Thursday, 27 January 2011

randomness (the third eye)

The TV set is talking to me - after a wicca-themed episode of the Simpsons last week, this week it was a CSI about vampires and werewolves. In the real world, Redditch council wants to take the unusual step of saving money by heating swimming pools by hooking them up to crematorium's incinerators. A local funeral director firm said they thought it "strange and eerie". Surely not. Compound Eye caught my eye and wishful thinking with the cover of Yesterday's Bright Future: Contemporary Concrete - A Failed Utopia. Likewise, Between Channels' bleakly atmospheric brutalist tour of Cumbernauld in photos from 1968. I want Peter Mendelsund's retro modernist redesign of Kafka books, with their mesmerising eye theme. Stephen T Asma thinks that the "four horsemen" of atheism need to look beyond western culture and even embrace the "wacky, superstitious, cloud-cuckoo land" of religion, focusing lots on the invisible spirit worlds of animism, the "Rodney Dangerfield of religion". The Los Angeles Times review a new biography of John Cage, and like them, I wish for a look back at his life that would use Cage's quote "The reality of our life is mystery"as a starting point. Current viewing: following up Evans-Pritchard and the Azande witchcraft and sorcery with a look back at an episode of Jonathan Miller's The Body In Question.

abracadabra pinball machine

Abracadabra Pinball , originally uploaded to flickr by Mjr Kool

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

poisonous abandoned factory in poland

Dishevelled lab photo via Urban Expedition In Poland Photographers
Dozens of photographs (many animated) capture the abandoned Polam Philips factory in Warsaw, former makers of fluorescent lamps and the like, and due for renovation until deadly mercury contamination was discovered. Now revealed in all its disintegrating glory by the urban photographers group (via weburbanist).

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

the omega factor

BBC Scotland's occult Edinburgh-set 70s drama The Omega Factor has been called a forerunner to the X Files, Medium, Supernatural and Sea Of Souls, with bits of The Prisoner. But few have heard of it, or possibly even seen it. Screened once in 1979, there's just one series and 10 episodes, and when it was released on DVD in 2006 The Omega Factor couldn't muster the flimsiest of fluff fanfare newspaper features for nostalgia value.

Being fair, even in 1979 The Omega Factor was never going to be take Britain by storm, no matter how much the BBC press department tried to hype it as "a stunning new thriller" that explored "the night and darkness of human experience". Produced on the kind of minimal budget that meant some sets that would've looked more convincing if they'd just drawn the props on the walls and let the sets instantly collapse at the end of each scene, and shunted into the summer filler viewing schedules, The Omega Factor also came out at the end of a decade where not just TV but popular culture in general seemed to have overdosed on a psychedelic spree of paranormal-themed everything really.

For an audience that had more than its fill of the supernatural, from documentaries about exorcist priests and occult TV detectives to monster-themed crisps and astrological diets, The Omega Factor must've looked like it was merely mopping up the remnants of a bonkers decade. All that was missing was Morecambe & Wise doing a comedy routine about tarot cards and telepathy (if I missed that I need to know about it).

That was then and this is now though, and The Omega Factor is a enjoyable chunk of late-70s telly strangeness that makes the most of its lo-fi special effects, ladles on lots of real and therefore properly atmospheric gothic Edinburgh settings and chucks everything possible into the plotlines, from shady secret government operations to satanic possession. Plus they got a particularly vitriolic response from self-appointed campaigner against immoral TV filth Mary Whitehouse for one of the episodes, so bonus points there. 

The hook of the story is a secret government psychic unit, a newspaper reporter with psychic abilities and a not-highly-original-but-sinister-enough conspiracy to take over the world using mind control. 

Tom Crane (played by James Hazeldine) is a supernatural-specialising features journalist whose latest investigation into "the powers of the mind" leads him to Edinburgh and to a rogue psychic called Drexel. 

We know Drexel's a bad sort, because he's "the man that Crowley wouldn't meet" and he's hiding out under an assumed name as an occult bookshop owner with a wraith-like assistant called Morag (that's wraith-like as in hammered home visually with pale make-up and full-length floaty white Victorian gown from Laura Ashley). 

