Friday 30 April 2021

Poem: 'A Battered Beat Guru: For Dave Cunliffe'



(4 January 1941-16 April 2021)

and Dave said, sometimes 
on evenings such as this 
you end up reading your poems 
in the back-room of a pub 
to four drunks and a dog 

but every human mind 
contains a thousand spirits 
so even though it seems 
you’re reading to few 
you have an audience 
of multitudes… 

Featured online at: 
(21 April 2019)

Thursday 29 April 2021

Classic SF: KEITH ROBERTS 'The Furies'



Across the bridge from the sixties into the seventies, 
 the times were a-changin’, and KEITH ROBERTS 
was not only writing stories to reflect those changes, 
but he was illustrating them too, for magazines 
‘Science Fantasy’, ‘Impulse’ and ‘New Worlds’
ANDREW DARLINGTON maps the transition… 

 ‘One day, beyond doubt, man will reach the stars’ 
(‘Alistair Bevan’ in ‘Impulse no.12’, p.147) 

Someone recently posed the question ‘is SF an atheist genre?’ And of course, yes, the best of it is, with certain honourable exceptions – such as CS Lewis. Keith Roberts’ contribution to the dialogue is equivocal. There’s a beautifully poetic sequence in his first ‘Pavane’ story, “The Signaller” (1966). As young Rafe Bigland is caught up in fever-dreams from the wounds his supernatural nurse is tending, he’s gifted a startling vision – nothing less than the tale of Earth itself, of the Norns who spin the threads of fate beneath Yggdrasil, the World Tree, of Time and the Old Ones, the Giants of Frost and Fire and Mountain, all the eternal truths that are banished by Mother Church, yet which survive in hidden pockets, the Fairies, the Haunters of the Heath, the People of the Stones. The Church – by contrast, is the drab repressive totalitarianism that suppresses wonder and closes down minds. 

Meanwhile, the SETI project works on the basic assumption that sentient life conforms to certain patterns. That the eventual appearance of a technological society must be the inevitable outcome of intelligent awareness. Yet human beings muddled messily through some ten-thousand years of history without remotely venturing anywhere near the technosphere. It was the advent of the free market economy that first intimated the novel concept that – once implemented, machines could be more efficient and cost-effective than slaves. 

Keith Roberts’ ‘Pavane’ alternate history poses a neat reversal of the regular SF premise. Here, the fantastical element lies not in the introduction of a novel new science, but in the removal of science. Allied to the inference that the course of history pivots not around the SETI assumption, but through capriciously random events. There’s nothing recognizably SF about these stories. Any innovation in its society is subject to scrutiny by the Church for conformity to its moral precepts, if eventual grudging approval is granted, there are crippling tithes to be paid. So religion is the hobbling brake applied to progress. Hence the fascinating steampunk level of this world’s meticulously eccentric machines. Although coined by writer K W Jeter as late as 1987, the ‘Pavane’ stories certainly qualify as Steampunk by ‘colonizing the past so we can dream the future.’ 

While elsewhere, in a lighter more playful mood, Keith Roberts ‘Anita’ stories also insinuate magical supernatural past-remnants into a more dour and drably conformist present. Where narrow-minded religion also cramps and inhibits perception of a truer broader spirituality. If Science Fiction could ever be described as charming, these magically enticing stories certainly qualify. 

His debut novel, ‘The Furies’, is a further strange nexus of old and new, continuity and upgrade. The freak effects of atomic testing were very much a 1950s preoccupation. The idea of simultaneous thermo-nuclear explosions detonated by the USA and the Soviet Union had already resulted in catastrophic global shock-events in the 1961 movie ‘The Day The Earth Caught Fire’. Now Roberts’ ‘Neptune Project’ – a five-hundred megaton bomb detonated in the Pacific depths, cracks the ocean-bed and sets up a world-wide chain-reaction of seismic shocks that devastate cities. Survivors in a landscape of vast dereliction, especially in the English Home Counties, is the central theme of what Brian Aldiss termed ‘The School Of Cosy Catastrophe’, inhabited by writers as luminous as John Wyndham and John Christopher, carried over into the even more extreme strangeness of JG Ballard. 

In addition, there are the Furies themselves, the plague of giant wasps who descend upon the wounded world. After all, there had been giant radiation-mutated ants as early as ‘Them!’ (1954). Later, James Herbert would kick off a cycle of novels of nature out of kilter with ‘The Rats’ (1974), with Guy N Smith methodically working his way through the mutant animal biota starting with ‘Night Of The Crabs’ (1976) – ‘crabs the size of beach donkeys’, before extending into locusts, bats, snakes and alligators. So why not monstrous wasps? Their origins are uncertain, although the prologue speculates they were generated by the Keepers, ‘energy knot’ space-things left over from the very dawn of time. But as precursors of eco-horror, named after the mythic Furies, these are the ‘creatures in the story that tormented the poor souls for their sins.’

The cover-art on the 1975 Pan paperback edition is a very literal photo-montage of a man lying with a rifle aimed at the superimposed image of a very large wasp, seen from the perspective of what appears to be the inside of a barn or derelict farm outbuilding. The blurb quote howls of ‘cosmic retribution – giant wasps, monstrous and deadly, directed by a supernal intelligence, invade a reeling world.’ 

But ‘this is my book and I reckon I can start it any way I want’ the narrator insists. And in many ways it’s a straightforward adventure novel set in the ruins of this post-apocalypse landscape, as aftershocks provide further hazards. It falls easily into a number of sequences. Bill Sampson lives in the Wiltshire village of Brockledean, with Sek – his Great Dane. He meets and befriends attractive Jane Felicity Beddoes-Smythe. Only fifteen or sixteen year-old, she’s the daughter of a wealthy local family, dressed-down in teenage blue jeans and check shirt. As the ‘Science Fantasy’ magazine-recap explains ‘Bill’s house is besieged and destroyed. He escapes with Jane and joins forces with Neil Connor, an army lieutenant in charge of a platoon of armoured vehicles. Attacked again by the wasps, Bill loses contact with Neil.’ With Jane and Sek, he fights his way through to the south Dorset coast where they are separated, and she appears to escape across to the Isle of Wight in a commandeered cabin cruiser. 

Caught in a channel gale Bill himself is driven back to the mainland, where he despairingly makes himself at home in the wrecked pub of a deserted village. He’s picked up and incarcerated in a kind of prisoner-of-war camp run by the Furies, where there are elements of perhaps the National Service call-up days, or World War II POW movies. Here he meets ex art-teacher and amateur speleologist (caver) Greg, and Pete – a facially disfigured psychologically-damaged Cockney girl traumatized by witnessing her family being killed during a Furies-attack. Once assembled, the group bust out and travel cross-country for the Mendips where they establish a resistance movement based in the deep and only partially-explored Chill Leer cave complex, from where they periodically emerge to raid the Furies’ dome-nests that are proliferating across the countryside. The fact that the Wasps are using human slaves – the symbos, does not deter them from launching lethal incendiary attacks on the nests.

Keith was also an illustrator. In that capacity he did much to shift the appearance of British SF magazines – especially ‘Science Fantasy’, a title for which his talents were uniquely suited, and for which he designed all but seven of the covers from January 1965 until its demise as ‘SF Impulse’ in February 1967, as well as for ‘New Worlds’ during 1966. Usually uncredited, but signed and dated ‘K.Roberts.65’ in the lower right corner, his boldly expressionist line-orientated covers, parallel the shift in content of these magazines away from the space-suited planetary vistas of strict genre SF and fantasy towards a more free-form impressionistic speculative brand of fiction. When ‘The Furies’ was serialized in three parts from July 1965, the cover-art of ‘Science Fantasy no.74’ shows exactly the way he envisaged his monster wasps. Anatomically accurate, but with supernatural menace. He later did covers and interior illustrations for the book-editions of ‘New Worlds Quarterly’ edited by Michael Moorcock, for whom he also designed covers for novels. 

