state of nature’ as eventuating into a state of war where we would forsake our moral code not simply in order to survive, but to thrive. Galileo had recently come upon his principle of the conservation of motion; instead of asking, as those before him had done, why a cannonball stays in the air once fired, he insisted we should be asking why it eventually comes to land. Hobbes said since we have no frame of reference to understand how our lives would be in the state of nature we should try to understand human nature. For this he encouraged deep, honest introspection but said that, being made of the same matter, we should apply the same rules to ourselves we would to any other object. According to the cannonball we would navigate a moral course through the state of nature until it just became too hard, and then we would stop. We move in one direction until we are tired, until the resistance is too much, until friction slows us, the world acts upon us, and we are brought to a halt.

IV. Mariangela tells us the last time she was in her country she was seventeen years old. She won’t say how long ago that was exactly, but it’s been a pretty long time, she says. When she speaks to people from home, still there, nobody can remember the places and people she talks about, the things they knew together as children. She left, and remembers things as they were; they stayed, and their ideas of the place changed as it did. She asks us, does crossing the border entail change? Does the simple act of crossing instill change? She talks about what it is to be the namer of things; the violence of cartography, she says. She talks about translation, in Latin translatus, to bring or carry across. She says in Italian the root of the word makes it mean a betrayal. Everything she reads, writes, all of her published papers, she says, all of her classes, given and taken; everything she trades in is now in English. She doesn’t operate in Italian so much anymore and she’s losing her knack. She asks us, to what extent is mapping the terrain an act of oppression. What is it to remap oneself, to translate oneself. To leave, to come, to go, to bring oneself across. The betrayal of being. You cross the border, she says. You cross the border, you gain and you lose.

V. When a patient drinks medicine on his doctor’s orders it is because he wants health, not because he wants to drink the medicine. Socrates says that we always want what is good, all human acts are directed toward what is good. Provided we know what it is to be good. Everything we do in life is either good, bad, or neutral and to take the medicine is a neutral act; the ends justify the means. We do things we wouldn’t necessarily want to do if they act as stepping stones to the things we do want, to the good things. Socrates says there is a difference between doing what we want and doing what we please. The patient won’t drink the medicine because the taste displeases him, it pleases him to not drink the medicine. But in making this decision his health deteriorates, it is an irrational decision, based on an ignorance of the all too temporary nature of pleasure. When I stay in bed all day instead of going to class I do so because I was lying still awake and staring at the ceiling when my mother’s alarm clock rang for the first and second times that morning, because I am tired, because it pleases me to pull the duvet to my chin and curl back into sleep. Socrates doesn’t care, he says Lee, he says, if you persist in doing what you please you will never get what you want.

tender possessions

Years ago I watched a Drew Barrymore interview where she explains the concept of Saturn’s Return to a bemused David Letterman. The planet Saturn is named for the Roman God of Agriculture, a ruthless patriarch whose characteristics were largely borrowed from Greek Titan Cronus (most famous for castrating his father and attempting to eat his own son…) when Latin literature began to borrow heavily from the Hellenic tradition around 230BC. With an astronomical symbol representing the god’s sickle, astrologically too the planet is associated with a great harvest. Nine times the size of Earth, Saturn’s orbit cycle takes around 29.5 years, and Western astrologers believe that its return to the same location it held at any given person’s birth signals a significant period of stock-taking and hard-lesson-learning. Wielding his primitive, pre-industrial tools, Saturn rips away what doesn’t serve you, clearing your feet, making room for growth. Barrymore had just gone through a very public and very evidently life-rattling break-up, but she seemed upbeat in the interview — philosophical, if a little manic. It occurred to me that many female artists I admire began to experiment around that age, breaking free from the systems in which they’d been raised to delve into their creative and emotional truth. Being in my early 20s in a dimly-lit student bedroom at 3am and a wee little bit of an emotional masochist, I thought it all sounded terribly exciting. I couldn’t wait for impact.

goya saturn
Saturn Devouring His Son, Francisco Goya, c.1819–23. Oil
mural on canvas, 143cm x 81cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

I can bear any pain as long as it has meaning. –Haruki Murakami, IQ84

Cut to literally the day of my 29th birthday and I found myself very suddenly unemployed and soon to be homeless. With a whole lot of help from my friends (and my long-suffering therapist) I just about managed to pull through that winter, but the following year only proceeded to run downhill. It wasn’t so much that I “believed in” Saturn’s Return as that it was the only narrative I could apply to what was happening to me that made any sense. In the space of twelve months I had three flats, four jobs, and was scraping by financially without respite. I couldn’t stay on at the temping job I loved and I couldn’t get out of the others fast enough. A horrible co-worker crushed my self esteem and I started to experience crippling anxiety to the point an overhead light coming on unexpectedly could burst me into tears. I started meditation and then medication. By the time my birthday was on the horizon again I was unemployed, again, and at a loss. And then, like the driving plot-point of an early Evelyn Waugh novel, my flatmate’s cat died suddenly on Halloween and everything devolved into chaos. A painfully vivid memory from the year before, when everything first kicked off, has me wandering the streets of the west end, mentally rattling through a list of options — people I could stay with, who might connect me to a job, who might make me feel even slightly less alone and adrift. (A recurring dream from this time had me floating through life as a kind of human helium balloon, body curved up in the air feet first and exhausted by the effort of trying to stay grounded; trying to grab hold of hands and coat-tails to keep me tethered.) Stopping abruptly in the street, I said aloud to myself in a voice pitched somewhere between sheer terror and relief: ‘Oh my god, is this me leaving Glasgow? Is this how it happens?’ In the end it wasn’t, but that complex feeling stayed with me. For as long as I can remember the plan had always been to leave, but for a million reasons and none it had just never happened. When my grieving flatmate decided to move back home at Christmas-time after a similarly crappy year of things, I decided I just couldn’t face heading back to square one in the same city for the millionth time over. A good friend who lives in Leeds had offered up her couch while I figured out the gameplan. I said ‘How would you feel if I moved to Leeds via that couch?’ That night I started taking the pictures down from my walls; started selling my life on eBay and Gumtree the next day. I sobbed shamelessly through my last therapy appointment and rolled the news out cautiously to my friends. I got an email offering me a job I’d applied for in Glasgow and I replied no thank you. On December 23rd Saturn exited my sign. I saw in Hogmanay at a friend’s house and spent two exhausting days carting bags to charity bins and dispersing my remaining belongings around the city like bulky ill-advised horcruxes. On the morning of January 4th I jumped a National Express with a suitcase of necessities, an Ikea bag of clothes, an impossibly heavy bag of old journals, and my plants on my lap in a stockpot. We all rolled into Leeds just as the sky was inkening around 5pm, meeting my friend at the city bus station, slightly wilted, but more or less intact.

It’s now been six months since the dead cat catalyst, and four since I arrived in Leeds. I haven’t been writing through most of that time which sucks because I know it’s all stuff I’m going to want to remember, but so it goes. I loved the city since the minute I got here, and I’m well aware I’ve landed on my feet considering my complete lack of financial safety net and/or long-term plan. In my second week of wandering the city trying to get my bearings I saw a poster asking was I interested in queer arts and culture? Then I should come along to a free weekly workshop! From there I found my first feelings of community here, something to build those aimless early weeks around, and it led me directly to a queer theory study group and an exciting volunteering role with Leeds Museums and Galleries. After meeting a friend of a friend all of once she invited me to come live with her in a beautiful four-storey house in the suburban north-west, and now I have an attic bedroom, an adjacent library, and an all access pass to the most photogenic cat in the world. Through her I’ve met a ton of great people (and, more importantly, dogs), found a dreamy hairdresser, learned that Leeds does the best fish suppers in the world, and almost died by inclement weather out on the Yorkshire Dales. I’m a little bit involved with the Leeds Queer Film Festival, am helping to organise an arts festival day, and am in the process of setting up a weekly writing group. This week I’m starting a new temping job which will finally give me a bit of money to play with (and a reason to get out of my pyjamas in the morning). It’s hard to believe all of this was just sitting here waiting for me while I continued to batter my head against the brick wall of Glasgow, but so it goes. I feel like, if I’d arrived here with a job and a home all lined up, I probably wouldn’t have found all the amazing things I have in the last four months, and definitely wouldn’t have appreciated them the way I do now. Things have been incredibly up and down, and it’s taken a while to feel safe and settled, but I could kiss the ground that the gamble has paid off. Just in case you were ever curious why blog updates have been a little thin on the ground.