Drexel warns Crane to leave town, glaring in such a way that you wonder if he's going to say "nudge, nudge, wink wink" like a sinister Eric Idle. Crane doesn't listen (of course), and then Crane's wife dies. Coincidence? Crane thinks not, but when Crane returns to confront them, the shop has been cleared out and Drexel and Morag have disappeared, leaving only a pentagram drawn on the floor. He's not exactly subtle, Drexel.

Crane returns to London, brooding and bitter, and is approached by Roy Martindale, otherwise known as the man who looks like Gordon Burns from Krypton Factor. 

Martindale is the head of Department 7, an Edinburgh-based unofficial government project that's exploring psychic phenomena - ESP, telekenesis, poltergeists, out of body experiences - the full caboodle, no expense spared. They probably even have CIA funding. 

Department 7 want to make full use of "The Omega Factor", something they've defined as "the ultimate potential of the human mind", which could just mean being really, really good at crosswords or putting wallpaper up or making cheese but no one seems to question this. 

Crane, it turns out, has psychic abilities, which Department 7 seemed to know already but Crane didn't, despite several glaring giveaways that don't say much for his journalistic instinct. Still, Department 7 want to make use of Crane to do The Omega Factor thing, and he wants to join, but only because they seem as set on getting Drexel as he is. Which is handy. Drexel at this point is like the go-to bad guy, hopefully with some kind of lavish underground lair and cats. 

What follows is a rollercoaster of episodes that include haunted houses that incur demonic possession and a military experiment that triggers off visions of Pictish soldiers dancing on a hill but mainly follow Crane as he "uncovers the truth", or at least discovers that, as in all supernatural fictional things, no one is quite who or what they appear to be (even Drexel, though there's no lair or cats) and everyone's meddling with forces that, typically, no one understands.

It all ambles along like a less strange Sapphire and Steel, offering a comfortingly familiar sense of fictional dread, but with wild detours throughout, particularly in the special effects department, providing pop-up visual thrills and chills: hallucinogenic cut-up visions, a spectral Morag popping up in Crane's dreams, stark shots of a burning man or a woman dead in a car. And then there's the fifth episode, Powers Of Darkness.

Mary Whitehouse called Powers Of Darkness, "thoroughly evil" and "one of the most disturbing programmes I have ever seen on television" and true enough, this is the showpiece episode of the series. The Omega Factor writers go all out, starting with a student seance and hypnosis session that convinces one girl she's a 16th-century witch and ending with a satanic ritual in a church, complete with dead blackbird on the altar, and Crane battling the devil to free the girl from demonic clutches.

There was a lot that was more shocking on 70s British television, but Powers Of Darkness proved to be the last gasp of the occult decade. Whether it was Mrs Whitehouse that did it or not, The Omega Factor wasn't renewed for second series. Go watch that first series and savour BBC Scotland's occult moment.

flickr photography : lilliput

lilliput, originally uploaded by n_ea_l
... in the enchanted wood

Monday, 24 January 2011

60s japanese animation : the little norse prince

Norse myths meet Japanese folk tales in the 1968 animation The Little Norse Prince, an amazing and, not unexpectedly, sometimes confusing mix of cultures, complete with a lead character who could be Astro Boy's Iron Age cousin.

This was the first film by future Studio Ghibli co-head Isao Takahata, but the Ghibli look and feel are already in place in a determinedly non-Disney film that also squared with the revolutionary zeal of 1968 in its theme of unity. Japanese students loved it. It was, of course, though, meant "for good children everywhere".

Hols is the Little Norse Prince hero from a northern land long ago who battles devils, a pack of ghostly silver wolves and the wolves master, Grunwald, with a sword pulled from the shoulder of an ancient stone giant, and who's helped throughout by a bear and a girl called Hilda, who doesn't know whether she's demon or human. Added bonuses: a nightmarish enchanted forest, a battle with a monstrous pike and an eerie messenger owl.

mystic skull board game

Ideal Games, 1964
Be a witchdoctor and cast a spell to win. Stir the (tiny) cauldron with the (tiny) bone, watch the mystic skull move (well, wobble) and see if you can fill your opponent's voodoo doll (yellow, green, red or blue) with pins before they put the voodoo on you.