Like Bill Sampson, the narrator of ‘The Furies’, ‘I used to draw funny faces for a living.’ Born in Kettering, Northamptonshire 20 September 1935, Keith John Kingston Roberts studied art, and worked as an illustrator on cartoon films and advertising visuals, from which he graduated into freelance advertising work. His first stories – “Anita” and “Escapism” appeared in ‘Science Fantasy’ during 1964. ‘We were pleased to be the first to spot Keith Roberts as a winner and to print his first story’ gloats editor Kyril Bonfiglioli. On the departure of art-dealer and comic novelist Bonfiglioli as editor – after he had reconfigured the magazine into ‘Impulse’, Roberts went on to briefly co-edit the title between October 1966 and February 1967. Other stories from his pen appear in John Carnell’s ‘New Writings In SF’ anthology series, beginning with “Boulter’s Canaries” (published under the alias ‘Alex Boulter’) in 1965, and under the pseudonym ‘Alistair Bevan’. 

He seems to use the ‘Bevan’ guise for his more SF-orientated tales and some – such as “The Door” (in ‘Science Fantasy no.74’), which appear to be almost old adolescent manuscripts revived to meet the new demand for material. There’s a long-standing trope for stories concerning cultures hiding in subterranean bunkers to sit out some global catastrophe, most frequently nuclear war, who subsequently forget about the ‘world above’. Brian Aldiss had contributed a perfectly good example in “Breathing Space” to ‘Science Fantasy no.12’ as long ago as February 1955. The shock ending now is that – for Bevan, the courageous Naylor who defies repressive convention to escape, emerges onto the airless surface of Mars, just as Aldiss’ character Osa opens the sealed door onto an equally lethal Luna aridity. 

Yet Keith Roberts can write beautiful prose. As Bevan he also produced detailed tales of auto-mechanic Bill Fredericks, who owns Turnpike Garage in the little town of King’s Warrington, voicing a nostalgic respect for the craftsmanship that is being overtaken by the drudgery of simple parts-replacement. He’s called out to repair what he refrains from calling an alien spaceship, ‘it was a machine all right. It was a machine like half a thousand great watches all ticking and whirring one inside the other. It was a machine that quivered and trembled and maybe sang a little; I don’t know, my ears were buzzing anyway. It was a machine made of gold and steel and rubies and pulsing light… there were ingots and rods, crystals and carved shapes, lumps and chunks of preciousness.’ This is ornate poetic phrasing of dazzling invention.

‘Now that he has the bit between his teeth as a writer of growing reputation’ travelogues Bonfiglioli, ‘we are more than pleased to be able to print his first novel…’ Which is the post-catastrophe romp ‘The Furies’ (1966), described by SF academic Brian Ash as ‘harrowing, but pertinent to the enduring human condition’ (in ‘Who’s Who In Science Fiction’, Sphere, 1976). Although it could be argued that Roberts really comes into his own with his second book, which gathers his ‘Pavane’ tales (1968, the US edition includes the additional “The White Boat”), into a series that was hailed as one of the major SF alternative histories, moody, eloquent, elegiac and thoroughly convincing. It conjures a vision of present-day Britain assuming Elizabeth I had been assassinated, the Spanish Armada had been successful, there had been no Reformation, and the less-advanced society that results is still under the heel of the ‘soul-saving’ psychopaths of ‘the Inquisition’. There’s a rare explication in the form of a ‘Letter To The Editor’ (in ‘SF Impulse’ no.9) in which he admits that ‘the origins of ‘Pavane’ lie in the surreal disparity between the primeval Wessex landscape and the excess of the modern tourist trade. My butterfly cars tangling with the hooves of Henry’s cavalry are no more bizarre than the girl in a bikini ogling the great barbicans of Corfe. I think it was images like this rather than an urge to warp history that led me to write the book.’

His next venture ‘The Inner Wheel’ (1970) deals powerfully, if occasionally with uneasy sentimentality, with the kind of gestalt superman theme familiar from Theodore Sturgeon’s ‘More Than Human’ (1953). It, and ‘The Chalk Giants’ (1974) are what John Clute describes as ‘assemblages of shorter units, usually written for eventual publication under a single title but nevertheless showing their separate origins.’ His more scattered short stories are collected into the magical whimsical ‘Anita’ (USA, 1970), ‘Machines And Men’ (1973) and ‘The Grain Kings’ (1976). 

But his writing, even within a straightforward narrative such as ‘The Furies’, displays sparkling flares of invention, in ‘the jazzing light of the torch’, then inside the cave ‘the noise woke a choir of echoes’ where stalactites are ‘the glassy fossils of time itself’. The same imaginative use of language – as well as the extended passages of dialect dialogue, are there as early as his first-published story, “Anita” in which the girl was ‘scrinching her toes in the leaf-mould under the trees.’ A girl with sixth, seventh and eighth senses, she meets a grass snake, but ‘his thoughts were too long and wriggly,’ while the TV-studio camera ‘loomed like a Thing from Mars, the red light on its forehead glowing like an angry castemark.’ The ‘Anita’ tales operate as a gateway between SF and fantasy, with hyperspace and a Parallel Universe coexisting in the same continuum as ‘sooty spirits from Tartarus’. Editor Bonfiglioli suggests that Robert’s technique is as a ‘taker-out’, ‘his astringent little tale in this issue would have spread, in the hands of many other writers, over three times as many pages, yet every necessary word is there and the background, though only suggested, is as real as though he had lavished description on it’ (in ‘Science Fantasy’ no.69). Yet each phrase is honed and polished, poised and balanced against each other with a watchmaker’s precision. 

He fictionalizes the south of England in which he was living, as plot locations. For ‘The Furies’, the Mendips and the Chill Leer caves are within foraging distance of Wells, Bristol and Bath (which reverts to its Latin name Aquis Sulis in the ‘Pavane’ tales). Here, there’s a kind of nuanced eulogy as he writes that ‘this was happening in England. Maybe there wasn’t much of it left to be proud of. Not so many green fields to babble over… We’d developed it, raped it, built it damn near out of existence. But it was still our own place, it was all we had...’ As the novel reaches its final sequences, despite the guerilla war they wage against the Furies, the cave complex is eventually overrun, the survivors are captured and taken into the dome-nests. Only to learn from the Symbo in charge that their monster antagonists have already exceeded their evolutionary limitations, and are dying out – ‘we’d won back our birthright by default.’ 

There’s a disjuncture when, after spending the whole novel anticipating his reunion with Jane, when he eventually arrives at the Rehabilitation Centre on Jersey and finds her abandoned cabin-cruiser the ‘Enchantress’ there, he learns that she’s gone missing. Maybe her being there would have complicated his developing relationship with Pete? And why switch the destination to the Channel Islands? Maybe because John Wyndham had already established his survivor-colony on the Isle of Wight in ‘The Day Of The Triffids’ (1951) a decade earlier? 

Is SF an atheist genre? The ‘Pavane’ story “Brother John” sets up the immaculate equation. The Adhelmians are a mild monastic ‘order of artisans and craftsmen,’ in which the titular Brother John operates the lithographic presses. The son of cobblers in Durnovaria (Dorchester), he’s resigned to his work, until his artistic talents are recognized, and he’s designated to record the vile tortures of the Court Of Spiritual Welfare… previously known as the Inquisition. Roberts weaves his way expertly around the complex spiritual dialogues that damn the innocent to excruciating torment. But what Brother John witnesses tilts him askew, his eyes ‘bright and mad as those of birds,’ and he flees as a heretic inspiring subversive rebellion against the established church. Following his despair at the death of a blind stonemason he witnesses a cosmic vision, part Blake… part sundog, with writing so intense it teeters on the brink of inspirational faith. 

While in “Corfe Gate” there’s an eloquent argument that by applying a braking effect to technology the church was allowing society time to adjust to innovations that would otherwise prove disruptive, not only the Industrial Revolution, but nuclear fission too. While time itself is cyclic, that ‘once, beyond our Time, there was a great civilization. There was a Coming, a Death and a Resurrection; a Conquest, a reformation, an Armada… and a burning, an Armageddon.’ What he means by this is dubious. Is the former civilization he alludes to the classical world of Greece, Troy and Rome? Or something more related to his repeated references to the Old Ones? The Atlantis or Lemuria of a lost mythic past? Or maybe simply a poetic flight of fancy? 

Distinctive, and as beyond genre SF as SF is from conventional religion, Keith Roberts – who died 5 October 2000, leaves a rich seam of fiction awaiting rediscovery.