While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have travelled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination. –Jhumpa Lahiri, The Third and Final Continent

men without woman: the futurist manifesto

manifesto_futurismo

Born of upper class, intelligentsian stock, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti spent his youth in Alexandria, Egypt, before obtaining a baccalauréat at the Sorbonne, and training as a lawyer in his motherland of Italy. A passionate reader since childhood, he established a controversial literary review at seventeen, and eventually committed himself to a life of writing, experimenting widely with form and style. What we now know as his ‘Futurist Manifesto‘ was first published as ‘Il Futurismo’ in Bologna’s Gazzetta dell’Emilia on 5 February 1909, gracing the cover of significant French paper Le Figaro as ‘Le Futurisme’ two short weeks later, and provoking consternation across Western Europe. Widely regarded as the first artistic manifesto (historically a primarily political tool), it was a fundamental document in the development of modernist thought, not just capturing the automotive spirit of the era, but crystallising its fusion of criticism and creation, announcing the medium that would come to be regarded as prototypically Modern. Composed after a relatively serious car accident, from which Marinetti emerged physically unscathed but spiritually reborn, it calls for a corresponding cultural conversion, an awakening to the modern age; encouraging the glorification of masculinity and an enthusiastic embrace of the new century’s new technologies — of, in turn, the untold chaos and devastation they might bring.

We have been up all night, my friends and I, beneath mosque lamps whose brass cupolas are bright as our souls, because like them they were illuminated by the internal glow of electric hearts.

1044880
 Marinetti’s wrecked car in a ditch, June 1908 (from Yale Library’s collected papers)

From this amazing opening line there is already an intrinsic blurring of the biological and the mechanical; an empathy drawn between the modern body and the technology that surrounds it. The Futurist figure rejects all of society’s “natural” cycles, fighting the night’s darkness with man-made electric light and forgoing sleep, instead ‘discussing right up to the limits of logic and scrawling the paper with demented writing’. Called forth by the sounds of the wakening world, symbolised not by the traditional daybreak or birdsong but by ‘the rumbling of huge double decker trams that went leaping by … the hungry automobiles roar[ing] beneath our windows’, the group rushes to join the melee, taking to the streets in their own cars. The automobile is the key Futurist symbol of mechanical modernisation, figured by Marinetti, in the phrase of Marshall McLuhan, as ‘an extension of man that turns the rider into a superman’. Racing through the streets, Marinetti’s protagonist casts aspersion upon the simple human body with its easily threatened skin and painfully dilating ‘mathematical eyes’, celebrating the driver’s ability to harness chaos through technology, to become one with the power and force of his ‘mechanical bride’. ‘We drove on, crushing beneath our burning wheels, like shirt-collars under the iron, the watch dogs on the steps of the houses.’ The external world is metaphorically destroyed by the Futurist being’s ultimate gaze; his take on reality all that matters. Indeed, the Futurist glorification of technology isn’t centred around creation, the pride of innovation for innovation’s sake, but the potential such advancements offer for destruction. This embrace of brute force approximates the Futurist version of carpe diem, as the narrator urges his friends out into the streets, out into this new unknown terrain: ‘We must break down the gates of life to test the bolts and the padlocks!’

Marinetti goes on to set out eleven Futurist conditions — ‘our first will and testament to all the living men on earth’ — the central tenets of his prospective movement. ‘We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness,’ says the first. ‘The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt,’ the second. ‘We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed,’ he extols in the fourth, and in the eighth: ‘We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries! What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible?’ So far, so exhilarating. But as we reach Marinetti’s ninth point we begin to taste a curdle in the milk; to perceive the real, more sinister driving forces at the heart of his impassioned argument.

9. We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
10. We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.

Ah. We are of course unsurprised — in 1909 — always — to hear the misogynistic shoe drop. Drawn in the singular as ‘woman’, it’s not simply literal womankind but the symbolic ideal of the eternal feminine that is here figured as Futurism’s ideological opposite; yet another passive terrain to be commandeered by man. Though Marinetti’s ire is directed at abstract notions of essential femininity, the inherent misogyny of Futurist ideology is evident in the manifesto’s pointed lack of female presence. In keeping with his “leaving behind” of the mythologies of old, Marinetti rejects the traditional mythic homosocial motif in which a “band of brothers” bonds through battling for the favour (and/or in defence) of a wanted woman. As the men beetle through the streets in their cars en masse, they are blissfully uninterrupted, untempted, unfettered: ‘no ideal Mistress stretching her form up to the clouds, nor yet a cruel Queen to whom to offer our corpses twisted into the shape of Byzantine rings! No reason to die unless it is the desire to be rid of the too great weight of our courage!’ In Marinetti’s vision of male camaraderie there is no competition — in fact there is very nearly no ‘I’. The group of friends acts in almost thorough unison from the very first line, ‘hunt[ing], like young lions’. Even the manifesto’s eleven conditions are expressed in persistent terms of the ‘we’. But despite the lack of woman, this bonding is definitively homosocial as opposed to homoerotic. The men are sexually engaged with the Other, but for Marinetti the automobile — the technological item as opposed to any human being — is the ultimate sexualised object.

We went up to the three snorting machines to caress their breasts. I lay along mine like a corpse on its bier, but I suddenly revived again beneath the steering wheel — a guillotine knife — which threatened my stomach. A great sweep of madness brought us sharply back to ourselves and drove us through the streets, steep and deep, like dried up torrents.

ford1908
    Ford Motors Model T advertisement, 1908

By now this comparison seems intuitive, but it wouldn’t be until advertising’s “golden age” of the 1960s and 70s that luxury cars would become synonymous with the commercialisation of sexual fantasy and knowing sexist winks. The first automobiles proper had been produced in 1888 by Karl Benz in Germany, with mass production in place in France and the US by 1900. The ensuing flurry of technological experimentation in the field was dizzying, and this was reflected in contemporary car culture. Advertisements from the era trade in safety, reliability, beauty, and affordability, but in the days before driving tests, traffic management systems, or explicit anti-inebriation laws, driving was something of an extreme sport, with motor-vehicle deaths in the United States doubling from 1908 to 1910. ‘Death, tamed, went in front of me at each corner offering me his hand nicely,’ writes Marinetti, ‘and sometimes lay on the ground with a noise of creaking jaws giving me velvet glances from the bottom of puddles.’ This drive with death of course recalls the psychosexual notion of the death drive, le petit mort, the essential purgative quality of male sexuality. The ‘great sweep of madness’ that spurs the group to hypermasculine action also evokes the abandonment of the mind to the impulse of the body, the loss of rational processing, the doing-without-thinking of sexual craving. Indeed, the exhausting persistence of human desire — what Laura Riding calls ‘sex surviving the satisfaction of the appetite’ — is embodied in the easy restarting of the automobile. ‘We thought it was dead, my good shark, but I woke it with a single caress of its powerful back, and it was revived running as fast as it could on its fins.’ Remembering its essential role as an extension of the self, the driver’s glorification of the automobile is an already an acute expression of narcissism. But further, the revival of the phallic car by a ‘single caress’ is reminiscent of masturbation (Riding’s ‘throwing the damned thing out’), reiterated in the absurd fervour of the narrator as his road race reaches its climax.