B-movie bags

Loving the vintage horror and sci-fi handbags of Ayrshire-based artist Julia Griffin who paints fantastic images from films like Tarantula, The Wasp Woman, Creature From The Black Lagoon and Dracula on to old granny handbags. They're pretty stunning one-offs (and who knows what lurks inside ...) and you can order your own customized favourite too. Contact Julia for prices and availability.

randomness : january (same place, different time)

I had one of those weeks of good things coming out of nowhere, like happening across a wicca-themed episode of The Simpsons with Lisa becoming a witch and the townspeople out to persecute them, complete with placards - "More spelling bees, less spells on bees". Thanks also to the wonderful things magazine for tipping us. Hattie on BBC4 did end up being good, and though it was particularly weird to see Aidan Turner as an early 60s lothario, he was back in vampire-guise as Mitchell in the new series of Being Human by last night, so that was a swift bit of time-travelling in a way. 

Being Human came closest to the dark humour of John Landis's An American Werewolf In London (a subtle nod throughout the first two series) in the defining scene of this series' opening episode, where Lia was introducing Mitchell to his victims, still hanging around in the railway carriage where he slaughtered them. Hopefully there'll be more of that crossover of gruesomeness and very black comedy. Their tiki-themed 70s-decorated b&b hideaway in Barry also continues the nod to late 60s and early 70s film compilations of horror tales. I keep thinking of Roy Castle in the jazz club, pinching the voodoo ritual tune for his band with horrific results, in Dr Terror's House Of Horrors. Likewise, there were guest stars all over the place, like a latter-day Tales From The Crypt, with Paul Kaye a Joker-like vampire baddie, EastEnders' Lacey Turner as Mitchell's purgatory guide and an unexpectedly impressive Robson Green as a tough werewolf.

Meantime, while being distracted by stories of pear-shaped UFOs in East Kilbride or coffin guitar cases, I've just booked a place on one of the walks in April through the London of Victorian horror writer Arthur Machen (via the wonderland that is A Bad Witch's Blog) that's part of the Museum Of London's Urban Myths season, kind of the crossroads where psychogeography and horror fiction meet. But with pubs.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

witchsploitation book covers

... a few degrees of witchsploitation on my bookshelves, but still tame stuff compared to some of what's elsewhere online, not least in the Sexy Witch archives (along with plenty of not-so-salacious amazing images, in case you were wondering, or maybe you weren't ...)

witches who wash their wigs on wednesday ...

... are weird, according to Sesame Street

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

the bewitching hattie jacques

Eric Sykes had a point when he was commenting on the BBC4 TV drama about his comedic partner and fellow Carry On movies star Hattie Jacques. I'd rather see more about her comedic abilities than the story of her affair with a younger man. Luckily, there's The Pleasure Garden (thanks Christina Lamb), which is full of Jacques' playful wit and grace. In this 'poetic ode' fantasy from 1952 by American poet James Broughton, Jacques skips and dances through the ruins, fields and trees of the old Crystal Palace grounds in London as a witch-like character who frees mortals to pursue their desires with her magic shawl. Her real-life husband of the time, John Le Mesurier, plays a funereal minister of public behaviour. Mooching around in undertaker's costume, (complete with cool round shades and top hat) he pins leaves to the naked statues and generally tries to rein in the abhorrent liberal excesses on show so that he can turn the park into a cemetery.

The Pleasure Garden won the Prix de Fantaisie Poetique at the Cannes Film Festival in 1954, then dwindled into obscurity before being rescued and reissued by the BFI last year as a lost odd gem. The opening scenes look little more than quaint bohemian fiction, but it's when Jacques arrives, swooping into view like a mischievous gypsy fairy, that the film sparkles. There's lots of Alice In Wonderland, Midsummer Night's Dream and the films of Jean Cocteau in there, as Jacques's free spirit casts spells to allow characters - including a rare performance from future free cinema director Lindsay Anderson - to live out their dreams, before a tug-of-war finale between art and heart.