1964 – ‘SCIENCE FANTASY no.67’ (September-October 1964, Roberts & Vinter Ltd) edited by Kyril Bonfiglioli who notes ‘a professional style and verve to his (Keith Roberts) writing which should have taken him long years to develop’ and expresses a wish that ‘we shall have more of his work in ‘Science Fantasy’ before success carries him off – as it inevitably will, to realms where our budget cannot follow him.’ Keith Roberts makes a splash with novelette “Escapism”, where the Coliseum – a two-bit cinema in Wickenford, is used by jive-talking chronoshifting future-men to screen a Solido of the Battle of Sedgemoor, and projectionist Dave Curtis escapes into time. It is later collected into his ‘Machines And Men’ (1973). There is also a short story “Anita” which actually consists of ‘two early episodes from the hellish career of – ANITA’, stories that will be reprinted as separate pieces – “Anita” and “The Witch”, the first is a magical entrancing tale where Anita finds a friend in Ruth, a suicided girl by the lake, and Romany Jem, in the collection ‘Anita’ (Ace Books, 1970). Plus “Anita”, in which the teenage witch is sent out into the world by her Granny Thompson – and ends in the jokey punchline ‘I turned a perfectly lovely motor-car straight into a lay-by’, is also republished in ‘SF Reprise 3’ also edited by Bonfiglioli (Compact Books, 1966) 

1964 – ‘SCIENCE FANTASY no.68’ (December 1964-January 1965) with an ‘Anita’ story – “The Charm”, snared by magic-writer Sir John Carpenter she must interpret a time-charm from Thibet, with the help of Granny Thompson, it transports them back through past ages to the brown void of the first stars, to discover that time is cyclic before it returns them to now. They are the tiny figures trapped inside the charm. Plus more-conventional SF short story “The Madman” published as by ‘Alistair Bevan’, 100-year-old Roger Morrison wants ‘beer and books and trees’ in a phoney plastic twenty-first century, but finds only the Sector Asylum, because ‘dreaming is important now; in Utopia.’ Both are republished in ‘SF Reprise 3’, then “The Charm” in the ‘Anita’ collection 

1965 – ‘SCIENCE FANTASY no.69’ (January-February 1965), blue-tint Keith Roberts cover-art of a swimmer approaching a Loch Ness-style monster (anticipating story ‘The Jennifer’), with a page-&-a-half post-apocalypse vignette “Flight Of Fancy” plus ‘Alaistair Bevan’ (sic) tale “The Typewriter”, in which inoffensive writer Henry Albert Tailor lives out the fictional exploits of spoof James Bond agent ‘Flush Hardman’, until his typewriter takes over and completes ‘Esprit de Corpsé’ for him 

1965 – ‘SCIENCE FANTASY no.70’ (March 1965), a third ‘Anita’ story, “The Jennifer” both written and illustrated by a Keith line-drawing. Granny Thompson wins on the Football Pools so they go to the seaside. In a cave Anita meets a mermaid. In gentle innocent eroticism she creates a sandgirl to fool Gran, so the world’s only Sea Serpent can take her down beneath the ocean, ‘falling into a hugeness of light’. Collected into ‘SF Reprise 4’ (1966) then ‘Anita’

1965 – ‘NEW WRITINGS IN SF no.3’ (Dobson Books, Corgi Paperback) edited by John Carnell, with Keith Roberts ‘Boulter’s Canaries’, as by ‘Alex Boulter’, a routine energy-form poltergeist tale, and as ‘John Kingston’ (‘Manipulation’), its tight impressionistic prose recreates the inner thought-process of a telekineticist 

1965 – ‘SCIENCE FANTASY no.71’ (April 1965) includes another ‘Anita’ story – “The War At Foxhanger”, in which two witches, Granny ‘Maude’ and Aggie Everett feud, only pooling resources in order to rescue trapped Anita with a broomstick, collected into ‘Anita’, plus “Susan” as by ‘Alistair Bevan’ with another beguiling adolescent girl with strange powers who causes both teacher and mother to ask ‘who are you?’, both stories in ‘SF Reprise 4’ (1966) 

1965 – ‘SCIENCE FANTASY no.72’ (May 1965) with cover-art by ‘K Roberts’, plus ‘Anita’ story “The Middle Earth” in which she meets ghost-boy David Fox-Gardiner by the Fyne-brook stream, she offers herself to ease his sadness, then seeks out the Controller who ‘looks after all the Dark Things in the county’ in his beautifully-written Heath-Robinson office, they set David up with recently-deceased Susan Martin and they happily transition together to the Parallel Universe,’ collected into ‘SF Reprise 6’ then ‘Anita’ 

1965 – ‘NEW WRITINGS IN SF no.4’ (Dobson Books, Corgi Paperback) edited by John Carnell, Keith Roberts’ “Sub-Lim” is ‘a lot of fun in the movie industry when a new system for making people like films is discovered’, and as by ‘David Stringer’ “High Eight” which has an X-Filed ‘Thing’ in the wires, a murderous sentient evolution in the power-grid 

1965 – ‘SCIENCE FANTASY no.73’ (June 1965) with surreal cover-art ‘K Roberts’ which perhaps justifies his cover-billing, because the issue only includes page.66 ‘Alistair Bevan’ – ‘whom we consider one of our best ‘finds’’ with story “Deterrent” where primitive Valley Folk community seek the cave predicted by the Tellers which will provide the defensive weapon against invaders, only to find a ‘United States Navy’ missile silo 

1965 – ‘SCIENCE FANTASY no.74’ (July 1965) with ‘K Roberts’ cover-art for part one of his serial “The Furies”, plus short story “The Door” as by ‘Alistair Bevan’ with ‘Ventman’ Naylor escaping the colour-coded Levels to blow his way through the sealed Door to the exterior, ‘then he took his first and last breath of the deadly air of Mars’ 

1965 – ‘SCIENCE FANTASY no.75’ (August 1965) with cover-art by ‘K Roberts’, ‘Anita’ story “Idiot’s Lantern” – initially cover-blurbed for no.73 but not included, ‘the fact that Keith Roberts’ novel is running in this issue does not, we feel, entitle us to disappoint Anita-fans.’ Against Granny’s wishes Anita (‘daughter of a third cousin on her Mother’s side’) insists on having a TV installed, only its emissions play havoc with her thoughtstream senses. Then the two become contestants on a TV quiz show, causing magical chaos and confusion! later collected into ‘Anita’ (1970), plus part two of serial ‘The Furies’ 

1965 – ‘NEW WRITINGS IN SF no.5’ (Dobson Books, Corgi Paperback) edited by John Carnell, with Keith Roberts as ‘David Stringer’ (‘Acclimatization’), on the psychological side-effects of long-haul solar system travel, must be the last SF story to feature an orbitally-locked Mercury of temperate extremes

1965 – ‘SCIENCE FANTASY no.76’ (September 1965) with part three of three-part “The Furies” 

1965 – ‘NEW WRITINGS IN SF no.6’ (Dobson Books, Corgi Paperback) edited by John Carnell, Keith Roberts returns to lead off no.6 with the self-consciously poetic novelette “The Inner Wheel”, its prose straining for profundity, and almost achieving it as its troubled visitor discovers the too-perfect town of Harwell is controlled by a gestalt homo-superior hive-mind 

1965 – ‘SCIENCE FANTASY no.78’ (November 1965), K Roberts cover-art illustrates Brian Aldiss ‘The Day Of The Doomed King’

1966 – ‘THE FURIES’ (Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd) ISBN 0-330-02392-6, previously serialised in ‘Science Fantasy’ nos. 74, 75 and 76. It was adapted into a six-part BBC Radio Four serial from May 1970 

1966 – ‘NEW WRITINGS IN SF no.7’ (Dobson Books, Corgi Paperback) edited by John Carnell, Roberts’ “Manscarer” is a playful counter-culture nonsense of disconnected weirdness set in a multi-level country-wide twenty-second-century London in which boho artist-colonies provide a ‘therapeutic force’ by erecting huge mobile sculptures. There are characters named Jed, Roley Stratford, the Witch of Endor, Whore Nonpareil, Bil-Bil, Oberon & Puck – names that could just as easily slot into Michael’s Moorcock’s ‘Dancers At The End Of Time’ mythology, caught up in a narrative that might just as easily have appeared in the ‘Oz’ counter-culture journal 