‘I stopped short, and in disgust hurled myself — vlan! — head over heels in a ditch. Oh, maternal ditch, half full of muddy water! A factory gutter! I savored a mouthful of strengthening muck which recalled the black teat of my Sudanese nurse!’

In Marinetti’s landscape, while technology offers sexual stimulation, nature — the motherland — provides the vital maternal nourishment. In a Futurist sketch of the coming century, all womankind is negated: there is simply no place, nor need, for the literal, embodied female. This steer toward the pleasures of posthuman sexuality and hedonistic masturbation, away from the biological impulse to procreate, reiterates the Futurists’ ideological favouring of destruction over creation/preservation/commemoration in wider culture. In closing his manifesto, Marinetti calls for the death of cultural and academic institutions that glorify the past: the museums, libraries, and academies that serve as Italy’s ‘innumerable cemeteries’.’To admire an old picture is to pour our sensibility into a funeral urn instead of casting it forward with violent spurts of creation and action. Do you want to waste the best part of your strength in a useless admiration of the past, from which you will emerge exhausted, diminished, trampled on?’ Not satisfied then with wreaking havoc upon the present and disrupting the procreative order (thus fundamentally threatening the future), Marinetti longs to violently sever all ties with the past.

aeneas_e_anchises
Barocci Federico, Aeneas’ Flight from Troy (1598). Oil on canvas, Galleria Borghese.

To understand how truly radical this is in the context of Italian cultural history — what a profound act of destruction Marinetti is inciting — we must cast a long glance back to the first century BC and the earliest days of the Roman Empire, where deft, respected agricultural poet Publius Vergilius Maro was commissioned by the administration of inaugural Emperor Augustus to pen the founding myth of Roman Italy. Capitalising on the populist clout of an exceptional military career through the Gallic wars, Augustus’s adoptive father (and predecessor intended) Julius Caesar was instated in 44BC as the first and last dictator perpetuo, breaking from the constitutive tradition of year-long, curtailed-power consulships — an accolade that swiftly led to his bloody murder one short month later, a whole new spate of ensuing civil wars through 30BC, and the decisive disintegration of Rome’s five-hundred-year-old Republic. Wresting back power, emerging from this particularly tempestuous time in the nation’s generally turbulent history, Augustus worked to reinstate stability, prosperity, and (his unique interpretation of) traditional Roman values, ruling for forty-one fruitful years and credited with establishing Pax Romana: two centuries of (very much relative) peace and limited military expansion. Consolidating this cultural revolution, Vergil’s Aeneid traces an adamant lineage from the very settling of Rome in the wake of the Trojan War (13th century BC) down through mythic founders Romulus and Remus (8th century BC) to the Augustan period. Published shortly after the poet’s death c.19BC, it follows the events at Troy from the perspective of a minor character in Homer’s Iliad (c.850BC) — the apparently-charmed son of King Priam’s cousin and love goddess Venus-Aphrodite. Fleshing out Aeneas’s story from little more than a handful of Greek references, Vergil imbues his protagonist’s ideals and actions with Augustan ideology, and legitimates the authority of the Julio-Claudian dynasty by “foretelling” the Augustan emperorship. Beyond duty to the gods and submission to his fate, Aeneas pays due deference to the institution of the pater familias: the authoritative supremacy of a Roman household’s patriarch. As pater patriae — father of the fatherland — Augustus was morally responsible for the well-being of his citizens as well as the felicity of his nation, and knew only too well that the success of Rome as an international power depended upon its ability to produce fighting fit and zealous sons. As such, he introduced extensive marriage legislation, promoting a culture of familial stability and protected legacy. In his departure from Troy, Aeneas leads his young son Ascanius by the hand and carries upon his back his elderly father Anchises, who in turn carries the ash vessel of his ancestors, leaving wife Creusa to run along behind (and ultimately, spoiler, perish). ‘To waste the best part of your strength in a useless admiration of the past.’ In his escape to a brighter future, a brave new homeland in Latium, the hero’s symbolic priority is to ensure that both heir and sire survive; to preserve his lineage, his history.

It is in Italy that we are issuing this manifesto of ruinous and incendiary violence, by which we today are founding Futurism, because we want to deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries. Italy has been too long the great second-hand market.

With the fall of the Roman Empire in 476AD, Italy was divided and conquered by a rolling series of foreign powers, only officially unified as a kingdom in 1861 — less than fifty years before Marinetti’s manifesto. Nonetheless, the beginnings of a cohesive Italian culture came with the Renaissance of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, when advances in publishing meant easier access to (and revived interest in) the key texts of classical civilisation, and the beginnings of linguistic standardisation thanks to the peninsula-wide popularity of Tuscan Dante Alighieri’s poetry. In the Divine Comedy (c.1308-21), Dante has Vergil act as mentor, protector, and tour guide through hell and into purgatory; honours him as a literary and spiritual father figure. Again, the emphasis is on carrying forward the past, respecting one’s roots and forebears. That the entire concept of literature is predicated on love-lettering the tales of yore is fair argument, but when Marinetti argues that art can progress only in severance from what has come before — when he doesn’t laud Dante’s Inferno but demands that one be made of Italy’s libraries, of Italy’s galleries, of Italy’s thriving cultural heritage — it is a call to violence far more symbolically devastating than if wielded in the majority of other countries. Greece and Italy, after all, are the twin roots of western civilisation as we know it.

Marinetti in 1933
Marinetti in 1933 before a portrait of himself with his family (Gerardo Dottori)

Despite Marinetti’s outcry against indulging in Italy’s past glories, he would later attach himself to the country’s rising Fascist movement of the 1920s (though he would continue to dispute the party on this point). In a fitting echo of Augustan realpolitik, NFP founder Benito Mussolini harked back to ‘the Roman tradition’ just as long as it served his purpose — setting a prototype for the good citizen and legitimating Italy’s moral right to head a great international empire — while taking the liberty of synthesising his very own totalitarian brand of national leadership. In another, Italy’s leader was once again highly invested in his country’s birthrate, and in 1925 Il Duce launched the ‘Battle for Births‘: tightening abortion laws, banning contraceptives, and introducing a tax upon unmarried men. As we have seen, this celebration of heteronormative union and procreation is also quite at odds with the Futurist polemic, but the two schools did share a model of masculinity in which power, aggression, courage, and virility were fetishised, and where bodies were symbolised as machines, ‘illuminated by the internal glow of electric hearts’ that beat to the clockwork march of patriotism. In the same year Marinetti crashed his own real car, Mussolini predicted a new breed of man [sic], ‘strengthened by war, a spirit equipped with a kind of sublime perversity’ — a description that certainly evokes the ‘vlan!’ mentality of ‘Il Futurismo”s fictionalised driver. Italian women under Fascism were dissuaded from education and employment, and were figured less as fully-fledged citizens than as a key asset to man and state, but they still did have their place in the movement’s private and public spheres — a significant step up from their complete eradication in the Futurist realm. Aeneas and his men sailing out from Troy in their ships, ‘hoisting their sails to fate’, is certainly reminiscent of Marinetti’s drive with death, but women are allowed aboard the Aenean fleet, and again Vergil gives the non-soldiering sex their place in the narrative — if only as vengeful goddesses, pep-talking ghosts, and connivers hell-bent on waylaying destiny.

