Friday 29 November 2019

New Wave SF: Graham Charnock's 'First And Last Words'


 His new book – ‘LAST WORDS’, is a collection of highly idiosyncratic 
poetry. But Graham Charnock began as part of the ‘New Worlds’ 
 New Wave SF revolution, and recorded with 
 Michael Moorcock’s Deep Fix

 ‘Come on, climb into my web, and toast eternity with me 
 as time tick ticks out. Let’s have one last dance together’ 
 (“A Night On Bare Mountain”) 

The deep maroon cover of ‘New Worlds no.184’ (November 1968) is straplined ‘SPECIAL ALL-NEW WRITERS ISSUE’, and it features Graham Charnock’s “Crim”. At just twenty-one, he was the youngest contributor, but of course, he’d already been writing for some time. In his early teens he recalls submitting tyro-texts to the magazine’s previous editor, EJ ‘Ted’ Carnell. ‘There was “Decline And Fall”, a three-hundred-word plotless vignette, which came back with the note, ‘so sorry, our minimum is three-thousand words’. I promptly shot off a three-thousand-worder. That came back too, on a bare slip this time…’ Then Michael Moorcock’s editorial regime set the controls for the heart of change, innovation, and new blood. Robert Holdstock was there, alongside M John Harrison… as well as names such as Brian Vickers who made his mark, then moved on. Yet within a short space of months, Graham Charnock would be co-editing his own ‘New Worlds’ issues.

Born 18 November 1946, after spending time at Greenford Grammar School, Graham was living in Alperton, Middlesex, working as an executive ‘with a large West End advertising agency’. A setting that provides ‘much of the experience and conflict’ for “Crim”, reconfigured into exaggerated metaphor. In accordance with New Wave dictates there are no spaceships or alien worlds, the medium itself is now the message. JG Ballard sets the tone, with less plot or characterisation and more stream-of-consciousness innovative literary experiment. ‘CRIM is a button that somebody pushed and then buried the button. CRIM is an igloo that too many people have crawled into. CRIM looks after its employees and all that shit.’ There are detonations of image grenades that soak the narrator’s body in sepia auras, as tactile as putty. And explosions of wild invention. The coffee-machine is plotting to poison the staff, perpetrating a crime against humanity. Velma Vonay is still having orgasms caused by an illicit air-strike of heat-seeking Sex-film Warheads. In a Total Warfare Area they plan a campaign to counter ‘Pain’, a suicidal religious cult, using military-assault terminology. There is a drop-in paragraph with characters called A and B. In shock-phrases of sexual violence, a Chinese girl has hung herself on a monkey-puzzle tree, ‘Jones fires off a burst at the young corpse. The soft ammunition explodes in the body, pulverizing it into rainbow iridescence.’ Although the story ends in hope, its rhythm is downbeat.

Then, collected into ‘Best SF Stories From New Worlds 8’ (Panther, 1974), “The Erogenous Zone” forms one of what are announced as ‘ten voyages beyond the far reaches of speculation’, yet seems to occupy elements of the same “Crim” continuum. Originally featured as his fourth ‘New Worlds’ appearance – in no.192 (July 1969), the ciphers A and B reappear, but as Craven Image drives his automatic towards Media Assault Limited’s Co-ordination Centre he hits and kills an idiot-kid ‘with hydrocephalic forehead and glazed eyes.’ The text is rifted with confrontation, in ways that twenty-first-century sensitivities might find offensive. The Dresden bombing was an atrocity. In a war against fascism, there were anti-Semitic taunts among the allies. Taken through sense-distorting clouds of hallucinogenic mist to a strange National Hospital, Image has sex with ex-stripper nurse Hedy. ‘Hedy was an automaton whose fingers were scalpels. Her private parts were choked with rust and he could feel nothing for her. She held up a portion of his gut and said, ‘see, I told you I could do it.’

By then, Graham had established the parameters of his continuum. “The Death Layout” (in ‘New Worlds no.188’, March 1969) is another fragmented hand-out from the same campaign, using its William Burroughs cut-up textual techniques. The various fragments compile into sections of a continuous novel, a single work in instalments. It is next level. There were no Spin-Doctors back then, but they were spinning. There were Focus Groups, although they didn’t call them Focus Groups. Compared to today, media was in a state of relative infancy. But Graham was ahead of the curve. ‘Vance’ might have been Vance Packard who delineated the subliminal role of ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ (1957). Marshall McLuhan was furnishing the Global Village with electro-interconnections. ‘This is a TV camera. It writes the history of now. Its moving finger comprises the elementary particles. The mosaic of its cathode ray image is a jigsaw puzzle with an infinite numbers of solutions.’ That reality is not so much fixed, as determined by malleable degrees of perception. 