1966 – ‘SCIENCE FANTASY: IMPULSE no.81’ (February 1966), K Roberts cover-art for High Simmonds ‘Ballad From A Bottle’. Keith Roberts also assumes contents-page billing as ‘Associate Editor’ 

March 1966 – ‘IMPULSE no.1’ (March 1966, billed as ‘The NEW Science Fantasy’) edited by Kyril Bonfiglioli, Associate Editor: Keith Roberts, includes the beautifully-detailed ‘Pavane’ story “The Signaller”. Rafe Bigland of Avebury – village of the Stone Circle, defies family tradition and determines to join the Guild of Signallers in the alternate-history England where magical elements survive in hidden pockets. In the freezing winter of his first solo posting to a station in the southern corner of Dorset, he’s attacked and savaged by a catamount (wildcat), hauling himself back into the signal tower his wounds are tended by magical fairy-girl, in a leaked supernatural world-history sequence. He escapes with her ‘gaining strength with every step. Behind him, the signal hut stood forlorn.’ Two Guildsmen rescuers later discover his dead body 

April 1966 – ‘IMPULSE no.2’ (April 1966) with Keith Roberts cover-art illustrating his novelette “Pavane: The Lady Anne”. In subsequent republishing, the steam land-train ‘Anne’ became ‘Margaret’. The original story in ‘Impulse’ includes a prologue detailing the assassination of the Faery Queen Elizabeth the First and the subsequent imposition of restrictive Papal power and tithes across the land, a prologue used in at least one version of the collected ‘Pavane’ edition (1968, Hart-Davis). The date is also switched from 1965 to 1968, but it’s a parallel universe so that might not be significant. Again the steampunk detail of the locomotive is impressive (he thanks Bob and Cath Curtis of Kettering for help with technical detail) as haulier Jesse Strange drives out from Durnovaria with his cargo, to Poole via the Purbeck hills, wary of highwaymen routiers. There is no SF content. Encouraged by rakish former friend Col de la Haye, he proposes marriage to Anne at the ‘Mermaid’, she turns him down. Col later turns out to be working with routiers, but the final truck of the land-train is booby-trapped with explosives and puts paid to their attack

May 1966 – ‘IMPULSE no.3’ (May 1966) with cover-art signed ‘K Roberts’ illustrating John Rankine’s ‘The Seventh Moon’, includes the ‘Pavane’ novelette “Brother John”, and “The Pace That Kills” (as by Alistair Bevan) where the imposition of the 70mph limit prompts ‘this bitter prediction of a day when the dead hand of the Traffic Warden will shadow every mile of English road’ 

June 1966 – ‘IMPULSE no.4’ (June 1966) with ‘Pavane’ story “Lords And Ladies” a return to haulier Jesse Strange, who is on his deathbed as his niece Anne Belinda Strange experiences memory flashbacks of her life – ‘she could hear the voice grind on but she herself was a million miles away, out among the cold burning of the stars’ 

July 1966 – ‘IMPULSE no.5’ (June 1966) with Keith Roberts cover-art illustrating the ‘fifth and last story – for a while, at least’ in the ‘Pavane’ cycle, following the fortunes of the Strange family, where the Guild of Signallers still operate, although they also use a kind of forbidden ‘manifestation of the electric fluid’ in a kind of Morse code that Lady Eleanor fears is ‘necromancy’. There’s a flash-forward to ‘our democratic twenty-second century,’ then a return to when Lady Eleanor’s resistance to Pope John’s taxes that keep Britain as ‘a scrappy little nation living just above the famine line,’ leads to insurrection. King Charles is away on a visit to the American colonies, so she faces the punitive Papal forces from Londinium led by Henry of Rye & Deal in her Corfe fortress located between Bourne Mouth and Swanage. Although she fails, is imprisoned and eventually assassinated, her example leads to a weakening of Papal power around the world 

August 1966 – ‘SF IMPULSE no.6’ (August 1966), Alistair Bevan (Keith Roberts) ‘The Scarlet Lady’, ‘a motoring fantasy to follow up his ‘Pace That Kills’’, anticipating Stephen King’s 1983 novel/movie ‘Christine’, Bill Fredericks wonders if the accident-prone car is sentient. A story that lovingly details the restoration and internal workings of vintage cars 

1966 – ‘SF IMPULSE no.7’ (September 1966) with cover-art for Chris Boyce novelette ‘The Rig’, plus ‘Anita’ story “Timothy”, ‘to placate the people who continually write demanding more ‘Anita’ stories’, another charming fantasy in which a bored Anita animates a scarecrow Worzel Gummidge-style, at first playfully answering his questions, but when he becomes amorous she’s forced to flee, breaking him until his parts tumble over the handrail of Fynebrook bridge. Through the night ‘she could hear Timothy thinking old mouldy thoughts about rooks and winds, and worms in the thick red ground.’ Collected into Terry Carr’s ‘New Worlds Of Fantasy’ (1967), and Peter Haining’s ‘The Witchcraft Reader’ 

1966 – ‘NEW WORLDS no.166’ (September 1966), cover-art for Michael Moorcock’s ‘Behold The Man’. See also p.151 

1966 – ‘SF IMPULSE no.8’ (October 1966), surreal cover-art for Frederik Pohl’s “Day Million”, and the Alistair Bevan story “Breakdown”, a return to Bill Frederick’s garage in King’s Warrington, with a curious reprise of Daphne Castell’s story in the previous issue, in which he’s called out to repair a damaged alien space vehicle, ‘when they want to fly they don’t set to and build a plane, they make a wish. And the wish gets cladded in metal and jewels, and it flies’ 

1966 – ‘SF IMPULSE no.9’ (November 1966) with cover and interior-art for Michael Moorcock’s ‘The Ice Schooner’ plus art for the Brian Aldiss story ‘The Eyes Of The Blind King’. Keith also contributes a letter, and an ‘Anita’ story “The Simple For Love” collected into ‘Anita’, when Anita imagines she’s in love with Roger Morrison who drives a red MG and lives in Hampstead, she tries to change, ‘I’m going to Hampstead and I’m going to get a job, and that’s that. And I’m going to be married. Properly married, in Church…’ She defies Granny Thompson, catches the train with Roger and confides the secret of her abilities, until he starts to plan her visits from the Catholic priest, and the psychiatrist. She pulls the communication cord and escapes. Walking home to Foxhanger she meets a Farmer’s Boy… 

1966 – ‘NEW WRITINGS IN SF no.8’ (Dobson Books, Corgi Paperback) edited by John Carnell, Roberts’ “Synth” approaches Carnell’s critique through a ‘type of plot’ that ‘even a few years ago would not have been published’, featuring a divorce trial in which portrait-artist Henry Aloysius Davenport is sued for his supposed adultery with Megan M.E.G. 19/02, a synthetic woman. Behind its comedic touches and sly innuendo – describing her being plugged into the power-sphincter for recharging!, the case hinges on the capacity of an AI-construct to become the object of the conflicting human emotions of desire and jealousy, and to feel emotion itself. To Carnell, this content is evidence of ‘the SF story at last becoming humanised’

1966 – ‘SF IMPULSE no.10’ (December 1966), edited by Harry Harrison, with ‘Anita’ story “The Familiar” (with his own cat heading art), when Granny Thompson’s mischievous cat, Vortigern becomes invisible, Anita chases it through the rain, then ensures its visibility by tinting it technicoloured, ‘done up a treat.’ Collected into ‘Anita’ 

1966 – ‘NEW WORLDS no.169’ (December 1966), edited by Michael Moorcock, includes “Pavane: The White Boat” 

January 1967 – ‘NEW WORLDS no.170’ (January 1967) features “Coranda” (p.48), based on the glacial world of Michael Moorcock’s ‘The Ice Schooner’ as a homage. Collected into ‘Best SF Stories From New Worlds 3’ edited by Michael Moorcock (Panther, 1968), and into ‘The Passing Of The Dragons: The Short Fiction Of Keith Roberts’ (Berkley/Medallion, 1977) 