Set among the neglected original Crystal Palace terraces, The Pleasure Garden captures places that were about to disappear - the colonnade as well as the bandstand where Jacques steps and twirls balletically were knocked down later and many of the statues carted off to auction in 1957. But the film also explores visions of the past and future, harking back to an imagined idyll (Jacques character is even called Albion) and looking forward with bright hopes. Made in the shadow of the Festival Of Britain, the supernatural events that happen in this derelict former glory reflect a sense of trying to break free of the postwar debris, both literal and metaphorical. That this seems to play out in the costumes is the most strikingly modernist element about it. Victorian values literally go up against burgeoning beatnik free expression, from hats and buttoned-up outfits to knotted hankies and clothes discarded to reveal loose undergarments, like some kind of pre-subcultures battle of sartorial wills.

All this pairs neatly on the BFI DVD release with The Phoenix Tower, a 1957 documentary about the design and building of the BBC Crystal Palace television tower. No Hattie Jacques or costumes on the latter, but plenty of larger-than-life Meccano engineering and sky-high thinking.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

jon pertwee, some witches and a megalith

Doctor Who battles The Daemons in 1971, complete with a posh witch, a Knightrider-style responsive vintage car and a coven in a cursed cavern beneath a church. All the early 70s popular culture favourites are here - archaoleology and the occult combined with modern (and futuristic technology). Includes the classic drinking game phraseology of "tampering with forces he doesn't understand." Uncanny.

alex sanders on masks, magical detective work and computers

In Bexhill-on-Sea, Alex Sanders, the self-styled king of the witches and Alexandrian witchcraft  leader, performing a fire ritual, and talking about using a mask to channel an Aztec spirit, claiming he works for the police in the department of occult investigation and being a witch in the computer age: "Fantastic. I'll kill the bastard who stole my computer. I was getting everything worked out astrologically."

snap, crackle, pop: museums of electricity worldwide

Still awed at the Museum of Electricity in Bournemouth, I started looking for more of them. So now I have new excuses to visit Lisbon, Japan and the states of Washington, Minnesota and Texas, among other places.

I like the look of the mammoth machines, model village and animated models of Lisbon ...

... and the big horns and theremin at Bellingham.

But, perhaps not surprisingly, a particular favourite was Robert Little's backyard Wonder World Of Science (or, as it's not so prosaically called, The Little & Farquhar Science Museum) in Temple, Texas, which celebrates the age of "mystifying" and "spectacular" electronic and other wonders, complete with hypnosis wheels, vintage periodic tables and glowing fluorine balls.

Jedi mindball looks worth trying at the Bakken Museum in Minneapolis though (as does seeing its Victor Frankenstein laboratory and electric aquarium).

Worthy mentions also go out to Electrokinetica, a virtual version of a hoped-for real celebration of the power and magic of arcane electrical machines, the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum in Cornwall, which also has "sci-art" kinetic sculptures and a cable woodland trail as well as an archive of cable and early wireless technology in tunnels, and the Electric Power Historical Museum in Yokohama, Japan, where the 700 exhibits include the "Charming Banzai iron Tower", the "three holy durables" of 50s consumer electrics and a manhole. Yes, a manhole.

dance of the dead : marie-gabrielle rotie's mythic

Choreographer, dancer and butoh proselytizer Marie-Gabrielle Rotie makes mesmerising use of the supernatural to explore fear, memory and death in her dance works. I'm a little bit contemporary dance-phobic, but the montage footage of her latest piece, Mythic, which is still touring, makes me want to see it live, or at least buy the DVD. Rotie's previous production, Black Mirror, drew on the silent classic Nosferatu and vampiric imagery, but Mythic provides an arguably more natural entwining of inspirations. Victorian photography of spiritualist mediums mesh with ideas about spirits, transmutation and transformation from the subversive postwar Japanese dance form known as butoh in sequences that bring alive the sense of something other than Rotie controlling the dancer. A discordant, echoing and resonant experimental soundtrack and aptly dim and moody lighting provide a suitably atmospheric frame.