The steady drip-drip-drip of Fake News creates a society in which truth is negotiable. While this is the new frontier that Graham was already charting in 1969, ‘not yesterday’s environment, but the reality of this minute, this second, this nanosecond.’ It has even greater currency now, when Graham tells me ‘the sophistication and ease of modern CGI has a lot to answer for, I fear, when it can seamlessly reconstruct old footage of dead stars such as Audrey Hepburn for chocolate adverts. Soon reality won’t count for much. We will believe anything we see, no matter how unlikely, and our TV myths will go down for future generations as ‘reality’ and ‘actuality’. It might even be possible to reconstruct Donald Trump as a Humanitarian Saviour!’

Is this the fitting subject for SF under its revised guise of Speculative Fiction? Older readers were less convinced. Where is the First Contact encounter with tentacular life-forms on lost asteroids? Oldsters were also less enthused about the seemingly gratuitous loveless sex. But wasn’t there supposed to be a new evolving morality fuelled on contraception, sexual revolution and the expanded possibilities of repealed censorship? Awash with testosterone perhaps, unaware that female-empowerment may have gender-agendas other than as three-hole sex-toys. Yet it’s difficult not to enjoy the passage about ‘her nursing slip was torn over one huge pendulous breast which trembled, recording the MAL bombardment like a fleshy seismograph.’

Pop-culture references are scattered, the Beatles “And Your Bird Can Sing” in “Crim”. Hendrix in “Sub-Entropic Evening” (in ‘New Worlds no.191’, June 1969), and a guitar ‘whereby cells, like crystals, could be made to resonate. The guitar broadcasts a special signal that affects the cells in the visual cortex of the brain in this way.’ Langdon Jones editorialises about Michael Moorcock’s fiction technique as utilised in his ‘Jerry Cornelius’ tales, with ‘his method of construction as being closer in many ways to musical composition… stories are conceived in terms of tone, repeated images, quotes from his own earlier work and the work of others.’ This is also true of Graham’s contributions. The basement dialogue between Jones and Dragon in “Sub-Entropic Evening” has a more conventional structure, although Velma – traumatised and incapable of speech following her father’s repeated reprimands, works for CRIM, and endures a strange interlude with a paunchy over-jowled man who mistakes her for a prostitute. There is an atrocity Arena, Cap-Sul-ads, lizard visions… and the Pain cult.

For the inner coterie of ‘New Worlds’ writers it was an intoxicating year-zero insurrection, subverting and reinventing texts, perpetrating intellectual games in experimental prose and poetry bewildering to outsider non-initiates. Over the decade event horizon, the January 1970 issue no.197 includes Graham’s “The Suicide Machines” set amid an Oxford heatwave, with recognisable characters Velma, Dragon and Jones, plus Felix Apropos engaged in a dialogue about pornography. It is ‘art with none of this capital letter shit… that’s true art, the art of reality.’ Apropos returns to the small dusty room which had been his student squat, there are the names of previous occupants scrawled on the wall – including his own tight controlled hand. As he leaves, he casually tosses a grenade into the room and destroys it. The past exists only to be obliterated. There are unexplained ‘Feedies’, which only the issue’s editorial reveals as ‘totally subservient, humanised robots’.

Beyond stories in ‘New Writings In SF’, Damon Knight’s ‘Orbit’ and the ‘Other Edens’ anthologies, the ‘New Worlds’ connection continues, into its later reincarnation as a thick paperback series edited by David Garnett. The teasing conundrum “On The Shores Of A Fractal Sea” (in ‘New Worlds no.3’) draws on Graham’s close encounters with Rock music, via his contributions to Michael Moorcock’s Deep Fix. The fictional deceased Rock-star narrator persists in a virtual Lagoona where ‘the beach goes on forever’, and where he works on his concept-cycle triple-album. Maybe being dead means he’s unaware that Hawkwind’s seventh studio album is also called ‘Quark, Strangeness And Charm’ (Charisma, June 1977)! He talks to shape-changing French, to whom his reality exists as ‘a fragment of cloned tissue… awash with oxy-infused saline.’