1967 – ‘SF IMPULSE no.11’ (January 1967), Managing Editor: Keith Roberts, who also paints the cover and inner-art for Chris Boyce ‘Mantis’, Judith Merril ‘The Shrine Of Temptation’, and Moorcock’s ‘The Ice Schooner’

1967 – ‘SF IMPULSE no.12’ (February 1967), Editor in Chief: Harry Harrison. Managing Editor: Keith Roberts. Keith Roberts ‘Editorial’ (Mr Harrison is at present unavailable, having made tracks for Philadelphia’), plus interior art for his feature ‘Keith Roberts re-reads the ‘True History’ of Lucian Of Samosatos’ (with his own art), drawing attention to ‘something horribly familiar’ about ‘a giant cobweb between the Moon and Lucifer’ – ‘it almost reminded me of a book I read once’, likely Brian Aldiss ‘Hothouse’. Also ‘Alistair Bevan’ (Keith Roberts) Book Fare, reviews DF Jones (‘Colossus’), editor Douglas Hill (‘Window On The Future’ anthology, with Aldiss ‘Circulation Of The Blood’), and praises Ray Bradbury (‘The Machineries Of Joy’), ‘these are beautiful stories; there’s not much else for a reviewer to say’ 

1968 – ‘NEW WRITINGS IN SF no.15’ (Dobson Books, Corgi Paperback) edited by John Carnell, Keith Roberts’ (‘Therapy 2000’), beautifully ironic, in the yammering din of perpetual city-sound, noise annoys. In this 2000 there’s no 24-7 multichannel Trivee, and he still physically cuts-and-pastes newssheet small-ads, but Travers seeks escape from noise using ear-plugs and finally voluntary deafness, which dumbs Deidre, his fantasy other-dimensional lover. Kathryn Buckley, reviewing the book in ‘Vision Of Tomorrow no.5’ says ‘this sense of loss of identity is well conveyed, as also is the disorientation of the individual and the shifting of the pattern of the norm. Those who cannot conform to society as it is, must be regarded as sick – an insidious deprivation of personal freedom’

1968 – ‘PAVANE’ (Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd), with a prologue, divided into ‘measures’, with an added coda, it collects ‘The Lady Margaret’, ‘The Signaller’, ‘The White Boat’, ‘Brother John’, ‘Lords And Ladies, ‘Corfe Gate’, and the Coda set some years after the events of the final stories, which centres on the son of the seneschal to the female aristocrat from ‘Corfe Gate’ 

1970 ‘ANITA’ (Ace Books) includes short stories “Anita”, “Outpatient”, “The Simple For Love”, “The Charm”, “The Familiar”, “The Jennifer”, “The Middle Earth”, “The War At Foxhanger”, “Idiot’s Lantern”, “Timothy” plus “The Witch” (part of “Anita”), “Outpatient”, “Cousin Ella Mae”, “Sandpiper”, “The Mayday” (later in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & SF no.234’, November 1970) and “Junior Partner” (later in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & SF no.235’, December 1970) 

1971 – ‘THE BOAT OF FATE’ (Hutchinson, republished by Borgo Press, 2001) Non-SF novel set during the death-throes of the Roman Empire, an age of violence and disintegration, when the old values of Imperial Rome are under attack from all sides, from Goths and Vandals without, and from the followers of a fanatical new Eastern Christos sect within. Sergius Paullus is a young Roman as troubled as the Empire as he tries to cope with his changing world. From childhood he dreams of the glory of being a soldier, but instead must be content with schooling and the games of children. Finally, his impetuous nature prods him to an act of rebellion that changes his life. Forced to leave home, he embarks on a trail of adventure that leads from the tenements of Rome to a series of military escapades in Hispania, Rome, and Gaul, and ultimately to a climactic battle in Britannia, where Sergius leads a doomed resistance against the barbarians 

January 1972 – ‘NEW WORLDS QUARTERLY 3’ edited by Michael Moorcock (Sphere Books), in which Keith writes and illustrates “I Lose Medea” (as by ‘Alistair Becan), and “The Grain Kings” which ‘fascinatingly describes life on giant hotel-like grain harvesters in a world of vast farms’ (John Clute). Pages 25 and 76 

1972 – ‘NEW WRITINGS IN SF no.21’ (Sidgwick & Jackson August 1972, Corgi Paperback September 1973) Keith Roberts’ (‘The Passing Of The Dragons’) the dragons are dying on Epsilon Cygnus VI, an irascible narrator antagonises Pilot (First Class) Scott-Braithwaite, darkly humorous yet touching tale 

1972 – ‘NEW WORLDS QUARTERLY 4’ (Sphere Books) “Weihnachtabend”, an alternate history in which the Britain of Edward VIII is allied with Nazi Germany as the Two Empires. As in ‘Man In A High Castle’ there is a Freedom Front and a banned subversive book, ‘Towards Humanity’ by Geissler. During a meticulously and painstakingly detailed snow-bound weekend in the Wilton Great House, the unfortunately named Richard Mainwaring (‘Dad’s Army’?) arrives with Miss Diane Hunter. When she disappears, with increasing tension, he suspects she was used as the ‘quarry’ in the Hunt. In a final interview with the Minister he’s offered a way out, but shoots him dead and escapes to the snowy roof where he awaits death in a shoot-out. Republished in ‘Stars Of Albion’ (1979, Pan Books) edited by Robert Holdstock & Christopher Priest 

March 1973 – ‘MACHINES AND MEN’ (Hutchinson, 0-09-115180-5), collects ‘Escapism’ (1964), ‘Therapy 2000’ (1969), ‘Manscarer’ (1966), ‘Boulter’s Canaries’ (1965), ‘Sub-Lim’ (1965), ‘Synth’ (1966), ‘The Deeps’ (1966), ‘Breakdown’ (1966), ‘The Pace That Kills’ (1966) and ‘Manipulation’ (1965) 

1973 – ‘NEW WRITINGS IN SF no.23’ (Sidgwick & Jackson November 1973, Corgi Paperback 1975) Keith Roberts’ (‘The Lake Of Tuonela’), poetically wistful, elements of Aldiss ‘Greybeard’ and Ballard’s ‘Drowned World’ as the Kalti boatmen of Xerxes face slow culture-shock extinction, and Mathis defies orders to travel their ancient silted-up canal-system to Hy Antiel, hauntingly beautiful 

February 1974 – ‘THE CHALK GIANTS’ (Hutchinson, ISBN 0-09-117880-0, and Panther paperback September 1975) collection made up of: ‘The God House’ (1971), ‘The Beautiful One’ (1973), ‘Monkey And Pru And Sal’ (1971), ‘Rand, Rat And The Dancing Man’ (1974), ‘Usk The Jokeman’ (1974), ‘Fragments’ (1974) and ‘The Sun Over A Low Hill’ (1974). Acclaimed as his most ‘ambitious assemblage to date’, which ‘uses its separate tales elegantly to embody the cyclical shape of the book. The protagonist of the framing narrative (in the English edition only – the American edition is abridged), after driving to the south coast of England to escape what may be a terminal though un-clarified disaster, goes into a kind of hiding and either cycles the rest of the book through his head, or can be seen as himself emblematic of what those stories portend: they depict a movement from post-holocaust through god-ridden savagery back to a state premonitory of the protagonist’s own condition; his concerns and sexual obsessions are replicated variously throughout the book’ (John Clute) 

1977 – ‘NEW WRITINGS IN SF no.30’ (Corgi Paperback September 1977) Keith Roberts’ (‘The Shack At Great Cross Halt’), touching dialogue between ‘American Visitor’ coaxing ‘Rural’ girl who lives on motorway salvage, there’s background talk of the Sterling Crash, the First People’s War and a Trucker-led insurrection that seems doomed to failure, but what’s central is the growing trust between the two women

Tuesday 27 April 2021

Gig Archive: Robyn Hitchcock



At ‘The Derby College Of Higher Education’ 
Mickleover, Derby

‘Ev’ry eve’nin, put on my dish-workers suit…’ voice slurred, distorted, nudged out of shape, moved octaves-lower down into jazzy cadences. Hitchcock bends into the mic for a word-perfect run-through of “Yeh Yeh”. His neat little Roland synth masquerading as Hammond-organ, stitching in improvisationally around the exaggeratedly smooth vocals pouring down like silver. Then, as the last notes die in the unfocussed speakers, ‘is that alright?’
‘Great,’ from the sound-mixer, irreverently adding ‘that’s the best one of your songs that you do.’ A Hitchcock grin beneath the spray of black hair, a pout of his lower lip in mock-Jaggeresque petulance, ‘that’s Georgie Fame, 1964 – one of HIS hits. Another was “Sitting In The Park”...’
…and another was “In The Meantime”! I’m watching the Egyptians soundcheck from across the off-duty gymnasium that’s pretending to be an empty dancehall. Small high oblong windows slant spots of dusk light across the scuffed parquet floor. A couple of Student’s Union Entertainment Officials hang around to view the proceedings, their attention spinning between the stage and a girl with tight faded Levi’s, a full T-shirt, and long blonde hair. She purposefully ignores them out of existence. And I’m watching the stage with a grin that’s difficult to suppress. Soundchecks are supposed to be boring affairs of repetitions up and down the fret. But not with THIS band it ain’t! ‘What do you want us to do now?’ enquires Robyn helpfully. 