Rich Mix, E1, 22 Jan; Goldsmiths University, SE14, 19th March, or you can buy a DVD of Mythic for £20 (see Rotie Productions for contact details)

Monday, 17 January 2011

echoes : caligari's children

still from The Whip And The Body, 1963

 "... there are distinguished terror-movies which are not 'tales' in the accepted sense at all; which make their effect through the evocations of an atmosphere, of moods and associations: through flights of steps that lead we know not where, dark and endless corridors through which shadows wander without apparent aim or goal, self-opening doors, billowing curtains, hands clutching or stretched out in supplication, veils floating on misty waters."

Caligari's Children : The Film As Tale Of Terror by SS Prawer (OUP, 1980)

"down here, you can almost hear the heart of the city beating" : shelagh delaney & the white bus

In the mid-80s, when Derrida's ideas about hauntology were still the preserve of academia and nostalgia for a utopian future still had a big mushroom cloud hanging over it, Morrissey was expressing a reimagined past, not just in the music of the Smiths, but in the visual imagery. I can't even think of their music, an echoey jangle filling my ears, without thinking of those singles sleeves - Pat Phoenix on Shakespeare's Sister, or Yootha Joyce on Ask, or Truman Capote leaping in the air for The Boy With The Thorn In His Side, each image graphically designed and renewed for modern poster material in faded pastels.

Most of all I think of the one that seemed to sum up the Smiths for me, even though it came out almost at the end of their career - Shelagh Delaney, the front cover star of Girlfriend In A Coma. I'd read A Taste Of Honey, Delaney's 1958 playwriting debut, somewhere in that time, while soaking up anything late 50s or 60s by the yard, and it stood out a mile. It's still one of my favourite pieces of writing, play or otherwise, smart and daring and strident and earthy - much, as I'd discover, like Delaney herself. A clip on TV of her walking along a canal and talking about feeling like a tethered horse, waiting to be set free, plays back in my memory from time to time, on some kind of endless loop.

I had to wait years to see more than that loop, and then two happened almost at the same time - an episode of the pioneering 60s arts and culture programme Monitor, all about Delaney and her Salford, and Lindsay Anderson's The White Bus, a collaboration with Delaney based on a story from her 1963 collection Sweetly Sings The Donkey.

Delaney's original story had been a response to the vitriol poured on A Taste Of Honey by her home town. Salford-born and raised, Delaney's forthright approach to language and taboos were too much for some, but Lindsay Anderson, an early champion of A Taste Of Honey, would take things a step further with The White Bus. Satire was joined by surrealist and Brechtian experimentation as, together, Delaney and Anderson poked fun at pompous dignitaries, ignorant town planners and the facelessness of modern society.

The narrative, or what there is of it, follows a northern girl (Patricia Healey) from her suicidal secretarial job in anonymous, confusing London back via a train journey to Salford, where she takes a city tour led by the Lord Mayor (a magnificently pompous, and creepy, Arthur Lowe).

The modern utopia is readily lampooned - the tour is meant to show off the beauty and heritage of Salford, but instead shows them mammoth, noisy factories, abandoned buildings and empty council estates. The library is grand but "full of dirty books" says the Mayor, the schoolchildren are being educated for the future by rhymes and songs by rote, the performance at the centre built for the community is of a German workers song and Salford's population only feature when the girl leaves the tour group (turned into faceless mannequins by a civil defense demonstration) and goes into a traditional neighbourhood to buy some fish and chips. 

The result is like equal parts Jean-Luc Godard at his mid-60s most playful, Jacques Tati wryness (not least in the tiddley-di-dee-pom soundtrack), Bed Sitting Room-subversiveness and, with its sly digs at bureaucracy and cut ups of fantasy and reality, as well as colour and black and white, a big influence on The Monkees Head.