Next, “Harringay” (in no.4, 1994) is a curiously ingenious piece featuring a cloned Andy Warhol in a world where viable DNA-relics of historical characters are traded in hard-copy print-outs of ‘Clone And Mart’ (and there is still a BHS store!). Andy shops at a new Tesco, and muses about resurrection-cloned buildings. Then, in “A Night On Bare Mountain” (in the August 1997 edition), Venn addresses Gance in rambling discourse, recalling memories and incidents they’ve shared, allowing the reader in only gradually. ‘The world ends at midnight, Gance. Have you heard?’ as fundamentalist missiles fly overhead. A second speeding gonzo section is both satirical and satyrical, it shifts to a kind of post-apocalypse bayou fuelled on the rush of cyberpunk, with Athene who has needles grafted beneath her cuticles into ‘a walking acupuncture’. There are clever lines such as ‘our history lesson for today is how history lessens,’ and music-savvy fake-news about ‘you heard how Elvis landed on the Moon, right? One small step for a man, one giant leap for King Creole.’ It closes with a neat Arthur C Clarke inversion ‘one by one the stars were coming on.’ Although Venn’s quiz-question about movie versions of Richard Matheson’s ‘I Am Legend’ obviously precedes the 2007 Will Smith remake!

 Garnett also brings readers up to date with Grahams subsequent ‘proto-Goth group Smackhead’ and three solo albums of ‘country swamp jazz’ on his own Drop label, presaging his YouTube presence nailing “King Of Stupid”, set to acoustic Blues guitar. As well as ‘Mutant Surgery’, his ‘bi-monthly fetish magazine devoted to body piercing and scarification.’

When questioned about the wide spread of his work, Graham tells me ‘I think I understand you perfectly. I can only say I’ve never been interested in being a one-trick pony, and have always felt strangely sorry for my many successful friends who have knuckled down to one discipline and become very adept at it. In just the way I am not. Like I feel sorry for classically trained musicians who can never step outside the boundaries of their discipline and training. I have classically trained pianists as friends who simply do not understand me when I talk about improvising or free-form music. I have never been bothered by lack of professional success. I have toiled in the book industry most of my working life and it has kept body and soul together for both me and my family, leaving me free to flit from artistic flower to artistic flower in true dilettante fashion. I have no complaints.’

For his ‘Last Words’ (2019) collection, poetry is the language – and weapon, of choice. His poems are songs that become poems or poems that become songs, or simply songs that ‘got ideas above their station’. They’re a dialogue with his neglected guitar about daring to disturb long silences, with plectrums and pencils, but they’re also image grenades, spiky with contrarian indiscretions. A shock-confrontational “Jo Cox” seen through the warped mindset of the Labour politician’s deranged assassin. Stark about Srebrenica ‘ethic cleansing’. Or junkie Elvis overdosing in Tehachapi exile. Words explode like a match bursting into flame, written in napalm image-gel. Spitting phrases like machine-gun bullets. Sometimes they unfashionably rhyme, as songs do, sometimes they are scatological, but they don’t care. They don’t conform to anyone’s preconceptions, and are better because of it.

“Creatures Of The Night” observes ‘what all you humans do’, while “Northern Soul” compares kids dancing in Manchester clubs, those young men who ‘collapse in gutters, and rest their heads on kerbstones’, to salmon ‘singing along to Aretha’ while ‘flaying their bodies through scouring rocks’, Graham finds in favour of the ‘dancing silver of fish.’ Each line is touch-papered with fissionable material, barbed with the stubborn curmudgeonly humour of his ‘Facebook’ posts. Perhaps pretending a fake normality, from dementia, bereavement, and the beach at Dunkirk lost in the endless unfurl of years, where ‘new time lies like a crust on the mantle of the earth’, to the biography of “My Friend Kong” who ‘had anger issues’. Savage with tenderness, twisting hard shapes out of softness. Until the extinction-event asteroid comes. Disclaiming ‘this is what happens when you let rabble words run wild without supervision.’

‘I don’t need any of you any more, but I still love you.’ Graham once said ‘a cynic still has beliefs. He’s a disappointed romantic’. It seems that’s still true.


May 1966 – first issue of fanzine ‘Phile’, edited and produced by Graham Charnock. It survives for seven issues until 1968

January 1967 – published letter in ‘Speculation no.15’, a fanzine edited by Peter R Weston

February 1968 – ‘Vector no.48’ book review of Kit Reed’s ‘Mister Da V And Other Stories’ 

November 1968 – ‘New Worlds no.184’ edited by Michael Moorcock and James Sallis. Includes “Crim”

March 1969 – ‘New Worlds no.188’ edited by Michael Moorcock and Charles Platt. Includes “The Death Layout”

June 1969 – ‘New Worlds no.191’ edited by Langdon Jones. Includes “Sub-Entropic Evening”

July 1969 – ‘New Worlds no.192’ edited by Langdon Jones. Includes “The Erogenous Zone”, collected into ‘Best SF Stories From New Worlds 8’ edited by Michael Moorcock (Panther, March 1974)