It’s worth noting that the Trojan War narratives are key examples of the aforementioned “band of brothers” motif: fuelled by the “theft” of Greek beauty Helen, and the gathering of her once-suitors to help husband Menelaus, King of Sparta, fight for her return. This is perhaps what Marinetti had in mind when deriding those ‘ideal Mistresses’ and ‘cruel Queens’ — the women who would only serve to distract his friends from their havoc-for-havoc’s-sake ideals — but of course even Futurism in the end had its female players. In 1923 Marinetti would marry Benedetta Cappa, herself a bold and successful artist-writer, and the two collaborated on a series of mixed-media works branded Tactilism, before the man who once rallied ‘contempt for woman’ and deliverance from his country’s ‘gangrene of professors’ became in 1929 a full member of the Italian Academy. Hypocritical perhaps, but the manifesto is after all a slippery medium. Resting somewhere between a call to action and speculative fiction, its rhetoric is never quite intended as a moral promise, but as a fully realised alternate perspective — an advertisement, illustrating a happier alternative reality, if only. With 1909’s ‘Il Futurismo’, Marinetti sold his contemporaries a very modern utopia, substituting increasingly unruly ‘woman’ for the ego-propelling ‘mechanical bride’. In doing so he set the anarchistic tone for a dawning century that would come to be defined by technological anxiety, politicised artistic movements, and the creative manifesto concept.

and if you go chasing rabbits

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour aired in CBS’s coveted Sunday night primetime slot for three seasons between 1967 and 1969 before its controversial cancellation with one episode still in the can. Pulling in around 12 million viewers per week — approximately one fifth of the total number of homes that owned a television in late 60s America — it more than held its own against NBC’s western hour-long Bonanza, whose fourteen-year-long popularity makes a lot more sense when you learn it was one of the first regular colour telecasts in a sea of grainy black and white (and even more once you’ve seen a young Michael Landon — aka Pa Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie — holding court as Little Joe). The charm of Tom and Dick’s shtick lay somewhere between Ant & Dec and Craig Ferguson: cheeky and affable, dapper without quite being handsome in their matching side-parts and blazers; spry and absurd, their subversive intent plated in glinting smiles and feigned naivety. As the show continued, with the help of a provocative young writing team including Bob Einstein and Steve Martin, the pair increasingly allied themselves with Haight Ashbury philosophy and the anti-Vietnam movement, pushing the boundaries of political satire both overtly and subtextually, and the show became so well-thought-of in countercultural celebrity circles that The Beatles chose it to premiere their 1968 proto-music videos for ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Revolution’ in the United States (a full month after they were shown on The David Frost Show in the UK). Earlier in the show’s run, on 7th May 1967, Jefferson Airplane burst onto the mainstream with this performance of new single ‘White Rabbit’ — the first time the band had been televised in colour, with psychedelic special effects worthy of a 90s school disco and Grace Slick’s preternaturally steady gaze boring down the camera. Introducing the band, Richard Smothers encourages the audience at home (to the delight of those in the studio) ‘to… eat a banana while you’re watching this — or smoke a banana as my brother said, but actually he’s pretty far out, even for me.’

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It’s hard now to imagine an entire month’s wait between the transatlantic premieres of a new recording by the biggest band in the world, and just as hard to imagine what it must have felt like to watch this hallucinogenic spectacle as a contemporary adolescent (or as one of their permanently-disconcerted parents). Although the cultural sea change was well under way, ’67 was the year pop music outgrew the rainy day women and magic dragons of its gateway drug to embrace the mind-bending lures of LSD and psychedelic rock in the heady lead-up to the Monterey Pop Festival and San Francisco’s Summer of Love. The Beatles had already made their quantum leap from the woozy folk-rock of 1965’s Rubber Soul (featuring a brief sitar experiment from Harrison on ‘Norwegian Wood’) to Revolver and the trippy tamboura and tape-loops of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ in August 1966, but Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with its more deliberate ode ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, would not appear for another month, and it was especially shocking to see an attractive and self-assured young woman — not a bedraggled bearded burn-out — espousing the sublime joys of drug experimentation. (Contemporaries such as Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez may well have walked the walk, but didn’t so explicitly talk the talk. Though of course this presumes that the audience at home understood what the lyrics were truly getting at when in fact they — and the majority of censors at the time — didn’t quite.) Indeed, the acid anthem wasn’t just sung by Slick, brought to life by her trademark primal howl and shamanistic intensity, but was one of two tracks she had brought with her from disbanded project The Great Society, the other being Jefferson Airplane’s 1966 single ‘Somebody to Love’, which achieved a similar level of success and renown. In an unlikely meeting of influences, ‘White Rabbit’ is inspired musically by Maurice Ravel’s ‘Boléro’ (1928) and Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain (1960), and lyrically by her childhood love of Lewis Carroll’s Alice volumes, as Slick guides us steadily to an orgiastic crescendo with her winding, cameo-heavy retelling of the tale.

The story of Alice in Wonderland is very much how I experienced things. She grew up in rigid Victorian England, but she arrives in Wonderland, and suddenly it’s nuts, it’s political, and she’s all by herself ­– no Prince Charming comes and saves her. Same thing with going from the 50s into the 60s, so you had to have faith in yourself, because nobody’s going to save you: if you expect that, you’re in trouble. Little girls read Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and in all of them the heroine is saved by some guy — they don’t do anything for themselves! Snow White worked a little bit,­ she made breakfast for a bunch of guys. I’m sorry, I never cooked anything for the band. You play the guitar, I sing, you don’t make breakfast for me, I don’t make breakfast for you. We buy breakfast. –GRACE SLICK, INTERVIEW MAGAZINE, 2007

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It’s apt here that Slick draws a connection between autonomy and food, independence and sustenance, because Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) is a story preoccupied with the boundaries of selfhood as they relate not just to tests of the heroine’s mettle, but to distortions of her body through ingestion. One pill makes you larger and the next pill makes you small. For Alice these are the Eat Me/Drink Me confections that affect her in a wonderdrug way; which she swallows moments after descending the rabbit hole in hopes of fitting through a tiny locked door into the beautiful garden on the other side. Of course, sizeshifting is a staple of children’s stories — a cousin to the low fantasy “while you were sleeping”-style narratives of The Borrowers, Toy Story, Grimm’s helpful elves, et al. In these examples, the protagonist/reader is allowed an awe-inspiring glimpse of a world beneath a world, operating outwith human hours but by its rules and upon its scraps, the secret often warmly shared with deserving children by an all-knowing, twinkly-eyed narrator. But sizeshifting narratives are far less to do with the invocation of the magical and more about questions of identity, personhood, and one’s place in society. Such tales often tap into the cultural anxieties of the time in which they were written. In Gulliver’s Travels (1726), the protagonist himself doesn’t shrink and stretch but he stumbles through a series of worlds in which he is rendered hugely disproportionate, first a giant among the Lilliputians then a pocket-sized doll in Brobdingnag. Through an odyssey of intercultural errors and astute satire, Jonathan Swift engages with theories of innate human nature and political philosophy, disorientating his protagonist at every turn in a reflection of the sociopolitical instability of the early eighteenth century. Poor Gulliver stays physically the same, but each time he arrives in a new society he brings the ideology of the previous one along, his sense of self-and-other knocked by each experience, a completely different man by the end of his travels. Meanwhile, Disney live action classic Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989) toys with an 80s parent’s twin anxieties: achieving work-life balance (not letting your career absorb you to the point you sweep your quarter-inch-tall children out with the trash),keyz_web and the thought of growing children fending for themselves out there in an often hostile world (giant bees). On the kids’ part, it is a tale with a moral not unlike the vast majority of family blockbusters: you are stronger than you realise but also more vulnerable; if you settle your differences and work as a team you have a better chance of survival; your parents are just idiots who are trying to do their best. Simultaneously, it rides the wave of science-gone-awry movies of this period, which responded to recent progress in take-home technologies such as personal computers and cellular phones, and in the advancing field of genetic engineering. (This would later develop into the dark brand of early 90s computer-driven narratives, featuring hacking conspiracies, virtual reality, and other assorted “cyberspace” nightmares.) The Victorian era too was a time of prodigious scientific invention and experimentation, and great medical strides were being taken with the discovery of “laughing gas” anaesthetics and surgical antiseptics. But for most the apothecary — apprenticed as opposed to qualified, ancestor to today’s homeopath — was still king, and in Carroll’s brand of sizeshifting he plays with the anxiety of medicine-taking in a time of thriving cure-all trade; the prescription of an unknown substance that is going to affect you bodily, allegedly overwhelmingly, in untold ways. It’s this daunting prospect that fundamentally links the stories Slick loved in childhood and her experiences as part of the drug revolution — this idea of being metamorphosed by a substance stronger that your will, that makes you bigger and smaller, pushes and pulls you, but that also risks drawing out whatever is already inside you to create a different self, just as true if not truer, unbridled and unselfconscious. ‘How [Alice] longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers,’ writes Carroll. For the acid generation, the beautiful garden was locked deep within the mind, and LSD was the key.

‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ was written in April 1966 when John Lennon visited London’s newly-opened Indica Gallery Bookshop, looking for a copy of The Portable Nietzsche, leaving instead with The Psychedelic Experience. Located in Masons Yard, St James’s (where White Cube now stands), the gallery was famous for its VIP-heavy happenings and groundbreaking support of the alternative arts scene, and is incidentally where Lennon would later meet Yoko Ono in November that same year, at an exhibition of her conceptual work with avant-garde collective Fluxus. Indica co-owner Barry Miles ran the bookshop side of the business, and its provocative range reflected his avid personal interests in experimental literature, drug culture, eastern philosophies, and ‘pataphysics (which would appear to have outlived the 60s). Timothy Leary hadn’t quite yet reached the heady heights of his eventual notoriety — President Nixon would purportedly name him ‘the most dangerous man in America’ come the early 70s — but by the time his Psychedelic Experience was published in 1964 the former clinical psychology professor had already been sacked by Harvard for his controversial drug trials, which were just beginning to embrace LSD, and which most notably involved famous beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and a group of the university’s Divinity Studies graduates, soon introducing a psychedelic culture across the wider campus. Based upon an ancient funerary text known in the west as The Tibetan Book of the Dead (c8BC), Leary’s book aims to provide a correspondent guide through a psychedelic drug trip, in the belief that both experiences involve a journey to ‘new realms of consciousness’, initiating a transcendence of the material and verbal, and ego-death. Borrowing its language and distilling its essence, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ became a veritable LSD For Dummies. Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream. It is not dying, it is not dying. In one of the most brilliant closing scenes of the ever-brilliant Mad Men, Don listens to the track for the first time at the encouragement of younger wife Megan, and the camera pans across other characters playing their part in the zeitgeist before we are jolted back to the Draper residence, where Don shuts off the music and retires wearily to the bedroom. When the screen cuts to black and the credits begin, the music picks up again from where it left off. In the dawning 60s, as the show began, Don was our blueprint for cool, for progressive. In his opening scene he talks to a black server as an actual human being, and in early seasons he fraternises with beatniks and has an emotional moment with Frank O’Hara. Despite some bumps in the road (homophobia, antisemitism, generic misogyny) he fondly encourages both Peggy and Dawn’s ladder-climbing, even making it as far as skinny ties, electric razors, and The Rolling Stones, before falling at the psychedelic hurdle. Here, the counterculture (and the show, thus the audience) happily leaves Don behind, playing on no matter how many times he would like to lift the needle. Absolutely worth whatever exorbitant licensing fee the show’s producers must have had to pay.

Bed In

Tommy Smothers, Rosemary & Timothy Leary join John & Yoko’s Bed-In, June 1969

On 25th June 1967, the first ever live satellite television event was broadcast around the world to an estimated audience of 350 million. Live on air, at the height of the Vietnam War, The Beatles cut their next single ‘All You Need Is Love’, playing over a backing track with a little help from some very special friends, in a performance that George Harrison would later describe in the Beatles Anthology as ‘a bit of subtle PR for god’. Timothy Leary too was no stranger to the power of advertising. As Mad Men has illustrated, this was an exhilarating time in the field of audiovisual media — the peak union of burgeoning globalism, forward-thinking creativity, and commercialism. Throughout his career as The Establishment’s Most Wanted, Leary assembled an arsenal of slogans to publicise what fast became not just a lifestyle choice, but a spiritual movement. In autobiography Flashbacks, he relates his 1966 lunch date with media theory titan (and king of the punchy one-liner) Marshall McLuhan, who advised Leary on the importance of ‘arousing customer interest’: ‘you are promoting a product — your product is the new and improved accelerated brain.’ With an academic background in English language and literature, McLuhan had by this time earned his reputation as a pioneering public intellectual in what would later become known as the field of cultural studies, with three popular works already in circulation and The Medium is the Massage (1967) soon on its way. ‘Prophet of the electronic communications age’, he in fact opened the Our World satellite link-up from Toronto’s CBC Studios control room, discussing the lightspeed evolution of the “global village”, and his ideas on the unique ‘all-at-onceness’ property of the televisual medium: the new worldwide tribalism he believed would result from this unified gaze upon the tv set. (In the end television would only occasionally rise to this challenge, becoming a primarily national as opposed to international tool.) Though difficult to trace the explicit source, legend has it that McLuhan gifted Leary with his most famous slogan at that very first lunch, the phrase that would come to define the acid generation and its reverberations down through the decades: turn on, tune in, drop out. Later, for a child of the 80s or 90s, Leary’s phrase might easily seem to be referring to the ills of television culture — a scathing criticism of late twentieth century westerners who would return home from work all too ready to numb their minds with another evening of “chewing gum for the eyes“. Not quite what McLuhan had in mind, but in 1968’s High Priest, Leary paints a similar picture of his life before psychedelics, describing himself as ‘A rootless city-dweller. An anonymous institutional employee who drove to work each morning in a long line of commuter cars, and drove home each night and drank martinis and looked like and thought like and acted like several million middle-class liberal intellectual robots.’ You don’t have to own a television to be alienated here, but it helps. When George Harrison visited Haight-Ashbury in August ’67 he found for himself that the reality of drug culture had long since parted ways with Leary’s evangelic teachings: ‘It wasn’t what I’d thought — spiritual awakenings and being artistic — it was like alcoholism, like any addiction.’ Even with the very best of ad campaigns, any medium can soon enough be twisted off-message.

‘Turn on’ meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. ‘Tune in’ meant interact harmoniously with the world around you — externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. ‘Drop out’ suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. ‘Drop Out’ meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean ‘Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity’. –TIMOTHY LEARY, FLASHBACKS (1983)