But The White Bus works best seen in a double bill with the Monitor documentary. In this short 15-minute film from 1960 Delaney talks about the vitality of teeming Salford, down to the "virile" language of the market and streets, but also about how the city is restless, with the docks.  It's a place where "so much seems to be old, and crumbling, and neglected", and yet when they replace the old, it's with sterile places where the people have no connection to one another. It's the same with the people, she says, including herself, but especially with young people, who leave Salford to find opportunity and end up just as lost in London or any other big city. As in the last scenes in The White Bus, where the streets of old Salford are filled with the sounds and smoke of a community, and the owners of the chip shop sing and their conversation dances around the girl while they tidy up around her, so it's true for Delaney in the Monitor film, in the cramped streets and cobbled alleys of the decaying town, that, "down here you can almost feel the heart of the city beating."

sammy davis jr's devilish tv show

It doesn't get much more mainstream than Sammy Davis Jr pitching a sitcom about a minion of the devil trying to get souls for his master. Perhaps not so surprising if you're familiar with the satanic times of the candy man, but still, even the Rat Packer couldn't get the Church Of Satan primetime subliminal advertising, and despite featuring Christopher Lee as Lucifer and Jack Klugman as potential soul recruit, Poor Devil got no further than a pilot in 1973. Perfect timing, set decor-wise, though.

witchcraft, sorcery & sociology

Published in 1970, and with a modernist graphic design cover that could be a Ghostbox album cover or even a modern hauntological philosophy primer, Max Marwick's collection of sociological studies of witchcraft and sorcery seems to capture the crest of an era of the occult crossing over into mainstream popular culture in unprecedented. There's nothing as contemporary as the west London coven of self-styled king of the witches Alex Sanders, Hammer horror films or Ouija board games within though. Instead, a selection of academic essays from the previous 40 years explore theories, definitions, the ethnography and cosmology of witchcraft, from the classical world to the Salem witch-trials, Slavonia to Africa. Bronislaw Maslinowski's 1925 work Magic, Science And Religion is the oldest essay in there, but the newest, the tantalising titled A Modern American Witch-Craze by A. Rebecca Cardozo, from 1968, still only reaches as far as the 50s witch-hunts of McCarthyism. The key to the collection is in the dedication and lead essay, as Marwick pays tribute to EE Evans-Pritchard, "to whom all modern students of witchcraft and sorcery are deeply indebted". Evans-Pritchard was one of the founding fathers of social anthropology, laying a cornerstone with his groundbreaking African studies, published in 1937 as Witchcraft, Oracles And Magic Among The Azande. Evans-Pritchard died in 1973, but the 1990s series Strangers Abroad dedicated an episode called Strange Beliefs (see below) to his work, and returned to the Azande to see how much, and how little, had changed in their world.

Tangential stuff - researching EE Evans-Pritchard led to learning that his daughter, Deirdre Evans-Pritchard, is a folklore, Middle East and anthropology expert who's explored modern urban folk fashion, imagination and the cinema, as well as delving into how the media creates our sense of history, time and place. Thanks so much to Kevin Younger for giving me this gem of a book.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

rip Trish Keenan

I was so sad to hear of the death of Trish Keenan of Broadcast yesterday, far too young and still with so much to offer, and want to add to the expressions of sympathy for her family and friends. I first fell for the sound of Broadcast in the mid-90s, and was pulled quietly in further with each release, as the band seemed to take inspirational leaps into the unknown. That was as true for Trish's voice as for the Broadcast sound. At once ethereal and yet grounded in some unsettling otherworld, listening to Broadcast over the years was as surprising as it was mesmerising, as Trish's voice seemed to develop in tandem with the music she made with the band, expanding in range and experimental playfulness. I couldn't wait to see what would follow Broadcast And The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults Of The Radio Age, and also to hear more of Trish in interviews. An excerpt of her from Joseph Stannard's Broadcast interview for The Wire magazine in 2009 sums up why.