‘Oh, nothing in particular,’ from the sound-desk. Hitchcock runs a reflective blues line from his Fender, meandering this way and that, then tentatively sings ‘no – thing in par – ticular’ so it fits into the loose twelve-bar structure, tasting it for its line-length lyric quality. He repeats the guitar phrase, tagging ‘that’s what my Baby said to me, nothing in particular, that’s all she want from me’ onto it. The bass picks up on the chord progression and feeds gently in behind him a second before the keyboard begins developing and shaping the idea. Hitchcock’s now in full flood, pulling a matching middle-eight spontaneously from the air, before returning lethally to what’s now become the chorus, the band powering it to a mock-dramatic crescendo. ‘I sometimes swear… I sometimes swear they know EXACTLY what I’m gonna play before I do’ he sings, as they taper down in perfect unison to a classic Blues finish. A complete four-minute song created out of a throwaway phrase, then forgotten. 

No-one applauds. In the corner, by the disconnected Space Invader machine, a portable colour TV is tuned soundlessly to… I think… the Channel Four Rock Show ‘The Tube’. Moving masses of shapeless Heavy Metal hair, leather-bands of studs, bulging cod-pieces and Flying-V guitars held in phallic poses. A band like that’d strive a month hewing out leaden riffs of a song not half as crafted ‘n’ concise as the one Hitchcock-plus-Egyptians make up and trash on a whim and the spur of a moment… But even now Hitchcock is speaking in tongues. A recitation. He’s stood at the mic while they find his level, hands clasped in the Catholic attitude of prayer, reeling off this pious dramatic monologue heavily accented in pidgin Spanish, a young Catalan boy ees adrift at sea, wonders where hees Momma, where hees Poppa, the ocean swells, the clouds storm… then he hears the voices of Angels… and the Egyptians peal off a-cappella bell-tones around him as they’re mic’ed up. 

Robyn Hitchcock, the Soft Boy who fell to Earth. The man who would be Syd, the once and future Syd Barrett. Last of the great English psychedelic eccentrics. So far he’s playing it for laughs, but underlying it all – this is serious t’ing. Sometime sidekick Kimberley Rew long since WAVED goodbye to all things Soft, and is even now ‘Walking On Sunshine’ – with composer part-shares in the Bangles charting “Going Down To Liverpool”. While Robyn and remaindered ex-Softs Morris Windsor (drums) and Andy Metcalfe (keyboards) are receiving much critical respiration. Now they have ‘Fegmania’ (1985, Midnight Music CHIME 00.08D) to promote, their most perfectly realised album yet, and with the speakers focussed and the sound-levels levelled they GO for it! 

The escalating intro to “Egyptian Cream” – side one track one ‘Fegmania’, is bursting raw and vital, Hitchcock’s odd lyrics soaring into stoned surrealism from wigged-out Kafka and back via a well-wired edition of ‘Oz’. “Egyptian Cream” – is he singing about sperm, is it sex-change Cleopatra’s or miracle hair-restorer? ‘When they told her ‘you’re pregnant’ she threw up her hands, and thousands of fingers grew out of the sand.’ Draw your own conclusions! In his songs, everything is true – except the facts. He makes myth-meat of mental derangements, and here at Derby it sounds exactly as it should sound. 

One of the S.U. Ents Officials grabs his attention back from the girl with the tight faded Levi’s and the full T-shirt, and he leans across at me. His name, he says, is Rob, he’s here from Ontario, he has all the Soft Boys records. ‘Robyn Hitchcock’ he says, nodding in awe at the stage, ‘his time is SO near…!’





Album Review of: 
 (1983, Midnight Music Records) 
 and ‘FEGMANIA’ 
(1985, Midnight Music Records CHIME 00.08D)

Snapshots of a moving mind: Robyn Hitchcock – the Soft Boy who fell to Earth. The man who would be Syd, the once and future Syd Barrett. Last of the Great English Psychedelic Eccentrics. ‘Invisible Hits’ is oddities and soditties from 1978-1979, a raw and vital incarnation wearing its influences on its paisley sleeve. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Toilet” plays shuttle-chord with the Rolling Stones “Brown Sugar”, while “Wey Wey Hep Uh Hole” is all Bo Diddley and Yardbirds harmonica – yet inside those role-models is a voice that speaks in tongues. Hitchcock is a mapcap laughing at you across an aural assault course magicked out of a scissors ‘n’ staple-gun collage. There’s “Have A Heart, Betty (I’m Not Fireproof)”, “He’s A Reptile” and “The Rout Of The Clones”, with lyrics running from stoned-immaculate quirky acid-games – ‘look at the beautiful patterns that form on the wall, stick out your finger to trace them, just look at them all,’ to oddball surrealism – ‘I’ve got a dog with legs of black, he got an aerial strapped to his back, he worked by remote control…’ 

Since all that went down, sometime sidekick Kimberley Rew WAVED goodbye to all things Soft, and was by then ‘Walking On Sunshine’ – with composer part-shares in the Bangles “Going Down To Liverpool”. While Robyn and remaindered ex-Softs Morris Windsor (drums) and Andy Metcalfe (bass/ keyboards) are receiving much justified critical respiration via ‘Fegmania’ – their most perfectly realised album yet. The more obvious imperfections are ironed out and the influences suitably mutated into coherence. He still operates from a sixties base, but does it with greater grace, each input neatly in place – even though his radio is still tuned to Venus. ‘Fegmania’ – to Hitch, ‘may be the sound of a plane-crash landing in a ploughed field, or salad cream being tipped out of an attic window.’ It’s ‘a turnip in a silver box. A Bank Manager shooting himself in the navel with a water-pistol. A Nun writing her name in marmalade on a soldier’s leg.’ It is subversion through absurdity, and also a rather luminous album. The escalating intro to “Egyptian Cream” soars into a vinyl document of spaced bizarro, wigged-out Kafka and well-wired back-issues of ‘Oz’ magazine. There’s “Heaven” which almost gave Hitchcock his first hit. The Soft Boy who never grew up has grown into “The Man With The Lightbulb Head”, with songs that form like thought-bubbles in a Tom & Jerry animated cartoon – with the lightbulb pulsing on and off to denote inspiration. The dialogue reads like a movie script – ‘Daddy, it’s the man with the lightbulb head!, ‘Avert your eyes Junior, and we might yet be saved,’ but Daddy, it’s YOU!, You’re too late – I’VE COME TO TURN YOU ON!!!’ 

The difference between these two albums is the before and after effect. It’s like the difference between watching the early monochrome ‘Avengers’ TV-episodes, and watching the later colour ones. What they lose in the charming unpredictability stakes they gain in slickness and maturity. Hitchcock has invented himself. In his songs, everything is true – except the facts. They’re ragged and jaunty – always were, only now he’s making myth-meat of his own mental derangements. 

Hitchcock’s final word on it – ‘for thine is the kingdom, and mine is the other bit.’ ‘Fegmania’ IS the word.