Hugely influential in its technical experimentation, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ stands as an evocative document of its time, but it was ‘White Rabbit’ that soon became cinematic shorthand for trippy psychedelia and a character’s first steps into a strange new hallucinogenic world. By the 90s, however, it was coming to be used to more comedic or sardonic effect. In 1998, The Simpsons used the song to soundtrack Homer’s foray into peyote-laced juice peddling, and the next year it accompanied Tony’s first begrudging hit of prozac in season one of The Sopranos. With the commercialisation of drug culture, the domestication of serotonin-affective substances, the alluring strains of ‘White Rabbit’s intro had now generally come to symbolise being drawn, snake-charmed, into anything you might not be able to control. In the quarter-century since its release the song has been covered by a vast array of bands in a vaster array of styles, from jazz guitarist George Benson in 1972, to goth punk rock Londoners The Damned in 1980, to a bassline sample in the Sugababes’ stunning debut single ‘Overload‘ in September 2000. By this time too, at a different point on the “girl group” spectrum, third wave three-piece Sleater-Kinney were including ‘White Rabbit’ in their live set-list: a fantastic recontextualisation of the track. Here, Slick’s lyrics toy with the band’s recurring themes of gender inequality, female invisibility, body image politics, and the sins of the mother, evident since their riot grrrl beginnings but especially so on recently released All Hands on the Bad One (2000). Propelled in popular culture by Washington’s underground music scene, 90s feminism was rooted in the theory and groundwork of the second wave (60s-80s) whilst rejecting its “solutions” of learnt masculinity and corporate careerism, instead embracing community ethics, diy culture, and the iconography of girlhood. In blistering album track ‘Youth Decay’, Corin Tucker sings her narrator’s feelings of existential deterioration, causing her visceral bodily pain that others believe to be psychosomatically self-inflicted, and therefore easily-endable. ‘Am I rotting out? Daddy says I’ve got my momma’s mouth,’ she howls, indicting not just the overbearing, emotionally abusive father, but also his over-accommodating wife, who says she suffered just the same pains when she was young and yet allowed herself to repeat the cycle, leaving her daughter to suffer through. And the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all. More recently, an Arabic version of Slick’s song featured in twisted crime dramedy American Hustle (2013), and it’s interesting to note that both The Beatles’ and Jefferson Airplane’s trip tracks were covered for teensploitation action flick Sucker Punch (2011), in which a young woman in the 60s is institutionalised and slips into a computer game-like fantasy world. In this setting, in a film that upends misogynistic geek/gamer culture, the song is recast as an empowerment anthem, a rejection of the patriarchal institutional strictures placed upon “wayward women”, a rebellion against playing by their rules. When the men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go. Refreshingly, Mad Men dodged the cliché for Roger’s first LSD experience — laced sugar cubes for dessert at a dinner party hosted by his wife’s psychiatrist — instead opting for a warped-out version of ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’, from easily the most solid, most elegant long-player of the decade: Pet Sounds (1966). As with so many moments in the show, hearing Brian Wilson’s sumptuous harmonies in their natural habitat packs a huge emotional punch, stripping away forty-plus years of mythologisation to illuminate the everyday human reality of life in such a tumultuous, careening period. We crowd silently round the tv set on the day of JFK’s assassination, we are rocked by Marilyn’s death, our minds can hardly comprehend the fact a man is walking on the face of the moon. And despite all the years of The Beach Boys as shorthand for harmless youthful folly and good vibrations, we finally understand Pet Sounds as an album not in celebration of its time, but itself laced with a tender melancholy, anxiety and alienation, wistful simultaneous yearnings for the past and the future, home comforts and new horizons. We imagine how it really felt to be there, in the fray, out of sync, shrinking and stretching, disorientated at every turn by the sociopolitical instability of the 60s revolution.

‘Electric technology, by virtue of its immediate relation to our nervous system, is itself a sort of inner trip,’ McLuhan wrote in 1974. Both he and Leary held that their belief systems fundamentally overlapped, each seeking better understanding of life through experimental mediums. While each ideology was built upon individualistic rites — defying hegemonic culture, chasing the white rabbit deep inside your own mind, experiencing the world for oneself through a screen — the paradoxic pay-off of these practices was communality, a breaking down of barriers, the profound realisation of essential human oneness. This is the kind of utopian language we’re now so used to hearing in social media discourse, from Arab Spring commentators to twenty-first century philosopher kings (‘I’m trying to make the world a more open place’), which is really just globalism taken to its furthest point. The internet is of course the ultimate act of communalism-by-individualism, and McLuhan would be posthumously celebrated for “predicting” its invention as far back as 1962, envisioning the ‘extension of consciousness’ through a post-television medium — ‘a computer as a research and communication instrument’. Leary, for his part, would wholly embrace the new digital age, proclaiming the personal computer ‘the LSD of the 90s’, and the internet as a freedom from the dominant media culture: turn on, boot up, jack in. As with Slick’s ‘White Rabbit’ and each of its later feminist incarnations, as with McLuhan’s wish upon a satellite, the driving moral of psychedelic philosophy was to question everything, to challenge the party line and transcend received wisdom. To work to see things clearly, critically, and independently: to stop following the crowd and join the stream. Remember what the dormouse said: feed your head, feed your head.

the mitford society annual, vol. 2

In ‘What I Believe’, an incendiary essay on the Humanist ideas that informed the majority of his work, E M Forster writes ‘if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.’ Perhaps no-one has put this idea into practice with greater commitment than Diana Mitford, who scandalised British society with her marriage to Oswald Mosley and allegiance to Adolf Hitler, even as the true extent of fascism’s horrors came to light through the course of the twentieth century. ‘Probably one will not be asked to make such an agonizing choice,’ continues Forster in 1938. But in times of war, for a well-connected member of the upper classes, there was always likely to be a conflict of the personal and the national. (ONLY CONNECT)

There’s a good chance you are more aware of the Mitford Girls today than you might have been a month ago, with recent news of the sad passing of Deborah Cavendish at the age of 94. Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, prima Elvis fangirl, voracious non-reader, and friend to hens everywhere, Debo was the youngest and last surviving of the Mitfords — the first of whom was born in 1904 — and her death marked the conclusion of the fascinating story of seven siblings whose wildly differing lives, careers, relationships, and politics singularly describe the larger story of the twentieth century.

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Diana as Venus, Goddess of Love (Mme Yevonde, 1935).

Perhaps the most famous is eldest sister Nancy: incisive wit and born-again slave to high fashion, whose fabulously brittle novels lifted the lid on both the secret life of the Mitfords, and her clandestine affair with French politician Gaston Palewski. Undoubtedly the most infamous is Unity Valkyrie: “Hitler’s British Girl”, who shot herself in the head when war was declared between her two beloved nations. Dubbed “Woman” by her sisters — and “The Quiet One” by history — staunch pragmatist Pamela was a passionate foodie who lived a low-key rural life, in the company of her Boston wife and beloved dachshunds. And while Debo married up into top tier aristocracy, confidante Decca eloped to fight fascism in Spain with distant cousin and noted socialist Esmond Romilly, settling in the US where she became involved with the American Communist Party, penning seminal 1963 exposé of the funeral industry The American Way of Death. Sole brother Tom had a succession of captivating affairs from beautiful star of the stage Tilly Losch, to eminent diarist James Lees-Milne, to the irresistibly-named Countess Francesca “Baby” Erdödy, and died at 36 during service in Burma. But for me the most intriguing life was Diana’s, and her writing style by far my favourite. Born already beautiful and endlessly charming, she was a central personality of the Bright Young People, enjoying meaningful relationships with a number of cultural and artistic luminaries of her day, before marrying into far-right-wing politics, becoming an almost pantomimeish villain in the post-war period, and eventually settling in Paris. Reading the collected correspondence earlier this year, the tenderness of Diana’s letters — most particularly to Debo in her later years — was a revelation, with their focus on the joys of literature, ‘laughter and the love of friends’, underscored in 1977 autobiography A Life of Contrasts. Indeed, between these and her other noted publications — Loved Ones, a heartfelt book of pen portraits, and The Duchess of Windsor, an intimate biography of the Mosleys’ scandalous royal neighbour — the woman most famous for her acquaintance with Adolf became something of an all-round doyen of friendship. Setting politics aside, at a time in my life when I’m really starting to evaluate my relationships, Diana’s (controversial) level of dedication to loyalty and authentic connection struck a chord.

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The above excerpt is from a piece I’ve written for this year’s Mitford Society Annual, ‘Only Connect’, on Diana and her relationships, with some discussion of the cultural shift from Victorian to Edwardian eras, and of that other great twentieth century bastion of friendship, the Bloomsberries. Other essays in this volume range from a look behind the scenes at one of the UK’s largest editorial images archives, to two brilliant perspectives on Pam and Debo’s very different approaches to food and homekeeping, to profiles of some of interwar England’s most charismatic forgotten characters — with a little bit of fiction thrown in. With brief biographical information on the sisters and a wealth of fresh anecdotal titbits, it’s just as interesting and readable if you’re a Mitford novice, or if you’ve already devoured everything that’s out there and just can’t get enough (like me). I’m delighted to be featured, and honoured to be in the company of such an amazing array of contributors. The book is available to buy on Amazon from today, in Kindle edition or paperback.