"When you make music in backwards time travel it's shadowy or faint impression, as though you're looking back through two clouded lenses, one is the time travel portal the other is a false recollection process. In a way, when I go back to my own memories I feel as if that's not me either, when I think about myself as 13 or 20 I feel a disconnection from that person. It's the same with dreams. When you recall the events it never really happened to the waking you, but to the dreaming you. Memories are waking dreams and dreams are sleeping memories, when you make music inspired by this process you begin to break down conventional form in the same way that dreams and memories never start at the beginning or finish at the end. It seems to me that the past is always happening now, all previous events have positioned us here philosophically, geographically, and in the present we are always in memory ... unless you're a Zen monk of course."

Thursday, 13 January 2011

devils' museum, kaunas

(Oh, you'll want to turn the volume off on the YouTube clip, by the way...)

I'm pretty sure that the Devils' Museum in Kaunas wasn't in my Baltic States guidebook when I visited Lithuania in 2005, but I do know I went to Kaunas to visit the museum celebrating the town's best-known son, Georges Maciunas, the founder of the Fluxus movement that delighted in mainly New York-based and dada-inspired art mischief in the 60s. So maybe it's best I remember happening across it while in town for the day and trying to figure out what to do next to escape the constant pouring rain before I headed back to Vilnius by train. I do remember cursing silently for forgetting my camera, but I still remember three floors crammed full of devil-related arcana from around the world. There were cheeky devils on bicycles and scary African devil masks, devil smoking pipes and Slavic wood carvings, Hitler and Stalin as devils and alcohol and playing cards-related devils, all from the collection of one man, a pretty nice-looking old gentleman with a beard pictured at the entrance as I remember, who'd set the museum up in the mid-60s. You could also bring your own devil to the collection too, and though I'm sure there must be some kind of kitsch Scottish wee devil in a kilt I could've found, I didn't know this at the time. You can fly direct to Kaunas now, it seems, so hopefully they've got some new additions to the collection, but it was quite overwhelming as it was, being alone with all those Lucifers big and small, in towering black and red glass cabinets, art and folk myth and popular culture together in such a small and understated place. All the more unnerving for the lack of chamber of horrors gimmicks. Look it up, or if you can, go there. I've gotta say it, it's hellishly good.

revived: the futuristic dream of the Balfron Project

Balfron Tower by Karina Yarv
Amelia's magazine captures the revitalised fascination in brutalist utopian dreams in a feature based around Simon Terrill's show The Balfron Project at London's Nunnery Gallery, with added illustration work of Erno Goldfinger's pre-Trellick Tower capital dream, Balfron Tower, and mentions of the "streets in the sky" of nearby Poplar's (unlisted and so unprotected architecturally) Robin Hood Gardens. Reimagining the present as well as the past, maybe.

covetable: 60s airline playing cards

Playing cards from the 60s by Braniff Airlines, featuring handy Spanish and Portuguess translations for phrases such as "Can I take this on the plane?" and "Do you have a smaller one?" and elegant illustrations. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. It's too easy to fall into the dream of jet travel. Likewise to reimagine the utopian promise of industrial design.

space age Russian stamps

John Kricfalusi explores the art of Russian stamps from the golden era of the space age, from chickens and satellites to Santa being an "Alien commie spy" on his ever-fab blog.

Monday, 10 January 2011

monster movie posters

The Creeping Flesh Lot (Columbia, 1972) Belgian Poster, uploaded to flickr by Aeron Alfrey

More monster goodness from the movie poster collection over at Monster Brains, also on flickr, alongside a book covers and illustrations. Now with added Godzilla since this batch went up.

randomness : january

I don't know what's been more odd, dead birds (and fish) falling from the sky (or dead devil crabs washing up on a beach in Kent - it's the "devil crabs" bit that really catches the headline eye) on New Year's Eve, or Andrew Marr introducing his Sunday morning BBC TV show with news of the Romanian witches throwing hexes on the government because they're now being taxed (obligatory entertaining audience-grabber, but still a surprising combination), or discovering the spaced-out world of metaphysical artist (and former Salvador Dali buddy and 60s mod model) Jon Stevens, who paints people silver as a kind of, well, alchemical statement of immortality (above, YouTube footage of Salvador Dali and the Silver People in 1975). Actually, I think the oddest was definitely the Silver People.

the moon and the sledgehammer

"The world's all to pieces, isn't it? They're like a lot of rats and mice in England. They don't know what they are going to do. It's a good job the moon's well up there too. I've got room enough to swing a sledgehammer underneath him without hitting of him. He's well out of my way. But if they had their way they'd get the moon down you know and they'd be trying to wheel him along the road on two wheels ..."