November 1969 – ‘New Worlds no.195’ edited by Graham Charnock and Charles Platt

December 1969 – ‘New Worlds no.196’ edited by Graham Charnock and Graham Hall

January 1970 – ‘New Worlds no.197’ edited by Charles Platt, features “The Suicide Machines”

December 1970 – ‘Orbit 8’ edited by Damon Knight, includes “The Chinese Boxes”

July 1974 – Pat Charnock produces first 46-page issue of fanzine ‘Wrinkled Shrew’, drawing on members of Ratfandom group. The title survives for eight thick issues, the last dated April 1979

December 1974 – ‘Tree Rot Too’ fanzine edited by Leroy Kettle, includes “The Mind Pebbles”

1975 – ‘New Writings In SF no.27’ edited by Kenneth Bulmer, includes “The Observer” polished crafted prose, even on perfectly worldscaped Jocaster, Klien is uneasy, ‘vast beauty was paid for with vast ugliness’, brutal love-making and the ritual suicide of native forest-people. Graham Charnock recalls that ‘Ken was a good and kind man and supportive of the young writers that we were. I sold him my story and he printed it, but afterwards he confessed to me he didn’t have the foggiest idea what it was about. Well, that made two of us!’

March 1975 – LP ‘The New World’s Fair’ by Michael Moorcock And The Deep Fix (United Artists UAG 29732). Graham writes “You’re A Hero”, “Come To The Fair” and “In The Name Of Rock And Roll”, he also plays guitar and provides vocals. Reissued as CD by Esoteric Recordings ECLEC2026, in 2008

August 1975 – first issue of six-page fanzine ‘Vibrator’ edited and produced by Graham Charnock. No.2 September. No.3 October. No.4 ten-page issue January 1976. No.5 March 1976. No.6 eight-pages, March 1977. No.7 revived as eight-page issue April 2003, with four-page no.8. Relaunched with a vol.2 no.1 September 2013

August 1979 – ‘Seacon ’79 Programme Book’ edited by Graham Charnock, free handout for attendees at the Thirty-Seventh World SF Convention at Brighton, with Brian Aldiss and Bob Shaw fiction plus essays by Harlan Ellison and James White

December 1980 – “Dodgem Dude” c/w “Starcruiser” (Flicknife Records FLS200) by Michael Moorcock’s Deep Fix, with Graham playing bass. Single release of Deep Fix original demo

July 1987 – ‘Other Edens’ edited by Christopher Evans and Robert Holdstock, includes Graham’s “Fullwood’s Web”

November 1988 – ‘Other Edens 2’ edited by Christopher Evans and Robert Holdstock, includes “She Shall Have Music”

September 1993 – ‘New Worlds no.3’ new series edited by David Garnett, includes “On The Shores Of A Fractal Sea” (vol.62 no.219)

November 1994 – ‘New Worlds no.4’ edited by David Garnett, includes “Harringay”

August 1997 – ‘New Worlds’ anthology from White Wolf Publishing, listed as no.222, edited by David Garnett, includes “A Night On Bare Mountain”

November 2017 – ‘Running Amok In The Fun Factory’ (Ansible Editions), UK Con Reports Collected by Graham Charnock who also writes the introduction and five ‘reports’

April 2018 – ‘The Mysterious Affair At The Hanover Hinckley’ (Wrinkled Shrew Books ISBN 978-1365633225) ‘Two Gentlemen explorers go in search for the ultimate recipes for Wemblesham Pie and other Modern Wonders, little knowing it will lead them to an ultimate confrontation with the Evil Horned Spook’ 98pp

June 2018 – ‘Lost Children’ (Shrew Books), a collection of fourteen short stories, plus three novellas, 302pp 

August 2019 – ‘Graham Charnock Lyrics’ (Lulu Product ID 24217893) ‘a lifetime of inane perceptions condense into a whole volume’, 270pp

September 2019 – ‘Last Words: A Collection’ poems by Graham Charnock (Lulu ISBN 5-800136-006205)


Anonymous said...

An excellent overview of Graham Charnock's literary career to date. He is a fascinating and unique voice in the Science Fictional maelstrom and I'm very glad to see this unfairly neglected writer getting some critical attention. Thank you Andrew.

Curt Phillips
Abingdon, Virginia

Robert L. said...

Andrew correctly describes the contents of LAST WORDS, a lovely collection of poems humorous and serious -- and sometimes both in the same poem. Recommended!

I've read (and own) almost all of Graham's other work in those many sources, and find his writing well-done and his mind brilliantly eccentric but not *too* eccentric.

I highly recommend his novel LAKE.