In case you missed it, last year’s Mitford Annual is also available here. Sadly I’m not in that one but we’ll all struggle on somehow. Mitfordite-in-Chief Lyndsy Spence’s next publication will be Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford, focussing on her life pre-Mosley. I’ve been lucky enough to have a wee sneak peek and it’s most wondair, including unpublished pics and some very unexpected findings. It’s due for release in March of next year.

tuesday lectures: let us press again on the hysterogenic point

In the last few decades of the nineteenth century, the Salpêtrière was what it had always been: a kind of feminine inferno, a citta dolorosa confining four thousand incurable or mad women. It was a nightmare in the midst of Paris’s Belle Epoque. This is where Charcot rediscovered hysteria. I attempt to retrace how he did so, amidst all the various clinical and experimental procedures, through hypnosis and the spectacular presentations of patients having hysterical attacks in the amphitheater where he held his famous Tuesday Lectures. With Charcot we discover the capacity of the hysterical body, which is, in fact, prodigious. It is prodigious; it surpasses the imagination, surpasses “all hopes,” as they say. Whose imagination? Whose hopes? There’s the rub. What the hysterics of the Salpêtrière could exhibit with their bodies betokens an extraordinary complicity between patients and doctors, a relationship of desires, gazes, and knowledge. This relationship is interrogated here. –Georges Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria (1982)

augustine     [UNDER CONSTRUCTION!]

my pisces lover, abstract and wild

Zebra Katz’s underground/high fashion hit ‘Ima Read’ is one of those music videos you never forget seeing for the first time. Over a dark, driving minimalist beat, Ojay Morgan’s sinister alterego details the many lessons he wants to teach the world in a pressing monotone, dressed cosily like the proverbial schoolteacher but marking papers with giant red Fs and staring down the camera like he’s trying to will himself into your nightmares. In empty corridors and library stacks we see twin “schoolgirls” dancing messily in their ski masks and lashing beaded braids, crashing into one another like drunken toddlers one minute, pulling the Shining stance the next. The whole scene is lit like an evening in custody. And amongst it all sits Njena Reddd Foxxx, petulant in her pleated schoolgirl skirt, wool cardigan, and knee-socks; smiling coquettishly and flipping her bunches while she promises to slice, dice, and ice that bitch she just doesn’t like. The song’s lyrics extrapolate the ball scene idea of “reading” — the great queen tradition of destroying someone else’s soul through pithy, painfully accurate putdowns — and Katz and Reddd Foxxx show their own hardy commitment to realness, carrying the concept through to absurdly academic lengths. ‘Ima give that bitch some knowledge, Ima take that bitch to college,’ he says. ‘It’s gon’ be cohesive,’ she says. ‘It’s gon’ be my thesis.’

I was lucky enough to catch them live not so long after the track began to gain traction, supporting Azealia Banks on her 2012 Fantasea tour, in a mindblowing performance that began in creeping leather bondage masks and fast became a high-energy exhibition of playfully vicious rap battles and floor exercises. A particular highlight was hearing the bemused crowd around me refer to Reddd Foxxx as Katz’s “dancer girl” as she chair-vogued her way Kit Kat Clublike through the set’s opening tracks, only to lose their shit when she grabbed hold of a mic of her own. Things have been a bit quiet on the music front for Njena since 2013’s wonderfully strange take-no-prisoners EP Needful Things — and sadly also on the twitter front since early this summer. But, trained at prestigious arts institute Cooper Union, she has been involved in exciting creative projects in other spheres, including a recent co-exhibition at Washington’s Smith Center (under her given surname Jarvis), and this mesmerising video collaboration with London fashion designer Kitty Joseph and Absolut Vodka (directed by Rohan Wadham) at the tail end of last year. Soundtracked by her own track ‘Watercolor’ — an uncharacteristically mellow paean to a long-distance lover, produced by Jepordise and built upon a Tom Brock sample — Reddd Foxxx models three bespoke looks — “drop”, “flow”, and “settle” — twisting and dipping her way through a series of subtle contortions, mimicking the dispersion of ink dye through water.

Taking inspiration from traditional Swedish glass crafts, every bottle of Absolut Originality has a drop of cobalt blue infused into its glass. This colouring technique has been used for centuries in hand-made art glass, but never before has it been applied to create four million original bottles. Added just as the molten glass goes into the mould at 1100°C, the drop of cobalt blue streams down inside the glass creating a unique streak of blue. At that temperature the cobalt is invisible, but as the glass cools off, a beautiful and unique blue infusion appears. (x)

Absolut is a brand with a really interesting advertising history. Originated by Madison Avenue art director Geoff Hayes in 1980, the company’s primary print campaign is by now the longest-running in advertising history, with over a thousand incarnations following a very specific format: bottle front and centre, two-word tag, first-word absolut(e). Through this repeated motif, the iconic bottle becomes something of a fond acquaintance, recurring in a seemingly inexhaustable series of visual gags that veer from heroic “straight man” stances to the bottle rendered as a kind of conspicuous secret agent character, peering out from behind its camouflage and sneaking around the tableau in the comic vein of an Inspector Clouseau or cartoon trickster. In a precursive move that, for better or worse, propelled the enmeshment of high art and high commerce, the company has also commissioned original works from over eight hundred artists throughout the years, beginning with Andy Warhol in 1986. But creative charm aside, the Swedish brand is one of very few famously known for its refined social consciousness. You’d have to be perilously naive to think they’re in it solely for the karma points, but nonetheless Absolut has been staunchly team lgbtq* since placing back cover advertisements in gay-interest periodicals The Advocate and After Dark back in 1981, long before it was considered anything other than brand marketing suicide to do so. However, the spare simplicity of Absolut’s flagship campaign proved a perfect vehicle for queer-friendly double-coding, with a series of meticulously constructed and magnificently executed ads that acted as commercial optical illusions, open to interpretation, and the appreciation of a wide variety of potential consumers.

1990_absolut_ad_copy Absolut-Vodka-Creative-Valentines-Day-Ad mistake marilyn appeal-green images pride
warhol-2 haring-2 pierregilles originalsscanoram...-hirst-2-16cbf95 absolut-bourgeois
Top: a selection of print ads since 1980. Bottom: Andy Warhol 1986; Keith Haring 1986; Pierre et Gilles 1993; Damien Hirst 1998; Louise Bourgeois 2003.

I’ve been listening to Njena quite a bit lately, and have found myself returning again and again to the Absolut clip. It really didn’t get the attention it deserved. So many commercial collaborations are woefully misjudged, but this really seems like the perfect meeting of minds and intentions. With an evident background in the ball voguing scene, not only did Reddd Foxxx come to prominence in the queer hip hop wave, but her lyrics play with the very same strain of double-coding as those early advertisements, trading in silly bitches, fishy girls, and mad queens — understandable in very different ways to very different audiences. (‘If you catched the clues you know what I mean.’) Recontextualised in this way, constant jocular references to her metaphorical anatomy — ‘bitches on my tip like a full time waiter’, ‘fuck that bitch, no vaseline’ — can also be read in a completely new, queer light. From music to installation to performance, the many strands of her creative work attend to the body as metaphor, the metaphor of the body, and it’s incredible here to watch her gender presentation transition from scene to scene through just small alterations in her hair, garb, and mannerisms.

The original edit is beautifully pacy, accentuating the flow between music, movement, fashion, and imagery, but I really wanted to take a closer look at what Reddd Foxxx was doing with her performance. Below is a selection of gifs I painstakingly grabbed from the video clip. Watching each scene out of context, it’s interesting to note that alongside the mimicry of her fluid movements, the jump-cuts on the swirling liquid scenes echo her popped poses and the stuck-record cycling of the track, creating an even more profound sense of cohesion. Let the automatic slideshow flow for an abridged, slowed-down version of the video, or hit pause and click through one by one to see just how stunningly well-constructed the whole thing is.

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esther freud, ‘hideous kinky’ (1992)

★★★★★

I read Hideous Kinky over two days in a brief heatwave one week in early July, laying out on the grass in Kelvingrove Street Square, batting away greenflies and spotifying Om Kalthoum, drunken in the high-afternoon sun. It’s one of my most enduring memories from this summer — the summer of Commonwealth invasion and public transport diversions, the summer of sleeping until noon and walks home from work along empty, darkening roads. A perfect reading experience: the right book at the right time in just the right frame of mind.