Good to hear of a rare screening of The Moon And The Sledgehammer, happening at the wonderfully-named new Brighton club of nature-inspired culture, The Hedgerow Society, on 21 January. I forget when I saw this early 70s documentary (somewhere in the suitably distant past) but finding the trailer on YouTube proved, even in two minutes, that it was as unsettling and compelling as I vaguely remembered. It's like a lived outsider art, with a curious family who live an isolated, unworldly existence in East Sussex woodland, cut off from modern society, obsessed with their steam engines, talking of the dangers of TV or the existence of sea-serpents, and with dark undercurrents to the apparent pastoral idyll.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

the witching hour: darkness and the architectural uncanny

Abandon In Place by David Rowan
Plenty to look forward to this year including, hopefully, an intriguing London art show later this month. With a title like The Witching Hour: Darkness And The Architectural Uncanny, this exhibition might need a suitably hauntology ipod soundtrack, especially when, among the international names featured like Richard Billingham and Ged Quinn, there's also work by artists from the West Midlands (home of Jim Jupp's Ghostbox label) such as David Rowan (whose own work, pictured, explores the broken dreams of modern architecture and urban mythologies) and Sally Payen. Eerie suburban views, dreamlike explorations of the subconscious and spectral industrial gasholders are among the tantalising promises of a show about the way architecture can intimidate, grandly set in the John Soane-designed Georgian surroundings of the PM Gallery. If you can't make it in person, the Independent has a handy virtual gallery of some of the images set to be on show.

PM Gallery, W5, 21 Jan to 12 Mar

Saturday, 8 January 2011

whittlesea straw bear festival

Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival of times gone by, from their archive
Following on from my recent, and probably thankfully, short-lived accidental obsession with straw goats, I'm looking forward to seeing pictures of the annual Straw Bear Festival next weekend in the "ancient Fenland town" (Wikipedia's words) of Whittlesea in Cambridgeshire. I promise, I'll stop before we get to straw crafts.

In fine folk festival style, the Bear (a man dressed up in straw) dances through the town, with its keeper and musicians in tow, the straw gathered by farmers ("That'll do for the Bear" as the harvesters used to say, apparently). The celebration, which also includes Mummers plays marks Plough Tuesday (the first Monday after Twelfth Night), and tying up with the European tradition of animated agricultural creations, the Bear is  now joined by one from Germany where, as it turns out, they're also fond of their straw bears (around Shrove Tuesday). 

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the Straw Bear Festival is a tradition that died out sometime at the beginning of the early 20th century, only to be revived at the tailend of the 1970s, a decade marked by, among other things, a resurgence of interest in paganism, folklore and all things ancient, earthy and frequently, unintentionally, uncanny. 

In the interim, Fairport Convention/Steeleye Span/Albion Band founder member Ashley Hutchings provided inspiration by including the Bear's song (accompanied by a spoken word detailing of the custom) on his 1976 Rattlebone And Ploughjack release, a time-honoured weirdy-beardy 70s album of English Morris and Molly dancing tunes and spoken word history, and a contender for Stuart Maconie's Freak Zone on BBC 6 Music if ever there was one.  

More recently, Leicestershire indie band Young Knives used a fantastic image of the Straw Bear for the cover of their Mercury-nominated Voices Of Animals And Men album, which raises the curious thought that fans of the band might've been inspired to add the Straw Bear to their festival circuit. More likely, they'd buy the fine T-shirt, so spreading the word, or at least confusing and bemusing those who saw it. Buy the 30th anniversary Straw Bear Festival badge and you too can complete the link between arcane oddities-lover and modern indie-folk fan. It's not Wicker Man, but it is very perfectly strange.