INVISIBLE HITS’ (44:02-minutes) 
Side One: 
(1) Wey Wey Hep Uh Hole 
(2) Have A Heart, Betty (I’m Not Fireproof) 
(3) The Asking Tree 
(4) Muriel’s Hoof/ The Rout Of The Clones 
(5) Let Me Put It Next To You 
(6) When I Was A Kid 
Side Two: 
(1) Rock ‘n’ Roll Toilet 
(2) Love Poisoning 
(3) Empty Girl 
(4) Blues In The Dark 
(5) He’s A Reptile 

Side One: 
(1) Egyptian Cream (bass by Robyn Hitchcock) 
(2) Another Bubble (bass by Robyn Hitchcock) 
(3) I’m Only You 
(4) My Wife And My Dead Wife 
(5) Goodnight I Say (backing vocals by Andy and Morris) 
Side two: 
(6) The Man With The Lightbulb Head (recorded by Iain O’Higgins) 
(7) Insect Mother 
(8) Strawberry Mind (backing vocals by Andy and Morris) 
(9) Glass 
(10) The Fly 
(11) Heaven (short bonus track, backing vocals by Andy and Morris) 
Robyn Hitchcock (writer, guitar and vocals), 
Andy Metcalfe (bass plus keyboards), 
Morris Windsor (drums), 
Roger Jackson (keyboards) 

Read the full interview here...

Monday 26 April 2021

Gig Archive: LEITMOTIV in Leeds




Live Review Of: 
at ‘The Warehouse Club’, Leeds (1984)

From nowhere… (well, from Dewsbury actually) to here, in just over a year. And evolution-wise that’s a long, long way. I saw Danse Society at a similar stage of development playing to thirty people. They were incandescent – but neither as tightly structured or as clearly defined as Leitmotiv this night. They strike all the best poses in the current Rock catalogue with a freshness that suspends disbelief, dealing in that trend-mugging Bauhaus no-man’s-land where styles collide and catalyse through grand gestures and dramatic aural theatre. There’s some Heavy Metal borrowing in their slow high-energy riffs, cross-matched with some Joy Division doomy blackness, collectively shoving a scorched-earth fuel-injected power-pack of a set fanged with shimmering stabs of guitar deadly as plutonium kisses, shaded with synths coiled and snapping into an architecture of abrupt electronic profiles. The air gets heavy and charged, notes pour and burst like disaster’s children chasing speed limits into a head-spinning concentration that strobes across all senses. 

From nowhere… to a name on a leather jacket marginally below Killing Joke and a line above Play dead. A long, long way with a single-minded defiance turned to the style-vacuum where ideas change as fast as haircuts… 

But first the p.a. cranks out a years-back Trad 78rpm to a scattered confusion of garish idiot-dancers trapped in neon, while the band plug in. Vocalist Simon Asquith lugs a huge wood-grain Gretsch, a high-razored blonde plumage, a sleeveless denim jacket – with lyrics snuck in top pocket, and a studded belt buckled at the back. A sartorially tribeless frontman in Combat-Rock agit-prop early Clash hand-me-downs. ‘‘Allo, we’re Leitmotiv (pronounced this night ‘light-motive).’ “Phantom” is first-come, bent into odd shapes through tremelo arm, then “Survival” runs up through brother Paul’s furious Ludwig drumroll into spacey echoed-out vox. They unwind some tension, Simon crouches low over his guitar in a subconscious re-run Eddie Cochran-Joe Strummer style, then near-duckwalks clear back to Chuck Berry – without probably realising it! “Beating Heart” gets a first public airing, lyrics adhered to mic-stand with Sellotape and voice mixed powerfully well-forward, then extracts from their ‘Curse & Caress’ mini-LP, synths gnawing and rasping into “Search” and the epic stand-out “Tin”. Their Indie-chart Pax-label current single – “Silent Run” (c/w “(Living In A) Tin” (1984, PAX 17), comes with oriental synth motif noodling around chant chorus, a seamless mesh of torrid intensities tight and taut, fresh flash and blood. The volume is cleanly sculpted, it seldom lets go, chockfull of the quick-cut changes and fragmentation devices of majestic guitar figures crammed around Steve Shepley’s Roland-Korg keyboards and etched by Dean Woodhead’s relentlessly jumping bass. They split four ways and carry no passengers. They produce that barbed head-ringing persistence of sound where you wake up next morning with waves still breaking in your ears. The sound of carnivores in a field of musical vegetarians. They set their sights miles high, and never look down. A beautifully crafted illusion that’s escapist as hell, and just as irresistible. But possibly – when you come from Dewsbury, there’s a lot to escape from. 

Danse Society comparisons are unfair. They’re their own band and must get pissed off with such inaccurate journalistic strategies. But chartwise their Heaven’s also waiting, and this waiting must be Hell. In a year’s time journalists will be unfavourably comparing new bands to Leitmotiv. 

From nowhere… they’re gonna go a long long way…

CARESS & CURSE’ (1983, Paragon Virtue 3, distributed by Red Rhino) Twelve-inch 45rpm Mini-Album 
1. ‘(Living In A) Tin’ (1:53) 
2. ‘Architect’ (3:43) 
3. ‘A Meeting’ (2:00) 
1. ‘Search’ (3:46) 
2. ‘Settlement’ (3:16) 
3. ‘Famine’ (3:11) 
Recorded at Revolution Studios 
Producer: K Devereaux, Engineer: Stu Pickering

Say Remain’ (12” single, 1985, Cryptic Records Ruler 98) with ‘Say Remain’, ‘Out Of The Way’, ‘Say Remain (Extended)’, ‘Beating Heart’, ‘Nell’ 

To The Suffering’ c/w ‘The Gift Of Life’ (1985, Reconciliation Records 2) 

Big Money’ c/w ‘Tell Me’ + ‘In The Crowd’ (July 1986, 12” 45rpm, Ediesta Records CALC2) with bass by Louie

Saturday 24 April 2021

Book Review: 'Menace Of The Machine' edited by Mike Ashley


Book Review of: 
edited by MIKE ASHLEY 
(2019, British Library ISBN 978-0-7123-5242-0)

Absent-minded Professor Puffin created a ‘Mechanical Maid and Brassbound Butler’, originally as a ‘Dandy’ short-story but then as a series of comic picture-strips from 17 September 1955 (‘Dandy no.721’). This cast-iron couple – Tin Lizzy and ‘Old Rusty Rivets’ Brassribs, wear ‘Downton Abbey’ costumes appropriate to their role, and – given the ability to talk and behave like humans, inevitably strive to outsmart each other in weekly comedy escapades. Meanwhile, a teenage Michael Moorcock was writing “Professor Merit’s Monster” for ‘Tarzan Adventures’ (vol.9 no.10, 6 June 1959), in which Bob and his chum ‘Carrots’ visit their eccentric inventor Uncle whose latest Butler (all eccentric inventors have Butlers, don’t they?) is a robot, which proceeds to run amok – ‘Oh crumbs!’ At the time, robot domestic staff were clearly established as humorous plot-devices for children’s fiction.

But Mike Ashley’s exhaustive research for this hugely enjoyable anthology reveals that Elizabeth Bellamy’s story “Ely’s Automatic Housemaid” was doing pretty-much the same thing as early as the issue of ‘The Black Cat’ magazine dated December 1899. All of the familiar plot elements are already here, the eccentric inventor and the human-form robot designed as domestic appliance, which creates entertaining chaos when it malfunctions. This is in line with S Fowler Wright’s observation that with automation ‘the industrial workman and the domestic servant will be the first to disappear from their places in the national life.’ Of course, wifi Dyson and Eufy Robovacs with smart-navigation can now be purchased online with an accessible price-tag, and although they neither conform to human body-shape nor wear becoming French Maid Outfits, they do perform a similar function. As Mike Ashley’s revealing introduction proves, the idea of automata has a history longer than the reach of Science Fiction itself, and even though they were mostly used as an amusing novelty ingredient they were already posing the existential question of artificial sentience. When Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) defends Data’s legal rights and freedoms under Federation law in the 1989 ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ episode “The Measure Of A Man” he’s following a long trail, one that takes in Riker’s (Jonathan Frakes’) first impression of the Brent Spiner-played artificial life-form as Gepetto’s ‘Pinocchio’ – the marionette who wants to become a real boy. These questions echo and reverberate up and down the very history of storytelling. 