Sometime (we infer) in the 1960s, a young restless single mother seeking experience and meaning decants her two young daughters from London to Morocco. The story takes the family from their arrival in this foreign dreamland, through almost a year of acculturation, and Mum’s affair with local entertainer Bilal, whose energy and easy warmth the girls take to immediately. Though subtly structured in the traditional style, the novel reads more as a series of vivid impressions: of the people, spectacles, and sensual reality of life in the Medina (Marrakesh’s labyrinthine Old Town). The spiritualist street conjuring of the Hadaoui and the dizzying dance of the Gnaoua. The laundry strings heavy with clean white sheets, soft bejewelled babouche slippers, and Mum’s favourite pair of pink velvet trousers. The fevered sleep, the fervent calls to prayer through Ramadan, the suffocating steam and slough of the Hammam. The ‘blazing halo’ of freshly hennaed hair in the morning sun. The moreish crumble of the street-seller’s mahjoun. The ‘sweeping sounds of Egyptian music [weaving] magic into the air like scent’. And the food. Mulberries, pomegranates, chickpeas, dates. Honey pastries and fragrant spiced soups. Steaming glasses of mint tea and long, cool Fantas.

The-Medina-Marrakech-2-Mor1 Maroc_Marrakech_medina_2_414ec005102b45a8afea50542bce8643

The novel doesn’t, however, read as a “culture clash” narrative in the traditional sense. This is due largely to our narrator, four-year-old Lucy, who lacks the life experience to truly understand how unusual her life has suddenly become (at an age where very few things do make sense). Lucy’s big sister Bea is her companion, her idol, her yardstick, and her tyrant, and seems to her sibling to have some innate, hugely unfair understanding of the bewildering adult world. Not only does Bea delight in taunting Lucy for getting her facts wrong, but she can remember and recognise Mum’s old friends from years past in London, and is even allowed to go to school with the other local girls. All of this creates an ambivalence in Lucy, as she is quite happy to while her day away at home, and quite often aware that Bea regularly bluffs her way through, but still feels jealous that her sister is winning the game — feels babyish, left behind, and ashamed. Her limited comprehension is reflected in what she chooses to share (and glances over) as narrator — her heartbroken mother crying over the onions, the man who ‘made a circle with his thumb and index finger and pointed through it with his other hand’, even the true risqué meaning of her favourite-words-cum-sisterly-shibboleth, incessantly chanted: hideous kinky, hideous kinky. But though the stunted childlike perspective is watertight, Lucy’s descriptive vocabulary and grasp of grammar is consistently well beyond her years, creating a narrative discord, a kind of literary optical illusion. We see what the child sees, but the implications play to an adult understanding. The overall result is a melancholy sense in the reader: a feeling of reembodying our younger incarnation; a bittersweet reminder of all the simplicity, complexity, and frustration of childhood.

I had never had a doll before and now I had three. They slept with me in my bed, becoming more and increasingly more demanding of my time. There were various complicated ministrations and attentions at particular and specific times of the day and night, and especially in the morning when Bea was at school and Mum was praying or on a visit to her bank.

Appropriately, Bea frequently demands to be entertained with a story from her younger sister, staunchly refusing to “take her turn”, and the two fire their imaginations whispering back and forth across the bed covers — frightening tales of The Black Hand, The Spooky Carpet, and Mum’s potential to slip off with the Sufis while they sleep. Indeed, the girls’ anxiety and unease is palpable, most particularly in Bea, who is often forced to assert herself as the voice of reason in the face of her mother’s flights of narcissistic fancy — as well as to comfort her in moments of emotional crisis. The lack of structure and clearly marked boundaries in their life is echoed in Marrakesh’s discombobulating warren of streets and Babelesque babble of languages; their mother slipping and sliding between English, French, and Arabic. From the incredible disappearing Luigi Mancini, to Bea’s going missing (and successive slide into ill health), to Mum’s last-minute leaps from moving trains, it’s no surprise that her daughters have subconsciously digested the conviction that this is a place of the lost and found, the found and lost — inherently unstable terrain.

hk alice lotm

In the book’s opening pages, en route to Morocco, Mum entertains the girls with Lewis Carroll’s ‘Lobster Quadrille’: Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance? Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance? This sets a keen tone for Lucy’s story, for the family’s subsequent “adventures” as they travel down the rabbit hole (again with the warrens). Somewhat coincidentally, I recently read both the Alice books and Francine Prose’s Lives of the Muses, which casts a lurid light on the story of the real life Alice Liddell and her “doting” chronicler Charles Dodgson. Despite Prose’s eloquent defense and best sympathies for a man maddened by the muse, “misunderstood” in his own time, it’s difficult to get past the fact he was primarily a man who sent erotic letters to children, took naked photos of them ‘for his own collection’, and accepted nothing less than a kiss on the lips goodbye — a fairly grim chapter in an otherwise wildly evocative portrait of history’s great creative (consensual) relationships. Based upon the most favourite of his “child friends”, Carroll’s formidable heroine wanders in a technicolor landscape of ever-shifting boundaries and volatile temperaments, of dematerialising cats with killer grins and tea parties where one must constantly move chairs whilst being variously insulted by a presiding madman; where she herself repeatedly shrinks and swells; where her emotions — her status as a lost child — are ignored, often cruelly. Similarly, Freud’s Medina figures as an, again, unstable terrain of eccentric and overinterested ex-pats — strange adults who don’t understand children as children, lacking any evident consciousness of boundaries or propriety. ‘”Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.’ ‘”Why don’t you both sit down and take some tea with me?’ the man said in perfect English.’ The girls are constantly being courted by the (it must be emphasised: non-native) grown-ups around them, offered gifts and alluring tall tales, with little intervention from Mum, and though this never transgresses to Dodgson levels of creepsomeness, it does make for an at-times uneasy reading experience. ‘I want to go home!’ sobs Alice in Disney’s 1951 rendition of the tale: ‘When I get home, I shall write a book about this place.’ Much like Alice, Lucy and Bea are consistently ambivalent about their new home: drained from being always out of their element, but utterly enchanted by the wonderland around them; begging their mother to leave then breaking their hearts when the notion becomes real. Much like Alice they are good, smart kids wandering naively adrift in a mad, mad world.

Gillies MacKinnon’s 1998 film version of Hideous Kinky does a great job of bringing the novel’s underlying anxieties to the surface, with nightmarish scenes of the girls racing through the wending alleys of the Medina, and their mother railing against the half-life of London with its grey skies and suddenly ubiquitous television set. Nudged to 1972, with Mum officially christened Julia, it necessarily loses the charm and poignancy of Lucy’s narrative take, instead focussing on the conflicts of a lost young woman struggling to raise two children alone in the wake of the 1960s. In this version of events, Bea and Lucy are the ones in the know, who drily identify their neighbours as prostitutes while their mother gazes naively upon her surroundings with the eyes of Alice, only assuming her adult role as an afterthought (‘Do you think so…? Where did you learn that!’). A fantastic soundtrack is driven by the raw yowl of Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Somebody to Love’, again giving voice to Julia’s desperate quest for meaning, and again emphasising the Carroll connection (Grace Slick was so lastingly impressed with Alice’s Adventures since childhood that she penned acid-trip anthem ‘White Rabbit’ in its honour). Overall, an imperfect but enchanting adaptation — starring a post-Titanic Kate Winslet on her very own voyage of discovery — it’s certainly worth a watch.

To return to the task at hand, Freud’s debut novel is a fascinating non-memoir that had me dashing not only to buy up her other books, but to dredge up family mythology on the real-life Mum and that mysterious famous father back in England. Recommended for fans of far-flung climes, cultural dynasties, old-fashioned fairytales, and help-my-mother-was-a-bohemian narratives (believe me, it’s a solid genre). I could quite easily have read another hundred-plus pages. Best saved for only the sunniest (or most Seasonally Affective Disordered) of days.