In the ‘Terminator’ movie franchise ‘Skynet’ triggers a war of extermination against humanity, in the same way that the computer-generated world of the ‘Matrix’ movies keeps deluded humanity in thrall. The roots of the idea can be directly traced to Adeline Knapp’s “The Discontented Machine” from 1894, in which a huge automated shoe-making mechanism goes on strike. Her story is largely a satirical poke at capitalism’s ruthless exploitation of its workforce, an excuse to debate the moral issues of labour-management relations through an ingenious metaphor. But the basic elements are intact and ready to be evolved. Framed as an ambitions future-history found-document, “The Mind Machine” by Michael Williams – from ‘All-Story Weekly’ (29 March 1919) brings the concept even closer to ‘Skynet’. In the same vein as HG Wells’ ‘The Shape Of Things To Come’ (1933), the establishment of a technology-based super-scientific socialistic future-world of 1934 follows reconstruction after a disastrous war, only for it to be destroyed by a mechanoid insurrection co-ordinated by the Mind Machine itself, as conceived by David Evans Griffith. Fuelled by blue chemical-blood, ‘my mind machine was to accomplish the last link in the long chain of the evolution of machinery, from primitive stone-axes and fire-drills of our cave-dwelling ancestors, down to the flying-machine and the wireless-telegraph, and all the other marvels of today. My machine was to make machinery not merely automatic, but intelligently automatic.’

Humans are a tool-making species. That is one of the abilities that define us. That we invest the objects we craft with a certain spirit, that we anthropomorphise our weapons, our figurines or our utensils is another universal characteristic. And as that rudimentary technology sophisticates into complex systems, so humans come to either venerate or fear their own creations. When Ambrose Bierce wrote “Moxon’s Master” for the ‘San Francisco Examiner’ (16 April 1899), his chess-playing robot had been anticipated by a number of fantastical real-life contrivances used as Carnival side-show attractions to impress and confound gullible patrons. That this one can feel agitation and anger, as well as being a poor loser, is simply to push the idea a step further. 

There’s an argument that every pre-industrial civilisation in history was slave-based, and that over and above the moral considerations involved, it was more the realisation that machines could be more cost-effective and tirelessly productive than enslaved humans, that brought about the abolition of slavery. Even though early levels of industrialisation required a work-force held in conditions of virtual serfdom in the dark satanic northern mills and mining-operations, it later evolved into the fears of mass-unemployment brought about by the automated-factory production-lines of the 1950s, until that in turn was replaced by the minimum-wage Call Centre bondage of staff locked into cubicles facing relentlessly demanding computer-screens. They’re all stages in social development towards a new kind of bondage, with people as slaves of their own technology. David A Hardy’s cover artwork perfectly captures this dour metallic future of steel-cube buildings in perspective lines beneath a sky of revolving death-star spheres, the forbidding realm of homo metropolis. 

It’s S Fowler Wright who first poses the question ‘whether the man exists for the machine or the machine for the man’? From the writer who’s far-future ‘The Amphibians’ (1924) is considered a classic of strange fiction, his “Automata” first appeared in ‘Weird Tales’ (September 1929) as a triptych that starts out as less a story than a formal lecture, before it shifts into a ladies-who-lunch satire-humour, a flesh-child is messy, disruptive and insanitary while adult bodies are ‘easy to break, difficult to control or repair,’ the cycle closes with a bleak vision in which humans simply die out because machines are more efficient. EM Forster, esteemed author of ‘A Passage To India’ (1924) and ‘A Room With A View’ (1908), contributes “The Machine Stops” (1909) in which humans retreat to inhabit cells within a subterranean realm, only communicating with each other through a kind of proto-Skype and Zoom system. Despite the disapproval of his mother Vashti, Kuno alone seeks to know of the arid world above, traversed by sealed airships, until the supposedly self-repairing machine life-support system that sustains them begins to malfunction, forcing the people to face the unpleasant truths of reality. 

Even before Robocop, it was the Daleks, the Borg and the Cybermen who were exploring that most intimate of interfaces in which a human consciousness is housed within a machine body. Predictably, that idea also has a long string of precedents. The script for a brief stage-play by Robert H Davis with Perley Poore Sheehan – who wrote the 1923 screenplay for Lon Chaney Snr’s ‘The Hunchback Of Notre Dame’, has a war-damaged combatant not only rebuilt but techno-enhanced into a super-soldier. While the prolific Harl Vincent, one of the great names of the pulp SF era of ‘Amazing’ ‘Comet’, ‘Marvel Tales’ and ‘Science Wonder Stories’, introduces robot Rex who turns around human total dependence on their own creations in order to establish a robotic totalitarianism. Rex, of course, means ‘king’. With Shakespearian precision, when he – or it, uses its position to create a cyborg fusion new race, ‘he’ is destroyed by the implanted human emotions of rage and despair. First published in ‘Astounding Stories’ (June 1934) the story was frequently republished, in Sam Moskowitz’s ‘The Coming Of The Robots’ (1963) and significantly in ‘Machines That Think’ (1984) part-edited by Isaac Asimov. 

Because it is the good Doctor Asimov who brings logic and reason to the garish fiction of rampaging mechanoid monsters by first devising his famous Three Laws of Robotics – inserting that failsafe code into the positronic brain, then spends the rest of his career coming up with inventive ways of circumventing that same programming. His recurring character robopsychologist Dr Susan Calvin is involved in “Evitable Conflict” from ‘Astounding SF’ (June 1950), which details a future-Earth peacefully divided into four supranational power-blocks – from which, with wry prescience, Britain has seceded from Europe to retreat into tired nostalgic daydreams of lost past times, and in which the controlling machines factor in an error quotient in order to anticipate human expectations.

Coming conceptually more up to date, Catherine (CL) Moore, with – Ashley conjectures, maybe a minimal input from Henry Kuttner, has a kind of robotic justice system in her “Two-Handed Engine” (from ‘Magazine Of Fantasy & SF’, June 1955). The ‘Fury’ robot is treated less as the novelty plot ingredient it might once have been in earlier tales, and more as a taut thriller of a lumbering relentless visitation of guilt on hapless murderer Danner. Whereas many early SF tales consist simply of a treatise delivered through the cipher of voices without character, it is ‘Will F Jenkins’ who injects further massive energy-jolts of humour into his dramatis personae. Arthur C Clarke contributes “Dial F For Frankenstein” (from ‘Playboy’, January 1965) which expands on his celebrated prophecy of the geostationary communication satellite, by endowing the global network that results – with its switches outnumbering the fifteen-billion neurons of the human brain, taking on the attributes of self-awareness, to the extent that it forestalls its own turning off! Yet the story is simply a developing argument towards that conclusion. “A Logic Named Joe” (‘Astounding SF’, March 1946) – by contrast, takes a similar idea, of a kind of uncensored out-of-control Wikipedia voiced by a proto-Alexa, which helpfully offers advice on how to murder your spouse or defraud the bank security system, and makes it a hugely entertaining romp alive with quips and ribald personality. Yet the ‘Will F Jenkins’ responsible is none other than veteran writer Murray Leinster (1896-1975) who made his first SF sale as early as 1918, with “Atmosphere” in ‘The Argosy’ weekly magazine (26 January 1918). His is among the most enjoyable stories in this fine book. The other, inevitably, is a familiar classic from Brian Aldiss.

I first encountered the touching Aldiss story “But Who Can Replace Man?” in the Four Square Books paperback edition of his 1959 collection ‘The Canopy Of Time’ (Faber) although it had debuted on the pages of ‘Infinity SF’ (June 1958). Re-reading it now it seems increasingly to have a ‘Chicken Little’ the-sky-is-falling child’s-story construction as various bickering rural machines with differing levels of brain-classes gather to discuss what to do now that the last human has seemingly died. Their supposed autonomy reverts back to factory-setting servility when they encounter an actual emaciated human survivor. Aldiss would explore the deeper implications of AI – artificial intelligence, through the medium of the 2001 Steven Spielberg movie spun out from his short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” (‘Harper’s Bazaar’, December 1969). Extending the speculation on into new futures.

‘Science is full of queer things’ suggests JJ Connington, ‘it’s as well to keep an open mind.’ We’ve come a long way from the Mechanical Maid and Brassbound Butler. This is a thought-provoking and cleverly-curated anthology of stories, many of which are lost and previously forgotten, alongside a few familiar classics that still stand re-reading.